Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | A “non-beauty” pageant for Asian American women in Colorado
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A “non-beauty” pageant for Asian American women in Colorado

It’s been a couple of weeks, but congratulations are in order for Amanda Igaki, the winner of the “Miss Asian American Colorado” pageant held in Denver May 31.

Now, before you recoil at the thought of a beauty pageant, rest assured that this pageant, organized by a crew of young people led by the energetic and entrepreneurial Annie Guo, whose family publishes Asian Avenue Magazine, was not a traditional beauty pageant. The most obvious proof that this wasn’t a typical pageant was the lack of a swimsuit competition.

In fact, although Igaki was crowned “Miss Asian American Colorado” at the end of the four-hour event (which felt much shorter because it was so interesting), it didn’t feel like a competition between the 26 contestants at all. These women had become close friends, like a small, tight sorority.

When I interviewed some of the women for a story in the Denver Post, they glowed about the camaraderie they developed being involved in the event. Women who had been in other pageants said this was really unusual, that women generally don’t become close while they’re competing against each other.

But Guo’s vision was to build a tight-knit network of young women who would stay in touch, continue the community service work they started during the run-up to the pageant, and become leaders in the community who would mentor other Asian Pacific American women as they advance in their careers. The group will continue to meet all year, even though the pageant is over, and grow stronger bonds.

They’ll also form the core of organizers for future pageants, so Guo and her family and close friends won’t have to shoulder the responsibility themselves.

So the emphasis for the pageant is on community service and leadership. They got emotional intelligence training from Erin Yoshimura, and they spent a day helping build homes for Habitat for Humanity, where the women donned hard hats instead of crowns (Erin and I joined them for that, and we’ll likely help out on Habitat projects in the future).

Guo’s vision was also all about Asian Americans, not just a celebration of the “exotic other” image that Asian women have to bear so often. In the beginning of the night, the contestants came out in the ethnic clothes that reflect their roots (Midori Tran, who’s a Japanese and Vietnamese hapa, strolled out in a kimono but dramatically doffed it to reveal an ao dai, the flowing traditional Vietnamese tunic), but they went to the microphone and explained to the crowd why they loved being Asian American. Most spoke about the rich mix of their cultures, and of straddling two worlds.

And finally, Guo’s vision was to make this anything but your grandma’s beauty pageant. Not only was there not a swimsuit in sight or any mention of bust sizes, but the talent portion of the evening included hip-hop and salsa dance routines, a spoken word segment about one woman’s Asian American identity (my favorite), and a couple of unusual performances: speed-painting and a cake decorating demonstration. There were the expected (especially for an Asian American crowd, almost a stereotypical) classical music performances on piano, violin and cello too.

The point was that these women reflected the depth and breadth of APA experience, not just the “model minority” myth but all the stuff they’re interested as young Americans. And, refreshingly, the women reflected the variety of cultures that make up the APA community, from Japanese, Chinese and Korean to Filipino (hands-down, the loudest fans in the room), Vietnamese and Hmong. Also in a laudable nod to the diversity of the APA community, the pageant featured a handful of hapa, or mixed-race, women, including Igaki, the winner. You can meet all the contestants here.

The night of the pageant was a pleasant surprise.

The hotel ballroom that had been booked months earlier was jam-packed, with family, friends and leaders from the various communities the women represent. The event had outgrown itself before the very first pageant was held.

You can expect Guo and her crew of young entrepreneurs to find a bigger room for next year. They’ll also scale back the number of contestants to make room for more entertainment in less time, but this year, they got so many applications that even with some eliminations, there were more than two dozen women competing for the inaugural title.

This first Miss Asian American Colorado was a success, and for anyone who attended, an inspirational display of the strength of the Asian American community here in Denver. Igaki is now raising money to compete in the national Miss Asian America Pageant, which will be held in San Francisco

But there was a shadow over the competition.

As I wrote in my Denver Post article, there was another pageant, organized by the publisher of a local Chinese language newspaper, who announced her event, similarly titled as the “Miss Colorado Asian-Pacific American Pageant,” after Guo’s was first announced. The competing event was set for one week earlier than Guo’s (which unfortunately turned out to be Memorial Day weekend, and may have impacted attendance). And it was relentlessly promoted at events in which the sponsors were involved, like an APA Heritage Month celebration where they handed out free tickets as raffle prizes and pushed “buy one get one free” deals.

There were reports of unfortunate tactics like posters for Guo’s event being removed from shop windows, and mis-representations by the organizers of the other pageant, confusing both the public who might attend, and even women who wanted to apply to Guo’s event.

But there were significant differences between the two: The other pageant was a typical, traditional beauty pageant. They asked for applicants’ bust, waist and hip measurements, and there was a bathing suit competition (to show off the “health” of the contestants, according to organizers).

The pageant only had 10 contestants, and they were mostly Asian, not Asian American, and didn’t represent many cultures. The website used stock photos of Asian models that made it look like they were the contestants. The event itself featured a traditional dance performance by a group flown in from Taiwan, which I’m sure was great but I would think took the focus away from the achievements of the contestants.

I wish the women well and don’t mean to demean the winner’s success, but the organizers were so competitive about Guo that they lowered the level of their event in my eyes. They even called me and the Denver Post to complain that my article didn’t give them enough publicity.

The features editor explained that the Post normally wouldn’t have covered either event so she should be happy her pageant got the attention it did. The truth is, I found Guo’s event was much more interesting because of its youthful organizers (one is still a high school student) and because of its modern, Asian American emphasis. But after discussions with the Post’s features editor, we decided it would only be fair to include information about the competing event. The story’s publication date was even moved up by a full week to allow it to run before the competing event.

So the organizers of the second event should be grateful for the coverage, not spiteful. That kind of behavior — the reported juvenile sabotage, the angry calls to the media — ultimately hurt the Asian community’s credibility, and can keep the mainstream media from covering other events. We’re invisible enough as it is.

There’s no room for individual egos to run rampant when we as an entire community need to pull together and help each other get some of the mainstream spotlight and attention we deserve.

There’s room for both events because they’re different, but there isn’t room for poor sportsmanship. My money’s on Guo’s vision for Miss Asian American Colorado to set the standard for the future celebration of young APA women in the region.