More than a pretty face
Filipino winner of Miss International crown hopes to promote acceptance for transgenders
Kevin Balot will return to her home in the Philippines both as a male and female.
"Now that I have recognition on the world stage, I hope my dad will discover that he has a son and a daughter in me. He has big expectations of me since I'm the only boy in the family," the Filipino gushed minutes into winning the Miss International Queen 2012 title Friday evening.
The recognition, the 21-year-old said, would reinvigorate her determination to promote understanding and acceptance for the transgender community back in her country, "which is not as liberal as Thailand in terms of accepting the third gender".
That's what lies at the core of the competition, which, now in its eighth year, drew 21 contestants from 15 countries.
With the theme "Gallery of Glamour", the pageant raised Bt442,800, which will be donated to the Chaipattana Foundation.
Balot, a nursing graduate from Far Eastern University, will receive $10,000 (Bt310,000) and other prizes and gifts. She gave an impressive performance during the question and answer segment in the final round, which helped clinch the crown.
"All the participants are beautiful and talented. But simple, being simple makes me simply the best," she replied when asked what made her a standout among the contestants.
Commenting on her performance, head judge Seri Wongmonta said after the competition: "We really looked at her in the first round because she's lovely, and she is very personable. We liked the way she answered the question. She's really smart."
For Brazil's Jessika Simoes, 27, and Thailand's Panvilas Mongkol, 22, the first and second runners-up, the competition also meant more than just recognition of their individual beauty and talent. Like Balot, they said they would use their position to call for freedom and equality for transgender people.
"I would thank my mum for giving birth to me," a proud Simoes said when asked who she would call if she had won the competition.
From their arrival in Thailand on October 28 right up until the competition at Tiffany's Show Theatre in Pattaya, the contestants took part in several activities fashioned after the Miss World beauty pageant.
Japan's Tukishima Beni won the Best Talent award at Bangkok's Aksra Theatre last Wednesday for her theatrical performance of a woman who loses her hand for the man she loves. But other contestants were not far behind her in terms of showing off their talents. While several preferred to sing, one performed ballet and Balot showed her dancing skills "Gangnam Style".
As the competition drew to a close Friday evening, the heat could be felt backstage. The contestants opened up before journalists how difficult life is for transgender and transsexuals.
"I was five years old when boys started to push me away because I looked a little different," Imanni Da Silva from Angola said, adding that bullying and discrimination continued back home.
It was the fifth international competition for the 31-year-old artist. "No more [beauty contests]," she said, adding she would continue her profession in the fashion industry.
Stressing the need for organising such pageants, she said: "This is more about showing our courage than about a beauty contest. This is to show that we're happy to be who we are...Some people don't understand us. Some people think we are animals.
"And it also supports the younger generation that might feel different, those who might have experienced similar situations […] just like us," she added.
Most of the contestants travelled to Thailand at their own expense to compete in the pageant hoping to show the world — and their families — their existence.
Matrica Mae Centino, 25, from Guam earned her father's "dislike" for being "different" when she was three.
"My father did not like that I was weak, unlike his other sons. So, it was an everyday struggle at home," Centino, who won the Miss Perfect Skin prize, said, adding that life would have been unbearable had she not received support from her mother and brothers.
"Whenever you are out there at school, in the street or anywhere, people tease you, call you "lady boy", and discriminate against you at every stage of life.
"I'm tired of this struggle to prove myself as a human being," she said.
Mexican opera singer Morgana, 32, also faced "problems" at home after she was found to be different at the age of four. "But they are now okay," she said with a smile.
Asked why he joined the competition, she said: "To know about people like me in other countries."
Some of the contestants, like Romanian Tanja, need recognition to fight their cause back home.
"If I win the title, I will be the mother of the transgenders and transvestites in my country. We will no longer have to struggle much to prove ourselves, our worth as human being, like others in the society - male and female," the 26-year-old said.