Dispatch

‘I Want to Be a Miss Myanmar’

Lap dances, forced plastic surgery, and a fist full of yaba: How to make it as a teenage beauty queen in Asia’s newest boomtown.

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YANGON, Myanmar — Backstage at the Myanmar Fashion Designer Group (MFDG) fair, the young women are restless. The models stare into their dressing-room mirrors, excitedly applying glitter and powder to their faces. Clad in gowns made by the country’s top designers, the women make their final preparations before walking the runway. The show, which is organized by a newly established collective of local designers, pays them around $100 each to appear — no small sum in a country where the average monthly wage is just $180. But they are not doing it simply for the money. They are doing it to be discovered.

In the wake of Myanmar’s recent democratic transition — and the reforms that came with it — fashion is a boom business. After years of economic isolation, the government has liberalized a range of industries and has normalized relations with much of the rest of the world in an effort to encourage expanded foreign investment — rapid changes that have impacted beauty ideals as well as business practices. Today, young people are being exposed to global clothing brands and beauty products. Designers in Yangon, the country’s largest city, are adapting to trends around the region. And now more than ever before, young women are chasing celebrity and a paycheck through the modeling industry, participating in a growing list of advertising campaigns, fashion shows, and beauty contests. But for many of these women, there is a cost.

On the night of the MFDG fair in September 2014, while the models linger backstage in the minutes before the show begins, another young woman idles in the audience. Many of the spectators stare as Mae Myat Noe takes her seat in the VIP section near the front of the stage. Although she isn’t walking the runway, the teenager is one of Myanmar’s most famous models. She is also the most notable survivor of what many within the industry characterize as a culture of abuse and exploitation.

In May, Mae Myat Noe was crowned the overall winner of the annual Seoul-based Miss Asia Pacific World, the first Myanmar winner of an international pageant in more than 30 years. After decades during which Myanmar’s military regime prevented young women from traveling abroad to compete in such pageants, her victory was lauded, and Mae Myat Noe became a national celebrity.

Three months later she was stripped of her title. Although competition organizers alleged that the decision was due to her “bad attitude,” Mae Myat Noe disputes the contentions. She was dethroned, she says, for refusing to comply with the humiliating demands that often go hand in hand with pageant success.

Wearing a scarlet evening gown and heavy makeup, Mae Myat Noe looks the part of a teenage beauty queen as she recounts — backstage before the September MFDG show — her time in South Korea. “They wanted to change my appearance from top to toe,” says the 16-year-old, who claims she refused to undergo breast-enhancement surgery that was to be paid for by event sponsors. The pageant directors also pressured her to work as an escort for wealthy South Korean men, she says. (Organizers deny the latter claim, though previous participants have leveled similar allegations.)

Mae Myat Noe’s story exemplifies the disturbing expectations — from aesthetic surgery to sex work — for some young women who participate in the trendy and internationalizing industry. For most aspiring beauty queens, these pressures begin early on as they seek to make a name for themselves in their home country.

As Myanmar truly begins to cultivate its own brand of high fashion, some young women may find fame or, crucially, steady pay. But as Mae Myat Noe knows, the road to being discovered has its drawbacks. Only a select few young models will compete in international competitions or find their face on a billboard, but nearly all are subject to the risks of an increasingly popular but wholly unregulated industry.

Managing Expectations

At the Talents and Models Agency, which sits in the basement of a shopping mall in downtown Yangon, dozens of young women, wearing tight dresses and high heels, strut across the studio.

“I want to be a Miss Myanmar,” 16-year-old Myat Eain Dray says in broken English, describing any of the dozens of national pageants. One of the agency’s ambitious models, Myat Eain Dray, it seems, has her sights set on all of them.

Today, numerous Yangon-based modeling agencies serve as something of a one-stop career shop for those seeking to break into Myanmar’s burgeoning beauty industry. While such firms have been operating in the country for decades, demand for their services has increased significantly in recent years. The studios offer tutorials in modeling techniques, beauty tips, and even international etiquette. In Myanmar, the women who participate in pageants and fashion shows are one and the same, though the international competitions are the real goal. Higher-end models earn anywhere from $50 to $100 a runway show; the top international pageant winners can take home thousands of dollars in prize money. Talent agencies, which often organize local fashion events and have connections with international competitions, are the gatekeepers to this world.

Images from the burgeoning pageant scene in Yangon, where glamour exists side-by-side with sleaze and sex work.

Slide Show: Images from the burgeoning pageant scene in Yangon, where glamour exists side-by-side with sleaze and sex work.

But while these agencies may guide young women to pageant success, they also help impose some of the more untoward industry standards. According to Tin Moe Lwin, managing director of Talents and Models Agency, representatives help facilitate plastic surgery — often in exchange for a kickback from foreign cosmetic-surgery firms. “There are more and more companies coming in from Thailand and South Korea pushing girls to get surgery,” she says, explaining that the firms approach the young women through their managers.

