Photo gallery: Thailand crowns its newest transgender beauty queen
There's more to Thailand's best-known annual beauty pageant than meets the eye. With around 500,000 transgenders -- known locally as ladyboys or katoeys -- Thailand has one of the highest rates of transsexualism per head in the world.
Though researchers have failed to explain just why there are so many ladyboys in Thailand -- ancient Thai mythology talks of a woman bearing three children -- a male, a female and a third sex.
Tales of tourists being assaulted or robbed by ladyboys, or returning to their hotel room with someone they thought was a woman only to discover the attractive, feminine body standing before them has male anatomy, might make for titillating reading on some Internet forums and in certain Thailand newspapers.
But there is a strong chance that every visitor will come into contact with a ladyboy every day that they are in Thailand without even knowing it.
Ladyboys are employed in government departments, airline offices, commercial offices and retail outlets. One entrenched Bangkok adage is that there are more ladyboys in the Thai capital than there are bus stops. Another states that all the best looking girls in Thailand used to be boys.
Though reasonably well accepted as the "third sex" in Thai society, life is not easy for the nation's ladyboys. Those called up for national service in the past have had to be classified as suffering from a mental illness.
Having this firmly stamped on their rejection papers often hinders them obtaining mainstream employment -- irrespective of their qualifications.
And while they still aren't able to change their gender on their identity cards or passports, change is taking place one step at a time. According to local media reports, as of 2012 transgenders called up for military service will instead be rejected on the grounds of having a "chest defect."
For the past 14 years, the owners of Tiffany's cabaret show in the eastern seaboard city of Pattaya have been a major force in promoting the cause and rights of Thailand's transgender community. The annual Miss Tiffany's Universe beauty pageant attracts a domestic television audience alone estimated at more than 10 million people.
In terms of rules, Miss Tiffany's Universe pageant is open to pre- and post-op transgenders. Entrants pay a 5,000 baht entry fee.
The pageant is conducted along the same lines as any other beauty pageant, taking place over several days with contestants strutting down runways in lavish evening gowns, stylish cocktail dresses and alluring swimwear. They are also quizzed by a panel of judges.
The final gala event, when the Miss Tiffany's Universe queen for the coming 12 months is crowned, is attended by high-profile business owners, celebrities, academics and even the provincial governor.
Backstage, the atmosphere is one of frantic calm, the air a stange mixture of tension. In true Thai style, the main aim is sanook (joy) as the 30 finalists and their assistants prepare for the live telecast event.
Though competition for the coveted title is fierce, all of the contestants enjoy a special camaraderie that only comes from being part of a minority.
As friends and assistants apply body make-up, style hair, brush lip gloss and attend to last-minute garment alterations, the contestants nervously await the curtain call.
'Learn to accept people for who they really are'
This year's Miss Tiffany's Universe competition, titled "She who says 'I am so beautiful'," was no different from previous years. Tickets for the 1,000-seat Tiffany's Pattaya gala event, held last weekend, sold out weeks in advance. Money raised from the event was donated to the Thai Red Cross AIDS research program.
As the judging panel deliberated, the contestants, who included business owners, government employees, a doctor, an engineer, a pharmacist and university students, jostled nervously. No different from contestants in any beauty pageant the world over.
When the verdict was announced last weekend, 19-year-old third-year communications student Sirapatsorn “Sammy” Attayakorn from from the northern city of Chiang Mai could barely hold back the tears as she stepped forward to receive her prizes, which included a diamond studded tiara, 120,000 baht in cash, a Toyota Yaris car and the use of a luxury Pattaya apartment for a year.
Overcome with emotion, several of the other contestants openly wept on stage. Not from disappointment, but from the rousing reception heaped on all the contestants from the audience.
Joined backstage by her proud parents, Sammy said the Miss Tiffany's pageant had been pivotal in helping to breakdown stereotyping in the community.
"People choose their way of life," she says. "It's not for others to force their views or values on them and everyone should learn to accept people for who they really are, not what they perceive them to be. Look at their heart. I'm a ladyboy, a transgender, a transsexual… and I am so beautiful."
For Sammy, who has all of the characteristics and mannerisms of a refined, elegant, and beautiful woman, the final transformation will take place the day the gender on her identity card reflects how she truly feels and looks.