Miss Tiffany Universe pageant and its two-decades-long standing
as a platform for transgender women to bask in their own identity
Inside the theatre, spotlights illuminated the stage, sparks flew and confetti
dropped as a tall figure in an elegant sparkling gown walked forward with a smile
and waved to the cheering crowd. A crown was soon placed on her head. It was
another joyous night at Tiffany's Show Theatre in Pattaya last Saturday, where its
famous transgender beauty pageant Miss Tiffany's Universe crowned its 22nd
winner to continue the legacy of the first, biggest and longest-standing stage for
Thai transgender women.
The woman behind the pageant's success is Alisa Phantusak Kunpalin,
chairperson of Miss Tiffany's Universe Organisation and managing director of
Tiffany's Show Pattaya, who pioneered the pageant back in 1998.
Before taking on the beauty pageant, Tiffany's only put on cabaret shows, which is
something it's still famous for today and is considered one of the must-see shows
in Pattaya. It has featured transgender women as showgirls from the beginning,
and Alisa was always concerned about the mistreatment they receive from society.
"Back then, our transgender showgirls were always perceived with prejudice. In a
tourist town like Pattaya, our girls had to carry their staff ID card whenever they
went out to protect themselves, to prevent people and the authorities from
mistaking them for prostitutes. They were mistreated. And this affected us
because, as the executives, we need to be able to take care of them both inside
and outside the theatre," said Alisa.
"I have always questioned why people have to take issue with someone's gender.
And so the idea goes from just staff management to the point where we ask what
we can also do about society. Miss Tiffany's Universe was then born to put
transgender women in the spotlight."
After the pageant's inaugural year was successfully hosted at the theatre, Alisa
pushed for a live broadcast of the event in the following year to raise society's
awareness about transgender women and their existence. The pageant was first
broadcast nationally on ITV channel in 1999. There was no other stage for
transgender women at the time.
"It was a big hit, as it was something that has never happened before in the
country. It really made a stamp that we were the real deal," Alisa recalled. "At the
same time, it was very difficult to find sponsors because no one wanted to attach
their products to people of the 'third gender'."
Miss Tiffany's Universe continued to build its name in two decade-long stages.
Alisa said she devoted the first 10 years of the pageant to make people understand
who transgender women are, and how different they are from gay men.
"And when we reached a certain point, people began to realise who we are and
that our girls are gorgeous. But we also want to go beyond that simple
acknowledgment. We spent the next 10 years opening doors and opportunities, to
send a message that men, women and transgender people are all equally capable.
It's not necessary at all to push transgender people to be only make-up artists and
showgirls when they have the ability and the desire to do so many other things."
Prior to the show, we went backstage to meet some of this year's contestants.
Each of them came to Miss Tiffany's with hopes and dreams, some of which were
Contestant No.16 Nutchuda Lumphun, 25, said she wishes to become a member
of parliament to represent and develop her hometown in Nakhon Phanom
province. "On my own, I'm just a small person. But now as one of the Top 30
contestants, I consider myself a success. And if I can go even further, I'll have a
bigger voice to speak for my province," said Nutchuda, who works as an actress
Contestant No.22 Sasipichaya Pakdee said she's also here in hopes of making her
voice louder. Onstage, she publicly advocated a law that would allow transgender
people to legally change their gender and title. This is her second time at the
"A single law can turn our lives around. This is not for us to fool a man or other
shenanigans, but for us to get equal rights as other men or women," said the 24-
year-old student. "I come to Miss Tiffany's because it's the biggest stage for
transgender women. If I want my voice to be loudest, then I have to go to the
biggest stage there is."
Contestant No.26 Kodchaporn Pironrit, 26, works as a teacher at a state school in
Samut Prakan. It's been her dream to take part in Miss Tiffany's and, echoing
Alisa's earlier statement, she also wants to show society that transgender women
can be more than just make-up artists and showgirls.