She estimates that around two-thirds of young women working as models in Myanmar have had some type of cosmetic procedure. According to medical staff at Yangon surgical clinics interviewed for this article, the most popular procedures for models are nose and eyelid operations — to create more-European features.

More disturbingly, according to a number of industry insiders interviewed for this story, is that some talent representatives allegedly pressure models to engage in sex work. Young women in the business have to buy their own clothes and makeup and even fund their own photo shoots. Those who don’t come from wealthy families are expected to pay for it in other ways. According to Jessica Chae, 23, a former model who now works in business management, less reputable agents act as little more than pimps, arranging for their young women to meet up with wealthy men in city hotels. For most women, she says, modeling is simply a form of “high-class prostitution.” Often these arrangements are made with directors or industry executives who extort sexual favors in exchange for career promotion.

Such trade-offs, Chae says, are nearly impossible to avoid. But for Tin Moe Lwin’s part, she insists she looks after her students, warning them of the dangers of such sexual arrangements. “Because the situation is very new,” she says, referring to the more internationalized modeling business, “people don’t have much experience in how the system works and what’s the right thing to do.”

“Nowadays a lot of girls want to be famous, and people offer them shortcuts. But shortcuts can be very dangerous.”

The Other ‘Model Shows’ 

On Sept. 23, 2014, in the banquet hall of the Strand Hotel, the colonial-era manor in downtown Yangon, 19 young women compete in the Miss Myanmar World finals. The winner of the night’s contest, which is broadcast on national television, will be crowned Miss Myanmar and go on to represent her country in the Miss World contest.

But not far away, on a stretch of the city that hosts several seedy bars, a far less glamorous showcase is underway. Local bars have long hosted “model shows” in which young women parade in matching outfits in front of patrons.

Although young women, who do not have access to more formal representation, sometimes participate in these events with hopes of getting a foot in the door, even the higher-end institutions have no formal connections with reputable modeling agencies. In fact, most of the shows serve as little more than a thinly veiled front for prostitution.

The bars can host several troupes of young women a night. With local pop or covers of Western classics blasting through the speakers, the young women perform crudely choreographed routines on garish platforms.

As part of the entertainment, customers can pay for the company of the “models” — with waiters placing a garland of tinsel around the neck of a young women who has been chosen. (The garlands cost around $5, which is split between the model and the bar.) The patrons purchase a few minutes with the women of their choosing. Yet the transaction is often the pretext for the patron to negotiate a more lasting and private agreement for the evening. In higher-end establishments, these patrons often return night after night to see the same women, becoming something of an unofficial client.

While some young women join a troupe with the goal of jump-starting an official career, hoping a wealthy customer might fund photo shoots and help broker a meeting with a legitimate agent, others, like Moe Aye, are simply trying to support their families.

Dressed in tiny black shorts and a yellow T-shirt, Moe Aye says she is 20 years old, though she looks much younger. She came to Yangon from Shan state in northeast Myanmar, where her family still lives. She sends most of what she makes back to them. Over booming music, she tells me she earns more than her father, who is a lorry driver.

“I can make $200 a month just from garlands,” she says.

Moe Aye and her troupe travel to a number of dingy bars every night. Squeezing into graffiti-covered elevators to reach the top-floor bars that serve as their showcase, the young women giggle and preen themselves as they prepare for their next gig. Although Moe Aye doesn’t acknowledge using it, many young women in the industry are rumored to take yaba — a local methamphetamine — to stay alert.

Moe Aye seems in good spirits, but shouting over the booming music, she admits her work is “tiring.” Then she politely excuses herself, disappearing into a dark corner of the bar to greet a regular client who has just walked in.

Beauty Queen Dropout

As the MFDG fashion fair begins, the eclectic audience of wealthy Yangonites, designers, transgender makeup artists, and a smattering of teenagers from a local international school fall silent as the first models take to the catwalk. Although she watches the show unfold from the audience, Mae Myat Noe, the dethroned Miss Asia Pacific World, is not resigned to being a spectator. She hopes to continue a celebrity career, but as an actress, and on her own terms.

“I have already had a bad experience, and I know my own capabilities,” she says, explaining that from now on, her mother will be her agent.

But even so, the risks remain. Rather than encourage industry standards, the rise in international pageants has in many ways created new opportunities for young women to be exploited.

This is why Mae Myat Noe no longer leans on the agents and organizers who have sanctioned the more untoward industry practices. “I think someone who makes her decisions herself is in the best position,” she says.

Mae Myat Noe has also found a way to get a small bit of payback: She came back to Myanmar with the bejeweled tiara that she won in the Miss Asia Pacific World competition, reportedly worth $100,000. So far, she has refused to return the crown.

But Mae Myat Noe has already made a name for herself; she is in a rare position to stand up to the more corrupt forces in the industry. Most budding beauty queens don’t have that luxury.

Image: Spike Johnson

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