For five decades, nobody from Burma competed at the Miss International beauty competition, until Nang Khin Zay Yar stepped onto the stage. Representing her country as Miss Myanmar at the international pageant in Japan last year, the 23-year-old earned a spot in Burmese history by taking home the Miss Internet award with 20 million online votes and the People’s choice award from Missosology, a news portal for international beauty pageants. Back in Burma now, Nang Khin Zay Yar, who is an ethnic Pa-O from Shan State, has a law degree but works as a tour guide and an active volunteer, while also making time for a future film project.
In this interview, she tells us about a stressful bikini photo shoot in Japan, the difference between beauty contests in Burma and abroad, and other lessons from her pageant days, while discussing her current work and her plans for the future.
Q: You graduated with a degree in law but decided not to become a lawyer. Why?
A: It’s just because I’m not very good at memorizing some things, like dates and years. I struggled sometimes at Taunggyi University [in Shan State], where I had to try really hard to memorize the legal acts and laws. If I were to work as a professional lawyer, I’d have to spend more time studying, because right now I only have general knowledge about legal practices. Lawyers serve a very important role, and I respect that; if I were to make a mistake on the job, perhaps making an error about a legal act, my judgment would be flawed and there could be consequences. That’s why I decided not to become a lawyer.
Q: But as a tour guide, you also need to memorize important historical dates, statistics and names, right?
A: Of course! As a tour guide, I have to read a lot and memorize a lot of information, but I’m really interested in this work. For me, explaining the history and culture of our country to tourists is much easier than memorizing laws. And I’m also really interested in traveling, which is why I chose to be a tour guide in the first place. I’ve worked as a tour guide since my second year at Taunggyi University.
Q: And how did you get involved in the Miss Myanmar competition?
A: I’ve been crazy about the prospect of modeling since I was a young girl, but my parents didn’t want me to become a model. While working as a tour guide with Exotissimo [travel company] in Rangoon, I gave up on modeling and decided to focus solely on being a tour guide. But one day I saw a billboard announcing the Miss Myanmar International contest, and I wanted to participate; I felt like I had a shot at pursuing my dreams. I entered the competition secretly, not telling my parents because I knew they’d never give me permission if I asked. I scored in the top 20 and moved on to the finals, which were held at the Myanmar Convention Center [in Rangoon]. I told my parents about this only after arriving at the center, and they were shocked. I won the Miss Myanmar crown that day.
Q: When you went to Japan for the Miss International pageant, did you think you’d have a shot at the title?
A: Of course I wanted to win the title, but I knew I wouldn’t get it because I have some weaknesses. Even so, I made up my mind that I would try my absolute best for the sake of my country, because I knew I was the first one [from Burma] to join an international beauty pageant in 50 years. Representing my country as Miss Myanmar at one of the biggest beauty pageants in the world, and receiving so much love and support from my fans, was already enough for me.
Q: What was your most memorable moment in Japan?
A: During the competition I was nervous about wearing a bikini, since I had never worn one before. We were told to take a photo in our bathing suits for the voting website, and I was trying to get ready, but I wasn’t sure how to present myself. I noticed that my roommate, Miss Mongolia, was putting makeup on her entire body, and I wondered if I should do the same, so I asked her for help.
After that, I was ready to go but too shy to walk into the studio room while I was so exposed, so I covered myself up with a scarf. In my group, I was the last person still standing in the fitting room—I was so shy to stand in front of the photographer, and to expose myself to possible criticism from fans for wearing the bikini. Later I reassured myself that I needed to wear the bathing suit for the contest, that I wasn’t doing anything bad by posing this way because the contest required me to. It was just for the contest. So, standing up there in front of the photographer, I tried to forget what I was wearing, pretending I was just in my normal casual clothes, and he was very impressed. “You’re very active,” he told me. “You’re very sweet.”
Q: How does Burma’s Miss Myanmar contest compare to international pageants?
A: There’s a huge difference. International beauty contest and pageants aren’t only about beauty, but also about intelligence, confidence, cleverness and proficiency. They choose a winner who’s really talented in a wide range of activities. The future Miss Myanmar contestants should not only care about their beauty, but should also try to enrich themselves. I think we need more practice answering questions and we need to build confidence in public speaking. I’m planning to cooperate with Ma Tin Moe Lwin [a successful model in Burma] to share my experience and provide some counseling for the upcoming Miss Myanmar contest this year.
Q: Since returning home, you have been actively involved in social work. Can you tell us why you started volunteering at the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS)?
A: Because I wanted to send a message that we’re all connected. Rich or poor, we are all human beings and we’ll all die one day. Most people would rather go to a wedding than a funeral, and here in Burma, many people are superstitious about funerals; some believe it’s important to wash themselves off after returning from the ceremony, while others refuse to rewear any clothes they wore to the cemetery. I just want to get rid of these superstitions. That’s why I decided to volunteer for the FFSS.
Q: I understand you’re currently filming some commercials. Will you be an actress as well?
A: I wanted to be an actress, I but still have a lot to learn about acting and no time, given my tight schedule with tour guide work, social work and other responsibilities. But U Kyaw Thu [an actor and director who founded FFS] told me that he wanted me to act in his new film, and all profits will go to charities. So I’ve accepted a role in that film but don’t know yet what character I’ll play or when we’ll start filming.
Q: If you had to choose just one career, which would you pick: tour guide or artist?
A: To be an artist is to depend on your luck and fame. If you’re getting old, you can’t be sure that you’ll still be able to make it as an artist. You have to give space to the next generation as well. I’ll try to work as an artist for as long as I can, but I’ll continue being a tour guide as well. Being a tour guide gives me a sense of security, because it’s a profession that depends on knowledge. Even when I get older, I can be a tour guide as long as I’m strong enough and willing.
Q: What advice would you give to your young fans?
A: Try hard and never give up. There’s a place for people who try their best. Sometimes we’ll face difficulties and it’ll get us down, like if we don’t achieve what we’re trying to do. But try again; keep going. There’s nothing like achieving a goal after working really hard to get it. The other thing is to be confident—but not overly confident—and have faith.