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Ethnic Pageants Restyle the American Beauty Contest

Virginia Nguyen said competition was fierce at Miss Vietnam USA.
Virginia Nguyen said competition was fierce at Miss Vietnam USA. "When I started to win . . . some of the girls wouldn't talk to me," she said. (By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)

The media stereotype of barely dressed Africans, living Tarzan-like in the jungle, was alive in their minds, Donaldson said.

"In America, Liberian women hide their identity," she said. "What we want to do with the pageant is say, 'Yes, you're Liberian. Yes, you're beautiful. And yes, you're different.' These girls' complexions are darker, and we want them to appreciate that and themselves, to know that they're as beautiful as anyone."

Guy Hua, co-founder of Miss Vietnam USA, echoed that, saying the pageant was formed because "we have a lot of beautiful Vietnamese women. We want them to go out and represent the community."

To entice participants, Hua and his partners stage an elaborate show, costing $300,000 this year, down from a half-million in 2004.

In its three-year history, about 1,000 women have competed each year. The grand prize, $10,000 and a new Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan valued at more than $35,000, provided a strong incentive.

"This is one pageant that unites us," Hua said. "It brings tears to your eyes. The Vietnamese people here, we're stuck together because we got kicked out of the country. We have no one but ourselves."

Nguyen, of Newark, Calif., used the money to pay for school and said the car rides smoother than her old Honda Civic. But she had to work hard to get it, because with so much loot on the line, the competition got fierce.

"When I started to win . . . some of the girls wouldn't talk to me," she said. "My whole motto was, 'If I'm going to be Miss Vietnam USA, I'm going to be an ambassador for Vietnamese women.' If other girls didn't like me, it really didn't matter."

Contestants either have that type of take-charge confidence or they lose, said Miltonia Warner, Miss Liberia Virginia, who lost to Budy in the national contest. When Budy took the stage, she glowed.

"If you come out there, and you feel that you are confident, you know that you are," Warner said. "You smile more, you swing your hips a little more because you know that you have it."

Pande said the Miss India pageant made her a more complete person.

"I don't believe I was the prettiest one or the most talented," she said. But she worked the judges with moxie and a smile that lit the stage. Studying Indian culture gave her a winning edge.

"After they asked the questions about culture, I had a good feeling about it," she said. "I knew what the judges wanted."

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