Pretty Independent

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The terrace of the Om Hotel,beauty queen headquarters, hums with excitement. Photographers chain-smoke and chatter in French, English and Hindi. A TV crew is setting up in acorner, but the contestants, weary from the media attention, have retreated to their rooms. It's only an hour before the start of the swimsuit round, and it's raining. "Oh, my poor girls," laments Lobsang Wangyal,producer of the Shambala Miss Tibetbeauty pageant. "They are going to freeze." Wangyal stops to bark a question at one ofhis assistants: "How are we doing on the judges?" Moments later a mobile phone rings. "We got the princess!" shouts hisassistant, who has taken a few days off work at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy to help Wangyal out. He's referring to a royal from Katoch, a nearby hillstation: "She'll be a judge." Wangyal beams and yelps, "Woo-hooo!" punching his fist in the air. "Four judges and four contestants." The pageant may not be adisaster after all.

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 beautyand 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.

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And last week's beauty pageant wasdecidedly nontraditional. None of the four contestants came from Dharamsala: three hail from refugee settlements in India and the fourth lives in the U.S. Originally there were 10, but several dropped out at the last minutesome, suspects Wangyal, due to social pressure. It didn't help that the Tibetan Prime Minister publicly denounced the pageant as foreign and inappropriate. "Our religion is from a foreign country," fumes Wangyal. "Buddha was Indian. Our food is Chinese, our clothes come from Mongolia. We have always borrowed from other cultures. A beauty pageant is just one more thing."

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 suita demure tank with shortswould 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 winner19-year-old receptionist Dolma Tseringat 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.'"