University of Nebraska Press
  • Beauty Queens Behaving Badly:Gender, Global Competition, and the Making of Post-Refugee Neoliberal Vietnamese Subjects

Beauty pageants have received plenty of scholarly attention in the past two and a half decades, demonstrating through critical analyses and well-researched studies that these spectacular contests perform a number of cultural, social, and symbolic functions for any given local or national community.1 In her important contribution to this body of scholarship, Sarah Banet-Weiser keenly observes, "the Miss America pageant does not mean one thing to one audience. It is not merely about pageantry, or kitschy culture, or the objectification of women, or overt racism, or reactionary nationalism. It is about all these things and more."2 For these reasons it remains a valuable endeavor to analyze beauty pageants and their cultural meanings as they continue to tell stories about gender, power, and belonging. And while archetypical national and international competitions such as the Miss America and the Miss Universe pageants have attempted to incorporate multiculturalism by awarding racialized and ethnic women these titles, dominant discourses still privilege standards of beauty that do not deviate from codes of whiteness. In response beauty pageants organized by ethnic and marginalized communities have provided an alternative site of competition while simultaneously enabling those communities proudly to showcase ethnic pride and attempt to preserve some cultural lifeways. Many members of the Vietnamese diaspora believe that beauty pageants provide opportunities for young women to take on social roles as cultural bearers.3 But to what extent do these alternative beauty pageants actually challenge or subvert mainstream beauty contests when they are also premised on the public display of attractive, youthful, feminine bodies?

In this article I explore beauty contests of the post-refugee Vietnamese diaspora to demonstrate that the dual evolution of both the pageants and the community reflects the social and cultural concerns with which the community grapples. My research suggests that while these pageants continue to objectify women and their bodies, they also promote the commercialization of [End Page 25] ethnicity and women's participation in consumer culture in order to secure the Vietnamese diaspora's place in the global market. Specifically, I argue that beauty pageants display changing dynamics of gender, sexuality, and social class as they adopt strategies of acculturation and articulate cultural identity through conspicuous consumption and the female spectacle. Beauty pageants thus serve as a vehicle for promoting neoliberal values that celebrate the financial success and excessive wealth of an elite class of Vietnamese businesses that sponsor them while encouraging young women to embrace those same values.

Over a decade ago I published research detailing the cultural significance of beauty pageants to the Vietnamese refugee community between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s and explained how they worked ideologically to ease nostalgic anxieties about gender and the lost nation. Though at a much smaller, localized, and regional scale, the pageants prized young attractive females and assigned them cultural roles to perform figuratively and literally on their bodies in public spaces where sizeable Vietnamese communities had formed.4 Beauty pageants of the Vietnamese diaspora, however, underwent dramatic transformations from the 1990s to the early 2000s. One considerable indicator of these changes is the removal of the Vietnamese language as a requirement. Although young women who mastered the Vietnamese language were prized for their ability to retain the most important strand of cultural knowledge, it became starkly apparent that by the late 1990s few possessed these language skills. And while it would be more practical to keep the Vietnamese language as a requirement, for it also served as the lingua franca for the diaspora, pageant organizers recognized the reality of assimilation, favored mass participation, and prioritized the commercial appeal of their pageants. The new language that the pageants adopted was the language of capital. Seizing upon the lucrative success of more established regional pageants, Vietnamese entrepreneurs worked with both ethnic and mainstream corporate entities that envisioned themselves as international or transnational companies to recruit young Vietnamese women from all over the United States and the diaspora to compete for larger titles with even more profitable prizes. Whereas previous pageant titles relied on the ao dai or "long dress" costume symbolic of Vietnamese culture and femininity to define themselves, the newer pageants sought to draw people from throughout the diaspora with names such as Miss Vietnam USA, Miss Vietnamese Free World, and Miss Vietnam Global. These pageants included contestants from all over the world, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Sweden, and the United States. Organizers of these ethnic beauty pageants initially made a concerted effort to exclude women from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in order to further the diaspora's desire to solidify an identity of exile through cultural nationalism and the [End Page 26] celebration of global capitalism in opposition to the communist Vietnamese nation-state. By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, however, pageants seeking to expand their audience base and profit from transnational sponsorship allowed Vietnamese nationals born and raised in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to enter, indicating a more lax attitude about people from the homeland.

The overall changes in these contests—from their philosophy and organizational structure to the rules established, the prizes given, and the people involved—reveal the complex ways in which the Vietnamese diaspora negotiates gender and assigns cultural and social roles for its young female members as they all become modern, neoliberal subjects outside of Vietnam. Here I argue that in the post-refugee period beauty pageants exist as public spaces where young women test the values and moral boundaries of social acceptability using postfeminist discourse to challenge "traditional" gender ideology. Amid these contestations a handful of crowned beauty queens have engaged in morally suspect behavior and failed to fulfill their social and cultural duties as representative female figures of the community. This series of failures exposes the Vietnamese diaspora's uneasy positioning as a community undergoing rapid change, revealing not only fractures in class divisions and unresolved gender expectations but also ambivalence in attitudes about female sexuality. By calling attention to the (failed) performances of the beauty queens that exemplify these transformations, I will show that in their contemporary form beauty pageants of the Vietnamese diaspora have increasingly become sites that celebrate and venerate capitalist success, financial wealth, and conspicuous consumption, rather than events aimed toward cultural preservation. In deemphasizing the goals of Vietnamese cultural nationalism and favoring the ideals and triumphs of capitalist consumption, these ethnic beauty pageants in many ways not only engage with dominant American gender ideology but also replicate and reinforce those discourses of white femininity that were often premised upon the commodification of the female body. The dynamics within these beauty pageants serve as a microcosm and a lens through which we can learn about the Vietnamese diaspora and the struggle of its people to forge new identities amid forces of globalization.

To contextualize the Vietnamese American community's coming-of-age, it is imperative to consider its formation against the backdrop of Cold War anti-communism and Reagan conservatism. Ronald Reagan's style of anticommunism celebrated the excesses of capitalism with decadence.5 This era ushered in a new value system that promoted an unapologetic lifestyle of opulence that the refugee community often aspired to but seldom reached. As the refugee community settled throughout various parts of the United States between the [End Page 27] 1970s and the late 1980s, its embrace of Reagan's anticommunist politics became enmeshed with the cultural ideas touted by the New Right. In his book The Terror of Neoliberalism Henry A. Giroux refers to this period that begins with the rise of the Reagan aristocracy and takes full form by the twenty-first century as "neoliberal globalization." The Reagan era not only influenced the ways in which the refugee community and its most vocal members enacted anticommunist politics but also fostered the community's faith in capitalism's promise of freedom and self-improvement as the focus moved from the collective to the individual. Giroux connects these developments to the changing vocabulary about race and social justice, as well as the reframing of the concept of "freedom." He explains that

as freedom is abstracted from the power of individuals and groups to actively participate in shaping society, it is reduced to the right of the individual to be free from social constraints. In this view, freedom is no longer linked to collective effort on the part of individuals to create a democratic society. Instead, freedom becomes an exercise in self-development rather than social responsibility, reducing politics to either the celebration of consumerism or the privileging of a market-based notion of agency and choice that appears quite indifferent to how power, equity, and justice offer the enabling conditions for real individual and collective choices to be both made and acted upon.6

It is my belief that the Vietnamese American community's investment in these principles of freedom, as they become magnified under what Giroux calls "the reign of neoliberalism," set the tenor for how capitalist success would be defined in the diaspora.

Moreover, personal ideas about freedom and individualism within the logic of neoliberalism can be extended to discussions of gender particularly in the era of postfeminism. According to Yvonne Taskler and Diane Negra, post-feminist culture "works in part to incorporate, assume, or naturalize aspects of feminism; crucially, it also works to commodify feminism via the figure of the woman as empowered consumer."7 Aligned with neoliberalism, postfeminist culture emphasizes choice (professional and educational opportunities) and individual freedom particularly through physical and sexual empowerment. With the intent of being fully engaged in discussions about gender in modern America, Vietnamese American beauty pageants reflected these shifts in their organizational objectives. While the pageants were marketed as communal events, organizers promoted them as affable sites where each contestant could feel good about herself as she forged friendships with other women. However, the reality of these competitions is that only one woman can emerge [End Page 28] as the beauty queen. The sole winner would be rewarded with material goods, as well as gain symbolic capital as a spokesperson for the community. She might also be granted modeling opportunities with sponsors that would open up paths for further success, leaving all others behind. Despite these contradictions both pageant organizers and contestants themselves deployed the neoliberal language of choice, opportunity, and female empowerment to defend the competitive process whereby female bodies would be displayed and judged. In line with postfeminist rhetoric the collective acts of objectification and commodification went unchallenged as young women "chose" to enter the pageants with high hopes of a successful outcome.8

Cultural Authenticity and Contestations over the Ao Dai

One striking feature that differentiates a "Vietnamese" pageant from any other beauty pageant is its symbolic use of the ao dai, the feminized dress often associated with the nation of Vietnam. A flowing, feminine, and form-fitting long tunic that splits into two front and back panels from slightly above the waist down to the knees, the ao dai is worn with long, full, wide-legged palazzo pants. Despite the split panels that cover the woman's body, the midsection of the wearer can peak out at certain angles, making the dress both discreet and revealing. As a piece of material culture that survived migration, the ao dai represented not only the essence of Vietnamese material culture but also the gendered symbol of cultural nationalism that directly challenged the communist regime's imposition of a dress code after the war—a peasant uniform that did not require superfluous amounts of cloth.9

The ao dai inhabits an intriguing space in Vietnam's cultural history and continues to play a critical role in the culture of the diaspora. During the period of the Vietnam Conflict the ao dai receded into the background, particularly around the period immediately after the communist takeover of the South in 1975. The ao dai was a material object shielded from public display because it represented bourgeois decadence and capitalist wastefulness belonging only to elite women. When the refugees resettled throughout the world, the ao dai became a symbol of authenticity, and beauty pageants served as a form of public protest against the communist forces that displaced it. Twenty years later, however, the ao dai began to lose its symbolic significance, no longer imbuing the pageants with cultural meaning as it once did, due to changes occurring both in the Vietnamese homeland and abroad.

