Rathi Menon: The Racism In Singapore's Idea Of Beauty

She won the crown, but can Rathi Menon make something of her reign?

BY Wayne Cheong | Dec 6, 2016 | Women We Love

Photographs by Ronald Leong | Styling by Lim Siu Fang

Rathi Menon was 24 when she was chosen to represent Singapore at the Miss Universe pageant in Miami. Almost two years might have passed since then, but Menon sometimes can still be mired in a state of disbelief about winning.

Looking quite far removed from how you might imagine a Miss Universe Singapore to be, Menon has shed her glamorous side for something down-to-earth. Sitting in the Peranakan Tiles Gallery in a simple top and dungarees and with minimal make-up, she talks candidly about how quickly her world changed.

“Since Miss Universe, life is different,” Menon says. “When I started, we had to do a Miss Universe Singapore photoshoot with this photographer. It was terrible.” The set was a boat in Sentosa and Menon was the first to be shot. Despite her best intentions, Menon could see that the photographer struggled to take a decent image of her.

“I couldn’t pose for nuts. Not even for a selfie!” Menon laments. “But six months later, I was booked for the cover of Women’s Weekly and it was the same photographer. But you know what? This time, it went smoothly. It’s those little things that tell me I’ve done a good job, knowing that I’m improving.”

She has since signed with Upfront Models, which shows how far she’s come considering she never modelled before joining Miss Universe Singapore. She was taught the fundamentals essential to pageantry; for example, catwalking, which was famously lampooned in an early Zoolander skit for VH1 (Derek Zoolander: “I’ve a little trouble with turns because I’m lefthanded and they haven’t built a lefthanded runway yet”), but with an element of truth. Aside from the scrutiny, you need coordination and to project a shitload of confidence in an outfit that isn’t normally worn in public. Under the tutelage of stylist, Inès Ligron, Menon would practise under the void deck every day after work at Mount Pleasant Veterinary Centre where she was a pharmaceutical tech.

Reviewing the tapes of Menon walking down the runway and you see fire in her steps; the gentle pendulum swing of her hips, one foot in front of the next, while her kohl-rimmed eyes grab your attention by the throat. She stops at the end of the runway, her right arm akimbo as she leans on one hip to position herself like a coutured Rhodian Colossus.

Like that Maybelline tagline, “Maybe she was born with it”, Menon performs like a natural. Even the photos that she enclosed together with her Miss Universe Singapore application were just random pictures of herself that she could find. But that has changed. Menon now has a following. She has an Instagram account that she updates, a social media monster to feed. She still shares the same Facebook account with her older sister though.

“But after winning, I’ve been posting a lot more of my own photos on the account than her.”

If you’re expecting some sort of boohoo sob story of her youth, detailing struggles through adversity, against classicism, racism and misogyny… you won’t find that here. Menon’s upbringing was normal by any standard. Her childhood was carefree and happy, and she didn’t suffer any crippling anxiety from dealing with self-worth. She was a confident kid, who was active in sports.

She talks about her cat—Moi Moi— a stray that has been with the family for the past four or five years. “Moi Moi is my fifth pet. Always cats. All foster pets. I’d rather adopt.”

Why’s that?

“When I worked at an animal hospital, I remember a woman coming up to me in a distraught state on my first day. She wanted to see her cat before it died, and hearing that, I almost teared up because I knew what it was like to lose a pet.”

Months into the job, Menon was able to disassociate herself from the pains of her work. Like putting a stray cat down because it had an aggressive form of leukaemia. “I know what’s best for this cat. I can go with my emotions and prolong its life, but that might not be beneficial to it. The animal might still be suffering.”

She’s the youngest of three children; her dad’s a security officer, her mum a trainer at a data storage company. “Dad is cool,” Menon says. “Mum is… pretty strict.”

Not domineering, to be clear. It’s natural for a parent to pull out all the stops to fence in his or her own brood from trouble. It gets a bit taxing as a child often grows bigger than the constraints put around him or her. For instance, when Menon wanted to ride a motorcycle, her mum gave a firm no. But after a year or so, her daughter wore her resistance down until she finally gave her blessings. The same goes for when Menon entered Miss Universe Singapore.

“Again, my dad was cool about me joining,” Menon adds, “My mum... is a little conservative. She was resigned to it, but she saw how much effort I was putting into the competition, how I was juggling work, school and Miss Singapore, and towards the end, she finally gave her blessings.”

Still, she didn’t invite them to the finals. Maybe, she didn’t want to disappoint them because she didn’t think she’d win. “Of course, my sister and my best friend bought tickets to see me. They said, Oh, we’ll just come to support you. We’re not expecting you to win or anything.”

But why didn’t they think you’d win?

“Maybe because the past years’ winners were...” Her train of thought slows and comes to a stop.

Chinese? I proffer.

Menon laughs in reply.

Before her name was read out, before the crown was placed on her head, since 2003, all previous winners were Chinese. For a macro view, since the inception of Singapore in 1951, there were 40 Chinese Miss Universe Singapore out of the 56 organised pageants (save for the nine years when Miss Universe Singapore did not run). Before Menon’s win, the only other Indian winner was Rena Ramiah Devi in 1993.

The year 2013 saw a rule change, allowing for transgender women to participate in the pageant. While it’s seen as progressive (the decision had its share of brickbats), the eventual finalists were all Chinese. All 16 of them. A spokesperson of Derrol Stepenny Promotions chalked up the absence of non-Chinese contestants to… well, a lack of non-Chinese applicants. So Menon made it, and even if she didn’t win, she was happy to just be a finalist. “All I wanted was to make it to that stage looking like a winner.”

