Exclusive Interview: Tenzin Khecheo on “Miss Tibet” Documentary Film

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By Tenzin Pelkyi

About the Filmmaker: After a decade-long career as a public defender, Producer/Director Norah Shapiro left to pursue the adventures of documentary filmmaking. Her first feature, “If You Dare” is about an inner-city theater company working with at-risk children and premiered at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, aired on Twin Cities Public Television, and has been collected by universities and libraries around the US and Canada. Her newest documentary, “Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile” had its world premiere at the prestigious 2014 DOC NYC Film Festival and is currently on the festival circuit. Her film recently received the 2015 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival “Best Minnesota Made Feature Documentary.” Norah was awarded the McKnight Filmmaking Fellowship in 2012 and has received grants from funders, including the Jerome Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Minnesota Filmmakers Legacy Fund. Her production company, Flying Pieces Productions, also produces freelance documentary-style short videos to help nonprofits, artists, and businesses throughout the Twin Cities harness the power of video to tell their stories. Norah is the proud mother of three school age children.

Tenzin Khecheo is the 23-year old star of the critically-acclaimed new documentary film, Miss Tibet-Beauty in Exile, which follows her on her journey from Minnesota to Dharamsala, India for the 2011 “Miss Tibet” beauty pageant. Currently pursuing her nursing degree, Khecheo moved to the U.S. as part of the Tibetan refugee resettlement program when she was seven. She lives with her mom and two younger sisters in the Twin Cities. 

1. How did you find out about the Miss Tibet pageant?

I never knew about Miss Tibet before I saw my friends watching it one day in Minnesota. Then, “Miss Tibet Minnesota” happened and they needed girls to sign up, so me and my friends just did. That was my first experience with the whole “Miss Tibet” thing. Later, in winter 2010, I wanted to go to New York and visit my cousins there. Cho (Tibetan: Big brother) Jigme messaged me and said there was this lady filming a documentary about Miss Tibet but it wasn’t going in the direction she liked yet. We didn’t know it was going all the way to India, so she just wanted to follow me to New York for the contest and see what happened. At first, I was kind of embarrassed at being on stage because I had a bad experience with Miss Tibet Minnesota. Everyone else was speaking Tibetan and I gave all my answers in English, plus my music choice wasn’t good–I danced to Missy Elliot because I learned the dance in high school so I already knew the choreography. But I ended up winning “Miss Tibet North America” and had two prize choices: Either an iPad or airfare to go to India and compete in Miss Tibet. So, of course, I chose the airfare. After I won, she [Norah Shapiro] traveled with me to India for about a week and a half for the pageant. So that’s how the Miss Tibet journey started for me.

2. Did you feel uncomfortable at any time during the pageant?

Before going into the pageant I knew about the swimsuit round and, initially, I didn’t have a problem because I knew that was something a pageant would have no matter what. I’m used to going to beaches wearing a bikini and no one’s judged me as a Tibetan woman and said it’s controversial. I was more worried about the talk round. But being in that environment and hearing people being negative about the swimsuit round was what made me nervous. We actually had to change locations for the swimsuit round because we went for rehearsals one day at the pool, the original venue, to see how it would look. There was a mix of Tibetan and Indian guys in the pool area when we were rehearsing and one of them said something and Lobsang got mad and they ended up arguing. At the new venue, the scenery was really pretty but it was hard to walk in because there were rocks everywhere and we were in heels. Two of the girls almost fell, and there was some wobbling, but I thankfully wore wedges. So once I got out and started walking I thought, “I’m already here so why not do it?”

In the end, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. It wasn’t to a point where I thought I’m uncomfortable doing it but because of all the built up negative things about the swimsuit round. There were a bunch of reporters and people watching, but I didn’t look at anybody. I was just looking straight ahead and and then right afterwards I was looking for my family.