Although the ao dai itself served as a fashionable yet timeless and enduring artifact representing a feminine, imagined motherland for the community in exile, its authenticity as the cultural symbol of the diaspora did not go unchallenged. [End Page 29] In the diaspora young Vietnamese American designers took the liberty of modifying its form, making it chic for young women to wear and embrace ethnic garb. Women often chose to wear the ao dai for special occasions such as their wedding day.10 This desire to don "ethnic" clothing, however, did not necessarily translate to appearing "traditional." Rather, because of the ao dai's mutable and altering properties, it was considered fashionable and sexy for young women to wear the ao dai. In fetishizing the ao dai's transformation from an article of everyday clothing for pubescent schoolgirls to an objet d'art of high fashion and style, however, the national costume became increasingly associated with "high" culture and beyond the reach of average women.11 Moreover, as the ao dai modernized with the times, bearing new designs and being made with various (often sheerer) more expensive fabrics, it became a garment that reveals rather than conceals, reflecting the diaspora's attitudes toward female sexuality and the feminine body that wears it.

The resurgence of the ao dai in the Vietnamese homeland made it even more difficult for the diaspora to lay exclusive claim to it. In 1986 the Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party decided to adopt a series of political, economic, and cultural reforms that would "meet the goals of development and participation in world affairs" for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam called Doi Moi.12 Carrying forth this "renovation" entailed fostering a "socialist-oriented market economy" supported by privately owned, state-controlled enterprises that functioned in a similar fashion to commodity capitalism. By the 1990s the cultural revival ushered in by Doi Moi brought unprecedented change to the communist nation and prompted the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to repossess the ao dai as the feminine uniform for women. Unlike the dark days immediately following the fall of Saigon, when the communist government enforced a dress code of drab monotonous clothing upon its people, Vietnamese officials in the mid-1990s encouraged women to don the ao dai in public spaces, especially in industries that promoted tourism. When Miss Vietnam, flight attendant Truong Quynh Mai, won "Best National Costume" at the Miss International Pageant in Tokyo in 1995, the homeland fortified its proprietorship over the national costume.13 The homeland nation's challenge to the diaspora's claim to the ao dai created friction over the rights to authenticity. These tensions between the homeland and the diaspora consequently shaped the focus and goals of the beauty pageants held in the diaspora but also opened up Vietnam to embrace these competitions as part of its modernizing project. As the homeland nation eagerly took to organizing its own beauty pageants, the impact of the diaspora's influence on the homeland was undeniable. In a recent blog post a news media outlet noted that the soaring numbers of crowned beauty queens in Vietnam has peaked so high in recent [End Page 30] years that some joke that one is bound to run into a beauty queen upon leaving one's house.14

With the surge in the homeland nation's obsession with beauty pageants and the ao dai's loss of a greater symbolic resonance, beauty contests organized by the diaspora became more explicitly focused on commercialism and the feminine beauty of women, particularly through competition. The goals of these new contests no longer aspired to select the ao dai queen to represent what were considered the core values of the Vietnamese diaspora. Rather, the pageants attempted to groom young women whose beauty and allure would allow them to compete in larger competitions, thereby proving that women of Vietnamese descent can be as beautiful as other women in the world. More and more the pageants came to rely on young Vietnamese women to display publicly their bodies as spectacles for the consumption of the community and beyond. Pushed toward assimilating to an increasingly commercialized form of ethnic identity, many Vietnamese women of the diaspora responded to this trend of commodification by participating in pageants, aspiring to be models, seeking fame (or notoriety), and modifying their bodies in order to emerge victorious. While these ideas about success may suggest a radical departure from "traditional" ideals of femininity, they are not incompatible with common perceptions of Vietnamese American or even "American" notions of success that highly value fame and recognition.

These longings for victory in mainstream beauty pageants are however often met with disappointment. The most striking example of this occurred when Miss Serbia, Tijana Rakic, won the ao dai component of the 2010 Miss Earth contest, held in the host nation of Vietnam. In an international pageant held in her home country, where the contestants donned the traditional Vietnamese costume, Miss Vietnam did not even come close. Though the top five finalists were from Taiwan, the Philippines, Korea, Nicaragua, and Serbia, an Asian woman did not emerge as the winner in this particular contest.15 At the Miss Earth pageant the ao dai is appropriated and celebrated, yet racial hierarchies remain intact and racial differences are reinscribed despite the nod toward multicultural inclusion through dress. Anthropologist Richard Wilk's concept of "structures of common difference" helps us understand how the multicultural inclusion of the ao dai and the celebration of cultural difference here still cast Vietnamese women as outsiders in their own nation. In his study of beauty pageants in Belize, Wilk argues that cultural distinction is celebrated amid homogenizing forces of globalization, yet the expression of difference is nonetheless standardized. The inclusion of nonwhite cultures or cultural symbols in mainstream pageants thus incorporates the local into the global, yet "when pageants make connections they often solidify the very boundaries [End Page 31] they cross."16 As structural realities keep Vietnamese relegated within their own spaces of ethnic pageantry, the goals and aims of these contests reach out to the global diaspora. More important, they foster a postfeminist culture that is driven by neoliberal principles and invigorated by globalization.

Grooming Bodies for Competition

Although beauty pageants of the Vietnamese diaspora still feature women in ao dai, the updated, fashionable dress had lost its symbolic connection to cultural nationalism and nostalgia for the homeland by the early 2000s. The original efforts to celebrate Vietnamese identity through language also became less and less important as pageants began requiring something not previously seen of this ethnic community: the swimsuit competition. Not unlike in other beauty pageants the introduction of the swimsuit marks an important moment in the debate about morality, female sexuality, and public display of the female body. Historian Judy Wu's study of the Miss Chinatown USA pageant reveals that when this particular ethnic beauty pageant began in 1958, the organization was committed to not having a swimsuit competition to point out its cultural difference from mainstream pageants. Wu's research, however, notes that according to a male pageant organizer, by 1967 the swimsuit had replaced the "playsuit" portion that was instituted in 1962 at the request of the contestants themselves, who felt it was important to "display their beauty."17 Recalling the irony of this history, Christine Yano points out that "the introduction of swimsuits in the Miss Chinatown USA pageant competition came at a time when feminists in the United States were vociferously decrying beauty contests (e.g., the Miss America protest of 1968). This juxtaposition only points up the disparity between many Asian American beauty pageants (and perhaps beauty pageants as a whole) and liberal political movements."18

Some progressive elements of liberal political movements have indeed impacted beauty pageants, enabling women to take on public roles extending beyond their respective communities. Nevertheless, feminist rhetoric is more often usurped and appropriated by pageant organizers and participants in the spirit of competition. As the case of the Miss Chinatown USA pageant illustrates, debates about morality and female sexuality within the history of Asian America elucidate the difference that contestants in ethnic and alternative beauty pageants must confront. Although ethnic-specific pageants presumably provide an alternative space for women within those respective communities to compete, not only are the bodies at stake gendered and classed, but they are also racialized and perceived as different by those outside the community. In other words alternative beauty pageants are not insular and do not [End Page 32] exist in a vacuum; rather, ethnic and racialized bodies are subject to a scrutiny that positions the subjects to prove their beauty and, by extension, their morality.19 Unlike the Miss America pageant, which touts respectable womanhood and has repeatedly wrestled with the swimsuit competition's paradoxical place in national representation, the new pageants of the Vietnamese diaspora unapologetically made it a requirement for the contestants to shed clothing. As in the case of the Miss Chinatown USA pageant, contestants willingly displayed their bodies in the name of competition. In fact, the feminine body and female sexuality became the primary focus of these pageants, as organizers asserted that the best way to assess beauty was to show off the bare bodies of women in string bikinis. A central figure of the Miss Vietnam USA (MVU) organization and its former executive vice president, Guy Hua, defended the swimsuit competition by rationalizing that "our pageant is not to promote the Vietnamese traditional culture but to find the best-looking Vietnamese girl so we can bring her to pageants such as Miss USA."20 Focusing on external appearances and insisting that Vietnamese American women must be prepared to compete with other women, particularly white women, Hua pushed the boundaries by baring even more of their bodies. It is telling that many former contestants dubbed Hua "the most perverted Vietnamese man."21

The striking parallels between the MVU and the Miss Chinatown USA pageants reveal that both involved men in the organizational structure who encouraged women to shed clothing, while justifying these intentions with the feminist call for sexual liberation. Accordingly, covering the body as little as possible for the sake of relentless competition in the neoliberal context thus would yield high returns. Accommodating to these demands, pageant contestants embraced this postfeminist logic of self-empowerment through sexuality but had to cautiously maintain a fine balance so not to risk overexposure and crossing the line of moral respectability.

