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If You've Bought It, Flaunt It

THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

China has taken to plastic surgery with gusto. Now the artificial beauties, many of whom seek a Westernized look, have their own pageant.

August 21, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Love your liposuction. Tout that tummy tuck. Flaunt the fake nose.

Organizers of a new beauty pageant here believe artificial breasts and surgically sculpted butts not only shouldn't be hidden away, they're something to brag about. Welcome to the brave new China, which is making history with what it claims is the world's first Miss Plastic Surgery contest.

"Naturals," with their God-given, pain-free looks, have no place here. This stage belongs to those who have suffered for their beauty and now live beyond the cutting edge. All nationalities are welcome, but contestants must show a doctor's certificate at the door.

At a news conference this month announcing the contest, to be held in early November, a host of beauty and cosmetic industry luminaries were trotted out, in a nation where plastic surgery is a runaway hit.

"To us doctors, altering beauty is a very natural thing," Zhao Xiaozhong, a medical professor and industry expert, told journalists. "When you do sports, you alter your muscles. We do the same thing through surgery."

Then came the moment everyone was waiting for: a peek at a genuine artificial beauty. "Down in front!" yelled one cameraman as Lu Xiaoyu, 23, took the stage to the oohs and ahhs, applause and neck-craning of several dozen reporters.

"I hope this contest helps people learn about plastic surgery," the former farm girl from Hebei province said. "I hope to see a day when it's so commonly done we'll no longer use the term 'artificial beauty.' "

"Do you have scars, and will you show them at the pageant?" one inquiring mind wanted to know.

"I'd be willing to," Lu responded as several cameras flashed.

Lu, who has large eyes and curly brown hair -- thanks to dye and a permanent -- said she had wanted plastic surgery since childhood. Everyone else in her family was good-looking, and she felt like the ugly duckling.

A few years ago, she left her hometown -- with its backbreaking farm work and peasants -- for Tianjin, a city just outside Beijing. There she landed a job in a beauty salon, where she decided to revamp her nose, add dimples and creased eyelids, and otherwise reshape her face, all with the help of her employer.

"I feel like I'm living in a dream," she said. "Now my parents say, 'We finally look like we're from the same family.' "

Since the contest was announced, Lu has been joined by more than 30 Miss Plastic Surgery hopefuls from as far away as New York, Malaysia, South Korea and the vast reaches of China, all keen to nab the title and the $1,200 prize money.

Although that's hardly enough for a tummy tuck, the real lure is publicity -- the pageant will be televised and the winner is promised a role in a planned Chinese TV drama in which every actor or actress boasts man-made charms.

"We'll draw a line, though," said Zhao Chaofeng, a planner with Beijing Culture & Media, a pageant and beauty products company that is sponsoring the contest. "The director won't need cosmetic surgery."

A lot of the credit for the world's first plastic surgery showdown goes to Yang Yuan, a leggy 18-year-old with hennaed hair. She created a stir last year when she underwent 11 surgeries, at a cost of $13,000. Her goal was to enter the Miss Intercontinental beauty contest, also sponsored by Beijing Culture, but she was disqualified when someone noticed her picture in a before-and-after surgery ad.

A tuck here and there is all right, Beijing Culture argued, but Yang had changed her entire face. Yang wept, cried foul, then called her lawyer and filed a $6,000 lawsuit charging psychological damage. The court showed little sympathy.

But faster than you can say "Botox," the pageant company created this contest, built around the sculpted-body arts. "We want to give them a forum of their own," organizer Zhao said.

Having knocked down the door for artificial beauties, Yang ultimately decided not to cross the threshold.

"I'm not entering this contest," she said as she sat in the clinic where she had her face redone, dressed in denim hot pants and a sleeveless brown shirt, her long hands fingering two late-model cellphones. "The committee is treating me like a ball they can kick around."

Despite the high-profile no-show, interest in the pageant has far exceeded expectations, befitting a country that has embraced plastic surgery with gusto. The industry has surged from almost nothing a few decades ago to a $2.4-billion business that is growing by an estimated 20% a year.

The most eager to be altered reportedly are women in their 20s -- hoping to supercharge their careers -- and 40s -- hoping to remain young -- although more and more men are taking the plunge. And though a surgical overhaul is costly, modest procedures can cost a couple of hundred dollars or less.

Driving the growth are higher living standards and a more global outlook, beauty experts say, as well as pent-up demand stemming from the communist history that condemned individual beauty as a bourgeois affectation.

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