Beauty sector contributes to Chinese economy
As her classmates headed home for family reunions after end of term exams, Yang Jin was flying to Beijing to attend a news conference arranged by her agent.
Miss China 2004, the 20-year-old sophomore was among 15 finalists at last year's Miss World contest held on South China's Hainan island.
A student of accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan, Hubei Province and student beauty contest winner, Yang is not alone.
Several months ago, Qiao Jing, a first year undergraduate at the Communications University of China in Beijing was a runner-up in the 2004 Miss Universe contest held in China.
Of the 50 finalists in the contest held in Kunming, Yunnan, 85 per cent were college students.
In the regional contest in Guangzhou, three quarters of the contestants were college students from within the province or Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore.
And winners of the Guangzhou and Zhuhai regional pageants were both students.
The reality today is that Chinese college students are playing an inordinately key role in such events.
"At least 50 per cent of contestants are still in full-time education and that is a conservative estimate," said Gao Jie, project manager of Beautiful World Lit, a Hong Kong-based company in charge of the Miss World Contest in China.
In order to take part in the 2004 Miss World contest and many linked activities, Yang has been absent from university for most of the semester - from September to mid- December.
And when she finally returned to classes, end of term exams were approaching. Although grabbing every minute possible and reading late into the night, Yang still had to postpone her accounting exam - her most important course - until next semester.
As a beauty contest usually lasts two to four months and involves business engagements, participants have to devote much time and energy to it.
But in some quarters the correctness and wisdom of mixing university education with the frippery of beauty contests, albeit international ones, is being questioned.
In particular in a country where the privilege of tertiary education still remains an unrealizable dream for many.
While participants may enjoy the experience they get from the contests, academics have their reservations and qualms.
"As a social phenomenon, beauty contests are motivated by many business interests. By setting the competition standard as beauty, charm and wisdom, the contests look more reasonable and attractive," said Chen Rudong, professor of ethics at the School of Journalism and Communication at Peking University.
Beauty contests show the tolerance of our society and people's freedom to choose different values. It is a combination of beauty and interest and it also reflects people's eagerness for instant success and quick profits, argues Chen.
Many scholars think student participation in such events is the result of changes in the education system and its values. On the other hand, it shows the impetuousness of our education. Student beauty queens can attract attention for their school.
"But it's contrary to the nature of university education," said Prof Chen.
University education is about building a strong knowledge base and developing healthy personalities. A sound and systematic university education is invaluable and irreplaceable and taking time out of academic study to participate in beauty contests runs contrary to the ethos of university excellence.
His sentiments were echoed by one of Yang's tutors who pointed out that the chance of becoming Miss China is remote. And the reality of life, particularly the lives of students is that 99.9 per cent of them will only realize their potential through hard work.
All participants are obliged to sign a contract with an agency. And when one gets on their name list, they must attend many activities and commercial meetings, said Qiao.
In an interview with CCTV (China Central Television), Qiao's agent said the company spent about 3 million yuan (US$362,700)on her "packaging and marketing," and hopes she will win the money back, plus a tidy profit.
"I hope Qiao wins 30 million or even 300 million for us," her agent told CCTV.
"I'm happy Yang Jin became Miss China and played on the world stage. I support her in showing herself in a different field," said Zhou Wei, her teacher.
"She got special approval from our school for her three months-plus leave of absence," Zhou added.
The Lanyue Model Club set up by Yang's college to encourage girls to improve their appearance and bearing, also provided invaluable advice and training.
"There is a lot of discrimination against girls in the job market and it's hard for them to find a job," said Zhou. Improved appearance and confidence will boost their eventual job prospects.
The School of Accounting of Zhongnan University of Economics and Law is one of the best in the country. But 90 per cent of job vacancies are for male graduates, while 70 per cent of its students are female. This means increased pressure.
"The school can do nothing about it and has to adapt to this trend," said Zhou.
A number of clubs giving tips on make-up and image dressing have also been set up by the school.
Zhou said the school encourages its female students to develop in different fields and find their own route to success.
"I'm happy if our graduates become professional accountants. And I'm also happy if they become Miss World or Miss Universe."
During the early part of last year's summer holiday, Yang, a freshman at that time, took part in a preliminary heat of the Miss World contest in Chongqing at her mother's suggestion.
The contest organizing committee offers free training for all participants and this appealed to both mother and daughter who both thought Yang a little introverted.They hoped entering the contest would boost her confidence and make her more outgoing.
"I wanted to send my daughter out of the ivory tower to breath some fresh air. I trust her and I think she will have a suitable attitude for the contest," said her mother Jin Yan.
Even the contest and the subsequent activities took her almost the whole semester and she had to do her accounting studies during the winter holiday and prepare for the postponed test.
"You have many chances to get an education, but only one chance to enter Miss World," she said.
To try another kind of life, make new friends and broaden their horizons are the motivation for many girls.
"I had unforgettable days during the contest and memory will last a lifetime," said Qiao, now a senior student majoring in compering.
Her success in the contest aroused the admiration of some of her classmates.
"My roommates said I became more charming and confident after the contest," she remarked.
Others regarded the contests as a more calculating way to gain an advantage in the job stakes.
"They are just trying to sharpen their edge in their way. I do not envy them and I think everyone has his or her own route. It's nothing unusual for beautiful girls to take part in beauty contests and we ordinary-looking persons have our way to show ourselves," said Wang Nan, a senior at the Communication School of China.
Besides gaining special experience, contest winners benefit financially.
Qiao Jing gained by about 700,000 yuan (US$85,000) including the crown, home electrical appliances, car and other products offered by the sponsors.
Participants pay a mere 100 yuan (US$12) registration fee for the Miss Universe contest, but can get free training, air tickets, hotel accommodation and even sightseeing tours.
Almost all beauty contests are operated by specialist agencies and sponsored by companies, according to an insider.
This is the so-called "Beauty Economy." The beautiful is a great draw and great profits are to be had.
The biggest gainers are the media, agents and sponsors.
Broadcasting a beauty contest can greatly boost a TV station's audience rating, bring commercial benefits for sponsors and be a boon to the tourist industry of the host region.
The 2003 Miss Universe contest attracted audiences of more than 600 million in 167 countries around the world and the Panamanian government and sponsors profited to the tune of US$30 million.
London gained US$1.2 billion for holding the 52nd Miss World Contest.
And the beauty economy continues to hot up.
Since 2003 when the 53rd Miss World Contest was held in Sanya, people have become more and more open to them and their numbers have been rising.
In addition to international pagaents like Miss World, Miss Universe and Miss International, there are many others.
"There are more than 300 beauty or modelling contests running in the country now. The market is mixed," she added.
Many participants, says Qiao, are talked into signing a kind of five-year "exclusive" contract by agents giving them the right to arrange their activities.
She claims, however, that "of the 50 finalists only four did not (sign such contracts). You do not know what is going to happen in the future and five years is a long time."
(China Daily 02/05/2005 page3)