Saturday, November 20, 2004

There she is: Miss Spinster Thailand and proud of it

A story published today in the New York Times says that her telephone doesn't ring any more. Since she won a beauty contest last year, this pretty, high-spirited, sociable woman cannot seem to get a date.

"They are afraid of me," said the beauty queen, Saovapa Devahastin. "I've stood up for myself. I'm a confident, successful single woman, strong enough to take care of myself. This makes them nervous."

The story reports that Miss Saovapa is not just any beauty queen. She is the country's first Miss Spinster, a title that sounds as odd here as anywhere but that in this male-dominated society amounts to a declaration of independence.

Unmarried by choice, Miss Saovapa, 38, and a growing number of successful professional women like her are challenging not only the traditional imperative of marriage and family but also what they see as the delicate egos of Thai men.

"Sometimes they like to tease me," she said. They say she is too choosy and too proud. But they keep their nervous distance. They are not sure how to behave around a woman who does not seem to need them.

"I think this idea of being independent and being your own person maybe overpowers them," said Miss Saovapa, who works as a media planner in her brother's advertising agency and is studying for a master's degree in advertising and public relations. "But at the same time there are lots of women, lots of people, who admire what I'm doing and what I represent."

The male ego may be delicate, but it is resilient.

When the Miss Spinster Thailand contest was announced early last year, men sent messages to its Web site offering to come to the rescue of the contestants.

"Right at the start, some of them got my phone number and they called me," Miss Saovapa said. "But they weren't asking for a date. They wanted me to be their secret mistress and let them take care of me.

"They said: 'You don't need to go on the contest. You don't need to stand up and say you're a spinster. I'll provide for your comfort.' It was crazy. They thought we were showing off our looks because we were desperate to find a man."

The contestants, who wore evening dresses and answered questions from judges, included a marketing manager, an associate university professor, an entrepreneur, a senior officer at an aeronautical radio enterprise, a former volleyball champion, a sports equipment saleswoman and a souvenir shop owner who is a cousin of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They represent a growing urban middle class in which personal choice is replacing the hierarchies of family and community that have bound traditional society. The patterns of change are not unlike those in other countries.

Not long after Miss Saovapa won her crown, the Thai Constitutional Court ruled that married women had the option of keeping their own surnames, a change that led one legal expert, Preecha Suwannathat, to warn, "I see a crisis looming for families."

Indeed, the organizers of the beauty pageant remained somewhat hidebound in their definition of a spinster. The contest was for unmarried women as young as 28.

EVEN in this time of change, the family holds a core place in the lives of many people like Miss Saovapa. Before entering the contest, she said, she sought the approval of her father, a civil servant.

"At first he was a little worried about the family's reputation," she said. "He was a bit old fashioned and I was afraid to ask his opinion. Then he said, 'Why not,' and he helped coach me for the contest. That was wonderful."

Beauty contests are popular in Thailand, which is not burdened with Western notions of political correctness, and where a number of women have won major international crowns. There is an annual contest for large women called Miss Jumbo Queen. Last month, a Thai transvestite was crowned Miss International Queen. The first contest for Miss Flight Attendant is coming soon.

Unlike some families, in which generational change has caused ruptures, Miss Saovapa said her parents had adjusted to her independent life and to those of her sisters. Her mother married at 18 and had seven children, including four girls. Only one of the sisters is married; one is a civil servant and one sells insurance.

"I did feel it a little bit from my mother when I graduated from college," Miss Saovapa said. "She would ask me: 'Don't you have someone, by any chance? How about this fellow, or that fellow?' "

Her father asked her, "Why don't you settle down with a family like other women?"

After a while, she said, her parents accepted her for what she is, a woman who makes her own choices, and chose a career.

When she turned 30, though, she took a second look at her single life. "I thought about it a lot," she said. "I thought, I am getting older. Maybe this is the age to marry. I looked back over my life and I decided I liked the way I was."

She is not against marriage, she said. But she suffers from a widespread malady: she has not found Mr. Right. "I'll marry when I find the right man," she said. "I haven't found him yet."

Miss Saovapa's beauty is important to her, and she works to stay young. She exercises, goes to spas, takes care of her skin and most important, she said, stays upbeat and optimistic.

In school she was the quiet one, while other girls flirted, a friend said. But the older she grew the more gregarious she became.

"In my opinion, she's happy with everything," said the friend. "We can't have a party without her."

ONE of her jobs in advertising involves training models how to walk, how to turn, how to pose.

"It was my job to present myself, and I found out that I liked doing that," she said. "Maybe that's the way I always was but I didn't realize it. This is the real me."

She became accustomed to the attentions of men and she did once find herself in a long-term relationship.

"Now, nobody at all!" she said. "I mean it, none. Everything changed after I won the contest, even though I still meet so many people in my work."

She may, as she says, represent the new, liberated woman of Thai culture. But for many people, it seems, she has simply removed herself from the mainstream, making herself ineligible and somehow quaint.

The publicity of her title has landed her parts in television dramas, she said. But even here, there is only one role for her, the beautiful spinster.

"They just have me play myself!" she said.

As the years go by, that good man she is waiting for may become more elusive. Miss Saovapa was offered one television role with a big-name star in which, at first, his character pursued and flirted with her. Then he discovered her age and turned away