3. How did you react to the controversy over the pageant?

During the final round, I thought my biggest competition was Ngodup Dolma from Australia and Tenzin Dolma from India. So when he called the 3rd and 2nd prize-winners I immediately thought I won because I saw them as the biggest competitors in my way. My roommate was by my side whispering in my ear telling me I won but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. When he announced Yankyi had won I was immediately disappointed but I knew one of us had to win. Then, after that finale round we were in the cafeteria eating and people were saying “you should have won” and “how did the judges not know who won– they gave the points.” That night I went to my mom’s hotel because we were planning to go to Tso Pema and since that was our last day in Dharamsala I didn’t know the girls were talking about how Yankyi’s name wasn’t on the list, so how did she go from 5th to 1st place. When the girls confronted Lobsang I didn’t even see it until the clip in Ngodup’s movie about Miss Tibet. After this whole emotional roller coaster, I hear this and it was like a slap across my face. I was so angry. So that kind of left a little scar when I was in Nepal.

When we came back to the states, pretty much everyone knew what happened in India and that made me feel like I did something I didn’t even have a chance of winning. Like I lost before I even started, you know. But then I thought it’s just rumors and nothing is 100 percent confirmed, otherwise the whole point of joining the pageant would be meaningfulness. So, instead of thinking negatively I thought about what I did get out of the pageant; like the beautiful strong girls, the lessons we had, the people we met. And when I thought about all the positive outcomes of the pageant, that’s when I realized it didn’t matter if I didn’t win the crown and that’s how the movie ends, too. And when the film came out, I realized this is a way I can speak out and use my voice. And to have it sold out and articles, radio, and TV– it was like bringing Tibet to the media. If this continues I think we’ll be able to screen it in different states and even around the globe.

4. Did your modeling background influence your decision to enter the competition?

I grew up watching Miss America pageants and America’s Next Top Model and I was a huge Tyra Banks fan. One day, I was at the mall at a kiosk for John Roberts Powers (JRP) and I filled a form out without my mom knowing. They gave me a call and said I could come in, so I told my mom they selected me because I knew she wouldn’t let me go otherwise. I told JRP I was more interested in modeling than acting, so I was there for a 30-week program. For ten weeks I had modeling/posing classes, then a little bit of acting/improv stuff, how to represent yourself when you go to castings, and lifestyle lessons– like taking care of your hair and face. And from there I got into this agency where I did mostly runway. In their eyes, you’re either commercial (for TV or print ads) or high fashion (mostly on runway).

There were a lot of castings I didn’t make, but doing the modeling thing gave me more confidence and networking skills and taught me how to communicate because it’s all about how to make a good impression on your client. If you don’t make a good impression they wont use you, but if you do they’ll use you again and again. I used to be kind of shy before I did modeling and I think that modeling really helped me in Miss Tibet since I already knew about the posing, runway, and what do.

(Photo credit: AP)
Tenzin Khecheo walking down the runway in Dharamsala, India (Photo credit: AP)

5. Do you want to continue modeling and doing pageants?

I think I’m done with the whole modeling and pageant industry. Modeling was a hobby and passion for me back then and I was really into it. Over time, I started thinking of the reality—like how will this get me a job. But I’m thankful because the confidence I got from modeling was something like I never had before. That confidence has to come from somewhere and for me it came from modeling. My mom actually was like “why aren’t you doing modeling anymore” and “why isn’t the agency contacting you?” I was just like, “I’m not interested anymore.” You have to drive around from place to place and then there’s the pressure of being selected or not and being on stage with all these beautiful girls. Mostly it’s all Americans, and to compete with all those common faces was difficult for me because I was doubting myself. And I hated having those thoughts because I wanted modeling to be something positive in my life. Then, I got into the whole Miss Tibet thing and we all know how that ended. I still can’t believe I did that and that there’s a movie about it. It was such a weird, fun, inspiring experience that I never thought I would partake in.

6. Do you still keep in touch with the other girls?

We’re all Facebook friends except Yankyi – but we talked after the whole controversy and she was having a hard time with those rumors. At first I was upset but then I was happy for her and hoped she would do well. When she told me she didn’t know anything about the rumors, that was all I needed to hear to believe her. I’m glad we cleared the air, although we don’t keep in touch anymore. My roommate and I hardly talk but she’s married with a son so I’m pretty sure life is busy for her as well.

It would be cool to go back to Dharamsala and screen the film there. I don’t know how people would react and how Lobsang would react. But the rumors and fraud are not what the whole movie is about. It’s about using the pageant to speak out about Tibet. When we first worked on the film that was what me and Norah talked about—was screening in Dharamsala and having a reunion with the girls. That would be fun to see the other girls because to be in the pageant I knew how stressful it was, but to see it on screen looking back it was a lot of fun.

