By Alice Hines
NEW YORK CITY, US, 19 November 2014
In 2011, Tenzin Khecheo was on that stage. On a brisk fall morning in New York, I meet the former Miss Tibet North America along with Norah Shapiro, director of a new documentary starring Khecheo, Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile, premiering at documentary film festival DOC NYC. In Khecheo’s words, Miss Tibet, held each year in Dharamshala, India, aims to “raise awareness about the Tibetan cause.” Yet the event is controversial among those committed to the cause. What starts as a week-long celebration of all things Tibetan, music, language, and history, culminates in a Miss America-style pageant, complete with a swimsuit round. “People think this isn’t how Tibetan women should behave,” Khecheo says.
With long, straight hair, a heart-shaped face, and an accent you wouldn’t be surprised to overhear in a Minnesota mall, Khecheo would fit in perfectly at any pageant, Tibetan or otherwise. Born in India, she moved to America at the age of seven on a refugee visa. Her single mum worked two jobs to raise three kids. “I’m almost completely Americanised,” Khecheo says. “I’m not as connected with the Tibetan part of me as I should be, which is why I wanted to do this pageant.” She also hoped participating would give a voice to women like her mum, and show how “Tibetan woman are not only staying at home and taking care of families. They have their own dreams and careers.”
Now in school in Minnesota, Khecheo plans to become a nurse. In 2011, the year of the pageant, she was 19 and a freshman in college. She heard about Miss Tibet North America while on a trip to visit family in New York and decided to enter at the last minute. To her surprise, she won. The prize was an iPad or a free trip to compete in the worldwide Miss Tibet pageant in Dharamshala. “Obviously, I chose the trip.” Shapiro, who had begun filming the pageant in Dharamshala years earlier but had only just met Khecheo, travelled with her.
Founded in 2002 by photojournalist Lobsang Wangyal — the “Tibetan Donald Trump,” as he calls himself in Shapiro’s film — the Miss Tibet pageant is composed of Tibetan exiles, all between the ages of 17 and 25 and at least 5’5″ tall, per the website. Since the 50s, when China began its occupation, vast numbers of Tibetans have emigrated, and 130,000 now live abroad. Miss Tibet has always been controversial. In 2002, its first year, most of the 30 original contestants [actually, applicants. — Ed.] withdrew, leaving only four contestants. This year, four out of five applicants withdrew, leaving a single contestant who won by default.
In 2011, the pageant’s tenth anniversary, five contestants from Australia, India, and Switzerland joined Khecheo in Dharamshala. According to Khecheo, the trip was, for the most part, exactly the cultural crash course she was hoping for. There were lessons on Tibetan language and opportunities to meet national heroes like Ama Adhe, the 82-year-old woman who spent 27 years in Chinese prison for her part in resisting the occupation.
In 2011, the portion that got the most attention was the swimsuits, Khecheo remembers. “At first, I wasn’t nervous because [in America] I go to the beach all the time in the summer. No one comes up to me and says, ‘You’re Tibetan, you can’t do that.’ But when I got here, it hit me that a lot of Tibetan people were against it. I was afraid they would judge me.”
To understand why the round is controversial, it helps to try to grasp Tibetan conceptions of beauty. When I first ask Khecheo about these, I’m expecting something concrete, comparable to traits Westerners value like thinness. She has trouble giving me a clear answer. “Tibetan beauty isn’t about outer beauty. It’s about what’s inside.” Surely, though, there must be physical qualities valued by Tibetans that predate the diaspora? Shapiro chimes in: “There certainly were, but it’s hard to pin them down because no one talks about them. It’s unseemly to discuss outer beauty in Tibetan culture.”
It makes sense, then, that official judging of Miss Tibet, swimsuit round and otherwise, is done by non-Tibetans selected by Wangyal — Indian nationals as well as British, American, and Australian expats make up the panel. On Miss Tibet’s website, a FAQ section explains that the swimsuit round guarantees Miss Tibets will be able to compete in worldwide pageants like Miss Universe. Watching Shaprio’s interviews with Wangyal, though, you sense there’s more to the story. “I like glamour,” he says at one point. “Why is it ok for Westerners to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism? They can do yoga but we can’t do fashion shows?” At another moment, his argument takes a feminist slant. “If a woman [wears] swimwear and I [think about her] with my own lustful mind, who is wrong? The girl or me?” In an email, Wangyal told me that the choice of non-Tibetans as judges “is to avoid any controversy over favouring a contestant on the basis of regionalism, factionalism and religious sectarianism.”
But Shapiro’s documentary implies it’s Wangyal’s own standards of beauty that matter most. After Switzerland’s Tenzin Yangkyi is crowned the winner, two other contestants accuse the director of rigging the contest. They confront him about it on film in the final scene. “You’re a fraud,” Ngodup Dolma tells him. “Yeah, I am,” he responds. It’s not clear whether it’s a joke or an admission.
Over email Wangyal denied altering the judges’ scores or rigging the contest. “The judges and the public present at the show all went home happy and satisfied with the winner Tenzin Yangkyi, who came very well prepared,” he said. “And like the judges, the audience and I found she performed far more better than the rest.” In a blog post from 2012, he argued that Ngodup Dolma’s accusations were motivated by her disappointment in losing the pageant.
At the time, Khecheo was in Nepal visiting family. “I heard rumors that the contest wasn’t judged fairly. I was really upset at first. I started wondering if the pageant was really about supporting Tibetan women.” Now, though, she sees the experience as largely positive, in spite of any unfairness. “In the future when Tibet does regain independence — and mind you, it will — at least I can look back and say I did something,” she tells me through tears.
A beautiful girl crying is a made-for-pageant moment, but, like Miss Tibet on a whole, it’s a lot more complex, fraught, and ultimately, sincere than it appears on the surface.