To win Thailand’s biggest transsexual beauty pageant, you need a number of near-impossible things on your side. It helps if you’re tall, although big hands and feet are a minus. You’ll be told you need to look “natural”, even though organisers and judges have been known to pull contestants aside, and encourage them to undertake more cosmetic surgery. Above all, the judges will want you to look like a “real girl”, even though the competition’s premise is that you were originally born with male sex organs. “The whole idea,” one publicist tells me, “is that these ‘boys’ look like girls. They just have to be beautiful, that’s all.”
I had come to the beachside tourist resort town of Pattaya, 1.5 hours south-east of Bangkok, to go behind the scenes at Miss Tiffany’s Universe, the nation’s largest beauty pageant for transsexual women. The winner would receive TB100,000 (roughly AUD $3,655), lucrative sponsorship and performance contracts and a new Honda. Now in its 13th year, the contest was no longer a fringe event for the queer community, and instead attracted roughly 15 million television viewers nationwide. That’s roughly a third of all Americans who watch the Oscars. Every Thai person I spoke to knew of Miss Tiffany’s Universe and had watched it before.
Over the past week, I’d joined the 28 finalists — pulled from every corner of Thailand — as they rehearsed their steps and poses, broke their platform stilettos and walked through mud and peak-hour traffic to hand out sponsorship flyers to the public, as per their contractual obligations. Hanging out with these girls and watching them interact with the public had dealt out both lovely moments (like when stoic Thai police officers controlled traffic around the girls, before posing for photos with them) to borderline obscene situations (like when a corporate sponsor, Banana I.T., got the girls to pose suggestively with plush bananas).
Overall though, I’d assumed this would all make for a positive story: here was a country where transsexual women were visible and acknowledged, given a nationally televised platform and rewarded with lucrative sponsorship deals and national public affection. In other countries, who could imagine such a thing? Earlier in the week, a former Miss Tiffany’s winner had addressed the 2010 finalists in a Chinese restaurant. Nong Poy was 23-years-old and looked like a more stunning version of the Chinese actress Gong Li. She’d won Miss Tiffany’s Universe in 2004, then Miss International Queen title later that year, before becoming the face of G-Net, a big Thai mobile phone company. Since then, she had also scored roles in two Thai soap operas as a regular girl-next-door. Surely, I thought, Poy’s career trajectory represented social progress.
On the night of the finale, I spoke to Contestant #1 backstage, after she’d finished applying her make-up and hair. Chanya Denfanapapol — ‘Bank’ was her nickname —looked like the Thai version of Scarlett Johansson, and was the odds-on favourite to win the finals. She had won the swimsuit round earlier in the week, and I’d put money on her to win, as had other journalists and photographers. “If I win tonight,” she told me, “it’ll be a really chance to upgrade my gender. I want to be an example for younger generations, maybe change minds and laws so we can get married.” Bank said that for her, Miss Tiffany’s was pretty much the only platform for transsexual women in Thailand to have a public voice. “Really?” I asked. She nodded.
By 9.30pm, the television cameras were warmed up and the auditorium was packed. On stage, the 2009 Miss Tiffany’s winner — a sexy, brooding 21-year-old vixen named Sorrawee Nattee — was on stage, and launched into a song and dance routine to the song ‘I Am What I Am’. Other dancers thrust their bodies alongside her, dressed in tuxedos held together by velcro. When they reached the climax of the song, they all tore off their tuxedos, pants first, to reveal sequinned gowns underneath. We all hooted and cheered.
But in the audience, it wasn’t very glamorous or exciting; in fact, it smelled like the locker room of an all-male gymnasium. During the day, when I’d watched the girls prepare, the venue had fresh, air-conditioned oxygen pumping through its vents. Tonight, it was working against a 32-degree night-time heat wave and a packed room of people’s recycled oxygen. At no time did the cameras pan towards the audience. If they did, the home viewers would have seen people sitting in their chairs with their knees up, with sweaty photographers and journalists crouched in the leg room.
Eventually, after a lot of posing, catwalking and close-up staring into cameras, the judges culled the 28 women to the final ten. Announced one by one, the 10 finalists looked euphoric as they sashayed out to front stage and couldn’t stop smiling. Meanwhile, the lights dimmed on the 18 women whose names hadn’t been called out. The projector screen cut to a commercial break, cameras went on stand-by, and the 18 knocked-out girls were ushered discreetly off-stage, some of them still smiling like their jaws were being drilled at a dentist.
