THEY rule the World and the Universe - Miss China and Miss Japan that is, who have been crowned Miss World and Miss Universe respectively this year.
In a double triumph for Asian women taking part in international beauty pageants, Japan's Riyo Mori, 20, won her Miss Universe title in May, and this was capped last weekend by 23-year-old Zhang Zilin's success in Sanya, China.
Zhang is the first Chinese to win the Miss World title, and that, combined with Miss Japan's crowning, marks a change from beauty queens coming from the West, Latin America and India.
This sudden dominance of East Asian beauties in the world's most high-profile pageants has got folk wondering: Does Miss Singapore finally have a shot at being crowned pageant royalty?
It certainly sends a ray of hope to local pageant contestants, say those in the industry here.
'Having an Asian face up there makes me feel very proud,' declares Miss Singapore Universe 2007, Jessica Tan, 25.
Mr Alex Liu, franchise holder of Miss Singapore World, says: 'China's win is a win for Asia.'
The editor of Style magazine and a judge for Miss Singapore Universe 2007, Mr Daniel Goh, notes: 'The Barbie doll version of beauty is well over.'
However, industry veterans say that there are still many problems to overcome for Singapore to succeed, the biggest of which is the negative image surrounding pageants here.
While pageants are big, glitzy affairs in countries like the United States, Brazil, the Philippines and Venezuela, contests here are dogged by lack of funding and interest, and controversy.
No wonder, then, that the only two occasions Singapore has made the top 10 in Miss Universe has been when Kathie Lee came in 10th in 1983 and Marion Nicole Teo came seventh in 1987 - the only year the competition was hosted here.
At the Miss World competition last Saturday, Singapore's representative, Roshni Soin, 21 - who ended up unplaced - was given long odds of winning by betting agency websites, ranging from 1:80 to 1:300.
Tan was swarmed by photographers at the Miss Universe contest, whose 'attitude changed after they realised I wasn't Miss Korea or Miss Japan, who are superstars in their home countries'.
Singapore's contestants have found that such status is far from the case in their own home country.
While it has been the norm for pageant winners in Europe and Latin America, for example, to have the support of their nation and go on to become celebrities, Singapore's girls are not expected to get far and often become the subject of ridicule and criticism.
Miss Singapore Universe 2002 finalist Ms Sara Ann K, 25, recalls: 'There were horrible comments about me and Nura (Nuraliza Osman, Miss Singapore Universe 2002) on Internet forums. I was called an ah kua (colloquial term for effeminate man).'
Many foreign pageant queens go on to lucrative modelling, acting or singing careers, or end up marrying top athletes or actors, while in Singapore, they often fade into oblivion after a year.
Image consultant and former top model Hanis Hussey, 43, points out: 'Currently, there are no perks and no future for pageant contestants in Singapore.
'They come back upset and unhappy.'
The current Miss Singapore World, Soin, says with a sigh: 'I feel there's more emphasis on talent contests like Star Search.'
Mr Joshua Luke, 31, chief image consultant of Image Revelation Consultants International, which conducts pageant grooming courses, says that many girls don't bother auditioning because pageants don't carry a 'dignified' reputation.
He adds that he gets turned down by about half of the potential talents whom he asks to take part.
On the lack of contestants with winning potential, stylist and fashion designer Kovit Ang, 33, points out that if the organiser is desperate, it just forgets about the minimum criteria.'
To convince raw talent to step up is a hurdle that won't be overcome until pageants are taken seriously, says Mr Calvin Cheng, CEO of Looque Models and president of the Association of Modelling Industry Professionals.
'We need to treat the winners like a cultural ambassador, not make them feel they're the laughing stock of the nation,' he says.
'I know people who would never join because they're afraid people will make a mockery out of them.'
Lots of potential
WHILE many believe Singapore does have the talent, the resources essential for moulding a pageant champ are lacking, say those in the beauty industry.
'I see a lot of untapped talent - beautiful girls who have the right looks and figures, but no training,' says image consultant Hussey.
Plastic surgeon Chua Jun Jin, 42, who has treated 10 beauty contestants, giving them double eyelids, cheek fillers to enhance bone structure and nose jobs, believes 'we have world-class athletes and scientists, why not beauty contestants?'.
Indeed, Miss Singapore World's Mr Liu says: 'Singapore would win if sponsors gave more, instead of talking only.'
He feels that the Government should provide a grant to cover training and items like wardrobe and airfares, because 'when she is on stage, she represents Singapore'.
As for what the organiser of Miss Singapore Universe, events company Derrol Stepenny Promotions, thinks of this, repeated calls and e-mail to it went unanswered.
But one thing is for sure, while most Singaporean contestants are new to the pageants, their competitors from high-performing countries like Venezuela and India are talent-spotted from young and put through rigorous pageant training, funded by parents or sponsors, or through scholarships.
Miss Venezuela even has an official cosmetic dentist and plastic surgeon on hand.
Contestants here have to pay for their own pageant grooming course prior to auditions, and after qualifying, get only about one month's training, if any, before the local finals.
The winners are given a ticket to the international competition and accommodation, but have to find their own sponsors or fork out their own money for clothes, make-up and shoes.
'When you're a beauty queen, everyone should serve you,' says Ms Hussey, who was grooming consultant for Miss Singapore Universe 2002.
'I was mad when I heard the poor girls had to run around asking to borrow dresses.'
That's what this year's Miss Singapore Universe and Miss Singapore World had to do after winning their local crowns.
'Miss Venezuela told me she was given a car and an apartment for a year,' says Soin, who says she received only $1,000 to prepare for the contest.
And on the difference between Miss Japan and Miss Singapore, Tan says: 'Miss Japan had been groomed for the last eight months, and had all her outfits, accessories and travel planned for her. I had no true-blue manager to organise the trip, get me a wardrobe or help me with mental preparation'.
She adds: 'I would have appreciated more time and money, rather than just sending the best and hoping for the best.'
Ms Hussey believes the key to pageant success is for the contenders to be groomed from young on 'how to speak, carry themselves - things which you can't learn overnight'.
'You can't throw a girl into an international contest with no preparation, it's very unprofessional.'
However, while there is a shortage of quality local girls willing to take part, Singapore's pageant industry itself is fast-growing.
Image Revelation's Mr Luke estimates that there are about 10 established pageants and 15 up-and-coming pageants held here annually. Five years ago, there were fewer than 10 established pageants and no up-and-coming ones.
Alas, none of them so far have moulded a memorable beauty queen, though this might soon change.
Looque Models' Mr Cheng says that next year, he is opening a John Robert Powers Grooming School. His school is a franchise of the international John Robert Powers Academies, whose students have included personalities like Diana Ross, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lucille Ball.
And Soin points to the flipside of Singapore's low expectations on the beauty scene - she witnessed the pressure her fellow contestant Miss India World Sarah-Jane Dias, 24, was under when she did not make the top 15.
'She had to give up a year of her life to be groomed, and then she received so much negative attention for not making it to the top 15.
'Being Miss India World changes your life forever and there's no turning back. Looking at her, I'm glad I can disappear after two years if I want.'
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