Look at the picture I had taken this week! That's right, dear reader, far from rubbing shoulders with fellow Samut Prakanians in Foodland Srinakharin, your correspondent was up close and personal with the Miss Thailand World gang.
And not only the winner. I even spent time with the runners-up, an attractive group of well-educated, beautiful women just dying for that split-second when the winner accidentally falls down a flight of steep stairs. And there I am, smack bang in the middle of them all ... the one not wearing a dress in case you can't differentiate.
We live in a country where beauty pageants still pop up as single-digit percentage points in surveys of religious beliefs. The rest of the civilised world is shying away from the beauty pageant concept; the UK stopped televising their national competition back in the 1990s.
In Australia we only get excited about them when we win internationally, which isn't that often ever since we became the second most obese nation on the planet. An episode of the Biggest Loser garners better ratings than the sad Miss Australia Quest, proving that in Australia fat outweighs beauty ... literally.
In Thailand it's the opposite. The new generation of Thais may be characterised by pre-pubescent Chinese blimps, but when it comes to beauty competitions, Thais simply can't get enough of slender Thai-Chinese women characterised by long hair, perfect smiles, and frequent trips to the vomitorium _ I beg your pardon, the bathroom.
Go to any upcountry temple fair, and by nightfall the prettiest girls in the village, along with the village headman's cross-eyed, club-footed daughter, are trotted out on stage in traditional Thai outfits caked in seven inches of white make-up. The same is true at any festival such as Songkran or Loy Krathong.
Once in Phetchaburi I stumbled across a pork festival. The organisers were thrilled to see such a celebrity as myself (I rub shoulders with Miss Thailand World, remember) and thus introduced me to all sorts of important figures _ the deputy governor, a high-ranking police officer ... and Miss Pork. That's right, some hapless local lass who wasn't even cross-eyed with a sash around her disappointing chest had been crowned Miss Pork, or Miss Pig, whichever way you translated it. What an honour. They may as well have just crowned her Miss Fat and be done with it.
The obsession with beauty pageants here is borne out by the fact there are no less than six national pageants held. The big three are Miss Thailand, Miss Thailand World and Miss Thailand Universe, the last one I've always found hardly fair, for what chance do Martian protozoa have against leggy beauties like Jennifer Hawkins and Natalie Glebova?
I'm going to skip over details of the other three _ Miss Thailand Earth, Miss Teen Thailand and Miss Thailand Chinese _ because let's face it, six national competitions is ludicrous. These winners trot off to international quests where they often make the top 10 but crash out at the end, more often than not because the Thai perception of beauty is not in sync with international trends.
The more appealing types that would probably stand a chance are often pushed aside in the Thai competition for someone who wais better than the others, or who answers a question in a more conservative, traditional Thai way. Thus we lose out to countries like Venezuela, who churn out beauty pageant winners in the same quantities Thailand exports sacks of jasmine rice.
Which leads us to a great irony. No matter which of the six competitions you tune in to _ like Frankie Goes To Hollywood hits, the winners are interchangeable _ the emphasis is on somebody who reflects the beauty of Thai women and the Thai culture. An admirable goal _ so what is it with these Miss Thailands who can't even speak the language?
I'm trying to imagine a Miss Australia who can't speak English, yet that's the situation we have had in this country, as girls born of Thai parents in the USA are shipped out to the mother country six times a year. For a brief moment in time these cheeseburger-raised beauties throw on a traditional Thai outfit and attempt a wai. They invariably become runners-up ... but sometimes they win.
It was not that long ago that a good Aussie girl won Miss Thailand _ I was involved in the competition back then, as I offered free English lessons to the winner. The night she won, one of the organisers asked me: "Can we change your offer to free Thai lessons?"
Before the class could start, scandal struck. A day or so after the event it became clear to this girl that she'd have to give up her life as a free-wheeling model to assume the role of a prim, proper, chaste Thai girl, travelling around the country in a crown and high heels smiling with every leering phuyai bahn in every Nakhon Hideous. Jail would have seemed a more attractive prospect.
Then, a godsend ... the girl had taken semi-naked fashion shots the year before. Using this as an excuse, she was relieved of her crown and the runner-up stepped in, and life went back to normal in Thailand, only to be disrupted at a similar level some years later in 2010 when the red shirts burned down Bangkok.
Thais conveniently overlooked this linguistic shortcoming when Porntip Nakhirunkanok, the non-Thai-speaking American who was crowned Miss Thailand in 1988, went on to win Miss Universe. The fact she stumbled through the language didn't detract from the "prestige" she brought Thailand for winning the competition.
Yet if winning Miss Thailand is such an honour and prestige, how can we explain the curious case of the medical student who won a few years back? Suddenly there were doctors expressing concern that a doctor winning a beauty pageant might somehow detract from the prestige of the medical profession. As I said at the time, it was the first time we'd discovered that ugliness was an important prerequisite for any student wishing to pursue a career as a medical practitioner.
My favourite scandal occurred the year I arrived here. I believe it was the 1990 competition, and I saw it for myself on TV. In that year a girl picked up the crown amid rumours she, like the cross-eyed club-footed thing in Nakhon Hideous, only won it because she had connections. That didn't go down well with one of the runners-up, a group of girls who despite their smiles have a collective lean and hungry look.
Right there during the pageant, one of them walked straight up to the smiling, crying, waving winner in her sash _ and wrenched the crown off her head!
By the turn of the century things had gone off the boil. Organisers started thinking up silly ideas like "beauty with a purpose" or "beauty with a mission" when really guys only want to see pretty girls in skimpy swimsuits. In one year the Miss Tiffany transvestite competition was held the night before the Miss Thailand quest, and even the newspapers admitted the boy was far prettier than the winning girl.
These days the six competitions click over with a level of interest nothing like days of yore. Maybe it's because we are now in 2010, a time when women in Thailand have far greater goals in life than just looking good for guys.
And the girls themselves are aware of what they are in for. They're smart, media-savvy young women resigned to the year ahead. "You know you have to smile like this non-stop all week," I said as we posed for this picture.
"All week?" one of the runners-up whispered _ without lips moving _ as the photographer took our picture. "Try all year."
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