Unlike other smaller, localized, community pageants that prioritized "culture, language, and tradition," the new pageants reached out to Vietnamese American and other women of the diaspora. The Miss Vietnam USA pageant became one of the first national (Vietnamese American) pageants that did not require its contestants to speak Vietnamese and made physical appearance a priority over all other components. Subsequently, the pageant was "conducted in English and ha[d] a height requirement (5 feet 2)," as beauty queens, like models, had to be slender and tall to compete with those outside the community.22 In an effort to promote and mainstream the Miss Vietnam USA pageant, Guy Hua forged public relations with American media outlets and invited Asian American Hollywood celebrities such as Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and Leyna Nguyen (a popular Vietnamese American TV news anchor in Los [End Page 33] Angeles) to judge the pageant. For the entertainment portion of the show, the pageant organization invited the famed Vietnamese American winner of NBC's talent competition Last Comic Standing, Dat Phan, along with a host of other performers of the Vietnamese diaspora. Hua also filmed a commercial for the first pageant to air on ESPN in December of 2003.23 Although the actual event did not deliver all that was promised, the strategies to hype the pageant, the organization, and the exoticized beauty of the contestants with publicity attest to the new direction that these pageants would take. Moreover, such efforts toward commercial and sex appeal suggest that the preferred Vietnamese women would no longer need to adhere to traditional gender ideologies that promoted shyness, modesty, or humility.24 Rather, quite the opposite became the normative expectation. This desire to reveal and place Vietnamese American women's bodies under scrutiny demonstrated a new openness to sexuality and an embrace of "modern" ideologies about their roles as representatives of the community. This new flirtation with sexuality demands that the organizers as well as the contestants delicately balance what is deemed "appropriate," while getting away with as much raunchiness as possible.

The new emphasis on physical appearance coupled with the demand to show more skin replaced the roles young women had held as cultural bearers of the lost nation. Through the spectacle of the beauty pageant near-naked bodies of Vietnamese women in the diaspora were used as test subjects to further the two-pronged project of assimilation and modernization. The assumptions upon which many of these pageants relied consigned female bodies as bodies that could compete on the global stage. Privileging female bodies for competition elides the actual position of women in the community and belies the fact that most immigrant women provide the labor of beautification in the United States. This is not to say that laboring women are not consumers. Nevertheless, the image of the young beauty queen groomed for competition stood against that of the bodies of women who actually performed the labor of grooming those bodies. In her intriguing study of transnational beauty practices among three cities Susan Ossman argues that at the local level salons work on the "lightening" of the body, allowing it to move through space and time to become modern; "enlightened" bodies can thus move and navigate modernity, whereas heavy bodies recede into the background.25 Ossman paints the enlightened bodies not only as thin and groomed but also as cosmopolitan and mobile, whereas heavy bodies are both physically and metaphorically weighty. These concepts provide a useful framework to think about Vietnamese women's bodies in relation to beauty pageants. Undoubtedly, they occupy multiple spaces along the continuum of heavy and light, but the beauty contestant's body can be seen as a hyperenlightened body, in sharp [End Page 34] contrast to the heavy bodies of new immigrant women who perform the labor of beautification. Having undergone the process and benefited from beauty work, the beauty queen obfuscates the labor necessitated to achieve her perfectly groomed body.

Since the late 1980s Vietnamese immigrants, particularly women, have carved a niche in the beauty care industry, particularly in the business of nail salons. According to a nail industry trade publication Vietnamese Americans comprise 80 percent of the nail technicians in California and 43 percent in the United States.26 The labor involved in grooming bodies—other women's bodies—has been in the purview of Vietnamese immigrant women, particularly those later waves of immigrants. As Vietnamese immigrants begin to "dominate" the business of grooming bodies, providing labor, most significantly in the nail salons, they are also "making inroads into the beauty-product, manufacturing, design, and footspa business."27 Whether establishing beauty colleges or informally training coethnics to fulfill a niche in the service, Vietnamese immigrants have played an important role in democratizing the experience of pampering formerly reserved for elite women in the United States. Perceived as threatening to high-end businesses due to low prices and good service, these establishments transform the meanings of bodywork, playing a significant role in the Vietnamese immigrant experience.28 This hypervisible disparity between those who labor and those who consume beauty is obscured, however, especially in beauty pageants.29 It is not uncommon for Vietnamese-owned cosmetic surgery centers as well as fashion and beauty-related businesses to sponsor the pageants. Nevertheless, the intensely maintained body requires that labor (whether surgical, temporary, or superficial) be rendered invisible. To unveil the labor process of beautification would inevitably expose the overgroomed body as an artifice. Thus, even when beauty pageant contestants are sponsored by and acknowledge the business establishments from which their own bodywork has benefited, they often suppress the amount of money, time, and work that enabled them to achieve their beautiful faces and bodies.30

Consumer Capitalism and the (Promise of) Lucrative Prizes

Women who win smaller local ao dai pageants are rewarded with recognition from the community, represent the Vietnamese diaspora in public events, or become spokesmodels for the businesses that sponsored the pageants. Unlike the local and regional pageants that operate at a smaller scale, pageants such as Miss Vietnam USA have offered prizes including cash up to $10,000 [End Page 35] and a Mercedes-Benz. By 2004 these pageants were drawing overwhelming financial support from professional agencies, such as medical and legal offices within the community; grocery chains and restaurants; beauty supply and cosmetic surgery companies, such as the Beverly Hills Surgical Institute's Plastic Surgery Specialists and Princess Cosmetic Surgery; and transnational corporations such as China Airlines (which is a major carrier for travel to Vietnam) and Western Union (which wires money for remittances). Pageants also promoted the talents of Vietnamese American fashion designers and makeup artists.31 Working to bolster the wealth and social status of both Vietnamese American individuals and businesses, pageants became major commercial enterprises linking the Vietnamese community to various economies at both the local and the global levels. Granting over $50,000 in prizes to contestants, the pageants themselves can cost as much as $80,000 to $200,000 to produce, depending on their popularity and the fees of musical and comedic performers invited to entertain audiences. The popular entertainment incorporated in the pageant provides a major incentive for potential audience members to buy tickets to watch their favorite professional Vietnamese performers sing and dance alongside the pageant festivities. Holding these dual entertainment packages at grand venues in exotic places such as Las Vegas, a relatively close, affordable, and popular destination for Vietnamese Americans living in the West or Southwest, guarantees that the seats will be filled to capacity. These pageants are then recorded and made into DVDS to be sold at a number of distribution centers worldwide for members of the Vietnamese diaspora who were unable to attend.

Generating profits and offering lucrative rewards, these beauty pageants no longer prioritize cultural identity through the ao dai—the mandatory cultural costume simply presents the contestants as ethnic subjects, and the young women often strategically choose revealing ao dai styles to boast their curvaceous figures in order to win cash and prizes. Winners of these contests have complete freedom over how to spend the cash and use the prizes they receive. Unlike the Miss America Pageant, or other pageants that offer awards in the form of "scholarships," a majority of the Vietnamese pageants present young women with status-laden prizes that enhance their lifestyle and fashion sense.

The neoliberal logic of these pageants demonstrates that winning a pageant not only enhances a young woman's self-worth but also enables her to achieve a higher social status, as she is embellished with material objects showing that she has "made it" in the world. This declaration of citizenship through consumerism is not an uncommon strategy deployed by immigrants.32 In her study of Asian American consumer citizenship Lisa Sun-Hee Park discovered that among Chinese and Korean immigrants and their children one [End Page 36] way of asserting a sense of belonging in American society is through ownership of big-ticket items such as luxury cars and large homes.33 Thus, it is not surprising that the luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz pays close attention to Asian American consumers and their desire for these vehicles.34 According to sales statistics in 2007, when car sales had fallen for most major automakers, Mercedes-Benz sold "12.2% of its 225,128 new car sales (or 27,466) to Asian Americans, for 271% of [their] proportionate share."35 Specifically, Mercedes took notice of the high rates of sales among Vietnamese immigrants. In fact, one of the highest nationwide sales records belonged to a Vietnamese American salesman in Orange County who sold a majority of the cars to his compatriot coethnics.36 Well aware of their potential market, Mercedes partnered with the MVU organization and made its public presence known through product placement at the pageant. The winner of the beauty contest would be awarded a shiny new Mercedes C-Class on stage, along with the huge novelty check for $10,000, during the crowning ceremony.37

Winning the Mercedes potentially encodes the beauty queen with a new social status, but these prizes have also become objects of major contention. For example, the winner of the 2007 pageant, Yen Le, sued the MVU organizers for over $56,000 in damages because she did not receive all the winnings she was promised. The frustrated beauty queen told both ethnic and mainstream media outlets that "the pageant made her lease the car in her own name and then they defaulted on the payments."38 The pageant creator, Thomas Quoc Thai Nguyen, owner of the Star Performance Arts Theatre in Orange County (the primary venue in which the pageants were held), denied the allegations, charging that Le "waived the cash prize by asking for an upgrade on the Mercedes."39 Although a beauty queen is supposed to be grateful, passively accept her prizes, and carry forth her representative duties, this particular one presented difficulties for the MVU organization. This case reflects and exemplifies the tangled conflicts over the financial, representational, and gender expectations embroiled in these pageants.

