Annual contest rivals "Idol" for prestige among Hmong.
PaKou Lor stood on a stage at St. Paul's RiverCentre facing thousands of people, all focused on the Wausau, Wis., teenager who was more accustomed to singing alone at home.
During last month's Minnesota Hmong New Year event, the nation's second-largest Hmong celebration, she was among dozens competing in the annual singing contest. She also was one of the least experienced. "Everyone was really good," PaKou said. "And I'm really just a beginner."
PaKou, 17, was three hours from her home, but in many ways she was much farther from the place where she practices with a karaoke machine set up in the basement of her family's home. She was about to compete on a stage arguably as big for Hmong-American culture as "American Idol" is for the United States in general.
Her parents, Mong Lor and Mai Vang Lee, were more nervous than their daughter. Her mom was especially tense.
"I didn't want her to make a mistake," said Mai Vang through an interpreter.
PaKou didn't make a mistake. And she won the contest, besting several more-seasoned vocalists to take the $500 top prize.
Winning the singing contest in St. Paul is significant beyond the cash, said Chupheng Lee, president of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, which organizes the event. About 50,000 people from across the world attended the celebration, he said.
PaKou's win means "she will be very popular, somebody we respect and look up to," Lee said. "She is a role model for our young people."
Now when PaKou goes to cultural events or other gatherings, people approach her and congratulate her. "It really is a big deal," PaKou said.
Although some hope she might become the first Hmong pop star, PaKou shrugs off such notions.
"I don't consider myself like that," she said. But she does plan to continue singing, even while striving for success in school and life.
"I just want to be good," said PaKou, the oldest of six siblings.
When she first arrived in the United States, at age 9, from a dusty Hmong refugee village on the grounds of Wat Tham Krabok in Thailand, her goals were to learn English and work hard in school. She expects to go to college and hopes to be a pediatrician.
"It's all about education," PaKou said.