The final ten (including Bank) scuttled off for a quick costume change, before returning on stage to position themselves for the questioning. This would be the first time anyone had heard the girls’ voices. Two TV hosts went to the girls one by one with a series of question cards. Contestant #21 was first.
“What,” the host asked, “is the most serious problem for Thai teenagers at the moment?”
Contestant #21 responded immediately.
“Drugs,” she said in Thai. “Teenagers are important to Thailand. If they get addicted to drugs, Thailand will suffer. We’ve got to help!”
Everyone went wild. The other girls were questioned about their favourite charity campaign (“The social conditions of Thai trans-women!”); what they would change about themselves (“I would change nothing at all!”); their biggest goal in life (“To help my mother, who has sacrificed so much!”); and to describe themselves in one word (“Ambitious!”).
They reached Contestant #2, a mousey-looking girl in a green gown.
“If you could change one law in Thailand,” they asked,” what would it be?”
Contestant #2 smiled into the camera.
“If I could change one law … ” she started.
There was an excruciatingly long pause. She stared out into space blankly. Her flat silence ticked over, beamed live to 15 million homes around the country.
“If I could change one law in Thailand, I would …”
The audience leaned forward in their seats. Some of us covered our faces. The wait was excruciating.
In a few days, I would talk to a sleek and sophisticated transsexual woman named Yollada Krerkkong Suanyot, who preferred to be called “Nok”. At 30-years-old, Nok had once been a beauty queen too, having won Miss Alcazar 2005 — a similar pageant to Miss Tiffany’s that had since been cancelled. Now Nok was working at a cable TV jewellery channel and studying a humanities PhD, which examined the social conditions of transsexual women in Thailand. There were a few things Contestant #2 could have said, Nok said. Firstly, Thai law prevents anyone from changing sex on official ID. Without being able to officially change their sex, Thai transsexual women were still forced into the army at 21 (like all Thai men), and were not protected by Thailand’s rape laws. They couldn’t apply for government jobs, and international travel was limited because of passport issues. No lobby group had ever swayed the Thai government into changing anything for transsexual people, ever.
It seemed weird, I told Nok, that a country so renowned for its transsexual women didn’t have any laws in place that recognised or protected them.
“You know what Thai society is like?” she asked. “You know pad thai, right? You know pad thai hor kai?”
“The one with the egg parcel?” I’d seen the dish at restaurants: a soft, light omelette crepe, folded over pad thai noodles. Nok nodded.
“When you see pad thai hor kai,” she said, “it’s beautiful. But when you open it, you’re going to see the pad thai is very …” She made a face.
“It looks like worms?” I offered.
“Yes! That’s Thai society. On the outside, people say, ‘Oh, they accept us!’ But when we say we have problems, they say, ‘It’s your problem.’”
Back at Miss Tiffany’s Universe, people were applauding Contestant #2, encouraging her out of sympathy, but also trying to speed up her answer. The wait for her to speak was getting boring. By this stage, I’d started to think that maybe she’d had some sort of seizure, and that the producers would need to cut away to an emergency broadcast TV signal.
“Every law in Thailand,” she eventually said, “… is okay.”
Some people groaned. The hosts nearly went onto the next contestant, but then she continued speaking.
“But what would I like to change? Um, I would change the age that people can drink and go to nightclubs. I’d like to change it to 20 and 22, because 18 and 20 is too young!”
It wasn’t exactly the best answer. It received light applause before the hosts moved on, and I watched Contestant #2’s eyes register the fact that she’d blown it.
“Meh,” I thought, shrugging.
But after the pageant had wrapped up, and the winner had been announced (a pretty girl, whose beauty no one had registered properly until she’d been announced), I thought about what Contestant #2 had been asked. In all fairness, she had probably been given the hardest question of the night. What laws should be changed? It would have been impossible to say, “All of them,” but that would have been the only correct reply. It seemed sad that for a beauty pageant that granted these girls their only major platform to speak to the public — to nationally televised platform to win over people’s hearts and minds — they only had a few minutes to talk before people moved on. For Contestant #2, the real answer to her question would have taken far too long to explain.
? Benjamin Law is a senior writer for frankie magazine, and regularly contributes to the Monthly and Qweekend. His debut collection of comic personal essays The Family Law is out through Black Inc. Books in June. He is currently researching queer communities throughout South East Asia.