Last Friday, I served as a judge for the 2012 Miss Korea contest.
When I received an invitation from the organizing committee, I had stereotypical images about the annual event that has been hosted by Hankook Ilbo, the sister paper of The Korea Times, since 1957.
I thought that it was nothing but a big beauty pageant that attracted young, tall and pretty but airheaded Barbie dolls, obsessed with their skin-deep cosmetic beauty and perfect bodies.
After spending 12 hours with them ― talking with them, dining with them, walking with them and finally watching them on stage ― I found that some of those preconceived notions proved to be false.
What surprised me first were their reasons for participating in the contest.
I explained that I was planning to write a column about my experience and asked them why they had decided to join the contest. Six out of a group of 18 contestants answered that they were shy and diffident so they wanted to use the contest to prove themselves. It was their version of a coming-of-age ritual.
A total of 55 passed regional qualifiers and joined the main round with one exception. During the first stage of evaluation held in the morning, they were divided into three groups, each comprising 18, and they had a question and answer session on rotation with three panels of judges.
“My father thinks lightly of me,” one said. “I want to show him that I can take care of myself.”
The answer surprised me because she, like the rest of the contestants, appeared to be the embodiment of desirable womanhood and would leave most parents with nothing more to ask for.
Kim Yu-mi, who won the 2012 Miss Korea title in the evening, was asked what she lost and gained through her Miss Korea endeavor, and answered that she gained friendship with other contestants but “lost” a great deal from the “smelly feet” she had at the end of each of the 20 days of their rigorous training regimen in preparation for the ultimate night. The contestants’ well-synchronized dancing and singing didn’t come without a price.
Of course, some contestants responded as expected, when they said, “I have been so often told that I have the legs of a goddess that I decided to aspire to become a Miss Korea.”
Her remarks triggered an infectious round of giggles among the other contests. But she talked like a sound-minded “ordinary” college girl full of mirth and energy, representative of their generation which has grown up during a time of relative prosperity in the nation, comparatively free from fears of war, poverty and uncertain futures that had weighed so heavily on their parents.
I was given the chance to talk in more detail with them when we had lunch together.
I first pointed to their full plates of food and teased them by saying that they would regret having had one too many chicken wings when they were on stage in the evening.
“We may collapse if we don’t eat this much,” one said. Another joked, “Don’t worry. If we keep our breath in, the judges won’t notice.”
The contestants proved to be engaging and quick to respond to a given topic.
Singaporean Ambassador Peter Tan Hai Chuan, my fellow judge who happened to be at my table, explained his country’s “chewing gum law,” triggering an interesting round of debate. Some of the Miss Korea contestants at the table live in English-speaking countries and freely communicated with the ambassador but those who don’t still proved to be “brave” enough to join the debate and state their case with little reservation.
I was still not entirely convinced about the Miss Korea contest being more than a beauty pageant until the judges, myself included, had their names called at the beginning of the contest that was televised on two cable channels and Internet broadcasters.
The “fabulous 54” put on a great show of dancing and singing. One song from their medley repertoire caught my attention when I heard a snatch of it “… beautiful girl…” Was it from “200-pound beauty, “a Korean hit movie about a fat ghost singer who transformed into a slim goddess through plastic surgery and dieting? Or was it Gene Kelly’s rendition from the 1952 musical comedy, “Singing in the rain”? Obviously, it was not Sean Kingston’s hit song.
When I snapped out of my reverie, the program moved to the swimsuit competition, which is criticized by feminists as being degrading to women. Feminist values, along with some irregularities in the selection processes, were responsible for the Miss Korea contest being pushed from the network television circuit onto cable channels.
They each took their turn on the center stage and one by one and all of them held their heads high with pride without showing any signs of shame. It was a sound parade of who they are as women, not a carnal display for commercial purposes.
“Aren’t we insisting on applying old standards to the Miss Korea contest that is, in itself, changing in keeping with the times,” I asked myself. Ambassador Tan changed the focus of my attention when he said, “Our Miss Singapore contest is being shown on national television.”
The day proved to be fulfilling because I examined my own bias and prejudice towards the 56-year-old contest and let go of some of them, too. It was also an entertaining night because I enjoyed the show, engaged in a guessing game about who would be crowned Miss Korea 2012.
I experienced no feelings of guilt about having been part of a wicked, sexist, commercial-oriented peep show. I felt like I had finally overcome a stutter that sometimes prevented me calling beautiful people beautiful.