Vietnam's Next Top Model sends mixed messages to transsexuals

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Nguyen Ngoc Lan Phuong at the bikini round of the audition of Vietnam's Next Top Model last week before admitting she was a transsexual. Photo courtesy of the organizer

Though it has only just begun casting for this year's season, Vietnam's Next Top Model is already catching heat for violating its own regulations about not receiving transgender contestants.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism called out the reality show after several transsexual models advanced to deeper levels of the audition process. The show's regulations submitted to the ministry state that those undergoing transgender operations are ineligible.

Organized by the Hanoi-based Multimedia Company and aired on national television channel VTV3, the contest is in its fourth season and is open to both genders for the first time.

Previous editions featured only female contestants. It has received not only men though, but transsexuals, transvestites and "men with girly styles" during auditions, according to the organizer.

Some contestants registered as females, later confessing that they used to be men.

Models and the public are now less interested in how the show's organizer will justify itself to the ministry, and are more concerned with how it will defend an unnecessary and "discriminatory" rule.

Nguyen Thanh Nhan, deputy director of the ministry's Performing Arts Department, said the contest set its own guidelines and national regulations only prohibit transsexuals from participating in beauty pageants.

Pham Dinh Thang, another deputy director of the department, said transsexuals do not violate laws when applying for the contest, but they would not be able to advance due to the show's rule.

Some people said the organizer's ban of transgender contestants may have been an attempt to add a conservative Vietnamese twist to its adaptation of America's Next Top Model, which does not prohibit anyone.

Transsexual Isis King won the US version of the show in 2009, and has since become famous model and designer.

But others pointed to the fact that many other adaptations of foreign reality shows such as Project Runway Vietnam, MasterChef Vietnam, Vietnam Idol, or Vietnam's Got Talent have all transsexual contestants advance deep into the contest, which possibly earned those shows higher ratings.

A number of transsexual contestants admitted they were motivated by the success of Huong Giang, who seemed to win more public support and was voted into the top four after she admitted on stage during last season's Vietnam Idol that she had been born a boy.

It was a huge contrast to when she had competed as a male in 2010, failing to make it past the first round.

Le Thi Quynh Trang, production director of Vietnam's Next Top Model, said they want to confine the contest to "natural" beauty, and that "sensitive cultural factors" were also included in discriminatory regulation.

But Trinh Hoa Binh, director of the Center for Public Opinion Studies at Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, said social acceptance for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people in Vietnam has improved "significantly."

Binh said allowing LGBT people into the entertainment world will reduce their stigmatization.

"If they have talent, we need to embrace them with open arms and take them in. That will bring more positive results than discriminating against them. That's the way we respect human rights."

Executives in the industry also said transsexuals should have equal rights to participate in show business. 

Minh Tiep, a model and director of Hanoi-based modeling, acting, and MC training company MTS Vietnam, said that a model is usually assessed only for their appearance, performance skills and their capacity to show off the latest fashions. 

"No one should care about if they have male or female body behind all those outfits."

Thuy Nga, director of Elite - a leading model agency in Ho Chi Minh City, said many people do not really understand the word "model."

Nga said models simply showcase costumes, and thus, it doesn't even matter if their faces meet arbitrary standards of beauty, but if their expressions suit the collection.

"It's the same about sexual orientation. It's not important that you're male, or female, or transgender, but that you can transfer the designers' message."

Nga said Vietnam's Next Top Model, and all reality shows, should not make a big deal about the participation of transsexuals, and should let everyone enjoy the fun.

However, Thanh Hang, one of the show's judges, said that she respects the effort and the courage of LGBT persons to be true to themselves and follow their dream, but wants the contest's sexual orientation to be clear cut.

Some members from the LGBT community said on online forums that the contest might be trying a new PR scheme, now that it has gone through several years, by taking in transsexuals only to "heartlessly" announce later that they are doomed by the rules to be eliminated quickly.

"It's nothing but a trick using transsexuals to buff up the show," one said on a forum called thegioithu3 (the third world).

Nguyen Ngoc Lan Phuong, a transsexual who has already been made famous by the contest, said she is aware that transgender people in Vietnam have always been the subject of curiosity and gossip, but hopes that will soon fade.

"I believe that in the future, the issue will become normal and people will find that there's nothing strange to dig further into it. People will pay more attention to the (performing) talent of transsexuals."

The 25-year-old, who underwent a sex-change operation eight years ago, had already cleared the catwalk, bikini and photo-shooting rounds of this year's audition, before coming clean.

Some models said that for now, another modeling contest exclusively for transsexuals would be a good solution to the problem.

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