The Miss Universe 2018 pageant in Bangkok on Monday culminated in a legendary walk by Catriona Gray, which took her from Miss Philippines to Miss Universe. But despite the crown going to Gray, for many viewers, the star was still Miss Vietnam.
H’Hen Niê, representing Vietnam in the pageant, won hearts across the internet by smashing beauty norms, speaking boldly in support of women’s rights, and practicing compassion with her rivals.
Waltzing in with a pixie cut, unapologetically dark skin, and trousers instead of a gown, H’Hen shook up conventional beauty standards held by Asian cultural norms and Miss Universe traditions alike.
Why we stan #MissUniverse Vietnam:— Carle100 (@Carle1001) December 17, 2018
– gave away all her prize money to build a library in her community
– 1st Vietnamese from an ethnic minority to represent
– broke beauty standards in Asia of having pale skin and long hair. Came through with MELANIN AND A PIXIE CUT. BIIITCH.
Miss Vietnam’s Indigenous Roots
H’Hen is from the Ê Đê people, also known as the Rade, an indigenous minority from the south-central Vietnamese highlands. There they continue tribal practices like matrilineal community structures and living in wooden longhouses. They speak a language closely related to Cham.
The third child of six, H’Hen is the daughter of farmers. According to custom, she was supposed to find husband at the age of 14. Instead, on her mother’s encouragement, she left her village for an education in the big city. “I could not possibly get a husband at that point in time,” she says, “because I had to follow my dreams.”
She studied finance and supported herself by working as a maid. Then she was accepted to “Vietnam’s Next Top Model,” and her modelling career took off. After winning Miss Universe Vietnam, she returned to her village and donated every cent of her $10,000 pageant winnings to improving education there. Now, after making the Miss Universe top 5, she’s donated all of her $43,000 in winnings to scholarships for local children, and to Room to Read, a nonprofit that supports girls’ education and gender equality in developing parts of the world.
Sash Factor Vietnam recently shared this video of H’Hen’s unpretentious homecoming, where she brings gifts to her elderly and disabled tribespeople, squats on the floor for a traditional meal, and helps a loaded up motorbike through the mud, smiling and dancing throughout.
A Couple of Firsts for the Ê Đê and for Vietnam
H’Hen is the first of the Ê Đê people to win Miss Universe Vietnam, and the first Miss Universe Vietnam to make the top 5.
In a culture where fair skin is associated with the urban gentry’s standards of beauty, and dark skin is stigmatized for its association with farming and poverty, H’Hen’s disruptive look is a breath of fresh air, and demonstrates her pride in her home. Add to that her confrontational short hair, and her whole look is a breath of fresh air in a cultural climate that rewards conventional presentations of femininity. During the evening’s final stages, she even rebuffed the pageant’s traditional gowns by sporting pants and a crop top. What. A. Queen.
H’Hen Taught Us a Thing Or Two About Grace and Compassion
Host Steve Harvey, who was sued earlier this year for sexual harassment, asked Nie whether the #MeToo movement has gone too far, making Harvey sound even more like an out of touch uncle than he usually does.
The question was a bit ick, with its faint stench of misogyny. One Twitter user also expressed concern about the question being centered around the US, as the #MeToo movement “isn’t talked about a lot or at all in Vietnam” (although Twitter confirmed a year ago that 85 countries worldwide had logged over 1,000 tweets with the #MeToo hashtag, and by now it’s taken several translated forms, like #YoTambien and #AnaKaman).
But H’Hen answered without hesitation. After a flowing response, though, her translator truncated her message. “I don’t think that it has gone too far,” the translator relayed. “Protecting women and women’s rights is the right thing to do. Women need protection and rights.” It was glaringly more succinct than Nie’s response, prompting fans on social media to find out what H’Hen really said.
According to one Twitter user who says she’s a native Vietnamese speaker, H’hen’s response actually went like this:
I’m a Vietnamese native speaker and this is Miss Vietnam’s fully translated and accurate answer: “Protecting women’s well-being/health and protecting women from sexual abuse is the right that every women need. Everyone of us needs to be protected and we need freedom. Thank you.” pic.twitter.com/6B40EqCCmv— Audrey (@aintyourputa) December 17, 2018
“Protecting women’s well-being/health and protecting women from sexual abuse is the right that every women need [sic]. Everyone of us needs to be protected and we need freedom. Thank you.” Outraged fans decried the translator’s work, but H’Hen asked them to “thank [the interpreter] instead of criticising her”.
She was equally gracious when Miss Universe America Sarah Rose Summers made racist remarks mocking her English. H’Hen defended Summers to CNN. “Everyone in this competition, myself included, loves and respects one another,” she said. “When she knew about my difficulties with (the English) language, she took an interest and showed me love. That’s why she knows about that. Thank you Miss USA for taking care of me, showing me love and helping me recently.”
More Gender Norms Smashed at Miss Universe
Miss Universe Vietnam wasn’t the only woman breaking new ground and disrupting beauty norms. This year’s pageant featured the first trans contestant in Miss Universe history. Angela Ponce, also the first trans woman to win Miss Universe Spain, entered to a standing ovation, and competed with the support of her fellow women from around the world.
“I don’t need to win Miss Universe,” Ponce said. “I just need to be here.”
Maybe this will be the pageant that helps turn the tide of how we see and understand beauty around the world.