Last week, Jing Daily editor Avery Booker and editorial assistant Alicia Wang sat down for an interview with author, entrepreneur, television personality and new National Director of the Miss Universe China pageant, Yue-Sai Kan, at a reception hosted by Michael Loeb and Affinity China at New York's Core Club. Also joining in for the interview were Miss Universe China Roseline Luo Zilin (罗紫琳), and first-runner up Hannah Li Zihan (李姿含), both of whom are currently in the U.S. for a one-month training course in preparation for the final round of the Miss Universe 2011 pageant, set to be held in São Paulo, Brazil on September 12.
Over the course of our discussion, we covered Yue-Sai Kan's ambitious plans for the Miss Universe China pageant, the possibility that this could be China's year to finally win the world crown, and what Roseline and Hannah have learned in the U.S.
Jing Daily (JD): Yue-Sai, can you tell us a little about how you got involved with the Miss Universe pageant?#
: The president of the Miss Universe pageant had been trying to get me involved for 10 years, but I didn't really want to do it because I knew it'd be a lot of work. People think it's very simple, but if you want to do it right, it's a lot of work. Miss China has been going to the Miss Universe pageant for nine years -- this is the tenth year in a row -- but the result has so far always been disappointing.
At the end of the day, the Miss Universe pageant is a national competition, like the Olympic Games. Although the Olympics are more about who jumps the highest or runs the fastest, it's the same idea. Everyone is there competing on their beauty, poise, intelligence, the way they carry themselves. And the moment [Roseline] Luo Zilin goes to Sao Paulo, she's no longer Luo Zilin, she will be called "China." So in other words, whether she does well or not, her performance reflects on the country.
JD: What can you say in terms of the differences between the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants? Which is more popular in China?#
: Miss World and Miss Universe are both very big. Miss World is very well known in China, because they've held six world finals in China, but Miss Universe is a lot different. First of all, it's a much more professional event, in terms of the production value. Second, it's got a much broader audience, since it's owned by Donald Trump and NBC, so it's really aired in the U.S.. Miss World isn't aired in the U.S., and if you don't have an American audience, you're missing out. Plus, NBC is huge, Donald Trump is huge, so the Miss Universe pageant is much larger than Miss World. Still, China had a beautiful girl, Zhang Zilin, become Miss World in 2007. That was really wonderful news. So we've had one Miss World, but never a Miss Universe.
JD: Do you think Zhang Zilin winning Miss World helped raise the profile of these international beauty pageants in China, in a way?#
: Actually, most beauty pageants in China are regional. They're not very elegantly done, actually they're very poorly done. This is one of the reasons I didn't want to get involved initially. The image of these events has never been very great in China. Most organizers simply throw them together in a shabby way. They'll hold the event in a little restaurant, build a little runway, and toss the girls on stage wearing awful outfits. I remember one time, I went to one of these pageants. Some of the girls were wearing wedding dresses, because some wedding salon lent them the clothing. It really was not well done. But our show is different. It's really quite gorgeous.
JD: You've brought Roseline and Hannah to New York to prepare for the finals in Brazil. Is this the first time that someone has done this?#
: The problem with the Miss China Universe pageant is that the people who used to run it didn't understand what it meant. To prepare for a pageant of this size, you have to worry about many subtleties. For instance, how do you submit the girl, what national costume will she wear, how will she walk, how does she present her questions and answers, things like that. But it makes a difference. If you go to a website called Missosology, they've predicted that Roseline will be this year's Miss Universe winner. This is amazing. In 60 years, this is the first time that China really has a contender.
: Today we chose a gown for Roseline, we did a photo shoot. The reason I brought both of them here is because if Roseline becomes Miss Universe, I'll lose her. She'll go to work for the Miss Universe Organization, then she (Hannah) will become Miss China. Also, if Roseline were sick for a year, then I'd have nobody, so of course in that event Hannah would also become Miss China. I think both of them are really important, and I want to make sure that both of them are ready to do their jobs.
