Sex, knives and videotape

The sequins are being sewn on, the make-up boxes re-stocked, and girlish excitement is reaching fever point.

Yet another high-profile beauty pageant – Miss Myanmar International 2015 – is about to take place in Yangon next month and the stage is once again being set for tiaras, tinsel – and tears.

Myanmar’s opening-up has seen the beauty business here hit the big time and the number of young women hoping to take the runway to instant fame and fortune has soared.

But while a lucky few have enjoyed foreign travel, glamorous parties and lucrative contracts to appear on stage, screen and billboards in their homeland, for many others their catwalk dreams have set them on a path to exploitation and disappointment.

According to promoters, the big-name pageants offer young women a chance to become “national ambassadors”.

Announcing next month’s contest, Daw Tin Mar Myint, chair of the organising committee for the Miss Myanmar International, said, “This is a chance for a beautiful young woman to represent her country, and to give a boost to the tourism industry.”

There is certainly no shortage of girls wanting to try for that opportunity and more. Modelling in Myanmar is seen by many as a platform to a wider career in the entertainment industry.

After being banned for nearly half a century under the former military dictatorship, international beauty pageants have become something of a national passion over the past three years. Representatives from Myanmar competed in at least 10 such contests in 2014.

But the girls’ desire for fame and fortune – prizes for winners of the top contests can be upward of $18,000, 10 times the average national monthly wage – is also boosting an altogether shadier world of unregulated cosmetic surgery and sexual exploitation.

Beauty industry experts say that, until recently, Myanmar beauty ideals leaned toward what they call a more “natural” look, but increasing exposure to images of celebrities and models from more developed parts of Southeast Asia is changing that.

Tin Moe Lwin, managing director of Talents and Models Agency, one of the country’s best-known pageant judges and the self-styled “mother of modelling in Myanmar”, estimates around two-thirds of girls working as models have now had some form of cosmetic procedure.

Describing plastic surgery as being “like a virus”, Tin Moe Lwin said, “It’s not like South Korea where everyone knows about it. Here [in Myanmar] girls won’t admit they’ve had anything done.”

She added South Korea – sometimes known as the “cosmetic surgery capital of the world” due to the number of procedures undergone by women there – has a particularly powerful influence. Soap-operas, fashion and beauty product advertisements, and K-pop celebrities have led to increasing demand in Myanmar for models with more European features, as prized by Seoul fashionistas.

According to Tin Moe Lwin, an increasing number of companies are now coming into Myanmar from South Korea and Thailand encouraging girls to have cosmetic procedures.

And, she added, a number of these businesses are giving kickbacks to unscrupulous model agencies to pressure their clients to get such work done.

Even those models who avoid such coercion in their homeland can find themselves under duress to undergo surgery when they travel abroad to work or take part in contests.

In May last year, Mae Myat Noe was crowned overall winner of Miss Asia Pacific World in Seoul, becoming the first Myanmar winner of an international pageant in over 30 years.

But scandal erupted three months later amid allegations pageant organisers in South Korea had tried to force her to have what she described as “top to toe” cosmetic surgery.

“They wanted to change me into a plastic doll,” she said.

The beauty queen – who it later emerged was just 15 when she won the title – was stripped of her crown by the competition’s organisers, who claimed she had a “bad attitude”.

But the teenager insisted it was her refusal to undergo plastic surgery and act as an escort to wealthy Korean businessmen that led to the fall-out with organisers.

“It’s taboo in my country to have an older boyfriend or sponsor,” said Mae Myat Noe.

“When I was told about their plan to do that with me, I did not agree.”

Her story highlights another darker side of the beauty business – sexual exploitation.

The term “sponsor”, according to Tin Moe Lwin, usually refers to older men who support models financially in exchange for sexual relations.

And while such dealings may well be “taboo”, industry insiders say they are commonplace, with many disreputable model “agents” acting as little more than pimps for the girls they are supposed to represent.

Unlike in many countries where success as a model can then lead to a celebrity lifestyle, in Myanmar directors expect models to already have the accessories of fame and fortune before they want to book them, say those who have sought a career in the industry.

Most of the girls who will go on to make the finals of the big-name beauty pageants come from wealthy families and have had expensive educations.

For many other would-be models, however, the road to success is rather less salubrious.

“Unless you come from a wealthy family it is almost impossible to avoid [needing a sponsor]” said one former model.

Tin Moe Lwin said she does her best to warn the girls she represents from such arrangements.

But she added, “Because the situation is very new, people don’t have much experience of the system, or know what is the [best] thing to do.”

Despite the warnings and the obvious risks, the ambitions of many young Myanmar women to make it big in the model business remain unabated.

Around Yangon, a growing number of “model coaching” operations offer, or purport to offer, a route into the industry.

In mall basements and run-down studios across town, teenage hopefuls pay to be coached not just in catwalk poses but general deportment, etiquette, and presentation skills which they are told will help them on the road to celebrity.

At one such studio in central Yangon, Phoo Pyae Tun dressed in a grey knitted dress, clearly picked with fashion in mind as opposed to any recognition of the sweltering weather, has been practicing her model walk along with dozens of similarly dedicated hopefuls.

“It’s my dream. I’ve wanted to be a model since I was young,” said the 17-year-old.

“I [want to come to] a beauty academy because I like having my photo taken. I feel happy when I walk and am confident.”

Does she have any other ambitions? Is she worried about exploitation?

“No. I just want to be a model,” she said.

Source: Myanmar Times

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