If You’ve Bought It, Flaunt It

Times Staff Writer

Love your liposuction. Tout that tummy tuck. Flaunt the fake nose.

Organizers of a new beauty pageant here believe artificial breasts and surgically sculpted butts not only shouldn’t be hidden away, they’re something to brag about. Welcome to the brave new China, which is making history with what it claims is the world’s first Miss Plastic Surgery contest.

“Naturals,” with their God-given, pain-free looks, have no place here. This stage belongs to those who have suffered for their beauty and now live beyond the cutting edge. All nationalities are welcome, but contestants must show a doctor’s certificate at the door.

At a news conference this month announcing the contest, to be held in early November, a host of beauty and cosmetic industry luminaries were trotted out, in a nation where plastic surgery is a runaway hit.


“To us doctors, altering beauty is a very natural thing,” Zhao Xiaozhong, a medical professor and industry expert, told journalists. “When you do sports, you alter your muscles. We do the same thing through surgery.”

Then came the moment everyone was waiting for: a peek at a genuine artificial beauty. “Down in front!” yelled one cameraman as Lu Xiaoyu, 23, took the stage to the oohs and ahhs, applause and neck-craning of several dozen reporters.

“I hope this contest helps people learn about plastic surgery,” the former farm girl from Hebei province said. “I hope to see a day when it’s so commonly done we’ll no longer use the term ‘artificial beauty.’ ”

“Do you have scars, and will you show them at the pageant?” one inquiring mind wanted to know.


“I’d be willing to,” Lu responded as several cameras flashed.

Lu, who has large eyes and curly brown hair -- thanks to dye and a permanent -- said she had wanted plastic surgery since childhood. Everyone else in her family was good-looking, and she felt like the ugly duckling.

A few years ago, she left her hometown -- with its backbreaking farm work and peasants -- for Tianjin, a city just outside Beijing. There she landed a job in a beauty salon, where she decided to revamp her nose, add dimples and creased eyelids, and otherwise reshape her face, all with the help of her employer.

“I feel like I’m living in a dream,” she said. “Now my parents say, ‘We finally look like we’re from the same family.’ ”


Since the contest was announced, Lu has been joined by more than 30 Miss Plastic Surgery hopefuls from as far away as New York, Malaysia, South Korea and the vast reaches of China, all keen to nab the title and the $1,200 prize money.

Although that’s hardly enough for a tummy tuck, the real lure is publicity -- the pageant will be televised and the winner is promised a role in a planned Chinese TV drama in which every actor or actress boasts man-made charms.

“We’ll draw a line, though,” said Zhao Chaofeng, a planner with Beijing Culture & Media, a pageant and beauty products company that is sponsoring the contest. “The director won’t need cosmetic surgery.”

A lot of the credit for the world’s first plastic surgery showdown goes to Yang Yuan, a leggy 18-year-old with hennaed hair. She created a stir last year when she underwent 11 surgeries, at a cost of $13,000. Her goal was to enter the Miss Intercontinental beauty contest, also sponsored by Beijing Culture, but she was disqualified when someone noticed her picture in a before-and-after surgery ad.


A tuck here and there is all right, Beijing Culture argued, but Yang had changed her entire face. Yang wept, cried foul, then called her lawyer and filed a $6,000 lawsuit charging psychological damage. The court showed little sympathy.

But faster than you can say “Botox,” the pageant company created this contest, built around the sculpted-body arts. “We want to give them a forum of their own,” organizer Zhao said.

Having knocked down the door for artificial beauties, Yang ultimately decided not to cross the threshold.

“I’m not entering this contest,” she said as she sat in the clinic where she had her face redone, dressed in denim hot pants and a sleeveless brown shirt, her long hands fingering two late-model cellphones. “The committee is treating me like a ball they can kick around.”


Despite the high-profile no-show, interest in the pageant has far exceeded expectations, befitting a country that has embraced plastic surgery with gusto. The industry has surged from almost nothing a few decades ago to a $2.4-billion business that is growing by an estimated 20% a year.

The most eager to be altered reportedly are women in their 20s -- hoping to supercharge their careers -- and 40s -- hoping to remain young -- although more and more men are taking the plunge. And though a surgical overhaul is costly, modest procedures can cost a couple of hundred dollars or less.

Driving the growth are higher living standards and a more global outlook, beauty experts say, as well as pent-up demand stemming from the communist history that condemned individual beauty as a bourgeois affectation.

Shi Sanba, 54, president of Beijing’s MengNiHuan surgical clinic, recalls rubbing red paper on her lips during the Cultural Revolution to simulate lipstick, risking a self-criticism session.


“In those days, there was no such thing as beauty,” she said. “Having breasts was shameful, so we made little tight bras to keep them hidden. Everything was about revolution.”

Today, many young women who choose to have cosmetic surgery want a more classically Western look. Creased eyelids, thinner noses and larger breasts are among the biggest sellers.

This has prompted traditionalists and women’s rights groups to fret that China is losing its soul in the headlong embrace of all things foreign.

“We’re losing diversity in the rush for a global beauty standard,” Renmin University sociologist Li Lulu said. “If everyone starts looking the same, it will be a pretty dull world.”


