“The entire country is fascinated by beauty pageants – Miss Universe, in particular – but for the longest time all we can see are beauty queens from other neighbouring countries, such as the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia,” said By Sotheary, Miss Cambodia 2016.
“For Cambodians, it really was a historic moment. For the first time, we had a contestant that walked the coveted runway in Las Vegas, underneath our flag,” she continued. “And to be a part of that was truly an honour for me.”
Although By was unplaced in this year’s competition, which was held last week in Las Vegas, she said it really didn’t bother her that she did not go on to win. “It was so exciting to be around all these beautiful and intelligent women from all across the world,” she said.
“The one thing that made a difference was the number of contestants. This year, representatives from 92 countries participated. Usually the number of contestants is around 80,” continued By.
“This included debuts by Laos, Nepal, even Iraq, so the pressure was definitely on.”
The pressure was colossal for By, who had dreamed about becoming the winner of the world’s most prestigious beauty pageant since she began her career as a part-time model. Born in Phnom Penh in 1998, she dabbled in modelling to put herself through school.
“I had to drop out for two years because I couldn’t afford to go to school,” she said. “At first that was the goal, but then as time went on I realised that if I continued to discipline and train myself, I could be that person who would represent Cambodia for the first time in the competition.”
By kept her focus and her perseverance paid off. Six years after her debut as a model, she won the coveted Miss Cambodia crown in 2016, which put her on the road to Miss Universe 2017.
“Ultimately it did not bother me at all that I remained unplaced. The fact of the matter remains, I am the first Cambodian representative to compete in his competition,” said By. “At least now I can say, at least to myself, that I opened the way for Cambodians to compete in Miss Universe – I am a part of history.”
It is hard to not be taken by By’s candour. She is radiant and she projects an aura of confidence when she speaks of her experiences in Vegas after she competed.
“Forget about the Strip, I went shopping instead and looked for Asian food,” said By, who admitted that she had notified the Miss Universe organisers that she requires rice in her daily diet.
“It’s a shame I didn’t get to see more of the country – the current US visa restrictions [on Cambodian citizens] meant that I had to go home before I had the chance to see everything that I wanted.”
And for some time the conversation centered around the candid and confident By, but the woman next to her deserves just as much attention. Rern Nat is the winner of Miss Cambodia 2017, and if everything goes accordingly, she is set to follow in By’s footsteps to become Cambodia’s second representative in the Miss Universe pageant.
Rern radiates a different kind of persona. In stark contrast to the cheerful By, Rern is timid and quiet. Throughout the conversation she occasionally nodded, courteously smiled, but said very little. While By is unafraid to insert herself into a conversation to make a point, Rern is more reserved.
“I haven’t undergone the communications and public speaking training that By had to go through for a year before she even competed,” explained Rern.
“This is where people often forget that Miss Universe and other similar pageants are not simply about beauty,” she said.
“There is a multitude of training that a contestant has to undergo before qualifying, which is very rarely publicised.”
By concurred and, still as candid as ever, she jumped into the conversation.
“A lot of people don’t realise that this is a very complicated process. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance,” she said.
“It is also about intelligence and inner beauty.
“We have to prove to the world that beauty isn’t only skin deep – we have to be able to show that we do have a real passion for a cause,” said By. “Just by being able to compete, we are role models for women out there, that as women we are not just objects to be admired, that we can do something for the betterment of society.”
For By, she chose education as a focus for her social work – a decision that she made based on her own experiences as a teenager.
“I’ve had to fend for myself and work to put myself through school, so I’ve been doing my charity work through NagaWorld Kind Hearts programme, to assist needy children by providing them with stationery and uniforms so they can continue with their education,” she said.
Rern, meanwhile, has yet to choose a cause to dedicate herself to.
“I think I would focus on women’s empowerment,” said Rern, who continued to explain that just like By, her decision is influenced by her own lived experiences as a child.
Born in Kampong Cham in 1995, Rern was raised in poverty by her mother.
“My mother has had to struggle throughout her life, my life as a child was a struggle,” she explained.
“I had to work really hard to lift my family from poverty since I was 14, which is especially challenging for poor Cambodian women.
“Inequality is still very much an issue, and this is where I would like to focus my advocacy work on,” said Rern. “I want to focus on this growing gap between the rich and the poor, and to empower women, to let them know that they too, can make a difference.”
While the path to Las Vegas for Rern has yet to be confirmed, like By before her, she has already started to improve her skills. Rern is working hard to improve her English proficiency and is putting her head down to improve her general knowledge. But unlike her predecessor, Rern has the advantage of having a mentor.
“It is good that I can work together with By. After all, I wanted to win this competition not just for me, but for my country,” she said.
“But even right now, I’m still finding my voice, and I hope that I can find that inspiration soon.”
As they wrapped up their dinner, By offered her advice to the fledgling beauty queen.
“Be yourself and be confident,” she said. “We have to put all our heart and soul into the competition because as [Rern] said, this competition is not just about ourselves, but also for the nation.”
“Also, always remember that we have the burden to prove that Cambodian women are not just beautiful, but kind-hearted,” finished By.
“Our sincerity, I believe, is what makes us beautiful as Cambodian women.”