Since summer, I’ve been following the journey of one contestant in the Miss California USA beauty pageant.
Her name is Kelleen Lim Chea and she’s a recent Cal Poly Pomona grad. I got exclusive, behind the scenes access to her life as an aspiring beauty queen and how she made it to this weekend’s contest.
On Friday, I had a major feature air on 89.3 KPCC, the largest Southern California NPR station.
Here is the text, but be sure to listen to the report so you can hear my voice and audio from the interviews!
Good luck to Kelleen, representing the city of Anaheim and all the other ladies.
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By Daniel Ucko
The “Miss California USA” pageant is this weekend in Palm Springs. Close to 400 young women are competing to represent the Golden State at next year’s “Miss USA” pageant. One of the contestants is a recent graduate of Cal Poly Pomona.
It’s a hot summer evening in August. Kelleen Lim Chea – or as her sash says, Miss Anaheim USA – glides across the floor of a rowdy Huntington Beach nightclub in high heels & a form-fitting evening gown. She’s leading a parade of young women in bikinis and lingerie. It’s a fashion fundraiser. A portion of the proceeds go to a campaign to help stop human trafficking. It’s just another day on the job for an aspiring beauty queen.
“I had this expectation of becoming a doctor but I just don’t feel like it’s my time or it’s my passion,” says Chea.
Since graduating from Cal Poly Pomona with a chemistry degree, Chea’s had one eye on her career and another on beauty pageant glory. Now, she’s seeking the crown of Miss California. Med school will have to wait.
“And it’s been a struggle because I always knew this is what my family expected of me; however, deep down inside it just didn’t feel right,” says the petite 23-year-old.
But with her silky long black hair, winning smile and girl next door good looks, Chea is just right for pageant recruiters like Erik DeSando.
I met DeSando at a busy outdoor cafe in West Hollywood. He’s the middle man between pageant producers and the thousands of girls who apply for the Miss California and Teen USA pageants every year. He gets more than a dozen messages during our interview.
“The type of girl I attract for the contest is a five-finger girl. On the four fingers, we have loving, caring,” says DeSando.
“Then I point to my big finger, middle finger which is non-judgment. Then on the thumb, that’s where the beauty comes in.”
So now you know; the thumb is the most beautiful digit.
Kelleen Lim Chea tries to keep her beauty wholesome. Scar removal below the knee and teeth whitening are the only surgical enhancements she’s had. There are however other enhancements. Interview skills and stage presence are sharpened with the help of a pageant coach; Giselle Boone, a fashion show choreographer and former model. Chea & Boone spent the summer working on everything from posture to stage presence.
Competing in beauty pageants also means marketing a glamorous image through sponsorship deals. Sponsors help raise money, and Chea needs it. All contestants must pay a $1700 dollar entrance fee just to compete in this weekend’s pageant. That covers everything from food to personal security.
“You wanna do this? I will show you 15 different ways to get that money together,” says Miss California recruiter Erik DeSando laying out another unconventional beauty pageant formula.
“A girl has a 20-100 sponsor. A 20-100 sponsor is $20 from 100 people,” laughs DeSando. “Now it’s simple as hell, but think about it, you can find 100 people to give you 20 bucks.”
You can also find friends willing to work for you on the cheap as agents, photographers and stylists. Chea has tapped several. It didn’t always work out though. Several friendships, including with her now x-pageant coach Giselle Boone, were cast aside in the quest for the crown.
“I couldn’t say if it was me or the other party, all I can say is we’re just not in alignment for the path I’m going to,” says Chea.
“My mother, she would probably be wishing that I would be going to medical school right now. But she understands life is short. Do you what you want to do.
But the life of an aspiring beauty queen is short. Kelleen Lim Chea is 23. At 28, you’re considered over the hill – even if you’re a winner. But just showing up to compete can pay off handsomely in scholarship money, endorsements, modeling jobs and more.
And the winner of this weekend’s pageant also gets the chance to represent the Golden State at Donald Trump’s Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas next summer.
Live stream on Justin.TV – http://justin.tv/missca2011/b/274306759
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