Dethroned: The Scandal Behind Burma's Beauty Queens { 32 images } Created 22 Sep 2014

Lines of teenagers dressed in ankle-length skirts are on their knees, carefully unpacking boxes of sequinned evening gowns and rhinestone-encrusted shoes. It’s late afternoon and the sense of excitement in the hall is palpable. In just a few hours, the doors will open for the Myanmar Fashion Designers Group Fair, a popular fashion show. In one glitzy booth, complete with Hollywood film posters, VIP attendee May Myat Noe is posing for photographs, her red minidress clinging to her tiny 24-inch waist. In her towering heels, the 5ft 8in teenager stands almost a foot taller than the gaggle of traditionally dressed teenage fans who have gathered outside in the hope of snappinga picture of her before she takes her place in the front row.

At just 16 years old, May Myat Noe is already world famous. In May this year, after becoming the first woman from Burma (also known as Myanmar) to be crowned winner of the prestigious international 2014 Miss Asia Pacific World contest in Seoul, South Korea, she was dethroned following a public spat with contest organisers. Officials accused her of travelling home with a $100,000 crystal-encrusted tiara. In turn, at a packed press conference, May Myat Noe accused organisers of putting pressure on her to have breast enlargements, nose augmentation and a host of other procedures. She said she fell out of favour for refusing to undergo the surgery or to succumb to sexual demands, claiming she was asked to act as an escort at the request of promoters, who said she was 18 (she was, in fact, just 15 at the time).

The scandal lifted the lid on the as-yet-unregulated world of beauty pageants and modelling in Burma, where the sexual exploitation of aspiring models is endemic. The industry is currently thriving after nearly half a century of military dictatorship in the country. This year alone, Burma has competed in ten international pageants, with hundreds of girls applying for each one. A title can bring publicity, modelling contracts and movie roles. Many young women see it as a fast route to financial security, in a country of 51 million people where career opportunities are limited. But success is far from easy. A winner’s contract typically stipulates that a beauty queen gives around 30 per cent of all future earnings to organisers for up to three years. There are also unspoken sexual expectations.
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