There are parts of the film that still get to me, like when my younger sister says I’m Miss Tibet to her no matter what and when I talk about my dad. And my grandma—she was actually in the film. She came back with us to Nepal and we didn’t know she was going to be in the film. So when I saw her in it I was a little taken aback. But I’m glad she was in there.

7. Were your family members supportive of your participation in the pageant? 

All of my family members were supportive—my mom, uncle, grandma, and sisters. My grandma was a little unsure in the beginning but my grandpa is a modern feminist himself. I would walk out of the house in shorts and my grandma would tell me to cover up, but my grandpa was always on my side saying, “Leave her alone—she can wear what she wants.”

I think they liked the idea of why I was doing it but I don’t know if they supported what I was doing throughout. But not one person in my family said not to do it. They know how I am when it comes to things like being on stage because I always had a passion for it even when I was younger. So they believed in me, and I think that’s why I was able to get through the whole thing. Because my family was so supportive of me. 

I think my dad would have been a little against it at first, but, overall, I think I would have been able to convince him this was a good idea because he would always say to speak, read, and write Tibetan, otherwise how would I teach my own kids Tibetan. Even though I didn’t win the crown, I think he would have been proud. And my grandma, too.

8. How do your sisters feel about the pageant? Would they ever want to participate?

I have two younger sisters and they’re both introverts. I would label myself an introvert, too, but sometimes I’m kind of out there at events. But they’re introverts all the time and my middle sister, Lhadon, actually did one fashion show with me to fill in a spot and she was totally against it. She did it to try it and she hated it. My agency actually was trying to get her on board but she didn’t want to do it.

They’re the opposite of me. They’re not into the whole “being the center of attention” thing. They think it’s cool there’s a movie about the whole experience I went through, but there are like small parts of the film they didn’t like because they didn’t realize the camera was there. But they’re supportive of the movie and me doing Miss Tibet because they know that’s what I like. Lobsang actually said to them at the pageant, “Oh, look—we have our future Miss Tibet contender” and they were like, “No.”

9. What do you think Tibetan women have gotten out of this pageant?

I think Tibetan men don’t know Tibetan women have a huge role and part in society. For them, they just see a mom or grandpa taking care of kids, but now Tibetan women want more than that. They want their own careers, lives, and to establish themselves.

But for Lobsang, I think he sees women as powerful human beings rather than objects. That’s why I think he sees Miss Tibet as a platform– to see Tibetan women on stage taking initiative. I think that back in the day that’s not something you would imagine so, because of this idea, I think people started getting interested in what Tibetan women could do. I think the pageant was a powerful gesture from Lobsang’s side– to show that Tibetan women aren’t just in the kitchen. I know Tibetan women are getting more ambitious and Tibetan men should support that. Not all the men were completely against it, like that Kushog in the movie. I don’t think it’s about gender, but I think it’s based on individual characteristics. I think that’s where all the controversy sparks from. And that’s what makes the pageant more appealing. Then, you see a different story about Miss Tibet—about women standing up on stage and participating in their culture. Without the controversy, it wouldn’t make this big of a headline because where there’s curiosity there’s always controversy. Especially in 2006, when Miss Tibet refused to take her sash off and wear a “Miss Tibet-China” one—I think that’s when people started seeing it as more than just a beauty pageant and more as a political platform.

10. There was a moment in the film when you said that “sometimes you don’t even feel Tibetan.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

When we met the political prisoner Ama Adhe, she was really nice and said she supported us in this pageant and was proud of us. When she began telling her story of how she was captured with 300 other girls and only four were able to make it out alive in the end and the others starved to death… Seeing that story from someone who experienced that, you can see in the film that I got teary-eyed because it was hard to imagine. Then she said to “think of me as your grandma” and that triggered me because I thought, “What if my grandma had been there?” My mom and I wouldn’t be here. I felt vulnerable at that moment and about what people went through. Yet, they’re still hopeful and still believe in us being able to do something for Tibet. At that moment, I realized maybe I’m not qualified to be Miss Tibet and not Tibetan enough because all these people are struggling and protesting and what am I doing? I’m not doing anything. Because I didn’t have that experience of being an activist. I just wanted to take the easy way – come to the pageant and take the crown. From then on it really hit me that I need to win this crown because I am Tibetan enough and I do care.

