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Born: December 19th, 1991
Tenzin Khecheo was born and raised in Orissa, India. Her family then shifted to Minnesota. In 2010 she enrolled as a first year college student at MCTC and applied for transfer to the University of Minnesota.
Journey from Minnesota to Dharamsala
Exclusive Interview: Tenzin Khecheo on “Miss Tibet” Documentary Film
By Tenzin Pelkyi, Tibetan Feminist Collective April 28, 2015
During the conversion of Tenzin Pelkyi’s in-depth interview into this article some grammatical errors might have crept in, for which Pelkyi is not responsible.
Producer/Director Norah Shapiro’s documentary, “Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile” had its world premiere at the prestigious 2014 DOC NYC Film Festival. It received the 2015 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival “Best Minnesota Made Feature Documentary.”
Tenzin Khecheo is the 23-year old star of the critically-acclaimed new documentary film, Miss Tibet-Beauty in Exile, which follows her on her journey from Minnesota to Dharamsala, India for the 2011 “Miss Tibet” beauty pageant. In 2015 Khecheo was pursuing her nursing degree; she moved to the U.S. as part of the Tibetan refugee resettlement program when she was seven. She lives with her mom and two younger sisters in the Twin Cities.
How did Tenzin find out about the Miss Tibet pageant?
Tenzin never knew about Miss Tibet before she saw her friends watching it one day in Minnesota. Then, “Miss Tibet Minnesota” happened and they needed girls to sign up, so her friends and she just did. That was her first experience with the whole “Miss Tibet” thing.
Later, in winter 2010, Tenzin wanted to go to New York and visit her cousins there. Cho (Tibetan: Big brother) Jigme messaged her and said there was this lady filming a documentary about Miss Tibet but it wasn’t going in the direction she liked yet. They didn’t know it was going all the way to India, so she just wanted to follow her to New York for the contest and see what happened.
At first, Tenzin was embarrassed at being on stage because she had a bad experience with Miss Tibet Minnesota. Everyone else was speaking Tibetan and she gave all her answers in English, plus her music choice wasn’t good–Tenzin danced to Missy Elliot because she learned the dance in high school so she already knew the choreography. But Tenzin ended up winning “Miss Tibet North America” and had two prize choices: Either an iPad or airfare to go to India and compete in Miss Tibet. So, of course, Tenzin chose the airfare. After Tenzin won, Norah Shapiro traveled with her to India for about a week and a half for the pageant.
Did Tenzin feel uncomfortable at any time during the pageant?
Before going into the pageant Tenzin knew about the swimsuit round and, initially, she didn’t have a problem because she knew that was something a pageant would have no matter what. She was used to going to beaches wearing a bikini and no one judged her as a Tibetan woman and said it’s controversial. Tenzin was more worried about the talk round. But being in that environment and hearing people being negative about the swimsuit round was what made her nervous. They actually had to change locations for the swimsuit round because they went for rehearsals one day at the pool, the original venue, to see how it would look. There was a mix of Tibetan and Indian guys in the pool area when they were rehearsing and one of them said something and Lobsang got mad and they ended up arguing. At the new venue, the scenery was really pretty but it was hard to walk in because there were rocks everywhere and they were in heels. Two of the girls almost fell, and there was some wobbling, but Tenzin thankfully wore wedges. So once Tenzin got out and started walking she thought, “I am already here so why not do it?”
In the end, it wasn’t as bad as Tenzin thought. It wasn’t to a point where Tenzin thought she was uncomfortable doing it but because of all the built up negative things about the swimsuit round. There were a bunch of reporters and people watching, but Tenzin didn’t look at anybody. Tenzin was just looking straight ahead and then right afterwards Tenzin was looking for her family.
How did Tenzin react to the controversy over the pageant?
During the final round, Tenzin thought her biggest competition was Ngodup Dolma from Australia and Tenzin Dolma from India. So when the judge called the 3rd and 2nd prize-winners Tenzin immediately thought she had won because she saw them as the biggest competitors in her way. Her roommate was by her side whispering in her ear telling her she had won but Tenzin didn’t want to get her hopes up. When the judge announced Yankyi had won Tenzin was immediately disappointed but she knew one of the contestants had to win. Then, after that finale round they were in the cafeteria eating and people were saying “Tenzin should have won” and “how did the judges not know who won– they gave the points.” That night Tenzin went to her mom’s hotel because they were planning to go to Tso Pema and since that was their last day in Dharamsala Tenzin didn’t know the girls were talking about how Yankyi’s name wasn’t on the list, so how did she go from 5th to 1st place. When the girls confronted Lobsang, Tenzin didn’t even see it until the clip in Ngodup’s movie about Miss Tibet. After this whole emotional roller coaster, Tenzin heard this and it was like a slap across her face. Tenzin was so angry. So that kind of left a little scar when Tenzin was in Nepal.
