Venezuelan beauty wins transgender tiara

Hailing all the way from the land famed for producing countless beauty pageant queens, 22-year-old Isabella Santiago beat 21 contestants from 18 countries to win the title and prize money of US$12,500 (S$15,629) at the glittering event on Nov 7 in the Thai resort town of Pattaya.

Uniquely, as the pageant winner, Santiago - who cut a stunning figure in her shimmering white evening gown as her name was announced - has the option of undergoing free cosmetic surgery, among the sponsored prizes.

"When on stage, she is so elegant and that's why the judges' decision was unanimous," says Seri Wongmontha, one of the pageant's judges. Meanwhile, Thai contestant Nitsa Katrahong was named as first runner-up and Lao contestant Piyada Inthavong took second runner-up.

In its tenth year, Miss International Queen, which bills itself as the world's largest transgender beauty pageant, is held annually at the festive Tiffany's nightclub - known for its drag cabaret shows.

Using the same formats as other beauty pageants, contestants parade in their national costumes, evening gowns and swimsuits to score points for the win. Organisers say that the pageant is held as part of efforts to promote transgender rights - but for some, it's more than just beauty or human rights.

Miss USA Samira Sitara says that participating in the contest is a "dream come true". - it was also a highly personal one as it was the first time she was coming out publicly after being encouraged by friends. "You know what? This is life and you can't run away from the past - I can't hide it anymore."

As for the queen of the night, celebrations will have to wait until another day. When asked about her plans after the win, Santiago laughs and says: "Sleep!"