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How starring in Miss Tiffany’s pageant show can change a Thai trans beauty queen’s life

The annual Miss Tiffany’s Universe Pageant is a celebration of the nation’s ‘trans’ population and works to promote human rights and fight discrimination

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 12:44pm

Thailand has up to 100,000 “trans” people or ladyboys. They are a hot topic now because the kingdom looks set to ban discrimination based on gender identity. The boldest expression of Thailand’s liberal take on the sexual self must be Miss Tiffany’s Universe pageant.

“I am so very proud of my gender,” says performer Pimnara Atipatdechakorn, or Sand, the second runner-up in last year’s gala, adding that she is a mix of man and woman – strong and soft.

During Sand’s younger days, her family were unnerved by her orientation, but now because of her pageant success, they are happy, says Sand, 24. Appearing on stage at the famed Phuket beauty pageant was her dream, she adds, then describes the effect.

“It’s really changed my life – changed my mind and changed my thinking,” she says. Before, she felt like a kid. Now, thanks to her success in the contest for under-25s only, she has matured, she says.

The fashion graduate from Rajamangala University of Technology in Bangkok serves as a freelance model and a flag-wielding “colour guard” in a marching band that has represented her country. She does jazz dance, she runs twice a week and forgoes meat during Tiffany’s to detox.

When an initially unsuspecting man Sand meets sees that she is a “katoey”, she does not care how he reacts, “because I am what I am”. Her perfect partner is a good man with a good heart. Any would-be boyfriend must have those qualities, she says, adding that handsomeness is unimportant.

Speaking through an interpreter called Tiger, the winner of last year’s pageant, Sopida Siriwattananukoon or Baimon, 23, says she is just seeking someone to talk to. The nurse from Ayutthaya outside Bangkok wants someone who understands her and can discuss subjects that interest her, she says.

“And also it’s all about chemistry.” No chemistry, no relationship, the winner says, but adds that anyone, irrespective of gender, can have a good body – be externally beautiful.

“Trans can be more beautiful than women. Women can be more beautiful than trans as well, because of all the cosmetic surgeries that everyone can get these days,” she says. Like Sand, she claims to be wowed by spiritual factors; your mind, heart or soul determine whether you are pretty or beautiful, she says.

If she acts nicely – in a feminine manner, she gets treated like a lady, she says, adding that if all trans people acted in a positive, appropriate way, acceptance would follow.

At first Baimon’s family was concerned – even afraid – about her involvement in the ladyboy pageant, because of the gossip her presence might stimulate in their provincial town.

That changed when Baimon won. Now, she hopes to be a role model for all trans people, including the new generation.

She stays in shape by avoiding oily, high-cholesterol food. In her spare time, she sings and does traditional dance.

Founded in 1998, the beauty pageant lures 100 willowy wannabes from across Thailand. The fortunate final 30 grace a three-hour parade staged in Pattaya, southeast of Bangkok. This year’s final is being held on May 13.

The entrants, dubbed “robust ambassadors for the third sex” by one observer, wear classic pageant costumes: tight sequinned dresses and swimsuits, sometimes indistinguishable from women, other times betrayed by a trait such as strong bone structure.

According to the Tiffany’s website, the spectacle broadcast live on national television draws 15 million viewers. The winner gets a sash, a tiara, a car and a 100,000 baht (HK$22,000) prize – equivalent to a year’s wages for a Thai factory worker.

The publicised point of the pageant, which starts in March and ends in early May, is to promote human rights for trans people everywhere. As the politics magazine The Diplomat notes, the Land of Smiles has a reputation as a bastion of Buddhist tolerance – outwardly an attitude of “mai pen rai” (no problem) prevails, which suggests that trans people are sitting pretty.

In fact, many Thais are judgemental. According to a poll by Ramkhamhaeng University Public Opinion Centre, 70 per cent of respondents oppose gay marriage or letting trans people change their gender on their identity papers.

“Normally, their gender is not optimal in life,” says the driving force behind Miss Tiffany’s pageants, Alisa Phanthusak. Her mission is to prove that trans people can be useful, despite private prejudice and official obstruction.

In Thailand, Phanthusak says, changing sex remains forbidden – in legal documents, you are still marked with the gender you had at birth. Officially certified male, some Tiffany’s competitors are actually transgender.

What matters, she says, is that entrants get the opportunity to dress like ladies and be treated accordingly, if they behave. They must be disciplined – on-time especially. Otherwise their points will be cut, according to Phanthusak, whose father ran the original Pattaya transvestite cabaret, Tiffany’s Show, which is popular with Hongkongers.

To win the Tiffany’s pageant, besides being beautiful, an entrant must think positively, she says, admitting that jealousy is endemic in the beauty pageant field. At Miss Tiffany’s though, because everyone who enters is different, the friends to trust are fellow contestants. In fact, fellow competitors are friends for life, she tells them.

They are motivated by the future: a desire to be better or exceptional idols. They want to prove themselves to their parents, once they grasp that their sons are different. Many mothers and fathers have little inkling. In fact, Phanthusak says, until the fact is announced through the pageant, some never guess that their sons are transgender.

“They never. It was like, good son, but in the public eye they become the most beautiful man in the country.” So the fallout is only embarrassing for a night, and then pride comes into play, according to Phanthusak.

“It’s about what you can do and what inspires you and what you can do to be good for the society. That’s what counts in life.”