In China’s highly competitive society, cosmetic make-overs are often seen as a way to earn more money, get a better job, even find a wealthy husband.

“I’m not looking for a sugar daddy, but I hear good looks may boost your salary by 30%,” Yang said.

The quest is not without peril. In a case reported this spring in the newspaper Heilongjiang, businessman Jian Feng married a woman from Qingdao without realizing she’d had a surgical overhaul. When an “amazingly ugly” child arrived in 2003, Jian accused his wife of infidelity, then divorced her, obtaining a $120,000 settlement for misrepresentation and “lost opportunities” -- namely, that he could have married someone else.

Exploding demand for surgery has created a thriving business in gray-market procedures, including many performed by fake doctors in the back rooms of beauty salons. Approximately 200,000 botched surgeries were reported during the 1990s.


“Driven by profit, many nonmedical groups are stealing into this industry, ruining our reputation,” said Wang Jigeng, head of the plastic surgery division of the Chinese Medical Assn.

At the MengNiHuan facility in Beijing, which says it uses only qualified surgeons, several young women entering the storefront clinic were ushered into a consultation area furnished with small wicker tables, fake-grass carpet and a mock palm tree.

As the customers fidgeted nervously, young assistants ran them through picture books, touching their eyes, noses, temples as they explained what needed to be cut, moved or filled in. On a shelf, a model skull, its brain cavity empty, sat beside bottles of herbs and a half-full pack of cigarettes; nearby, a staff member wielded a fly swatter with aplomb as her cellphone rang with a jazzed-up version of the “Nutcracker” Suite.

Owner Shi, dressed in Hawaiian-print pants and a red scarf that complemented the tropical decor, believes in leading by example. She’s had 20 to 30 operations and foresees a day when getting plastic surgery will be as routine as having a tooth filled.


She declared that all the work she had done makes her look 20 years younger, whipping off her scarf to reveal a long hairline scar from a face lift. Aside from a slightly rippled area above her mouth, there was little evidence of what had been done.

“I really bring joy to people’s life,” she said. “Designing people’s faces is a bit like playing God, but if someone’s born ugly, why shouldn’t they be beautiful?”

A few feet away, a nervous-looking Amie Xu, a 20-year-old college communications major, sat with her mother. She had just returned from a year abroad and wanted her jaw broken and rebuilt to narrow her face before next semester. She was also considering a few changes to her nose, chin and eyes.

“They say it will be about $6,000,” she said as her thin-jawed mother looked on approvingly.


Several miles away, at the Evercare Medical Institution, belly dancer An Li was conferring with chief surgeon Zhou Gang about a nose and jawline correction, an eyebrow transplant, breast augmentation and liposculpture.

She’s betting the $12,000 in work will further her career.

“I hope to dance in Las Vegas someday,” the petite 25-year-old said, demonstrating a few gyrations in the consultation room. “In my line of work, beauty is only skin-deep, and I hope to work at this job until I’m much older -- maybe 33.”

The dancer is too late to enter this year’s Miss Plastic Surgery pageant -- contest rules require that all work have been completed by May to prevent rapid-fire surgeries, which can be dangerous -- but An says she’ll consider entering next year.


Next in line for a consultation was Sonny Lu, a 24-year-old male translator interested in a sex change. Liu Tong, Evercare’s medical director, reviewed Lu’s face, then showed him a photo album labeled “Deep Emotion,” filled with before-and-after shots of male breast jobs.

“Your nose is a little long, the cheeks a little high, and the chin would need to be bent out,” Liu said. “But look at these little delicate arms. They’re wonderful! I’ve done more than 10 breast operations, but broad shoulders are a problem.”

“Have you considered modeling?” a nurse chimed in.

But even as contest organizers create a pageant for artificial beauties, they are drawing the line at transsexuals, fearing this would be too much for the Communist Party.


“Then again, maybe transgender people will get their own contest someday,” said Sonny, who plans to have his work done in installments.

The pageant will judge contestants in several categories, including swimsuit and evening gown, talent and personality. Entrants must show a certificate from a recognized plastic surgery hospital, but promoters say no job is too small as long as you’re even a little bit artificial.

In a country where just about anything can be pirated, the organizers say they’ll do their best to ensure that the certificates are real. That includes working with the plastic surgery branch of the medical association, which happens to be a sponsor.

Organizers also plan a seminar on the problem of unlicensed, unauthorized and fake plastic surgeries, as well as a debate between natural and artificial beauties on which is better.


It’s all great publicity for the surgeons, who appear to have their sights on a wider audience at a time when China seems to be taking over every other global industry.

“We’re already seeing Koreans and Japanese come over for operations,” and Europeans and Americans could follow, clinic owner Shi said, running down her price list, which ranges from $1,200 for a nose job to $3,500 for extensive breast work. “We’re cheaper and faster, so there’s a real global market here, provided we boost our reputation.

“We’d need to become more adept at Western faces, though,” she added after a moment’s thought. “We won’t get anywhere trying to make foreigners look Chinese.”

Lijin Yin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.