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Atlas Hoods: Tibet's Sad Beauty Pageant

What do you do when people keep telling you your country's not a real country?

by Ioannis Mustakis Fanariotis, Elektra Kotsoni
Jun 13 2011, 10:55pm

What do you do when people keep telling you your country's not a real country? If you're Lobsang Wangyal, you bankrupt yourself throwing the saddest beauty pageant in the world.

Other than sounding like the name of a Scottish rasta, the Indian town of McLeod Ganj is home to both Tibet's exiled government and what seems to be the largest number of Tibetan refugees in the world. Every year since 2002, the people of the town have made their way to the Tibetan Institute of Performance Arts (which looks more like an elementary school playground) to see no more than four or five Tibetan women compete to display the highest level of "inner and outer beauty."

On the surface, the Miss Tibet contest is pretty much like any other pageant: full of glitter, dancing, hot babes, and a few annoying, localized problems like constant electricity blackouts. But where in the West there would be a throng of PR people and underpaid interns helping to manage and organize the event, in McLeod Ganj the whole affair is run and paid for by one man.

42-year-old Lobsang Wangyal is a sort of local pauper-God, a man whose whole life seems to revolve around the notion of freeing Tibet. He is also the cutest photojournalist, event planner, dancer, presenter, and graphic designer we’ve ever met. So, when he invited us over to his office for a brief interview, we jumped at the opportunity.

VICE: Hi Lobsang! This is the final day of the competition. You must be exhausted.
Lobsang Wangyal: That’s right, today is the big finale so I don’t have too much energy left in me. But tomorrow I will hopefully be able to relax.

Great. Before we get into the pageant stuff, do you want to tell me a little about your life in exile?
It’s the biggest tragedy of my life. It’s been very difficult.

Were you born in Tibet?
No, I was born in India. My father arrived there from Tibet in 1959 and my mother showed up two years later. They were kids—my mother was about 11, and my father was 15 years old. So they came to India without exactly understanding what was happening. They thought they were only going to stay for a few years before going back, but then China came, Mongolia came, the British came… They had to run and keep running. I’ve been here all my life but I don’t have a house, I don’t have land, I don’t have anything. I only have a heart.

That's sad. Do you still feel like a foreigner in McLeod Ganj, then?

I’m sorry to hear that. Let’s talk about more cheery stuff. Let's talk about the pageant. How did the idea for Miss Tibet come about?
Oh, you know, in the modern world, there is TV, radio, and magazines—you always hear about this Miss and that Miss. Miss, Miss, Miss… So, I thought why not have a Miss Tibet? We started in 2002, and that first competition was an international hit, because the rest of the world saw it as something strange and didn’t think we could pull it off. It attracted loads of media attention—journalists from all over the world came to report on it.

What about contestants? Was it easy to find people who would agree to take part in the competition?
Well, it was so new that everyone wanted to be Miss Tibet, to be the most beautiful, the most charming, the most eligible woman. When you think about it, it’s a huge title. So, the first time around I received loads of applications. But in the end, there were only four left because most of them thought, “Oh, I have to speak," or “I have to be in a swimsuit," so they defaulted. The next year we only got one applicant, so we crowned her without competition. Since then, it’s gotten better. We now have between four to five girls each year.

Surely there must have been a change after you got the internet?
Nah, most people are hypocrites here. You have to understand that these are very traditional people. They don’t have much connection to the modern world. They are very impressed by the whole affair but they wouldn’t want their daughters or sisters taking part. It’s different with the younger generations though. I, for example, am a second generation Tibetan and I am open, and the next generations, the third and fourth, are also opening up. The Miss Tibet competition is a part of their lives, so it’s more normal. But for the older people it’s still like, “Wow! How can we have Miss Tibet?” It is going to change, but it’s going to take time. This year we had six contestants!

Do the participants have to have any experience in fashion and modeling?
Some do, but not all of them. Some are just interested in everything that has to do with fashion, glamor or art… this life of light.

So what difference could this title bring to a girl’s life?
Well, it depends on the girl. She has to be a little more alert and active. If you just sit and wait for things to come just because you've been crowned Miss Tibet, that’s not gonna work. Some of them want to escape the quiet life, but they also come so that other girls are inspired to come as well. It’s not like they think that if they win they're going to become Miss World—the Chinese government has been sabotaging our attempts to compete in that, they keep cutting off our communications with the organizers—and they don't assume they'll end up walking the catwalks of Paris. Also, the prize money is good—about $2,200.

Has India been helpful in getting Miss Tibet off the ground?
No, the fashion people in India don’t know much about Tibetan fashion, culture, and talent. We are a closed community. I would like to take it out to the world, but with four or five girls each year, what can I do? I should have 20 girls to choose the best from. This is the ten year anniversary and not much has changed.

Ten years? I thought you said you started in 2002?
It did, but if you count it on your fingers, this is the tenth year.

Hmm, OK.
Listen, everything is difficult here—not just finding competitors. For example, there's no such thing as an events organizer, a producer, or even a director. I have to do everything on my own, I have to run everywhere. I’m trying to build something out of nothing. But somebody has to do it.

What about money? How do you finance the event?
I don’t have any money. After the competition, I will be roughly $7000 in debt. I pay for everything myself, I can’t find sponsors, and nobody pays for the tickets. And it only costs 10 rupees to come in. Several thousand people came this year, but so far I've only made $1000. I made up a 1000-ticket raffle, with the main prize being dinner with Miss Tibet, but I didn't sell a single ticket. So I’m in big shit right now.

What about the Dalai Lama? Can't he help you out?
He’s always very positive with everything. He is all about the Middle Way and always says, “Physical beauty is important but inner beauty is more important,” so he must be supportive. I think he expects something good to come out of it, but I'm not sure what financial support he could give me.

I heard he was going to come today, is he?
No. I’m in big shit now, so it’s OK. Tenth anniversary or not, I might have to stop the pageant. I can’t keep going like this forever.

Well, best of luck with everything, Lobsang. We hope it all works out.
Thank you. Come tonight, here, take some free tickets. Do you want a T-shirt?