The 2015 Miss Universe contest in Hollywood hit the headlines because of the bizarre manner in which the host, because of an apparent mix-up in the cue cards, gave the crown to the runner-up, Miss Colombia, before realizing that the winner was Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurzbach.
However, Asian viewers cheering yet another victory for a Southeast Asian contestant in the rival Miss Universe and Miss World contests might do well to ponder who is chosen to represent their countries and why. Even a cursory analysis of the chosen ones indicates characteristics which are atypical of their nations. The first is a preference for semi-Caucasian features, notably of eyes and nose.
The second, a preference for skins much lighter than the national norms. Third, they must conform to the notion that tall is beautiful. In practice 170 cm appears to be the minimum. By comparison the Southeast Asian average for women is 153 cm. Even in the Netherlands, which has the world’s tallest people the female average is only 169 cm.
Bias toward the west
The question that must be asked is whether these preferences reflect a cultural cringe to towards the west, a kowtow to the Chinese obsession with white skin, or a calculated attempt to appeal what the national judges deem to be the prejudices of the international judges. Or, most likely, a combination.
In this latest case the new Miss Philippines, who is now Miss Universe, has a German father –now deceased – and a Filipino mother. The Philippine Miss World 2013 was born in the US to an American father. The 2014 Miss Universe Philippines had a Saudi father while the 2012 winner had an Austrian father.
Things are not much different in Thailand, where last year Miss Universe Thailand was born in the US of an American father and a Thai mother and raised in the US, Pimbomgkod Chankaew, aka Alison Samson. Her predecessor two years earlier was half Austrian.
Singapore has a higher proportion of mixed-blood people in its population but even so they seem to have been over-represented in the beauty business over the past decade of Miss Universe contestants. The 2015 holder of the Singapore crown is described as Malay but Lisa Marie White’s name as well as appearance suggest a mixed parentage.
Indonesia’s Miss Universe candidates come from across the archipelago but even so the Euro-mix seems to make particular impact on the judges.
The most notable Asian selection this year was Miss Universe Japan, a woman with an African-American father. Some in Japan had objected that she was not representative of a Japan with few – though now growing – mixed ethnicity people. Others saw it as a real breakthrough for a nation long hostile to racial mixing, and with blacks in particular. Cynics saw it as an attempt to show Japan as much more tolerant than may be the case and appeal to the judges.
It was anyway a reminder that despite Japan’s traditional attitudes on racial issues, advertisements in its fashion and women’s magazines have long appeared to features models with part Caucasian characteristics. At least in that world hafu – people of mixed parentage – are in demand.
In much of Southeast Asia meanwhile, it is not just mixed-race people who also feature highly in advertising. One almost never sees an average brown skin, let alone the darker hues. If models don’t look part western, they look sufficiently white to be Chinese or Japanese. In the Philippines this may be explained by the long hold that mestizo groups, Chinese or western, have long had on power, not to mention social trends. Elsewhere it may be more the result of Chinese attitudes and commercial influence.
The bottom line of all this is that however well formed, beguiling, charming and intelligent, you are, if you have a brown skin and are only 160 cm tall or less (well above average for the region) you have zero chance of winning a national Miss contest in Asia, let alone one run by western organizations, however hard they try to appear inclusive.
Of course one could laugh this all off just as one could laugh off Donald Trump, who until recently owned the Miss Universe organization. But like Trump’s prejudices it tells of things nations need to know, uncomfortable though they may be.