Miss Tibet: The contest
Minnesota’s MPR News described the contest that Lobsang Wangyal has
The 'Miss Tibet' pageant: a survival tool for exiles
When Tenzin Khecheo first heard about the Miss Tibet pageant, she thought it made no sense.
That's because a pageant runs contrary to Tibetan cultural values, which stress modesty and cooperation over competition.
Indeed, the event has become so controversial that the current Tibetan prime minister suggests any swimsuit round should be done in private.
Khecheo, a 21-year-old who lives in Minneapolis, grew up in one of many Tibetan communities that sprouted around the world when Tibetans fled their homeland after China invaded. Little did she know as a young girl that she would travel halfway around the world to compete for an unlikely title.
"Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile," a new documentary receiving its Minnesota premier at the Minneapolis-St Paul International Film Festival this weekend, explores her participation in the unusual beauty pageant.
Born in India to Tibetan parents, Khecheo came to the United States at 7. As she grew older she did some modeling, and began hearing about the Miss Tibet pageant. It's held every year in Dharamsala, India, the capital of the Tibetan community in exile. In 2011, a friend urged her to enter the Miss Tibet Minnesota contest.
"So I was like, 'Why not? Let's give it a try for fun,'" she recalled. "That was my first experience with Miss Tibet."
Khecheo won, and earned a place in the U.S. national finals. That's when documentary film maker Norah Shapiro entered her life.
Shapiro was already making a film about the pageant because she wondered why organizers were doing it. The answer came from the pageant's producer Lobsang Wangyal, who calls himself the Tibetan Donald Trump.
Miss Tibet uses a western-style event to attract global attention to Tibetan issues, Wangyal said.
"Not only for women's issues," he says in the film. "Not only young Tibetan people, but also the bigger picture of Tibet."
Wangyal strikes Shapiro as "the kind of guy fiction writers wish they'd dream up."
Shapiro also knew that the 2012 pageant was going to be big as it was the 10th, and more likely to attract attention.
She met Khecheo just before the Miss Tibet North America competition, and asked to follow along. Khecheo then won in New York and received a ticket to Dharamsala to compete in Miss Tibet.
She had no hesitation, at least initially.
"I was super excited," she said. "But the next morning it kind of hit me. Like 'Oh man, I gotta go now!'"
Shapiro's film "Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile" follows Khecheo's trip to India, where there were only five other contestants.
"There was another girl from Australia. There was another young girl from I think Switzerland," Khecheo said. "And then three girls from different parts of India."
But the six participants were the most the pageant had ever had. Shapiro attributes the low numbers to the fact that the event defies Tibetan tradition.
"It took a lot of guts for the young women" Shapiro said.
And that was just the beginning. The contestants were plunged into Tibetan culture: meeting with veterans of the political struggle with China, with Buddhist scholars, and attending a teaching by the Dalai Lama. Sometimes it got too much for Khecheo, who is shown crying after meeting a former political prisoner.
"It just got a little emotional, and the waterworks started coming," she said. "Just because I realized that there's a lot of things I don't know, and there's nothing I have done."
Ultimately, Khecheo said, the contestants didn't feel like they were competing.
"If I don't win, she wins," Khecheo said of her counterparts. "That doesn't mean I lose. It's a win for Tibet. Tibet wins."
Of course, it wasn't that simple in practice. Events in the film take an unexpected twist, sending the whole pageant into turmoil.
Khecheo is now back in Minnesota, deep in her studies to become a nurse. But she hopes the film can raise awareness of Tibet.
"Being at home is nerve-wracking," she said. "I don't know how people are going to take it away, but it'll be a meaningful film to see."
Miss Tibet 2002 Dolma Tsering
Miss Tibet 2003 Tsering Kyi
Miss Tibet 2004 Tashi Yangchen
Miss Tibet 2005 Tenzin Nyima
Miss Tibet 2006 Tsering Chungtak
Miss Tibet 2007 Tenzin Dolma
Miss Tibet 2008 Sonam Choedon
Miss Tibet 2009 Tenzin Choezom
Miss Tibet 2010 Tenzin Norzom
Miss Tibet 2011 Tenzin Yangkyi
Miss Tibet 2012 None: Pageant was cancelled in homage to those who have died for the Tibetan cause.