"Many transgender people are talented and graduated with good grades, but still
many find it hard to get employed. I wish society could look at a person's skills too,
not only their gender," said Kodchaporn, adding that she joined the pageant with
the support of her school, fellow teachers and students.
As the local pageant continues to progress, Alisa also reached out to the world and
established the Miss International Queen (MIQ) pageant in 2004 to open the doors
even wider. The competition -- which has been held in Pattaya annually --
welcomed transgender beauty queens from all over the world to seek the ultimate
winner. The first title-holder was Poyd Treechada from Thailand who has since
become a superstar in this region. To date, four Thai contestants have won the
title, and almost always end up in the Top 3 of the competition.
Title-holders of Miss Tiffany's have gone on to become a model, actress, MC and
activist. But for MIQ, the level of success met by international title-holders was
even greater, with many of them returning home as celebrities and superstars.
"We consider it an achievement that we can help people to have more
opportunities in life. And some of them also come back to help us as
spokespersons, even buying the pageant license to organise it in their country and
help their fellow transgender people in the community."
From the day when people barely understood anything about transgender women,
the past two decades have seen the level of understanding and acceptance
improving immensely, according to Alisa, and Miss Tiffany's has done its part to
"But while it gets better, it's still not in-depth. Not just for the general public but also
lawmakers who are behind on where the world is at. Thus, the necessary law took
forever to discuss and is unable to support the idea of equality," Alisa said.
For the past three years, the pageant has featured an accompanying TV reality
show that Alisa hopes will give more insights into the lives of transgender people.
"In a sense, our winners and contestants become idols for younger generations of
transgender women. So, it's up to us too to teach and train them for the right
direction. Our job, at times, is about human development as well. And the
competition is not just a fight about beauty, but also to survive in the real world."
As the first big stage to be open for transgender women when there was none,
Miss Tiffany's has since become a household name and a coveted title for many.
But today, transgender women also have more opportunities open to them. How is
Tiffany's faring in the days when society is more open and inclusive?
"We've been here for over 20 years and have developed a clear culture of our own.
We always tell the girls that when society opens, then be ready to grab
opportunities and move forward," she said. "I never compare us with any other
stages. Our purpose is to focus on opportunities and equality. That's our main
Alisa went on to say that she was glad to see both local and international femaleonly
competition started to include transgender women -- most notably in the Miss
Universe pageant last year.
"If a day comes when any country can send transgender women to compete [in
Miss Universe], I think that'd be so much fun. I would love to see that," she said. "I
think it's great they created this opportunity or else we'd feel there's no
improvement whatsoever in the things we try to accomplish. We are glad that
people are now seeing the same thing we've been seeing. It's something we take
"One day, if we feel that we've changed society to the point where we really
achieve equality, then it won't even be necessary to organise Miss Tiffany's. It
would've served and achieved its purpose," said Alisa.
Ruetaipreeya Nuenglee, 27, has never been to any other pageants in her life. Miss
Tiffany's Universe 2019 was her first stage. When she was announced as the
winner last Saturday, she was both surprised and elated.
HOPES AND DREAMS OF A NEW
"It's been my dream since young to come here the only transgender pageant I
feel is sacred. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing that we have to be here for," said
Ruetaipreeya, who works as a showgirl. She was crowned by Kanwara Kaewjin,
last year's winner and first runner-up of Miss International Queen.
As the new title-holder, Ruetaipreeya said she wants to use this platform to be a
good example for others, to show that beauty is not just about outer appearances
but also comes from within.
Like other contestants, she voiced her concern over the lack of legal recognition
faced by transgender people in the country, hoping that one day the law would
allow transgender people to change their gender as in some other countries.
The beauty queen also said she is happy that some competitions, in both sports
events and pageants, now allow transgender and cisgender women to compete
with one another.
"It shows that the world does accept us more now. Before, transgender people
didn't even have a chance to go on TV. I can only hope that society continues to be
more open for us."
This year's runners-up are Thanyada Gunpaipuen, a 22-year-old student and
showgirl, and Patchara Sripattanakul, 25, a freelancer with a degree in business