: Every year, China's national costume at the Miss Universe pageant is just a cheongsam (qipao), and personally I don't think a qipao is attractive on stage. It's just a straight line, and I don't think there's anything sexy about that. The Chinese are great at workmanship, embroidery, beading and other techniques. The country has 5,000 years of history, and in every ancient dynasty you see such variety in terms of clothing. Plus, the country has 56 ethnic minorities, all of which have beautiful clothes that show a huge amount of diversity. China also has a deep theatre tradition, things like Yuequ (Cantonese Opera), Peking Opera, Kunqu Opera, and others. So we should never do poorly in terms of costume. But last year, China was ranked lowest at Miss Universe in terms of national costume. There's no reason for this. So as I said to everybody, we have to be sure we do very well in the national costume part of this year's pageant. Roseline's dress in this year's pageant (shows picture of dress by Guo Pei) is inspired by Kunqu opera.
: It’s really an educational trip. We've already taken them to Boston.
: We went to Boston for a week for English training. It was really fun. After that, we had body shape training, dance class, and Q&A training.
: I want them to understand the world better. In China you don’t get to know too much, really. So tomorrow I’m taking them to the Alexander McQueen show at the Met, on Wednesday we're going to Broadway to see Mary Poppins, just to get an idea of what the world is about. It's very important to learn about the world, learn about New York, learn about different things.
: Before I came here, I thought New Yorkers would be really arrogant, but I've found they're passionate and kind. If I get lost, they show me where to go on [the map], and help me out. I also find the shopping here amazing.
: I think the most interesting thing is I learned is that it's very different from China, in terms of speaking and communication, as well as shopping.
JD: (to Yue-Sai) In addition to Guo Pei, are there any other Chinese designers you find personally fascinating?#
: Han Feng, she is very international. In a way, she is a very versatile designer, not only designing clothes, she also doing stage and costume design. I think both [Guo Pei and Han Feng] are very outstanding. The more they can get the exposure to the West, the better they'll be. They incorporate Asia, China and the West into their designs.
: Since [I took over] this February, the pageant has been a really big deal for me. It's not that I don't do other things -- I was very involved with this year's Shanghai International Film Festival, I'm still involved with the cosmetic company (Yue-Sai, acquired by L'Oreal in 2004) -- but this has been really time-consuming. Because this is the first time I've run a pageant like this. As I'm doing it alone for the most part, I'm learning as I go.
JD: Let's talk a little about luxury brands in China. Currently, many luxury brands are tying up with cultural events as a promotional tool. How did sponsors like Mercedes-Benz and others get involved with your event?#
: I don't think there is any other event that's as glamorous as Miss Universe. The effort we put into this year's China finals was unprecedented. So I think many brands want to associate themselves with something like this that's high-class, prestigious. I think brands and organizations are drawn to it. We've recently gotten involved with the Soong Ching Ling Foundation, and we are talking about ways to incorporate our event with what they do, possibly holding a charity ball. My next big job is to put together an advisory committee for this kind of event, and for that I'm hoping to get many people in the beauty industry involved, such as the head of L'Oreal, people from P&G and others.
The whole point is that I don't believe that beauty is truly power, but you can use beauty to accomplish many good things. We celebrate Chinese women, we want women to help other women. This is the entire mission of Miss Universe. There are three things that we're doing that are really great: Number one is to create a beautiful, soft image of Chinese women. That's why our slogan is "celebrate Chinese women." The second is charity. Miss Universe China will do a lot of charity work. The third thing is education. As you can see, our three-week training regimen here is really all about education -- not just technical things, like runway walking, but also women's health. One of the prizes at this year's pageant was a scholarship to the New York Film Academy.
So we are really shooting for three goals: image, charity, and education.
: We'll do it for a few years. In the next year, Roseline will be working very hard, no matter whether she's Miss Universe or Miss Universe China. She'll essentially be working for us for a year. It's not just her, sometimes I will go along (to events) too. People always think it's so glamourous being Miss Universe, but actually they sometimes just have 15 minutes to get dressed and put their makeup on. By June 28, Roseline and Hannah will be able to do all their makeup in a few minutes. When Miss Universe travels around, she has to do everything herself, she doesn't have an artist with her. So now we have the girls waking up early and training to do everything themselves. Since I'm involved with this, it has to be done well.
: If Luo Zilin can rank in the top three, we'll already have broken a record.
JD: You created the Yue-Sai cosmetics brand, and also got involved with the furniture industry. We heard you're also interested in doing something in the fashion world, is that true?#
: I really like very elegant clothes. In China, it's very difficult to get elegant clothing, and hard to even buy a nice evening gown. They're often just not very stylish, and are often just dingy, poor material. I think what I would really love to do is make some lovely evening gowns.