In Tibet, finding the reincarnation of a spiritual leader requires scouring the country for a child who recognizes his previous incarnation's possessions. In the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, seat of the Dali Lama's government-in-exile, crowning a Miss Tibet may prove almost as hard. For the past year, Wangyal, a freelance journalist, has been trying to put together a pageant that will feature Tibetan beauty—and also publicize the cause of Tibetan independence. The reception from community leaders, however, has been unenthusiastic. Since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled Chinese-occupied Tibet, Tibetans in exile have fought to preserve their traditions. Breaches of custom often are met with skepticism and fear by the older generation.
Aside from the low contestant turnout, there was also the small problem of funding. There was none. Even the winner's gold and turquoise crown was bought on credit. "There are people with money in the community," notes Wangyal, "but they are not coming forward." He asked actor Richard Gere, who visited the Dalai Lama two weeks ago, for support. "He thought it was a joke, and when he stopped laughing, he wished me the best of luck."
Tenzin Deki Chokteng, the U.S.-based entrant, is more focused on the pageant's political aspects. The 19-year-old, who moved to Colorado from India with her family at 13, acts like a typical American teen, chewing gum and wearing tight jeans. But she's proud of her Tibetan heritage and sees the contest as a great way to get involved: "We were not born in Tibet, we have not suffered like our parents, so we have to find our own way to be a part of the cause." As a junior in an American college, she's often asked where she's from. "I explain that I am Tibetan but that we don't have our own country anymore. If people hear about this contest, it will help spread the word about what is going on in Tibet."
Wangyal would like nothing better,but right now he's fixated on the swimsuit round. The music starts up and the contestants gather at the pool gate, nervously tugging on their outfits. One by one they stroll up to the makeshift platform, to pose and pout. Then, in perilously high heels, they negotiate the cracked flagstone path back to the gate, only to collapse in nervous giggles. Lhakpa Dolma, 26, finishes her round with an open-armed shrug and a wry grin. Though her bathing suit—a demure tank with shorts—would win few points in an international contest, she charms the judges with her personality.
By global standards, the pageant would be a catastrophe, but Wangyal has gained the press coverage he sought. Most importantly, he has procured a slot for the winner—19-year-old receptionist Dolma Tsering—at next month's Miss Tourism World contest in Colombia. "Our Miss Tibet will stand alongside a Miss China," he says. "That's when we will really get our message out that Tibet is an independent country." The sponsors have waived the entrance fees, but he still has to find money for airfare and hotel. He shrugs his shoulders with the optimism that has already gotten him this far: "Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: 'No matter what, never give up.'"