"And amongst these beautiful, elegant, modern and brave young women, the winner is: Tsering Chuntak!" Before an enthusiastic Tibetan audience, surrounded by fireworks and confetti, the 1.71 meter tall 21-year-old sociology student, weighing 50 kg, and wrapped in a red and green chupa, is crowned Miss Tibet 2006. The other four contestants quietly disappear backstage, while hungry media besieges the new beauty queen, proudly wearing a chiseled metal crown engraved with fake stones.
The final line-up had only five contestants, although initially 11 Tibetan women had applied. They all met contest criteria: they were under 25, weighed less than 60 kg, were at least 1.65 meters tall, were income tax payers and were unmarried. However, as soon as their candidacy was made public, they withdrew one by one until only five were left in the competition.
Clearly Miss Tibet is no run-of-the-mill beauty pageant thronged by aspirants. For one, there aren't scores of Tibetan women who are 1.65 meters tall. For another, even in its fifth year, the pageant remains controversial. In 2001, when the first ever Miss Tibet pageant rocked the Indian Himalayas, Samdhang Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile and a highly respected figure, publicly opposed the contest. He argued that the Miss Tibet concept aped western culture and that it was contrary to Buddhism and traditional values.
However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of Tibetans, seemed to have had no problems with the event. He encouraged the Miss Tibet contest to go ahead. Speaking at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in New Delhi a week before the pageant, he said, "It's a minor issue - let them hold it," adding with his characteristic good humor, "Although, to be fair, they should also organize a Mr. Tibet contest!"
Also hotly debated is how political the contest is. Lobsang Wangyal, 36, the director of the Miss Tibet pageant. Sporting waist-length hair and shiny new cowboy boots, he insists that the contest is not a political event, but rather a cultural one intended to entertain. "Its aim is to emancipate the women of my community, get our society out of its traditional iron collar and, of course, show female Tibetan beauty to the whole world," he says.
On the other hand, because of the publicity it attracts, Miss Tibet has clear political potential for Tsultrim Dorgee Chunang, general secretary of the 20,000 member-strong Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest NGO in the region working for an independent Tibet. "Miss Tibet represents a platform which allows the political situation in Tibet to be known all over the planet," Chunang explains.
The political character of the contest seems to be an attraction even for the contestants. Each one told the media that one of the major reasons she participated was the opportunity the crown afforded to promote the cause of a free Tibet. "It is a great opportunity to tell the world that Tibet is not part of China," said Chuntak, the happy Miss Tibet 2006.
The Chinese authorities are not indifferent to the publicity ramifications of the event either. In Zimbabwe, in 2004, they succeeded in removing Miss Tibet from the Miss Tourism contest. During another contest in Malaysia the same year, they tried unsuccessfully to force Miss Tibet to enter under the Miss China-Tibet banner.
This year, for the first time, the catwalk in bikini and high heels was held before members of the public. Until now it had been seen only by the panel of judges, members of media and contest staff, as a sign of "respect [for] the older generation of conservative Tibetans", according to Wangyal. (Regardless of Wangyal's claims, photographs of the semi-nude contestants were routinely carried by daily newspapers where the "older generation" would see them.)
Is the new openness a sign of changing times or a spicy ingredient to generate event publicity? Whichever, a small group of about 50 - exclusively men - paid Rs. 200 each to watch the contestants parade by the pool of Dharamshala's Asia Health Resort. After which the women, clad in bikinis, were allowed a few sound bites to talk politics for the television cameras.
Surprisingly, no women's groups appear to criticize the contest. B. Tsering, president of the Tibetan Women's Association, says her organization morally supports the contest: "It is a way to promote our cause and all platforms are valid." When questioned about the appropriateness of claiming national sovereignty while wearing only a bikini, Tsering did admit that the contest could do without the bathing suit round.