Japan's Beauty Queen Factory

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Luis Acosta / AFP / Getty

Miss Japan, Riyo Mori, reacts as she is crowned Miss Universe 2007 by 2006 winner Zuleyka Rivera Mendoza, of Puerto Rico, 28 May 2007, in Mexico City.

A group of beautiful young girls enter a studio, all sharing dreams of glamour and world stardom. A stern Frenchwoman enters the room, and to their horror, the first words out of her mouth are: "Okay girls, off with your clothes, I want you in your underwear. Right now." This is not a scene from a bordello in the sex trade, but an annual event in Japan's new beauty queen factory. For the last 10 years, Ines Ligron has been ordering young Japanese women to strip, walk tall, free their inner woman and wear lots and lots of makeup in an effort to seriously compete in the Miss Universe beauty pageant. And compete they have. The contest, long monopolized by Latin America's goddess industry, has now seen three of Ligron's frightened girls make it into the top five, including a first runner-up last year and, most spectacularly, 21-year-old dance student Riyo Mori, who two weeks ago won the title of Miss Universe 2007 and brought back the $250,000 crown to Japan for the first time in 48 years.

Ligron, 44, is the national director of Miss Universe Japan, and her job is to create world-class beauty queens out of young Japanese women in a country that favors smallness over voluptuousness, reserve over unrestrained confidence, a demure smile over a sparkling grin. A former promoter at the IMG modeling agency, Ligron was handpicked by Donald Trump (who co-owns the Miss Universe Organization with NBC) to ramp up Japan's waning interest in the pageant. "When I came in 1997, Miss Japan was run by a broadcaster, and had turned into a show by men, for men," says Ligron. With the backing of the Trump Foundation, Ligron hired an all-female staff to refashion the tacky swimsuit contest into a lucrative entertainment business — which aimed at nothing less than winning the title.

But Ligron set out to do more than increase NBC airtime for Japan and make Trump a richer man. As a schoolgirl Ligron saved her lunch money to buy fashion magazines, and she was appalled to find in Japan a country of young women hunched over and wobbling in untrendy shoes, avoiding the sun to keep pale, hiding under too many layers of stockings and Bridget Jones underwear. "The first thing that struck me was — I have to liberate these women!" she says. Ligron improvised a one-woman finishing school for Miss Japan contestants, which involves stripping in front of a triptych of mirrors to learn to be comfortable with their bodies. The women would also live with the beauty producer for months to learn "how to be a woman, a gaijin [foreigner] woman, from me."

Success in the global beauty market, however, is not necessarily embraced back home. Last year's Miss Universe runner-up Kurara Chibana has been a commercial hit back in Japan; and with her east Asian facial features she has snagged more than 100 magazine pages and was chosen to be the spokesperson for a popular shampoo Asience, which celebrates Asian beauty (other endorsers include the Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang). However, Miss Universe Mori fits the more statuesque, chiseled mold of Latin American and southeast Asian beauties. When a Japanese sports daily mistakenly published Miss Thailand's picture as Mori — and blundered in its apology by claiming the photo was of Miss Korea — local tabloids, instead of faulting the newspaper, criticized Ligron's crowning achievement for having a homogeneous beauty pageant look. Indeed, newspaper writers — reflecting the tastes of Japanese men — wondered if 5'9" Mori (who speaks English) embodies anything Japanese at all. Ligron, who has been approached to replicate her success in other countries, thinks it may be just as well. "Japanese men want infantile anorexic kawaii [cute] women in their 20s who act like they're 12. Now girls are beginning to find role models in women with real talent, careers, confidence." And who needs the Japanese market? Mori is now being considered for a role in the hit NBC series Heroes as the love interest of one of the show's superhero characters. She may well become Japan's new Wonder Woman.