Failure to Represent

As the lawsuit discussed above indicates, becoming queen may be the immediate goal for many contestants, but the representative duties of the beauty queens invite intense scrutiny that poses the ultimate challenge for the young women. Starting in 2004 a number of controversies reflected both a shift in the pageants and the gendered and classed transition of a community in diaspora. Not unlike the high-profile scandals involving fallen beauty queens such as former Miss America Vanessa Williams, Miss California Carrie Prejean, [End Page 37] and Miss USA Rima Fakih, to name a few who serve as examples of unruly royalty disrupting national representational politics, Vietnamese beauty queens have contributed to shifting debates about gender and sexuality within their own community.

On a much smaller scale failed Vietnamese beauty queens have challenged expectations of their behavior, leaving pageant organizers and the diasporic community at large unsettled. Although speculation over the relevance of beauty pageants lurks every year, the public statements and private actions of beauty queens often force the viewing public to discuss controversial topics such as race, female sexuality, gay marriage, or even what should be deemed "proper" moral behavior. Within the Vietnamese diaspora a crop of beauty queens and their errors and missteps compelled the immigrant community to reflect upon its own moral compass.40 That the Vietnamese diaspora grappled with these cases similarly demonstrates that contemporary gender politics in the Vietnamese community are played out in these pageants as each beauty queen endures the pressures of being in the limelight and judged for each decision or grave mistake she makes. At the local as well as the national level the Vietnamese community has had to withstand the embarrassment of having selected the "wrong" beauty queen to represent its interests (however these were defined).41 While the queens themselves commanded attention, ethnic and mainstream news sources reporting on these pageants uncovered a litany of problems associated with the various pageant organizations and their respective financial inabilities to fulfill the promises of lucrative cash prizes and fame. As a result pageant winners sought legal action against pageant organizers, as in the case mentioned above.

By examining failure, it is possible to see how the diaspora is redefining success through principles of neoliberalism. These acts of failure on the part of both the queens and the organizers mark significant shifts in the world of beauty pageants, as well as the cultural and social values of the diaspora. First, these problems demonstrate the diaspora's unclear stance toward and inability to grapple with female sexuality. Second, beauty pageants deploy the post-feminist language of female empowerment to emphasize choice and women's liberation to further social practices that rely on women's bodies without challenging the patriarchal gender ideologies that guide them. Finally, wealthy members of the diaspora have turned the pageants into slick productions that give awards not to women who best represent "traditional values" but to "beautiful" women whose looks and bodies can be sufficiently competitive in American and international contests. The privileging of these new standards and the heavy reliance on female bodies confound young women as they navigate these complex and often contradictory spaces of gender expectations. In [End Page 38] the following I discuss the details of each case and the public responses to the failed beauty queens to unveil the contradictions as well as the limits inherent in the neoliberal principles espoused by pageant organizers and to some extent embraced by the larger upwardly mobile immigrant community itself.

Undeserving Queens and "Bad Subjects"

On February 3, 2004, the winner of Miss Tet Vietnam, the largest pageant in northern California, held a news conference to resign from her reign as queen because nude photos of her had been published on the Internet. Forced to issue a public apology to the pageant organization and her own family, Kim Hoang Tong shamefully explained her act of financial desperation when she posed for an adult website as a young college student. She recalled that the incident had taken place two years earlier, when she was only nineteen years old. For three months Tong had lived with a friend after leaving home "in fear of confronting her parents about a job at a tattoo parlor." Without her family's support and in need of money she posed in the nude under a pseudonym for $400.42 The pageant organizers responded sternly to the revelation of Tong's mistake as they reflected on the purpose of the Miss Tet Pageant. According to pageant cofounder and professor of ethnic studies at San Jose City College, Mai Le Ho, organizers had decided against a bathing-suit competition in this particular pageant at its inception in 1987 because they "wanted to make Miss Tet a role model, an icon of intelligence, wholesomeness and inner as well as outer beauty because at that time there were no role models for young Vietnamese women."43 Seventeen years later Tong's scandal exposed the organizers' lack of assiduousness in selecting such a young woman to represent the wider Vietnamese American community. This embarrassment resulted in toughened standards, requiring that judges spend more time learning about the contestants and their pasts by asking more thorough questions. Tong's mistake became an object lesson for young women because she had to return her winnings, "donating part of her $5000 in cash and prizes from the pageant to causes that help Vietnamese-American youths."44 But if her misstep served as a warning for the future generation of beauty queens and those involved with them, it did not prevent Vietnamese American women such as "online celebrity" Tila Nguyen, AKA Tila Tequila, from relying on nude and bikini and car modeling to seek fame and attention.45 Tong's actions may have been a "mistake," but Vietnamese American girls are growing up in a culture that encourages young women to engage in raunchy behavior to attain social acceptance.46 The popular culture of the Vietnamese diaspora further contributes to sending young women mixed messages about female sexuality.47 [End Page 39]

The tensions over what constitutes idealized, diasporic Vietnamese womanhood crystalize when we compare Kim Tong's case to that of Caroline Nguyen. Caroline Nguyen competed in and won the Miss Vietnam USA pageant but apparently had misled judges when she filled out her application and lied about having graduated from a prestigious California university in 2003 for the 2004 contest, although she actually needed only a few credits to complete her degree. Nguyen, too, had to issue a public apology for her dishonesty. When she apologized to the Vietnamese press, she insisted that she would "do what is expected to procure a degree for which [she had] worked diligently." The response by the community was generally sympathetic. Even a pageant judge, then a local politician serving as Garden Grove's councilman, Van Thai Tran, defended Nguyen, stating, "Education and a college degree is not a requirement of the contest."48 Unlike the Miss Tet pageant, in which a stricter code of respectability emerged as a result of similar infractions, the MVU competition was premised on feminine beauty and attractiveness. The MVU pageant, with its excessive cash prize and its luxury sports car, was in sharp contrast to the Miss Tet pageant. In its push for physical attractiveness the Miss Vietnam USA contest unabashedly objectified its contestants. Akin to the "boob and bounce" of the Miss USA pageant and the serious but equally ambivalent Miss America Scholarship Program, beauty contests persistently grapple with the varying degrees of how a woman's body should be displayed.49 Caroline Nguyen legitimately earned her title in a contest that valued her good looks and sexualized body, yet she somehow felt the need to embellish her intellectual accomplishments to secure the crown.50 These cases of unruly beauty queens illustrate both the unpredictability of young female behavior and the community's response to those behaviors. Nevertheless it is important to ask why Caroline Nguyen felt compelled to lie about having graduated. What are the "limits" of these pageants, and how are young Vietnamese American women constructing femininity by enabling or reproducing pageant culture that encourages an ethos of "getting away with a much as possible" in order to "get ahead"?

The Vietnamese community condemned one beauty queen's sexual display of her bare body (in an incident that took place before she even entered the contest) by stripping her of a title she had earned, while countenancing another winner's dishonesty. The judges and the pageant organization expressed their disapproval of Nguyen's actions but permitted her to retain all her winnings and prizes. After all, she had told a "good lie" to fortify her educational accomplishments. Though Nguyen's lie did not involve any sex, her sex appeal did not harm her case for winning the pageant. Moreover, Nguyen seemed acutely aware of how the discourse of the model minority would work in her favor. The popular image of Asian Americans as the "model minority" [End Page 40] and therefore more successful than other racialized groups offered aspirational representations that even beauty queens looked upon. Many members of the Vietnamese American community, to some extent, embraced this idea that academic and economic success can be achieved through hard work. By falsely claiming to be a college graduate, Nguyen not only bolstered her credentials but also strategically deployed a stereotype that granted her unquestionable authority to secure her title.

Nguyen eventually completed her classes and graduated. The public forgave her for stretching the truth about her educational achievements because she displayed both beauty and brains, desirable traits they valued in young women. Moreover she demonstrated that she was able to transcend refugee status to become a model minority.51 As it turns out, the MVU was not the first beauty contest she had won. Just a few years prior to 2001 Nguyen had also won the Miss Asian America pageant. Her credentials alone would have enabled her to cover up her unethical wrongdoings. Compared to Tong's misbehavior, Nguyen's deployment of a university education (whether she graduated or not) positioned her as ambitious, competitive, high achieving, and upper middle class. Her strategic deployment of these postfeminist attributes demonstrates her willingness to get ahead.