When they came back to the States, pretty much everyone knew what happened in India and that made her feel like she had done something she didn’t even have a chance of winning. Like she lost before she even started. But then Tenzin thought it’s just rumors and nothing is 100 percent confirmed, otherwise the whole point of joining the pageant would be meaningfulness. So, instead of thinking negatively Tenzin thought about what she did get out of the pageant; like the beautiful strong girls, the lessons they had, the people they met. And when she thought about all the positive outcomes of the pageant, that’s when she realized it didn’t matter if she didn’t win the crown and that’s how the movie ends, too. And when the film came out, Tenzin realized this is a way she could speak out and use her voice. And to have it sold out and articles, radio, and TV– it was like bringing Tibet to the media.
Did her modeling background influence her decision to enter the competition?
Tenzin grew up watching Miss America pageants and America’s Next Top Model and she was a huge Tyra Banks fan. One day, she was at the mall at a kiosk for John Roberts Powers (JRP) and she filled a form out without her mom knowing. They gave her a call and said she could come in, so Tenzin told her mom they selected her because she knew she wouldn’t let her go otherwise. Tenzin told JRP she was more interested in modeling than acting, so she was there for a 30-week program. For ten weeks she had modeling/posing classes, then a little bit of acting/improv stuff, how to represent yourself when she went to castings, and lifestyle lessons– like taking care of your hair and face. And from there Tenzin got into this agency where she did mostly runway. In their eyes, you’re either commercial (for TV or print ads) or high fashion (mostly on runway).
There were a lot of castings Tenzin didn’t make, but doing the modeling thing gave her more confidence and networking skills and taught her how to communicate because it’s all about how to make a good impression on your client. If you don’t make a good impression they wont use you, but if you do they’ll use you again and again. Tenzin used to be kind of shy before she did modeling and she thought that modeling really helped her in Miss Tibet since she already knew about the posing, runway, and what do.
Does Tenzin want to continue modeling and doing pageants?
Tenzin thinks she is done with the whole modeling and pageant industry. Modeling was a hobby and passion for her back then and Tenzin was really into it. Over time, Tenzin started thinking of the reality—like how will this get her a job. But she was thankful because the confidence Tenzin got from modeling was something like Tenzin never had before. Her mom actually was like “why aren’t you doing modeling anymore” and “why isn’t the agency contacting you?” Tenzin was just like, “I am not interested anymore.” Tenzin have to drive around from place to place and then there’s the pressure of being selected or not and being on stage with all these beautiful girls. Mostly it’s all Americans, and to compete with all those common faces was difficult for her because she was doubting herself. And Tenzin hated having those thoughts because she wanted modeling to be something positive in her life. Then, she got into the whole Miss Tibet thing and they all know how that ended. Tenzin still can’t believe she did that and that there’s a movie about it.
Does Tenzin still keep in touch with the other girls?
They’re all Facebook friends except Yankyi – but they talked after the whole controversy and she was having a hard time with those rumors. At first Tenzin was upset but then she was happy for her and hoped she would do well. When she told her she didn’t know anything about the rumors, that was all she needed to hear to believe her. She was glad they cleared the air, although they don’t keep in touch anymore. Her roommate and she hardly talk but she’s married with a son.
There are parts of the film that still get to her, like when her younger sister says she was Miss Tibet to her no matter what and when Tenzin talks about her dad. And her grandma—she was actually in the film. She came back with them to Nepal and they didn’t know she was going to be in the film. So when Tenzin saw her in it she was a little taken aback. But she was glad she was in there.
Were her family members supportive of her participation in the pageant?
All of her family members were supportive—her mom, uncle, grandma, and sisters. Her grandma was a little unsure in the beginning but her grandpa is a modern feminist himself. Tenzin would walk out of the house in shorts and her grandma would tell her to cover up, but her grandpa was always on her side saying, “Leave her alone—she can wear what she wants.”
