The role of beauty pageants in the empowerment of women has always been a polarising topic. Some argue that it gives contestants a platform for their causes and a door to more opportunities off-stage. Others might say that it’s nothing more than a parade of prettiness. But what both camps forget is that these competitions are just like any other. You need to train for them because they’re hard. Valerie Lim’s mother pushed her into it for this reason.

Valerie Lim was crowned Miss Universe Singapore in 2011, after entering the pageant scene in 2008. “My mother was a Miss Universe Singapore finalist in 1981, so maybe she wanted me to finish what she started,” quips Lim, now 35. “Rather, she wanted me to put myself out there so I could learn how to handle criticism, how to be accountable for what I say, and what it means to be vulnerable in the public eye. This is a journey designed to help you dig deep into who you are and what you stand for.”

In those days, this meant being a behaviour therapist who raised awareness of those suffering from autism and other special needs. Today, she is the founder of The Curators Collective, a branding and marketing firm, the mother of a two-year-old girl, and the national director of Miss Universe Singapore since 2019.

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Last year, the pageant was cancelled because of the pandemic. This year, it went virtual via a livestream on the online fashion show The Front Row in September. The logistics of the pageant aren’t the biggest way the competition has grown. “The girls are under so much more pressure now because of social media. There are always questions about what they are doing and if they’re doing enough. That’s a lot to handle at such a young age, so they have to mature faster,” she explains, adding that it is nothing they can’t handle. All the finalists are very aware. They have powerful stories, ideas, and causes, and I think we are empowering the new generation through them.”

Lim’s role as national director is similar to that of a start-up founder with a finger in every pie. She finds sponsorships, sets goals, oversees photo shoots, gets coffee and, of course, trains and shapes the girls. “It’s not just about putting pretty girls on stage anymore. It’s about how you carry yourself when you’re up there, share your story, and live the life you say you’re living.”

This year’s Miss Universe Singapore is 21-year-old Nandita Banna, a Singapore Management University student whose passions lie in driving diversity and sustainability. Her crown was crafted with lab-grown diamonds courtesy of local start-up The Better Diamond. But is this enough to silence naysayers who believe pageants still promote unattainable standards of beauty?

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“Pageants aren’t here to tell everyone how to look. We need to put the time and effort into investing in ourselves,” she says. “People still think the competition is frivolous, but it’s a lot like minister training because it teaches soft skills, too. Making a good impression opens doors. Singaporeans may not be able to see this since there’s no KPI for it. If I had the opportunity, I’d create an entire syllabus about branding yourself.”