My final case exposes the fallacies of these beauty pageants and demonstrates the extent to which women's bodies are commodified and repurposed to further a neoliberal agenda for the Vietnamese diaspora. Beauty pageants have shifted in focus, style, and goals in the last decade. Like the Miss Vietnam USA pageant the Miss Vietnamese Free World Pageant sought to find the "most beautiful" Vietnamese woman, but this competition extended its search beyond the United States to include other parts of the diaspora.52 The prominent Vietnamese plastic surgeon Dr. Ban A. Vu; his wife and business partner, Ms. Bich Ngoc; and their corporate enterprise of beauty care products and services founded the Miss Vietnamese Free World pageant.53 Working together with Van Son Entertainment, a company specializing in diasporic Vietnamese popular cultural productions, the cosmetic surgery company devised a unique way of advertising Dr. Vu's services. Though he had sponsored beauty pageants including local and regional ao dai contests before, this new pageant would reach beyond the United States to become the first transnational and arguably the biggest pageant gathering young women dispersed throughout the Vietnamese diaspora. With such potential significance selecting the right woman to be Miss Vietnam Free World was of utmost importance. It was only in the pageant's second year, in 2003, that the organization began to fail on a number of fronts because controversy ensued over the winner of the contest. As I discussed previously, it was not uncommon for pageant organizers to collaborate with entertainment production companies to put on a big live show [End Page 41] with an existing audience. In this case the organizers worked with Van Son Productions to film the contestants, along with professional musical performers, to create an entertainment DVD for wide distribution. What was different about this particular production was that it contained controversial behind-the-scenes "reality" footage. The subsequent online dialogues catapulted the Vietnamese diaspora into the digital age, where public discourse dictated how beauty queens should be chosen. Selecting a beauty queen of the Vietnamese diaspora was highly divisive, initiating numerous debates about and contestations over her right to the title.

Miss Vietnam Free World of 2003 captured a wide audience but also forged the first of many impassioned online discussions about diasporic Vietnamese beauty pageants and the role of Vietnamese women in general. A flippant, nonchalant young woman from Houston named Agatha Le captured the spotlight for her bold stance on number of issues. First, she was caught on video saying she did not like wearing the ao dai. Such an opinion can be interpreted as disrespectful, almost sacrilegious to the ethnic community. Then in "behind-the-scenes" footage of the second annual Miss Vietnam Free World Le was caught bad-mouthing other contestants and accusing them of pandering to the judges, while rumors swirled on the Internet about her own personal relationship to the pageant's founders. The revealing "behind-the-scenes" footage on the Miss Vietnam Free World DVD exposed the tensions, animosity, and fear that characterized many of these competitions. The fierce backstabbing undermined the "friendships" that many of the young women claimed to seek when entering the pageants. One woman tearfully confessed that she was sad to disappoint her parents for not placing in any of the rounds because they had spent a lot of money for her to be in the pageant.54 It is not uncommon for these young women to invest a whole lot (of time, money, and physical and emotional energy) for nothing. However, what interests me most about these pageants is the notion of who deserves to win. Or rather, who "deserves" to represent the Vietnamese diaspora? What happens when those chosen to represent the community fail to do so? And who decides this?

In all the cases I mentioned, organizers tried painstakingly to justify the judges' selection of the winner. The judges for these pageants tended to be community and business leaders or Vietnamese American celebrities and former beauty queens who possess vague qualifications for judging pageants. Because they represent the professional class of Vietnamese who have gained prominence in the community, that they selected the "wrong" winner indicates the faulty guidelines and criteria that they used in their assessment of the young women. Moreover there were numerous accusations of favoritism, nepotism, and contestants pandering to the judges. [End Page 42]

Lively Internet discussions have taken place in the aftermath of these events, and cyberspace has also become a site of speculation and public protest. Based on web postings and discussions, Vietnamese American Internet users who chat about entertainment, culture, and beauty pageants generally responded with sympathy until the unflappable Agatha Le emerged onto the pageant circuit. The prevailing sense among Internet users was that she did not "deserve" the title because she was portrayed by her peers as not a "good person." Her self-serving desire to win "only for the money," her competitive nature, her trash-talking other girls on camera, and finally her disliking the ao dai made her a bad citizen of the community and thus undeserving of culturally representing the Vietnamese diaspora.55 Le's title was so hotly contested (people claimed that the pageant was rigged because a girl from Houston won a pageant that was held in Houston) that she took it upon herself to write a response to a number of accusations aired by her cocontestants and those who thought she did not deserve to win.

A besieged Agatha Le took a bold no-holds-barred response to defend her crown and posted her thoughts online. On a public forum she explained away the charges with blunt answers, point by point. To allegations made by other contestants who criticized her of "not deserving" the title because she was "unfriendly" and accusations that she entered the competition "only for the money," Le glibly wrote out the following detailed response:

~as for the behind the scenes, one contestant stated that i said i was doing it all for the money, if you honestly think about it, you either join a pageant for fame or fortune, what else will u join for? if you really wanted to help the community out more, you don't have to be queen to do that, anyone can do it, i've been doing it since high school and last time i checked, it is not a requirement to have a crown to help out.

~as for beating a certain person that i said i would do, it's a pageant, that's the whole point of a pageant, competition, winning is the goal. correct?

~also for my saying of the ao dai not being my best dress of all, scared and in an ao dai doesn't help the sweat factor. agree? who ever said "i'm honored to be in this viet dress," was saying so much bull because she knows she was thinking the same thing as me, "this thing is hot and I'm sweating, hopefully no one sees this when I walk up there." . . .

for bashing me at what i say, At lease I'm being honest and upfront with the community about how I feel on everything and not faking it or giving "pageant answers." i don't play shy or coy unless i am. I'm real and that's how I'm going to stay.56 [End Page 43]

I quote Le at length to show the extent to which she had to go to justify her award. Asserting that she was simply "being honest and upfront with the community" and true to others as she was to herself, she refuted complaints about her ruthless, competitive behavior. While her frank and straightforward answers exposed the realities of beauty pageants, her questionable scruples and blind ambition invited additional judgment and opprobrium. Either way she is a remarkable figure who embodied a new kind of womanhood in the idealized world of Vietnamese beauty pageants. She did not personify a demure, feminine woman, silently and symbolically representing the diaspora, as others had in the past. Rather, she epitomized the neoliberal subject who celebrated individualism and entered beauty pageants to compete and win. She made it clear that beauty queens have no social responsibility to "help out the community," a requirement that more "traditional" pageants tended to uphold but newer pageants seem to have abandoned. She had no qualms about claiming victory over other women in order to access future fame and fortune.

True to her own competitive spirit, Agatha Le became a serial beauty contestant. After winning Miss Vietnam Free World, she entered the Miss Vietnam USA pageant for two years in a row with hopes of getting that Mercedes and the $10,000 cash prize. Her strategic financial plan also caught the eyes of beauty pageant fans on the Internet who question the legitimacy of these beauty pageant circuits.57 She has yet to reach her goal, but her involvement and desire to win reflect the normalization of a trend that the Vietnamese American community has cultivated for young women—the privileging of physical beauty to attain self-worth through competitive beauty pageants that require the public display of their near-naked bodies.

Diasporic Success and Failures

Since the 1990s the dynamic and changing Vietnamese diaspora has been faced with numerous challenges, particularly with regard to gendered transitions, as it seeks ways to define notions of success and grapple with its own identity as an emerging minority group. In various places of settlement Vietnamese communities have used beauty pageants to dramatize their struggles in dealing with class and gender issues. The logic of these pageants insists upon using the bodies of young Vietnamese women to serve as vehicles for both greater social acceptance and even grander global recognition by the dominant society. While the Vietnamese community in the diaspora is at best ambivalent about these new gender roles assigned to women in the twenty-first century, a general acknowledgment has been established that beauty and physical appearance are imperative characteristics needed to advance the [End Page 44] community as a whole. The community's investment in beauty pageants and other embodied practices (beauty schools, the nail industry, ao dai fashions, and cosmetic surgery) indicates that Vietnamese women stand at the forefront in these strategies of advancement. Consequently, many young women have undergone plastic surgery to achieve "physical beauty" to be noticed. They spend time, money, and energy to "invest" in pageant competitions with the hopes of attaining greater success. The stakes are now bigger because as the diaspora has grown larger, so has the sheer number of participants. Over sixty young Vietnamese women, including those with at "least 25% Vietnamese heritage" between ages eighteen and twenty-eight from countries all over the world, compete in each of these pageants. Young women enter these pageants with tremendous risk—they risk being put on display both as cultural symbols and as sexualized objects; they risk public scrutiny and criticism. As they seek monetary gains and status-laden prizes such as cash awards, they are also expected to "properly represent" the community. The Vietnamese community, however, is far from monolithic; rather, those who make up this diasporic community are incredibly diverse and unevenly separated by class, politics, religion, age, region, and time of migration.

