Liberating Pageantry : University High’s Nicole Nguyen of Irvine sees no conflict in being a fit, congenial contestant, a tomboy and a self-proclaimed feminist.


Beauty pageants always struck me as campy and surreal--like wearing a girdle.

The concept seems so ‘50s, so contrary to modern womanhood: parading down a ramp in stilettos, doing that elbow-leads-wrist wave, smiling a big, cheesy grin. No one ever sent young men dressed in flashy suits down a catwalk to wow crowds with their, uh, talents and then crown them with rhinestones.

That’s probably because personal beauty has typically been absent on a guy’s list of concerns. For most females, the issue starts at birth and only gets more confusing, stressful and amplified during those glorious high school years. Who has time to delve on the existential implications of obsessing over beauty when you’re just trying to fit in?

No matter how offensive it sounds, a lot of girls still act like damsels in distress, and guys still fall for it.


The drag is, of course, that it’s just one more step back to the Dark Ages. Beneficiaries of a feminist movement popular before many of them were even born, too many young women don’t realize that the fight continues.

Feminism didn’t end when your mom burned her bra in 1970. Still the consensus among generations born afterward is that feminism means melting your lipstick or trading in your curling iron for a She-Ra sword.

The “F-word” has become as dirty a label among young women today as, well, being called a beauty queen.

So what a shocker it was finding a real live “pageant contestant” who also dares to consider herself a “feminist.”


Spotlight on Nicole Nguyen. Besides the feminist label, the University High junior has been called Miss Congeniality, Miss Fitness, most photogenic and best speaker by judges at the four pageants she’s participated in the past two years.

This Irvine honors student articulates with ease. Good thing, considering she plans to pursue studies in English and law when she enters USC this September--skipping her senior year of high school. And it would be tough not to snap a good shot of her. As for her fitness trophy, attribute it to years spent studying tae kwon do. That and squeezing an accordion for almost half her life, which no doubt did something for her biceps.


But congeniality ? Like the word pageant, this term conjures an image of an agreeable Carol Brady, TV mom type who grins and bears it all. Nicole, 15, speaks her mind with a determination and conviction fashioned more after a role model like Gloria Steinem--even when it comes to discussing pageants.

“A misconception is that you have to be fake, blonde, 5-10, and the judges only like girls that are ditzy,” Nicole says. “I’m petite. I’m 5-4. I have reddish-black, shoulder-length hair. And I’m Vietnamese.”

So she’s no blue-eyed Barbie with big hair with idealistic intentions to save the world or to become a veterinarian.

“Everything I’m into has stereotypes. Pageants are for prissy girls. The accordion is for nerds. I have to go around telling everybody that’s not how it is,” Nicole says.


Nicole is certainly no priss. She’s always been surrounded by guys--but that’s because she’s considered one of them. She’ll take a not-so-good session of hoops over the relationship games her peers play any day.

A major tomboy, she said it was her mom who first suggested she enter a pageant because “it’s something a girl could do.


“She thought it would be good to get me into an environment where I could walk in heels and wear earrings. Eventually a girl needs to know some of these things. Not necessarily the heels, but you have to know how to make yourself look pretty.”

The first pageant was a nightmare, she recalls. “It was one of those little illegitimate pageants that got kids to pay out a lot of money.” The Nguyens--like other parents who want to make their little girls a model, a beauty queen, a star--shelled out $700 in hopes of turning their teen into a girlie girl.

The next pageant cost them a fraction of that amount--$225. There she took the first runner-up prize at the Miss North Orange County Teen USA contest. The tomboy was hooked.

Legitimate pageants, Nicole explains, are about “finding an all-American girl who’s well-rounded, articulate, has ambition and who takes care of herself.” Indeed, the two major pageant systems, the USA and America lines, have dropped the “beauty” modifier to emphasize the other categories.

Looks are minor, she notes. “During interviews, the judges have you prove your intelligence by asking your opinions and ideas. The evening gown competition is about poise and grace and to prove you can be a lady. The onstage questions show how sharp you can be on your feet.”

And what does the swimsuit competition prove? Nicole insists: “A swimsuit is the easiest way to see if you’re fit. They’re not sexy suits.”


She’s got a point there. A full leotard couldn’t reveal a toned figure. And Nguyen says a Barbie figure isn’t necessarily what the judges look for.

A pretty face, on the other hand, is considered. A good complexion matters, so Mom’s been trying to ween Nguyen off the fried stuff. “I can’t cut out the junk food yet, so I’m hoping if I eat good food too it will all balance out.”

This avowed vending-machine junkie has had to forgo most of her favorite food--except for fries and Score bars, which she can never do without--since she was crowned Miss North Orange County Teen USA in November, a title that takes to her to the state pageant next month.


Her friends, who are all guys, have tried to be supportive, she says. But they just can’t understand, she says, what a self-proclaimed feminist is doing in a beauty pageant.

“I actually got into huge fights with my best friend. He can’t understand the logic of being in a pageant--even though he does come to them. But they’re not degrading. They ask you about controversial and current issues. They ask you what you think.”

What Nicole thinks about pageants is that they’re a positive experience for every female, especially during those trying years of being a teen. As recent as two years ago, she says she wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a girl. Life would’ve been better, she figured, if she’d been born a boy.


“I’m more feminine now. I’m more well-rounded. I used to think you could only be a boy or a girl. That you either had to wear ponytails and skirts and giggle or you could play basketball and be active,” she says. “I know now you can do both.”

Maybe that’s what being a feminist is all about.