Miss Tibet 2013 Tenzing Lhamo
Miss Tibet 2014 Tenzin Yangzom
Miss Tibet 2015 Pema Choedon
Miss Tibet 2016 Tenzing Sangnyi
Miss Tibet 2017 Tenzin Paldon
2002-17: mostly in McLeod Ganj
Miss Tibet Pageant was normally held in McLeod Ganj, India.
Miss Tibet Pageant 2013, was held from 11 to 13 February in Bylakuppe, South India.
2018: The pageant shifts to New York
Dharamshala: The Miss Tibet beauty pageant, a contest held for the Tibetan community in India and involving a controversial bikini round, has been shifted to New York from Mcleodganj this year.
The contest, begun in 2002, aimed to empower Tibetan women in exile. It was much publicised in the international media and 15 editions of the event were held in the Himachal hill town. The annual event, however, sparked a controversy of late as elderly Tibetans and conservative community members were upset about the bikini round. Tibetan feminists also objected to the event.
The founder of the Miss Tibet pageant, Lobsang Wangyal, said the event was held with a single participant in 2003, 2005, 2013 and 2014. “We can mark our presence and raise our voice through the platform of beauty by crowning Miss Tibet. I was struggling alone, but now I have entered into a tie-up with an entertainment firm with the help of a few Tibetan friends,” he said.
Tenzin Paldon was crowned Miss Tibet in 2017
Miss Tibet organiser has been facing financial woes
Most participants the pageant has ever had was nine in 2017, but the organiser has been struggling to finance it as there have been no sponsors. Tibetans living in Mcleodganj said Buddhism is all about inner beauty and not superficial attraction. “We are living in exile and the only identity we have is our religion and tradition. If we shift towards westernisation, we will be finished,” said an elderly Tibetan.
The event was held at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts near Mcleodganj till last year. Tenzin Paldon (21), from Kollegal of Karnataka, was crowned Miss Tibet 2017.
Preparations have already started for this year’s event. “We have floated online applications and the last date is March 31. We are looking forward to a spectacular show as we move from the small Himalayan village in Mcleodganj to New York,” said Wangyal.
Indpaedia, which champions Tibetan causes, including the Miss Tibet contest, echoes the feelings of all Indians who love the Tibetan diaspora in India: We will miss the Miss Tibet contest of Mcleodganj.
Inter alia, all contestants
Must be unmarried and must not have given birth to a child; and
Must have Central Tibetan Administration tax paid up to date. However, this criterion does not apply to a woman coming from Tibet to compete in the pageant.
Global ambassadors for Tibet
The winner of the Miss Tibet Pageant have in the past competed in some world beauty pageants, notably Miss Earth, as representatives of all of Tibet, not just Tibetan exiles in India and elsewhere.
Past pageants provided one week of training before the competition, with courses in physical fitness, stage craft, cat walk, dance, and a make-up and hair styling workshop, along with an orientation on Tibetan history, culture, and current affairs. Due to lack of funding, training has been discontinued for 2014.
Only 32 girls competed for the crown between 2002 and 2011. It was first started in 2002 by Wangyal, who drew criticism from some sections within Tibetan society, including the Tibetan prime minister Samdhong Rinpoche who said the pageant was "un-Tibetan" and "against Buddhist principles".
Four times in the pageant’s history unopposed contestants had to be declared winners.
In 2009 only one contestant did not get a tiara (crown): because there were only four contestants.So they gave the fourth girl, Lhamo, a consolation prize. The pageant director originally received seven applications, but three withdrew due to personal reasons.
The grand prize of Rs1,00,000 to the winner is by far the largest prize money given away in any event held in Tibetan society. 1st runner up gets Rs 50,000.Third prize: Rupees 25,000. Consolation prize: rupees 5,000. These prizes have remained the same over the years
410 TIPA Road
McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala 176 219
So far all the funds for the contest have been 'coming from the Director [Lobsang Wangyal]’s own pockets.' He has been described as 'a maverick impresario stages a most un-Tibetan spectacle: a western-style beauty pageant.' Miss Tibet Beauty in Exile