Tiaras at Thai transsexual beauty contest
PATTAYA, Thailand - Resplendent in a figure-hugging grey and black dress, Sorrawee Nattee wept tears of joy after being crowned Thailand's most beautiful transsexual at a unique pageant.
Sorrawee took the top prize at Miss Tiffany's Universe 2009 in the beach resort of Pattaya, beating off 29 other transsexuals and receiving a small Honda car, and 100,000 baht (2,860 dollars) in cash on Friday night.
"I'm very excited," the willowy 20-year-old from Thailand's southern Songkhla province said, touching the glimmering winner's crown with disbelieving fingers.
She appeared overwhelmed by hordes of photographers, camera crews and well-wishers, the scene played out before a live television audience of 15 million people.
In a nation obsessed with beauty pageants and famous for its sexual tolerance, this elaborate contest is taken every bit as seriously as the more traditional competitions.
Against a soundtrack of thumping music, the pageant featured an Italian Casanova-themed number involving gondolas and masked dancers. And a pirate ship drifted across the stage swirled in thick "fog."
There were categories for Best Costume, Miss Photogenic and even Miss Unlimited Sexy Star.
The packed theatre was a mix of transsexuals, gay and straight couples, and Western tourists who appeared to have wandered in off the main Pattaya drag.
Dresses ranged from flowing white ensembles to shimmering red numbers and pink miniskirts. High heels were a must.
The evening was put on by Tiffany's Show Pattaya, which owners say is the world's largest transsexual cabaret.
All contestants were born men, and organisers said they hoped to raise public awareness of transgendered issues.
"She had smart answers and is very beautiful," Marut Sarowat, a well-known television and stage director who was one of the judges, said of Sorrawee.
He added that Thailand is generally accepting of transsexuals.
"I think our country is open for all kinds of genders," he said. "Because everyone should do their best for themselves and for society. Thai people can accept transsexuals. All people must be good people."
When asked to name her hero, winner Sorrawee earned loud applause by naming her mother and father, and as the evening progressed, cheers for her grew louder and louder as the audience urged their favourite to victory.
"Kathoeys," also known as "ladyboys," are highly visible in Buddhist-majority Thailand, and have achieved prominence in popular culture such as on television and in musical acts.
And many kathoeys work in salons, clothing shops, and travel agencies.
But the nation's relaxed attitudes toward what it views as the "third sex" does not mean that all obstacles to acceptance have been eliminated.
Many transsexuals live their lives as women, but cannot change their national ID cards from male to female.
Napatsawan Cholakorn, 21, who won third place, said she was not disappointed at missing out on the top prize.
"It's very hard to win because the transgendered people in Thailand are the best in the world," she said. "Transgendered people here are not much different than women -- and Thailand has a lot of competition."