It is no wonder that the debates over who is most "deserving" continue to persist. Of Agatha Le's crown one contestant said, "even if you are in a beauty contest just for the money, or you need money, you should not say it. That is inappropriate!"58 This moralistic response to Le's behavior not only dramatizes but also lays bare the deep class divisions and gendered realities that play out in these discourses of disapproval. To place moral judgment disrupts the assumption of solidarity while exposing the hierarchies of privilege and experience. Moreover, the performance of "appropriateness" implied in this context demands the suppression of what is actually happening—women being judged for their bodies in exchange for money. Here, the magic of capitalism and its production of desire thus require masking and concealment in order for moralism to prevail.59 Whether or not Agatha Le acted appropriately is not the issue; the overwhelming moral judgments placed on the beauty queen still elide the fact that she embodies the goals and visions of these pageants. In her written response Le articulates a citizenship that is not incompatible with the missions of these pageants. Her embrace of neoliberal discourse—her emphasis on individual choice and personal rather than social responsibility, as well as her drive to attain fame and fortune—demonstrates a disregard for community or visions of a shared past. Even when it was later discovered that pageant organizers themselves had mistreated the contestants and exploited their desire to capitalize on the pageants' potential success, personal attacks against Agatha Le were still embroiled in these critiques of the pageant. As [End Page 45] such, when one contestant took to the Internet and posted an online grievance alleging that the Miss Vietnam Free World Pageant organization: (1) mistreated and disrespected most contestants; (2) made the contestants live in poor conditions for a week prior to the pageant; (3) indulged in gross acts of favoritism; and (4) disregarded contestants and their family members, the complaints included the pageant's selection of the "wrong person" for queen.60 Despite the copious complaints and commentary about these beauty pageants and threats of lawsuits against the organizations, no one ever calls for them to be completely eradicated. This is precisely because these pageants continue to generate revenue for the emerging professional class, promote their vision of culture, enact dominant gender ideologies, and provide mass popular entertainment for the Vietnamese diaspora. In these efforts to redefine success through the staging of beauty pageants, the various organizations were stifled by the failures of the beauty queens who behaved badly.

While these failures may have caused undue embarrassment to the Vietnamese community, there exist potential openings to the system of capitalist patriarchy within which they function. Specifically, I revisit the case of Agatha Le, who may have been subject to surveillance but who was ready and willing to fight back. Le's "failure" dramatizes the personal impact of social control on young women but also highlights the failure of the hegemonic structures that attempted to control her. Her agency in clarifying and rearticulating her goals leaves potential room for thinking about other acts of failure. In her recent book The Queer Art of Failure Judith Halberstam usefully engages with Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, and Stuart Hall to propose "low theory" to mobilize counterhegemonic forces that can reclaim failure.61 As a society we too often disparage failure because it is associated with loss, disparity, emptiness, and futility. Halberstam reminds us that from a feminist perspective "failure has often been a better bet than success," because success is always "measured by male standards." I would add that traditional markers of success are also determined and supported by the goals of neoliberalism and postfeminism. By troubling the logics of success and reconsidering failure, it may be possible to imagine a "new kind of optimism."62 Nevertheless, this optimism is still framed within the confines of a patriarchal system that expects women to perform the work of capitalism through their bodies.

Engaging New Technologies and Forms of Surveillance

Cyberspace has enabled members of the Vietnamese diaspora to flourish virtually and to engage in community affairs, as they would not otherwise be able to do as a group dispersed throughout the world. The Vietnamese diaspora [End Page 46] has aggressively taken on new media and embraced its capabilities. In fact the diaspora may have been created as a community by cyberspace. The diaspora saw the Internet as a potential site for challenging the communist regime, forming virtual communities and enacting cultural nationalism through the articulation of anticommunism.63 Forging a public that fueled and fielded criticism, new media also allowed people to voice their opinions online. With respect to the pageants in particular, when people disagree with the judges' choices, virtual chat rooms and online "ethnic media" make it possible to challenge the final results of beauty pageants. Likewise the exchanges between the beauty queens and their critics demonstrate the flexible space in which beauty contestants can respond to criticism, defending or clarifying their positions. These beauty contests and their surrounding controversies appear as inconsequential banter between jilted beauty queens and their fans, but a closer analysis reveals that the discourse surrounding these contests gives us a lens for understanding the Vietnamese diaspora's position on gender relations, as well as its aspirations to compete in the global capitalist market.

The Internet, along with the reality TV-style footage (particularly the "behind-the-scenes" footage from the Miss Vietnam Free World Pageant), features something never before seen from the pageants—candid interviews with the contestants. Whereas women in these pageants seldom get the opportunity to speak, filming the pageant not only documents their experiences but also enables them to express their opinions. The seeming transparency and interactivity that come with such documentary-style footage exposes the limits of this form of media, especially when women are seen as overly expressive, emotional, and undisciplined. In his keen observation of the reality TV genre Mark Andrejevic writes that the promise of interactivity is not liberating; rather, "the reality represented by reality TV—that interactivity functions increasingly as a form of productive surveillance"—creates a form of "commodification of the products."64 The complexity between the work of filming and what Andrejevic calls "the work of being watched" generates anxieties for both the audience and the subjects of reality TV, whereby those who watch can control those being watched. The back-and-forth online responses between the pageant viewers and the contestants mark a new kind of interactivity, one outside the control of the producers of the "behind-the-scenes" documentary, as well as the beauty pageant contestants themselves. Nevertheless, given the overwhelming responses to the results of the beauty contests, young women cannot avert the gaze and scrutiny placed on them by the Vietnamese diaspora.

Despite the mechanisms of control and surveillance that surface in these pageants, the rhetoric used by pageant organizers to draw women to participate [End Page 47] is one of uplift and inspiration, particularly to attain the goal of successful entry into the mainstream. Largely excluded from mainstream pageants, members of the Vietnamese diaspora organize their own separate pageants with equally lavish prizes. Under the name of "culture" these pageants claim to uplift the Vietnamese race by promoting Vietnamese beauty and bringing young women into the mainstream. Of all the new commercialized pageants I have discussed, one of the most successful, the Miss Vietnam Global Pageant, states that its mission "is to welcome all beautiful and talented Vietnamese women from around the world and help them find what they were born to do by identifying and strengthening their knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities."65 This seemingly "pro-woman" message is highly selective; the application states the following requirements for the contestants:

  • Between the ages of 18-28

  • Minimal height of 5'2"

  • Never have been married

  • Contestant have never been pregnant and not now pregnant

  • Contestant have always been a female

  • No criminal record

  • No infectious disease

  • 1/4 Vietnamese or at least understanding the Vietnamese language66

The rules stress not only the desirability of having healthy, fit, and able bodies (nonpregnant, not disease carrying, not transgendered) that are naturally born female but also that these bodies must presumably possess moral and chaste values (no criminal record, never pregnant or married) to represent Vietnameseness. Similar to participants in the Miss Vietnam USA pageant, discussed earlier, Miss Vietnam Global must be tall in stature, especially if she would represent ethnic Vietnamese women in larger competitions. The goal to compete on a global scale with other women in the world makes it unsurprising that a contestant is only required to be one-quarter ethnic Vietnamese or to comprehend the spoken language. There is an implicit belief by some that mixed-race women have "an advantage" over monoracial or Asian women because they are partially white.67 This is because women of mixed Vietnamese descent are perceived to possess exotic beauty, and perhaps the fact of intermarriage—an outcome of war and diaspora—may also produce "taller" women. Unlike the women profiled in Rebecca King-O'Riain's study of Japanese American beauty pageants, who "work hard to resist hegemonic mainstream beauty norms and practices, ones that are racialized as alternative or different to mainstream white beauty," the competition in Vietnamese diaspora pageants is about competing fiercely with whiteness.68 This, however, [End Page 48] requires a fine paradoxical balance. First, women are expected to uphold a sense of prudish morality by containing their sexual desires, yet to flaunt their sexuality and to be judged by their flirtatious performance of it. Moreover, pageant participation is premised upon a woman's willingness to put on a far-from-modest, two-piece string bikini and compete through sexualized displays of her body. These pageants therefore simultaneously demand that young women be cultural representatives of their communities and encourage them to use their appearance to gain fame and recognition. It is no wonder that Vietnamese beauty queens over the past ten years have run the gamut—some gain notoriety through scandals causing shame and disgrace, while others use their education and savvy, suing organizations when they have been mistreated, cheated, or defrauded.

While beauty pageants of the Vietnamese diaspora have shown a diverse range of ideal womanhood, I argue that they still operate within the framework of what Angela McRobbie calls the "post-feminist masquerade" or an ideology that "re-secures the terms of submission of white femininity to white masculine domination, while simultaneously resurrecting racial divisions by undoing any promise of multi-culturalism through the exclusion of nonwhite femininities from this rigid repertoire of self-styling."69 Embracing post-feminist and neoliberal discourses that project the illusion that Vietnamese women can compete on an equal footing with white women, pageant organizers' and contestants' desires to be included on the world stage loom large.


