Real world Miss Congeniality
Beauty queen busts the pageant myths

Last updated 2-12-09 at 12:19 p.m.
Thi-Le Vo

By Thi-Le Vo
Northwest Asian Weekly

Four-inch heels really do bond women together. I know that sounds trite, but let me explain.

I was a con-testant in the Miss Vietnam Washington 2009 pageant. It was there that I realized my perceptions about pageants to be wrong. Coming into the pageant, I did not expect many contestants to be friendly or down-to-earth. More importantly, I did not expect to make any lasting friendships. But after we shared painful hours practicing in those heels, we were all a little closer because we understood the pain.

The contestants
Each weekend, we would meet up in the afternoon to practice our dance, our walk, and our Vietnamese. I was astonished to learn that I was in such a talented group. The careers of the contestants varied, from pharmacists to medical students to professors. There was a black-belt martial artist, a contestant who met Hillary Clinton, and another who won a hot-dog eating contest.

Before this experience, I didn’t really have any girlfriends. I was hesitant to open up because of negative experiences in the past.
One night, after the second practice, I went out with two of the contestants, and we engaged in genuine, fun conversation. Our first bonding experience was — believe it or not — at a dance club, talking about the representations of ethnic minorities and how we felt about them.

The pageant
A couple days before the pageant, people repeatedly asked me two questions — “Are you excited?” and “Are you nervous?” Although I did not feel nervous in the beginning, the constant questions made me nervous.

Pageant day was a lot more hectic than I expected. The pageant was supposed to start at 3 p.m., but two of the contestants were stuck in traffic coming from Tacoma.

Just minutes after one of the committee members finally declared, “We will just have start without them,” the two contestants amazingly showed up.

Behind the scenes, girls ran left and right, putting on new outfits. There were three outfits to change into, and we had about 10 minutes between each change. After all of the contestants had on their ao dai (a Vietnamese dress), the top 10 contestants were announced. These top 10 had to answer a question about a hobby or talent they had written on their application.

Based on the answer, the top five contestants were chosen and had to answer an impromptu question that all the contestants had written beforehand. I was lucky enough to make it into the top five.

Ironically, I received my own question, which was, “If you were faced with a decision to take one life in order to save a million, what would you do and why?”

You would think I’d know how to answer my own question, but I didn’t.

I wasn’t the person who actually thought of that question — my friend did. I wrote down his question, assuming it wouldn’t be chosen as one of the 10 possible questions.

As soon as I heard my question, I was in shock. I asked the host to repeat the question to make sure I had heard it right. My mind went utterly blank.

And I could not articulate. I don’t exactly remember what I said, but I know I used the word “kill” in my answer about a billion times. Kill this, kill that, kill people — it was horrible.

I did not win. My answer did me in.

But I am still honored to be the youngest contestant to be in the top five. I walked away with more just placing fourth — I gained new friends and a good life lesson: Don’t write down a question that you, yourself, cannot answer.

I became more in touch with my Vietnamese culture and found that pageants take dedication and hard work, especially when it involves walking in heels for 11 hours straight.

I was overjoyed when I saw my family and friends supporting me with their hugs and smiles. I am glad that my answer made them laugh. A memory that will stay with me forever was when I was walking on stage and my grandmother walked to the front to give me flowers. I was not expecting to become emotional, but it made my eyes water. I could tell how proud she was of me.

I am also happy that my charity, Operation Smile, was able to receive $500. My involvement with this pageant allowed two children to no longer be inhibited by their cleft lip or cleft palate because they can have a beautiful smile and a healthy, confident life ahead of them. (end)

Thi-Le Vo can be reached at