Sunday Beauty Queens: Maids pay to be ‘Cinderella’ for a day

Maids pay a good part of their wages to be 'Cinderella' for a day

Basking in the cheers of the crowd, Jessica (not her real name) cut a stylish figure in her red, body-hugging gown, coiffed hair and crimson lipstick as she stood on stage with 14 other women.

The place: an office building in Lavender. The occasion: a beauty pageant for domestic workers where the winner went home richer by $1,000.

But taking part in the contest came at a price.

Jessica, 33, a Filipino, had to pay $500 - about a month's salary - to take part in the pageant, which she did not win.

"I was curious," said the lanky woman with long, black tresses. "When I was asked to join, I was excited because many girls get to wear nice clothes."

For a day, she was treated "like Cinderella", she added.

Such contests, which can last three to six hours, are a way for domestic workers to enjoy themselves on their days off.

They also present an opportunity to earn extra money. The top prize can be as much as $2,000, more than three months' salary for most.

A beauty queen who won $1,500 was said to have used the money to pay for her father's cancer treatment back home, said an organiser.

Jessica is among hundreds of maids who have paid a good part of their salaries - up to $1,000 in some cases - to join pageants, the number of which has risen in recent years.

There is a contest almost every week, The Sunday Times found.

Ms Queeny Loh, 47, who has judged over 40 such pageants, said that there were only a handful five years ago.

Now, they are popping up one after another, said Ms Loh, who runs an online boutique selling gowns, heels and pageant tiaras.

"These pageants are... the domestic helpers' new pastime. They get to make new friends and meet people outside their social circles," she said.

The contests, which see about 10 to 40 participants each, are usually held in hotels, dance studios and office premises.

There are believed to be about 20 pageant organisers.

The maids sometimes take part without their employers' knowledge, for fear the latter would not approve.

The money they pay to the organisers covers registration and rental of costumes for the event, as well as "compulsory" grooming and deportment lessons that they must attend.

Some pageants also make maids sell raffle tickets so that the event would be packed with supporters.


These contests have come under some fire, with some maids complaining to non-governmental organisations like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) about the costs.

TWC2 volunteer Shelley Thio said maids are sometimes told only after the pageants that they must pay for their costumes. One even had to pay for her crown.

She said some organisers have threatened maids who cannot pay up, saying they would inform their employers and get their work permits cancelled.

Ms Thio has confronted these organisers. "The ladies I helped were harassed, which made them frightened. There is a huge fear that they would be sent home."

Jessica said that she was pestered for several days after the contest by the organisers, who messaged and called her.

She had met the $300 quota for the minimum number of entrance and raffle tickets she had to sell, but was asked to pay for the unsold tickets, which amounted to more than $100.

"After I told them that I wouldn't pay the balance because I had already met the quota, they started to message and call me," said Jessica, who has been working here for more than four years.

The harassment stopped only after she went to TWC2 for help.

"It is not easy earning money," said Jessica, who intends to stay away from such contests. "Selling the tickets was difficult."

Several maids said pageants give them something to look forward to on their days off, but they had concerns about the costs involved.

Some shared that a few organisers promised them a crown if they paid more money than the stipulated fees.

Among the disappointed maids was Chona (not her real name), who claimed that the winner of a beauty contest she took part in last year "had paid for her crown" by selling more tickets than everyone else.

The 53-year-old Filipino, who has taken part in three pageants and paid an average of $500 for each, added that other contestants also shelled out extra money for various titles, such as "Miss Flawless".

She claimed that the organiser had promised those who paid more that they would get a title, crown and sash.

  • Pageants are 'serious business' back home

  • Back in their home countries, beauty pageants are serious business, maids here told The Sunday Times. Winners can get endorsement deals, modelling contracts and even movie appearances. There are some 240,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore, many of them from Indonesia and the Philippines.

    In the Philippines, for instance, beauty queen mills have sprouted all over the nation. At these boot camps, lanky and slightly awkward young women - some from remote farming villages - are transformed into polished gems, ready to flaunt their bodies and flash their camera-ready smiles in front of thousands.

    In Singapore, training sessions for the pageants are less ambitious. One typical session on a Sunday afternoon would see a bevy of young women, in their tank tops and rah-rah shorts, applying make-up in front of a wall of mirrors at one end of a room. Later in the day, they would try to perfect the "duck walk", where they swing their hips from side to side.

    Many beauty queen wannabes fill their Sundays - their only days off - with hours of rehearsals. They also take lessons in finding their most flattering angles for poses and answering pageant questions, among other things. There are also glamour photo shoots and visits to promote the sponsors' shops.

    Some do not mind the excessive fees, wryly admitting that they might not even make the cut for the selection rounds of pageants in their home countries.

    Filipino maid Mary (not her real name), who participated in a beauty contest here this year, said pageants are popular back home. The 31-year-old, who also took part in a pageant in the Philippines last year, said: "I've always wanted to join pageants. It is fun. And there are more chances to win here compared with back home in the Philippines."

    Calvin Yang

"Besides the usual payment, they ask for extra money for minor awards. It seems that the winners are already chosen before the event," said Chona, who has been working here for over six years.

A veteran pageant organiser, who declined to be named, observed that some participants just want a stab at winning a beauty title, and so do not mind paying for classes such as in make-up and photography.

Besides the crown, titles such as "Miss Killer Smile" and "Miss Exotic" are also up for grabs.


Some organisers defended the cost of holding these pageants, saying they are not in it for the money.

The money collected goes towards expenses such as the venue, sound system rental, prizes and promotional materials, they said.

The training that contestants get in hairdressing, make-up, catwalk and fitness may also help give them a head start in other careers when they return home, said organisers.

Some organisers say that they hold the events for the sake of the maids, and rope in sponsors to keep costs low.

At a contest earlier this month, some 150 people turned up to root for the contestants. The women, with an average age of 25, had undergone months of rehearsals held every Sunday.

As they paraded down the hall to the sultry beats of British pop star Ellie Goulding's hit Love Me Like You Do, their supporters screamed and waved posters emblazoned with their photos.

To cheers, the contestants smiled and showed off their best poses to four judges.

The organiser, who did not want to be named, said beauty pageants allow contestants to showcase their talents and boost their confidence.

He said the women did not have to buy a fixed number of tickets, adding: "We ensure that each contestant has something to take back home as an experience."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'Sunday beauty queens'. Print Edition | Subscribe