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Miss New York USA 2010

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All you have to do to have fun in Boston is buy Red Sox tickets online!

The Ugly Truth About Beauty Pageants

Looking at this 2011’s Miss New York USA’s top 7 unearths no new memories. The white-garbed winner, Amber Collins, took the lead. About one year ago, I entered and lost my first beauty pageant in that same hotel – and I’ve mentally walked through every moment of that weekend five times over.

What you don’t see from looking at the photos or watching Miss USA in the spring is how these women get there. How low rent state-level competitions are. How the contestants who never get anywhere look. It’s a bizarre and fascinating experience, one that I wouldn’t dissuade any woman from trying out herself.

I can only describe it as a brain-bending, empty calorie endorphin rush, like drinking a pink can of Tab in one enormous gulp. It’s watching the water turn brown as you wash off the pancake makeup. It’s the exhaustion as you perfectly turn out one false eyelash for the fifth time. The headiness of a post-workout glow, then staring yourself down in the gym mirror, hair wispy and skin sallow. Then you look around and realize that all your efforts are for naught – the girls who end up in the top ten rigged the genetic lottery in their favor.

An anthropological view of beauty pageants

Once upon a time, I was a contestant in Miss New York USA 2010, and I blogged a lot about it. And posted photos of my experience.

The most beautiful girl in the universe - Miss Universe 2009 Stefania Fernandez of Venezuela


If you read coverage, you’ll find that I had a positive experience overall. I also noted in my paper that my dieting/exercising/obsessing was probably more appropriate for someone competing on the national level – so my stress level was definitely more elevated than many other contestants.

I ended up not only blogging about the experience, but writing a 24 page paper on it. The paper was written in about two days… and the class was on the anthropology of consumerism, which explains why I focused on beauty as a commodity.

Here’s an excerpt, the conclusion, which has been edited for general blog-y consumption.

    A beauty pageant is actually a very democratic competition. Anyone can enter, as long as they cough up the entrance fee an pay for their wardrobe. Contestants are treated fairly and equally – we all wear numbers, receive the same gift bags, and sleep in the same dorm rooms. There are no height or weight requirements. 

    But the fact remains that there’s only one girl who gets the crown.

    Some of the contestants are models. Many of the top 20 had done at least some modeling work in their lives, and the girl who eventually ended up winning, Davina Reeves, is signed to a modeling agency. But the vast majority were fairly normal girls. Many were short, heavy, plain, and did not have expensive dresses. Some were pretty, but not tall, slender, or striking enough to have careers as models. Some wanted to be actresses or astronauts, some ran businesses, many were students.

    I was confused at first why so many of these girls were entering a pageant. It was an expensive and time-consuming task. Did they actually think they had a shot at the title? (more…)

[Photo Album] Hey, Remember That Time I Tried to be a Beauty Queen?

Me and the best Miss NY USA ever, Tracey Chang

Me and the best Miss NY USA ever, Tracey Chang

Love her! Everything a beauty queen should be – smart, ambitious, and yes, gorgeous.

I am now paler and paunchier, four days after the fact.

I am now paler and paunchier, four days after the fact.

This photo shall serve as photo evidence that I was indeed, for two brief seconds, ever so fit and tan. I’m a little scared by the ribs, but I think that’s just my oversize skeleton poking through.

FOBs need love, too.

FOBs need love, too.

Yeah, I had no idea why they had cadets there either.

There are just some things you don’t question.

Getting fat again

So I use “fat” in a tongue-in-cheek way. But I definitely spent the last few weeks watching what I ate, which meant no crazy banquet dinners, dinners of scrambled egg whites and vegetables, and the occasional helping of cheese dip, heaped high with guilt.

As a result, my stomach became a cast iron tank. My collarbone and ribcage took greater prominence. When I lay down, I marveled at how my skin stretched over my gently jutting hipbones. It felt like a lesson in skeletal anatomy.

So on my first day back on Planet Girl, I felt totally free to go on a carb-and-calorie rampage. I was going to eat EVERYTHING and ANYTHING I could possibly ever want to eat. I was going to ignore stomach pains. I was going to consume whatever was put in front of me, especially high in simple starches, sugar, and fats. I was going to try to undo whatever I had done to myself.


The night before, I’d made good work of a ginger-and-scallion lobster dish, a beef/pepper/pineapple stirfry, and a salt and pepper fried squid at Peach Farm in Chinatown. The verdict: the cooking was a bit rushed, and the quality suffered as a result. My dad commented on how slapdash the dishes seemed to be put together, although the beef stirfry was meltingly tender and delicious. Then I topped it off with a half a red bean bun as I stalked around on my 5 inch clear heels, bronzer still caked on my stomach, legs, and arms.


Some reflections on pageantry

So it’s back to being a civilian again.

I applied a slick of black eyeliner and donned my skinniest jeans to commemorate the thinnest that I have ever been – I’m doing some guilt-free gorging on sushi, Chinese food, and lattes for a few days.


My first proper post-pageant meal at Peach Farm in Chinatown. I DEMOLISHED this and got a horrible stomachache.


Final makeup

Being in a pageant made me realize (although my friends have been telling me for a long time) that I’m thin. For some reason, I assumed that every other contestant was going to be rail thin and super toned. Not so – the diversity of bodies on display was surprising, and I may not have been the leggiest or the blondest, but I realized after in the flesh, side by side comparison, that I should probably, you know, chill out. I have a lot be thankful for.

Thanks for all your support which is been so amazing – all the well wishes were much appreciated. I do wish, however, that I can avoid the look of disappointment on peoples’ faces when I tell them I didn’t place. I feel that I need to qualify not winning anything with a statement like, “Well, I messed up my interviews,” or note that a lot of other contestants were convinced I’d make the top 20, and this feels like cheating what little insight I’ve gained from doing this. I wish that  could more eloquently convey that brief hour or two of realization after not making the top 20 that I deserved to be up there without seeming self-righteous or a sore loser.

I’m beautiful the way I am! No, honestly, I am. I hadn’t really believed it, but it finally seemed like the truth.

But losing is painful. I wonder how the other girls felt.

What fascinated me most were the girls there. While the girls in the top 20 were the kind I expected to find, the vast majority were far more interesting in their rationales of being there. A pageant, I realized, is really about the experience for some of them. It’s an opportunity to wear a pretty dress, walk down a runway, have your photo taken, and feel like a queen for two minutes. It’s a fantasy you buy.

But who am I to say that these girls don’t deserve to spend their money and feel like they’re beautiful too?


Evening gown prelim makeup

There was such a sadness to the fantasy. I came in convinced I couldn’t win, realized that I was perfectly qualified to win, and left sad I didn’t win anyway. Other girls seemed to come in not realizing the sharks they were up against. They wanted to believe they could be models, despite coming up many inches and pounds short. A lot of girls didn’t understand what it meant to be in a pageant – that there were a certain kind of shoe you wore, a certain kind of dress you buy, an entire, fairly rigid series of rituals in preparing for competition.

These questions interested me a lot more, in the end, than what it meant to be Chinese in a non-racially defined pageant. However, it’s worth noting that there was one other Asian girl there, who had won the New York title of the Miss Earth pageant, a cum laude grad from Penn with dancing awards under her belt. I felt like she was competition, and we never gravitated towards one another. She ended up making the top 20, but not going beyond that.

I’ll post some more photos later, perhaps some more thoughts, but it’s been an interesting – and utterly exhausting – journey. I’m glad to have met some fantastic people along the way, and I hope there’s bigger and better stuff in store for me.

Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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