Three years ago, Vicky Michael was walking back to her dorm at Beijing Foreign Studies University when a strange man walked up to her and told her she could become a model. In fact, he offered her a modeling assignment right then, and like most girls, she was skeptical. But Michael, a Namibian, then 21, eventually decided to give her fellow African the benefit of doubt.
"I was scared because I had just arrived in China and he invited me to a show in another city in Henan, but it turned out to be a good start, and I have been a part-time model ever since," says Michael, who is currently pursuing a degree in computer science at the University of Science and Technology.
She has heard similar compliments over and over again on the streets of Beijing especially from Chinese - both men and women.
It's also one of the reasons she feels confident about entering China's first ever beauty pageant for African beauties.
The Miss Africa in China Pageant is a cultural event organized by Africans living and working in China, and they hope this will be the start of a number of annual events on enhancing Africa's image in China. They hope it can also serve as a cultural link between Africans in China. The winner will be decided on July 10. In addition to the main event, there will be live African bands and music from performers in China and South America.
Organizers said the 17 contestants from 14 African countries have little or no professional expertise in modeling. They will vie for the top prize that will include free air tickets, cosmetics, photography sessions, and most importantly, the honor of being "Miss Ambassador of Africa" at the upcoming African Festival in Beijing.
To Michael and most others involved in the contest, the show isn't about beauty or even about competition but rather about offering a glimpse into the lives of Africans in China and about their home countries.
They feel that although China and Africa enjoy good diplomatic and economic relations, person-to-person ties have a long way to go. Most Chinese know little about blacks especially those from Africa.
"If I can make one Chinese think I'm beautiful, I can make more Chinese people think black is beautiful," says Michael.
Like many expats, her life in Beijing is full of surprises.
"Being black and tall always attracts too much attention on the street, so I always avoid places such as Tian'anmen Square and Wangfujing," Michael says. "I'm so surprised that even the Chinese girls tell me that I am beautiful."
Michael may impress the judges and the audience on July 10 but her job is not going to be easy, going by her contenders, many of whom are not models but can pass for one based on their pictures on the contest's website.
Take number 9, 24-year-old Mariatu Kargbo from Sierra Leone, whose sensual smile and exotic dress has been getting plenty of attention from online voters. She is a musician frequently seen on TV and has given her time and money for relief work in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. Kargbo says winning the pageant could change her career as well as her personal life.
Musician Mariatu Kargbo from Sierra Leone is popular with online voters. File photo [China Daily]
"I have been in the entertainment industry for some time and winning this pageant will give me satisfaction as I will be able to reach out to needy children," Kargbo says.
Although she is already a household name among many Chinese, she feels humble and happy when people recognize and want to talk to her.
Marjorie Munhenga, spokeswoman for the pageant, said the organizers wanted to provide an opportunity for Africans based in China to show their hidden talents, adding that the funds raised from this event will help children in need.
She feels such an event can inspire Africans in China to work together to achieve higher goals. "Some of the girls have already worked to help with the victims in Sichuan and poor children in Africa." Once they came up with the idea of the pageant, they had to find women to participate and that required some leg work, she says.
"We used to go to PiliPili every Friday when all the Africans get together," chairman Denis Nkwetato says, referring to the popular restaurant hangout for Africans. "We told them about this event, and gave them flyers and business cards."
Many of the women are scholarship students in China such as Diana Wagadiso, the daughter of Uganda's ambassador to China.
Wagadiso, 17, a soft-spoken high school student at the Pakistan International School in Beijing, has seven sisters but just one other is with her in China.
Michael also feels the evening will help showcase the little known talents, skills and rich culture of Africa. "Hopefully [we will be] as successful as Alek Wek, Iman and Oluchi in the Western world, letting our fellow Chinese friends and the world see that black is beautiful, and that deep down inside all women are alike in so many ways."
To check out all the contestants, go to: www.missafricainchina.com