Like the women participating in them, beauty pageants of the Vietnamese diaspora have undergone dramatic makeovers in the past ten years in response to globalization, changing media accompanied by new technologies, and developments within the diasporic community.70 No longer do the pageants appear as they did when the immigrants from Vietnam first arrived to their respective new homes in the aftermath of the war. Rather, the goals of the contemporary global beauty contests are geared toward model searches with lucrative prizes (some of which are only promised, most of which are unrealized), searching the world over, including the homeland, to find the "most beautiful." Beauty pageants provide us with a lens to examine closely social and cultural change and serve as microcosms to apprehend those changing dynamics. In particular pageants of the Vietnamese diaspora illustrate that the dynamics occurring both at the local and the global level are mutually imbricated. As such the performances of race, beauty, and commercialized ethnicity [End Page 49] in beauty pageants enable us to see the colliding forces of gender politics and global capitalism.

As the Vietnamese diaspora (re)negotiates its fraught relationship with the homeland and as the Vietnamese nation embarks upon a new era of economic recovery in the twenty-first century, pageants such as Miss Vietnamese World have been organized to include women of Vietnamese descent, creating a new dynamic and politics of reconciliation that obfuscates and submerges the complex history of Vietnam, war, class disparity, and the global dispersal of its population. What is most troubling about these beauty pageants is the ways in which beauty becomes a source of cultural and social capital that the diaspora relies upon to compete on the global stage. The limits of relying on these bodily performances abound, as Maxine Leeds Craig warns:

The difficulty of theorizing beauty is that any body which might possibly be characterized as beautiful exists at a congested crossroads of forces. Bodies provide us with a principal means of expression, yet our bodies are read in ways that defy our intentions. We act on others through our bodies, but nonetheless our bodies are the sites of the embodiment of social controls.71

Investing in beauty pageants thus reinforces and bolsters surveillance and social control, particularly of the Vietnamese female body through race and gender. Nevertheless, as a postfeminist gesture toward inclusion, a new pageant was created to include men and married women in 2011—the "Mr. and Miss Viet Nam Continents" pageant, held in Las Vegas. I wish to end this article with this new development in the world of beauty pageants in the Vietnamese diaspora to take note of the increasing pressure to appear beautiful and successful. A few fascinating details about this new pageant: (1) both men and women featured in the promotional photographs are seen wearing the ao dai, some complete with traditional headgear; (2) both men and women (single and married) are expected to enhance their fashionable bodies in evening gowns and tuxedos but also bare their bodies in swimwear for the contest; (3) while it is unclear what ages are allowed to compete in the Mrs. Viet Nam Continents Pageant, the cutoff age is twenty-eight for single women and thirty-five for men; finally, (4) the Miss Viet Nam Continents winner is promised $50,000 in cash and prizes, but the title holders for the Mr. and Mrs. pageants will receive considerably less in monetary value, at $30,000 for their respective wins.72 There remains much to explore in these new contests, but in the realm of appearance and beauty women still reign, and their youthful looks and thin bodies are highly prized. [End Page 50]

Nhi T. Lieu

Nhi T. Lieu is assistant professor of American studies, Asian American studies, and women's and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is author of The American Dream in Vietnamese (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Her other published works have appeared in Frontiers: Journal of Women Studies and Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America. She is currently working on two research projects: one on Asian American weddings and bridal photography and a new book entitled Beautiful Citizenship: Transnational Asian/American Embodied Practices in the Age Neoliberal Capitalism that explores how the strategies of consumption in private and personal choices in fashion and beauty reconstitute cultural and racial identities while transforming meanings of citizenship through embodied practices.


This manuscript has benefited from the generous support and generative comments of many astute and close readers. I am thankful for the careful attention and invaluable suggestions I received from my colleagues: Simone Browne, Janet M. Davis, Julia Lee, Naomi Paik, and Linda Trinh Võ; two very thoughtful anonymous reviewers; and the incredibly diligent Frontiers editorial team at Arizona State University: Susan Gray and Gayle Gullett, along with the super-responsive and always helpful editorial assistant extraordinaire, Stephanie McBride-Schreiner. Last, Judy Wu, Guisela Latorre, and the editorial team at The Ohio State University took on this project with a positive reception, demonstrating a very smooth transition of the journal. They added nicely to refine and finish off this lengthy article. I am grateful for their feedback and assistance.


1. Scholarship published on beauty pageants of many different ethnic and national groups, as well as international pageants, has illuminated our understanding of gender, race, and nation. The most notable anthologies and monographs include Collen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoetje, eds., Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power (New York and London: Routledge 1996); and Sarah Banet-Weiser, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Newer books on ethnic communities include Christine Yano, Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Hawai'i's Cherry Blossom Festival (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006); and Rebecca Chiyoko King-O'Riain, Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

2. Banet-Weiser, Most Beautiful Girl in the World, 3.

3. Throughout this essay I use the term diaspora to refer to both the overseas Vietnamese people and the various geographical locations to which they have immigrated beyond the homeland. Vietnamese people located throughout the diaspora adopted an exilic identity immediately after the fall of Saigon, but since the mid-1990s exile has become a self-imposed status rather than an actually existing category in relation to the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

4. Nhi T. Lieu, "Remembering 'the Nation' through Pageantry: Femininity and the Politics of Vietnamese Womanhood in the Hoa Hau Ao Dai Contest," Frontiers: A Women Studies Journal 21, no. 1, "Special Issue on Asian American Women" (Spring 2000): 127-51.

5. For more on the cultural and ideological shifts during the Reagan era see Debora [End Page 51] Silverman, Selling Culture: Bloomingdale's, Diana Vreeland, and New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan's America (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

6. Henry A. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), 62.

7. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, eds., Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 2.

8. Here I also draw upon Susan J. Douglas's readings of the mainstream media that promotes "enlightened sexism" as a new gendered regime: Susan J. Douglas, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done (New York: Times Books, 2010).

9. Douglas, Enlightened Sexism.

10. For a range of ao dai fashion choices sold in the diaspora, the homeland, and online, see "Ao Dai Rang Dong Traditional Fashion,", and "Ao Dai Styles Minh Thu Fashion Website," Ao dai designers even have couture lines such as Calvin Hiep ( and Cynthia Bui's wedding collection (

11. For example, the Association for Viet Arts sponsored an exhibit on the ao dai: "Áo Dài: A Modern Design Coming of Age," San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, Spring 2006 (see program details at Other ongoing educational and cultural efforts include "The Ao Dai Blog,"

12. Paul Fromonteil, "Vietnam: 'Doi moi' and the World Crisis," trans. Guy Langloy, originally published in French in Humanité, June 13, 2009,

13. Ann Marie Leshkowich, "The Ao Dai Goes Global: How International Influences and Female Entrepreneurs Have Shaped Vietnam's 'National Costume,'" in Reorienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress, ed. Sandra Niessen, Ann Marie Leshkowich, and Carla Jones (New York: Berg, 2003), 79-115.

15. "Miss Earth Serbia Tijana Rakic Wins Miss Ao dai Contest," Nov. 17, 2010,

16. Richard Wilk, "Learning to Be Local in Belize: Global Systems of Common Difference," in Worlds Apart: Modernity through the Prism of the Local, ed. D. Miller (London: Routledge, 1995); and Richard Wilk, "Connections and Contradictions: From the Crooked Tree Cashew Queen to Miss World Belize," in Cohen et al., Beauty Queens on the Global Stage.

17. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, "'Loveliest Daughter of Our Ancient Cathay!' Representations [End Page 52] of Ethnic and Gender Identity in the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Beauty Pageant," Journal of Social History 31, no. 1, (Autumn 1997): 23.

18. Yano, Crowning the Nice Girl, 30.

19. Sander L. Gilman, Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul: Race and Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).

20. "Beauty Pageants' New Look," Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2004,

21. Anonymous web post "by Ugly" entitled "Miss Vietnam USA Pageant: Alleged Scam," in a letter format beginning with "Dear Pageant Contestants," Sept. 12, 2003,, See also "VSA Central Online Community Gathering Website,"

22. "VSA Central Online Community Gathering Website."

23. Chau Nguyen, "First Annual Miss Vietnam USA Pageant" UCLA International Institute, News Bites, Nov. 23, 2003,

24. For a more detailed explanation see Lieu, "Remembering 'the Nation' through Pageantry."

25. Susan Ossman, Three Faces of Beauty: Casablanca, Paris, Cairo (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002)

26. My-Thuan Tran, "The American Dream One Nail at a Time," Seattle Times, May 8, 2008,

27. Tran, "American Dream One Nail at a Time."

28. Miliann Kang, The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

29. Though many Vietnamese immigrant women belong in the category of laborers, I have noticed that in a number of productions gay Vietnamese men work behind the scenes, doing hair and makeup, giving advice, and providing moral support for these young women. In the "behind-the-scenes" footage from the Miss Vietnamese Free World pageant two gay men (perceived as sexually "safe") console, through massage and other forms of nonsexual touching, a contestant who hyperventilates right before the women go on stage. Certainly, more research needs to be done on this phenomenon. See Hoa Hau Viet Nam The Gioi Lon Thu Hai (Van Son Entertainment 25, 2003).