It also made me stronger because I grew up here [in Minnesota] but I’m not really connected with the Tibetan community here just because I have this fear of being judged. So I stay away from the community. But one day, I’ll have to face it because it’s not something I can hide from forever. I think it’s about building up courage and standing in the community and being proud, not scared. It’s a bad feeling when you feel like you’re not somebody you should be.

11. Would You Do The Pageant Again? And would you recommend it to others?

Yes, I would. I would recommend it, but I don’t know that people would want to do it. I don’t want to put the pageant in a bad light. The good qualities of the pageants should be kept—like the music lessons, touring CTA, meeting political prisoners and activists, and the lectures focusing on Tibetan politics. Maybe just have a better scoring system and a more open vote. Otherwise, I think the pageant itself is still good.

Director & Producer Norah Shapiro with Tenzin Khecheo (Photo credit: Euan Kerr)
Director & Producer Norah Shapiro with Tenzin Khecheo (Photo credit: Euan Kerr)

12. What does it mean to be Tibetan to you?

I know a lot of people say, “How are you Tibetan if you can’t read and write it?” Someone who is Tibetan has to question that because it’s about who you are as a person and your morals and ethics. Some people question me about not being “actively involved” and learning Tibetan language. It sometimes bothers me that I can’t read and write Tibetan, but I can’t let that get in the way. Feeling that I’m not Tibetan enough is when I feel that disconnect, but if you believe you’re Tibetan and work hard to make your goals come true, then you are Tibetan. It’s about your heart.

13. What does feminism mean to you? And does Tibetan feminism mean something different to you?

I never really labeled myself a feminist, but after going through Miss Tibet I realized that maybe I am. After the pageant ended I took a women’s studies class in school (with all girls and only one guy). We had this book we had to read about what feminism meant to each writer of each chapter. So the more I read and discussed in class I realized I always was a feminist but just never realized it. Feminism isn’t about making men look bad. 

I don’t think it matters if you’re a Tibetan feminist or a western feminist. I think there might be small differences, but it’s basically fighting for women’s rights and equality so women can do anything men can do. I think that applies to Tibetan feminism as well as western feminism. For example, if feminism is a tree, Tibetan feminism is a branch on the tree because it’s a different culture. But, overall, it’s feminism– whether you’re a Tibetan or a western feminist. And Tibetan feminism is like a new branch growing out so I’m excited to see how it’ll grow.

14. Is your mom a feminist?

Definitely. Yes. I think one reason I’m a feminist is because of my mom. She’s a single mom and after my parents divorced she had to take care of me and my sisters. But she never let that break her down. She was always strong and she never let that stop her from doing anything two parents do– like working double shifts and not getting enough sleep because of work because my dad would have been the one providing for us [before he died]. That’s when my feminist roots started, and I didn’t even know.

And also, I’m pretty sure my mom looked up to her mom the same way I looked up to her and got strength through her. My grandpa was in the Indian army and had eight kids, so she had to watch the kids by herself while he was on active duty. Two of her kids died and my mom had to watch her mom go through that growing up, just like I have to be a role model for my sisters.

15. Do you feel like there are certain challenges in the Tibetan community you have to face as a woman?

The whole feeling of disconnection is a huge problem because it prevents you from partaking in more Tibetan events and activities. The more you feel that, the more you get disconnected. I think, for Tibetans in exile, it’s not their fault they grew up in exile. Some are taking classes, going to Tibetan school, going into activism—yet, they still have that disconnection and don’t feel accepted. So I think that needs to be addressed because if they feel that way at a young age, then at some point they’ll stop trying. We have to make them feel stronger instead of making them feel outcast.

And especially because Tibetan women are more ambitious, they’re not having kids at a certain age anymore (my mom had me at 23, and I’m 23 and don’t have my life figured out right now). Even though they’re Tibetan, they should be able to do what they want with their life. The younger and older generations have conflicts even though you have older Tibetans saying they’re proud of young Tibetans. I think there should be more encouragement towards young people because, otherwise, they wont feel as confident in doing what they want to do.

(For more information, visit the Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile Facebook Page or follow @MissTibetDoc on Twitter)

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