One of the takeaways for Menon when she was in Miami for the Miss Universe competition was that past Singapore contestants didn’t have the adequate resources to prepare for the competition. Menon was lucky. While in previous years, there was a poor show of local support; she had access to lots of training and styling sponsorship when her turn came. “It wasn’t particularly stressful,” Menon says. “I was there to represent my country to the best of my abilities. Inès was helpful as she prepped me for the catwalk. I had to know how to look my best. The majority of it is how you present yourself. I had all the preparation for this.”

Except for one.

For the evening gown and national dress segments, Menon had the backing of Venezuelan designer, Alejandro Fajardo. Her evening gown was a redhot number that carried a hint of the traje de flamenca. She says that people were unanimous in their love for the outfit, but when it came to the national costume, that’s when the proverbial poop hit the fan. Opinions slung about centred on the fact that a non-Singaporean had designed it. Menon offers, “We have many local designers, but nobody came forward to sponsor us. What do you want us to do about it? Alejandro was more than willing to help.”

We suppose there is no pleasing the hoi polloi. Previous national costumes by local designers were pilloried online. The outfits were inspired by our local totems: the Merlion, the cityscape, the orchid (we still wait, fingers crossed, for a durian-inspired outfit). Fajardo drew his inspiration from our national flag.

It was bold. It was different. Instead of the perennial colours of red and white, Fajardo went with gold. It looked otherworldly, especially with the swooping arc of the crescent and the multitude of stars stitched behind the bodysuit. It was Victoria’s Secret meets Beyoncé, and when Menon saw it, she wanted to wear it. Despite the hue and cry over the national costume, she strutted down the stage, with a 10- mile wide smile that rivalled the shine of her costume. She knew to move past the criticism. “In Miami, people kept sending me write-ups on me. It was encouraging. They were aware that someone is representing the country. That’s all I ask for. A little appreciation,” she says.

Donald Trump. You can’t talk about Miss Universe without evoking him. He bought the operating company, Miss Universe, Inc in 1996 before selling it in September 2015. Before Trump announced his bid for the White House, the Miss Universe contestants were invited to an opening of the Red Tiger course at Trump National Doral. Trump made an appearance, and Menon, who was a fan of The Apprentice, took a picture with him. When asked about her feelings of him now as the Republican presidential nominee, she says, “Honestly, I don’t like him. He was so full of himself. Everything that’s happening, the stuff that he’s spewing... I’m not surprised that it’s happening.”

I ask whether she’s ever encountered any racism herself. She looks perplexed, not because of the question, but because she can’t pin down an exact moment.

“I don’t think that I’ve experienced any sort of inequality,” Menon finally says. “Technically, I haven’t faced any racism, but I know it’s out there.” [Her voice dips to a conspiratorial tone] “Whenever I get an opportunity or a gig, people are constantly—and I take it as a reminder—saying, Oh wow. An Indian got it. Good for her. It’s like I wasn’t supposed to get it, but I was lucky enough to anyway.”

When Menon won the crown, congratulations flooded in. When she landed the cover of Elle Singapore, messages from friends and strangers alike said they were glad to finally be represented.

“On the one hand,” Menon continues, “it’s true; yet, on the other, I wish there wasn’t a situation where an Indian or any other person of a different race getting roles is an anomaly. Aren’t I part of a country where opportunity should be given based on talent, and not skin colour?

“Aren’t I Singaporean?”

Talking about race is a contentious affair. Well, it could be if you allow it to boil over. To claim that there is no racism or biasness, even in Singapore, is naïve. Whether it is systemic or institutional, the subject of inequality should be discussed.

Menon cites Elizabeth Lee, Cosmopolitan Singapore’s Senior Beauty Writer, who opined that fair skin is the de facto colour for beauty in Singapore. “That’s just a ridiculous statement,” she says. “How did a publication even allow that [statement] to be published? Some people just lack the brains. That’s just how narrow-minded they are.”

And she’s not stopping at race. She wants to highlight LGBT issues and women’s rights. “I’d love to be a spokesperson for women. We’re still fighting to get equal rights. Even now, in Singapore, we’re still in situations where we’re still marginalised. We need to speak up. There’s still a long way to go.”

Menon has traded her day job as a pharmaceutical tech for the position of talent director at Miss World; her days of competing are but a speck on a receding horizon. Now that she is charged with the welfare of Miss World Singapore finalists, she feels her maternal instinct kicking in. Maybe she and her mother aren’t too different when it comes to protecting their own. She will use what she’s learned from her time with Miss Universe Singapore to train others.

She still gets the odd message of appreciation from strangers, about how she opened the door.

“But I tell them that I’m just getting the ball rolling. I don’t want this to end with me. No pressure.”

It must be tough trying to hold the smile, to quell your inner temper tantrum from screaming foul when your name isn’t announced. These beaming hopefuls, these pretty maids in a row, once potentials for the crown are now eclipsed by the two women in the foreground: the lithesome Arrian North, who is of Arab-English descent, has a crescent smile set in Pan-Asian features, and Rathi Menon, smoky-eyed and statuesque; her posture a pleasing geometry of angles—strong shoulders, a jutted hip. The two women lock hands as Errol Pang, President of Derrol Stepenny Promotions (organiser of the Miss Universe Singapore pageant), reads out Rathi Menon’s name.

Menon’s hand unclenches North’s as it swings up to curb the joy erupting from her mouth. The camera pushes in on Shi Lim, 2013’s Miss Universe Singapore, who whispers a congratulations in Menon’s ear but Menon’s beside herself. Lim gently places the crown on Menon’s head. A transference of title. The crown looks light, precarious, like it’s made of stardust, but heavy is the head that wears it.

Menon feels the weight but her smile never wavers.

First published in Esquire Singapore's August 2016 issue.