30. I wish to thank my colleague Janet M. Davis for her observations and suggestions about these trends of bodywork.

31. Calvin Hiep, an ao dai designer who has made it big by designing for the hugely popular Paris by Night production company, has made a name for himself globally amid the Vietnamese diasporic entertainment circuit.

32. See Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985); and Andrew [End Page 53] Heinze, Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

33. Lisa Sun-Hee Park, Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

34. "Car Dealer Tailors Customer Service to Asian American Love for Mercedes Benz," Mikel Marketing, LLC, See also Laura Burkitt, "In China, Women Begin Splurging," Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2011, However, there are no clear statistics breaking down the different Asian ethnic groups and their consumption of luxury vehicles.

35. H. Y. Nahm, "Asian American Consumer Clout over Premium Brands," Goldsea: Asian American Perspectives,

36. I wish to thank Linda Trinh Võ for her insight on this information as she served as a judge in a pageant in 2004 and did so as part of a research project. She recalled that the task of judging presented a major challenge as there were so many contestants (nearly sixty), and they were on stage for only a few minutes. Linda Trinh Võ, personal correspondence with author, Oct. 30, 2011.

37. Darryl Fears, "Ethnic Pageants Restyle the American Beauty Contest," Washington Post, Oct. 19, 2005, . . . 5101801739.html.

39. Amanda Luevano, "Lawsuit by Miss Vietnam USA 2007 Yen Le Claims She Hasn't Received Cash Prize or Payments for Mercedes-Benz," Orange County Register, May 9, 2009,

40. Vanessa Williams was forced to resign as the first black Miss America because nude photos of her were published in Penthouse magazine. See Sarah Banet-Weiser's brilliant analysis of race and sexuality in the Williams case in The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Williams bounced back from this incident to become a well-respected celebrity and popular television star. First runner-up Carrie Prejean made headlines and received national attention when she publicly stated that she believed a marriage should be between a man and a woman, when questioned by celebrity judge Perez Hilton (who is openly gay). Prejean went on to receive much more media attention and notoriety because she asserted that her "politically incorrect" answer had caused her to lose the Miss USA title. See "Carrie Prejean Says Answer to Gay Marriage Question Cost Her Miss USA Title," FOXNews, Apr. 20, 2009, Later nude photos of Prejean emerged, and reports found that the Miss California organization had paid for her breast augmentation surgery. Finally, photographic evidence of Rima Fakih, the first Arab American to win a major beauty [End Page 54] contest such as the Miss USA pageant, pole dancing circulated after she clinched the title. Though the provocative images of her caused a major stir, she was not forced to resign. See "Rima Fakih Stripper Photos: Miss USA's Pole Dancing Past Reveals; Pageant Officials Investigate," Huffington Post, May 17, 2010,

41. Cecilia Kang, "Miss Vietnam Quits; Officials to Alter Pageant Procedures," San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 10, 2004, . . . cal/7915704.htm; New American Media, "Vietnamese Beauty Queens in California Fall from Grace," Viet Weekly News Report, Mar. 3, 2004,

42. Julie Patel and Cecilia Kang, "The Tears of a Queen; Viet Pageant Winner Apologizes for Posing Nude on Website," San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 7, 2004.

43. Patel and Kang, "Tears of a Queen."

44. C. Kang, "Miss Vietnam Quits."

45. Tila Tequila is probably one of most notorious Vietnamese American woman in the mainstream American media. Her claim to fame is through new media, mainly MySpace, an early social networking site. See the Wikipedia entry for Tila Tequila,; and Jonah Weiner, "Tila Tequila for President: The Bikini-Clad Singer Who Rules the Musical Democracy of MySpace," Slate Magazine, Apr. 11, 2006,

46. Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Rauch Culture (New York: Free Press, 2005).

47. For a more detailed analysis of gender and sexuality in popular culture of the Vietnamese diaspora please see my own work on this: Nhi T. Lieu, "Performing Culture in Diaspora: Assimilation and Hybridity in Paris by Night Videos and Vietnamese American Niche Media," in Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America, ed. Mimi Thi Nguyen and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); and Stuart Cunningham and Tina Nguyen, "Popular Media of the Vietnamese Diaspora," in Floating Lives: The Media and Asian Diasporas: Negotiating Cultural Identity through Media, ed. Stuart Cunningham and John Sinclair (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2000).

48. "Vietnamese Beauty Queens in California Fall from Grace."

49. Sarah Banet-Weiser discusses the nuances of beauty pageants and the different ways women's bodies are showcased in the major national pageants. One of Banet-Weiser's interviewees refers to the Miss Universe pageant as "the boob and bounce" pageant that was created by the Catalina swimsuit company. See Banet-Weiser, Most Beautiful Girl in the World, 44-47.

50. Caroline Nguyen's good looks are certainly remarkable when one examines visual documentation of her appearances in the pageant. See YouTube videos of the pageant. [End Page 55] She was contestant number 34: at 3:15.

51. For a more nuanced discussion of how the Vietnamese refugees functioned both as model minority and antimodel minority subjects, see chapter 1 of my book, The American Dream in Vietnamese (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

52. It is important to note that Vietnam was not included until recently. The Miss World Vietnamese Pageant (2007) and the Miss Vietnam Global Pageant (2008) allowed young women from Vietnam to compete, signaling a gesture toward reconciliation with the home country, whose women were excluded from consideration in pageants organized by those living in the Vietnamese diaspora.

53. Also see Dr. Vu's website advertising his business, the Medispa Institute, also know as the Bich Ngoc Medispa Institute. He serves as the medical director, while his wife acts as the aesthetic director: (Van Son Entertainment). It was also rumored that Dr. Vu offered "gift certificates" worth up to $10,000 for contestants who wished to have plastic surgery in order to "perfect" their looks. See the blog post Visualgui, "Miss Vietnam Global 2007," Aug. 20, 2007,

54. Hoa Hau 2003 Miss Vietnam Free World Pageant. This young woman was the focus of many Internet discussions. Linda Vi Tram Nguyen's desires and hard work were finally realized when she won her first title for the Miss Vietnam Global pageant in 2006, which incidentally was one of the first diasporic pageants to allow women from Vietnam to enter. See Miss Vietnam Global: A Production of MFC Media Website,

55. An anonymous former contestant actually created a website "for the purpose of examining the shameful events that occurred during the Hoa Hau 2003 Vietnamese Free World Pageant, dedicated to rationalizing why Agatha Le should not have won the pageant." See the anonymous post at

57. VietScape Bulletin Boards, "Topic: Miss Vietnam Free World Pageant 2004 Was a Scam," Aug. 27, 2003,

58. Hoa Hau 2003 Miss Vietnam Free World Pageant.

59. I thank Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez for highlighting this very important point.

60. "Topic: Miss Vietnam Free World Was a Scam." Here the beauty queens grieve not only because they were disrespected but also because they felt they had been exploited. Contrary to the images of the beauty queens being pampered and "worked on," what these contestants realized was the pageant organizers' abuse of them and their labor for the pageants.

61. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, [End Page 56] 2011). I thank Simone Browne for bringing Halberstam's work to my attention and suggesting that I incorporate these ideas into this article.

62. Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 4-5. Apropos of this topic, Halberstam brilliantly analyzes the popular film Little Miss Sunshine (2006), about the failed efforts of a young girl to win a beauty pageant.

63. See Kim-An Lieberman, "Virtually Vietnamese: Nationalism on the Internet," in AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace, ed. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong (New York: Routledge, 2003).

64. Mark Andrejevic, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched (New York: Rowman and Littlefiled, 2004), 2.

66. Miss Vietnam Global press release seeking contestants for the second annual pageant, to be held at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas NV, posted on MySpace by Than Tuyet, Mar. 17, 2007, Subsequent pageants have also been held at other venues in Las Vegas: MGM Grand Casino, 2008; Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, 2010; Trump Taj Mahal Casino and Resort, 2012. See the pageant website:

67. This was a topic of controversy in the Miss Vietnam Free World pageant in 2003 when two mixed-raced contestants from Europe were selected for the final round. The contestants discussed the "unfair" advantage they would have over "pure" Vietnamese women. See Hoa Hau 2003 Miss Vietnam Free World Pageant.

68. King-O'Riain, Pure Beauty, 76.

69. Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change (London: Sage Publications, 2009), 70.

70. This ethnic community is growing rapidly, with 1.5 million people identifying as "Vietnamese American" according to the 2010 census, making them the second-largest Southeast Asian subgroup in the United States, following the Filipino American community.

71. Maxine Leeds Craig, "Race, Beauty, and the Tangled Knot of a Guilty Pleasure," Feminist Theory 7, no. 2 (Aug. 2006): 159-77.

72. See Minh Chanh Entertainment website: Miss Viet Nam Continents,; Mr. Viet Nam Continents,; and the newly added category Mrs. Viet Nam Continents, for married women. [End Page 57]

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