What’s most surprising about the Miss Tibet beauty pageant held in Dharamsala, India, is not that none of the contestants live in the country it’s named for. It’s that the “talking” round is so much more popular with audiences than the swimsuit competition.
The reason, says Minneapolis filmmaker Norah Shapiro, is that the Tibetans displaced after the Chinese government seized control of the country in the 1950s see the pageant less as eye candy than as a way to keep their plight in the international eye.
“This pageant is really a lens into what it’s like for young Tibetans to live in exile,” said Shapiro, whose documentary “Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile,” screens at 7:30 p.m. April 18, as part of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. That showing is already sold out, so another was added April 26 at 3 p.m.
The film follows 19-year-old Tenzin Khecheo’s journey from Minnesota to the pageant as a finalist in 2011. Shapiro had already been following the unusual event marked by East/West, ancient/modern cultural contrasts for a few years when she met Khecheo through a local Tibetan activist. The two quickly formed a strong connection.
“I had thought the elders would be against the idea of a pageant, but I found across the board the Tibetans I talked to saw it as a political platform,” she said, in her studio off Loring Park. “So I was looking into what that was all about, but Tenzin’s personal story sort of took over.”
“Fate wanted us to meet,” chimed in Khecheo, who had just come from a class at nearby Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
The Twin Cities area is home to the second-largest community of displaced Tibetans in the country. Many, like Khecheo and her family, live in Columbia Heights. Although Khecheo got a plane ticket to India as her prize for winning the Miss Tibet North America pageant in New York (after first winning one in Minnesota), the rest of the trip expenses, including her gowns and airfare for her mother and sisters, were earned by her mother in her housekeeping jobs at two hospitals.
“My mom, who has never been to Tibet, either, is my role model,” Khecheo said. “She wanted to help me not only find my own voice as a Tibetan woman, but get a chance to help the larger population.”
The pageant in Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and the seat of Tibet’s government in exile, “was so nerve-racking because I felt too Americanized,” she said. “I’m not fluent in Tibetan like many of the other girls and I thought they’d be judgmental and not take me seriously.”
But she wound up bonding with the other contestants through a boot camp filled with rigorous lessons involving knowledge of their homeland and its culture, from politics to music to calligraphy. While Khecheo sparkles on camera, the most colorful character in the film is the pageant’s flamboyant founder and impresario, who claims he’s thought of as the “Donald Trump of Tibet.”
“He’s a showman, a roller coaster,” Khecheo said. “You never knew what to expect from him.”
That proves true toward the end of the film, when the contestants are hit with an unexpected, unwelcome surprise.
Khecheo hopes to become a nurse — and, one day, to step foot on Tibetan soil.
“Before I die, I want to see the monasteries, the grasslands, the yaks I’ve only seen in movies and pictures,” she said. “It’s been so long, 60 years, but we still hold out hope. Time has made us stronger, not weaker.”