Tenzin was able to get through the whole thing because her family was so supportive of her.
Tenzin’s dad would always say to speak, read, and write Tibetan, otherwise how would Tenzin teach her own kids Tibetan.
How did her sisters feel about the pageant? Would they ever want to participate?
Tenzin has two younger sisters and they’re both introverts. Her middle sister, Lhadon, actually did one fashion show with her to fill in a spot and she was totally against it. She did it to try it and she hated it. Her agency actually was trying to get her on board but she didn’t want to do it.
Her sisters are the opposite of her. They’re not into the whole “being the center of attention” thing. They think it’s cool there’s a movie about the whole experience Tenzin went through, but there are like small parts of the film they didn’t like because they didn’t realize the camera was there. But they’re supportive of the movie and her doing Miss Tibet because they know that’s what Tenzin likes. Lobsang actually said to them at the pageant, “Oh, look—they have their future Miss Tibet contender” and they were like, “No.”
What does Tenzin think Tibetan women have gotten out of this pageant?
Tenzin thinks Tibetan men don’t know Tibetan women have a huge role and part in society. For them, they just see a mom or grandpa taking care of kids, but now Tibetan women want more than that. They want their own careers, lives, and to establish themselves.
But for Lobsang, Tenzin thinks he sees women as powerful human beings rather than objects. That’s why Tenzin thinks he sees Miss Tibet as a platform– to see Tibetan women on stage taking initiative. Tenzin thinks people started getting interested in what Tibetan women could do. Tenzin thinks the pageant was a powerful gesture from Lobsang’s side– to show that Tibetan women aren’t just in the kitchen. Tenzin knows Tibetan women are getting more ambitious and Tibetan men should support that. Not all the men were completely against it, like that Kushog in the movie. And that’s what makes the pageant more appealing. Then, Tenzin sees a different story about Miss Tibet—about women standing up on stage and participating in their culture. Without the controversy, it wouldn’t make this big of a headline because where there’s curiosity there’s always controversy. Especially in 2006, when Miss Tibet refused to take her sash off and wear a “Miss Tibet-China” one—Tenzin think that’s when people started seeing it as more than just a beauty pageant and more as a political platform.
There was a moment in the film when Tenzin said that “sometimes I don’t even feel Tibetan.”
When they met the political prisoner Ama Adhe, she was really nice and said she supported the girls in the pageant and was proud of them. When she began telling her story of how she was captured with 300 other girls and only four were able to make it out alive in the end and the others starved to death… Seeing that story from someone who experienced that, Tenzin can see in the film that she got teary-eyed because it was hard to imagine. Tenzin thought, “What if my grandma had been there?” Her mom and Tenzin wouldn’t be here. Tenzin felt vulnerable at that moment and about what people went through. Tenzin realized maybe she was not qualified to be Miss Tibet and not Tibetan enough because all these people are struggling and protesting and what am I doing? she was not doing anything. Because Tenzin didn’t have that experience of being an activist. Tenzin just wanted to take the easy way – come to the pageant and take the crown. From then on it really hit her that she need to win this crown because she was Tibetan enough and she did care.
It also made her stronger because Tenzin grew up in Minnesota but she was not really connected with the Tibetan community there just because she had this fear of being judged. So she stayed away from the community. .
Would Tenzin Do The Pageant Again? And would she recommend it to others?
Yes, she would. Tenzin would recommend it: The good qualities of the pageants should be kept—like the music lessons, touring CTA, meeting political prisoners and activists, and the lectures focusing on Tibetan politics. Maybe just have a better scoring system and a more open vote. Otherwise, Tenzin thinks the pageant itself is still good.
Is her mom a feminist?
Tenzin thinks she was a feminist is because of her mom. She’s a single mom and after her parents divorced she had to take care of her and her sisters. But she never let that break her down. She was always strong and she never let that stop her from doing anything two parents do– like working double shifts and not getting enough sleep because of work because her dad would have been the one providing for the family [before he died]. That’s when her feminist roots started.
And also, she was pretty sure her mom looked up to her mom the same way Tenzin looked up to her and got strength through her. Her grandpa was in the Indian army and had eight kids, so she had to watch the kids by herself while he was on active duty. Two of her kids died and her mom had to watch her mom go through that growing up, just like Tenzin has to be a role model for her sisters.
Tenzin’s mom had her at 23