Beauty in politeness: Miss Universe Japan Maiko Itai prepares for her big moment

Beauty in politeness: Miss Universe Japan Maiko Itai prepares for her big moment

Japan's latest candidate aims to maintain the country's incredible run of success in Miss Universe
Maiko Itai Miss Universe Japan 2010
Maiko Itai on the balcony of her Omotesando training office

Miss Universe Japan has been one of the most successful entrants in recent years in the Miss Universe competition, run by Donald Trump since 1996. With one semi-finalist, two runners up and one winner since 2003, it's no wonder eyes are on this year's contestant, Maiko Itai, as she prepares for the final on August 23 in Las Vegas, Nevada in the United States.

CNNGo caught up with her during training shortly before the 26-year-old flew out for her final preparations.

Maiko Itai Miss Universe Japan 2010Maiko Itai in Official National Costume.

From the office to a Vegas stage

Plucked from obscurity as a civil servant in her home prefecture of Oita, Kyushu, southern Japan, the rise of Maiko Itai has caught the imagination of many in Japan. The tomboyish Itai worked in the education section of her local government offices. But it turns out the story is a little more complicated, and fascinating, than first meets the eye.

Having studied Portuguese, history and art at an international university in Tokyo, lived in Portugal and traveled around Europe, Itai admits this year the change to her lifestyle has been dramatic. "On the outside it might look like I've changed, but in my mind there is no change" says Itai. "Since I was born I'm moving along one line following my passions, many things happened and it's not a straight line, I made many curves, but it's still my road."

Born in the small southern town of Usuki, Itai says of her youth, "I was always playing outside with boys, I was really active and often told I was a tomboy". Oita prefecture has had a relationship with Portugal since Christian missionaries visited over 400 years ago, and this inspired Itai to explore outside of Japan. "I wanted to study languages, so I majored in Portuguese language and culture. I also became really interested in architecture and there was a department of history and art so I could get a qualification as a curator," she recalls of her five-year stint at Tokyo's Sofia University.

European inspiration

As part of course she was offered an opportunity to study in Aveiro, Portugal, which she did for one year. "I could make so many friends from all over the world because in Aveiro there were many students from other foreign countries, mainly in Europe but also Brazil and East Timor and I could communicate with them, many in English so I learned English then." 

She also took the opportunity to broaden her horizons further, visiting Spain, Belguim, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and England. "In London people are very stylish, there are many theaters and I like to go to museums, so I really liked it there. But I want to go to Brazil next because I'd like to see the architecture masterpieces of Oscar Niemeyer in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia."

At the time Itai was harboring ambitions to become a museum curator. But she found Tokyo's competitive scene difficult to break into and took a full-time job at a Portuguese restaurant in Tokyo. "I could use my knowledge and skills just a little bit and I was also interested in food culture but I moved back to my hometown in April of last year. Back in the countryside I had not so many choices but I wanted to work and I had to, so I applied for the government job. It was interesting because I have never worked as a city servant, and I could see what is happening about education in my hometown."

Maiko Itai Miss Universe Japan 2010

Browsing the Internet one time she found the application for Miss Universe Japan, and with no previous experience in modeling, she took a chance. "The deadline was the next day so I couldn't think about it, I just thought I'd do it. I had to send in two pictures, one full body and one from bust-up, my measurements and then write something like "why do you want to be Miss Universe Japan".

That was September 2009 and having won the Japan pageant in March 2009, she then returned to Tokyo and embarked on rigorous training including "walking, posing, hair and make-up lessons, speech lessons, English." She says, "The biggest change for me is my appearance, it's completely different. I have to learn to get to know how to express my personality using my body. For example, since I won the final I have to gain weight to become more curvy, I have to eat the right things. At city hall I didn't put so much make-up on my face and I'm not used to express my personality outside in public but now I have to, it's interesting but difficult."

Expert training from Ines Ligron

Trained by French expert Ines Ligron, who established the Miss Universe Japan Organization in 1998, Ligron's advice has been the key to Japan's success in recent years, prompting many to wonder what the secret is. "She is very emotional and her power has a strong impact," says Itai. "I really like the Japanese character that I have, but maybe I was too careful about things around me. She told me I have to be more lively regarding emotions and be more honest. I think the beauty of Japanese is that we never forget to be polite and that's a beautiful thing I think, I don't want to lose that, but she gave me some spice!"

With just days to go before flying out, Itai admits. "I'm a little bit nervous, but I'm looking forward to going, I'm imagining that I can meet 82 other representatives from all over the world and that must be exciting," before playfully adding, "I don't know how many suitcases I have to bring!"



Robert Michael Poole is a specialist on the Japanese music and entertainment scene.

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