Living in the Information Age, our lives are strongly influenced by the Internet and social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other national online platforms such as Weibo (in China) and Zalo (in Vietnam) influence the ways we think and how we perceive ourselves and others. Beauty standards and the “image" of a personality, for example, are two constructs that are being promoted to an exceptional degree in the New Media Age. More specifically, social media platforms have spread “westernized” beauty and lifestyle standards around most parts of the world, influencing not only online social practices but also the offline world.
In this article, we will examine the case of Miss Vietnam 2014, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, whose sexualized appearance is shocking from the standpoint of most Vietnamese people, and whose public behavior is in stark contrast with the perceived standards of Miss Vietnam. However, when approached in the context of the now globalized script of sexualization and judged by people who are familiar with European and/or American culture and its standards, Ky Duyen can be seen as a successful celebrity.
Being a Miss Vietnam in the age of social media
Being a Miss Vietnam nowadays differs compared to the not-too-distant past since beauty standards have changed dramatically in recent years. Local Vietnamese culture and patterns of moral evaluation have changed due to the effects of globalization. Vietnamese people are now influenced by Western culture and the beauty ideals which are mostly promoted by international beauty contests, the fashion industry and social media platforms. As a consequence, the image of Vietnamese women has changed as well.
These days, an up-to-date beautiful Vietnamese woman is "Western-looking" with pale/white skin, a V-line face and full lips, dressed in high-fashion brand clothes, showing cleavage and placing emphasis on her body's shape through her choice of clothing. Consequently, people also apply these beauty standards on Miss Vietnam expecting that such a “Miss” has to look fashionable and more "westernized". These shifts in Vietnamese beauty standards also encompassed a more progressive stance towards women in bikinis as a woman showing her body has become less of a taboo. In fact, bikini contests now constitute majorly anticipated events in Vietnam.
In contrast with these open-minded perspectives on aspects of women's appearance, people still expect the beauty titleholders to be "moral", "well-behaved" and have a great reputation. After all, Miss Vietnam is still seen as the face of Vietnam and a model that many Vietnamese girls could look up to. These moral expectations are especially relevant in this digital age, when every single action can be recorded, displayed and shared, becoming a hot topic of discussion on social media. However, not all Misses Vietnam meet these public expectations. Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, Miss Vietnam 2014, is a concrete example of this.
Ky Duyen – an "abnormal" Miss Vietnam
Ky Duyen was crowned Miss Vietnam 2014, but she is better-known as a "Miss Scandal". She has been the subject of debate in mainstream media outlets and social media platforms, where it has been called into question whether she can hold the title and effectively be a representation of Vietnamese women.
Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen is greatly influenced by westernized beauty norms. She represents what is described through the term "baifumei" – “a woman who is attractive in a highly specific way (the white skin is critical) and who is, in addition, financially well-off” (Blommaert & Li, 2017)
Since she won her title, plenty of negative criticism has been surrounding Ky Duyen. The fact the she has undergone various facial contouring procedures and other kinds of cosmetic surgery has been argued to promote a fake lifestyle and an overly sexualized image. Her body is “the instrument of performance” painting her as a “Miss Trendy” and a member of the Genration Me.
Her body is “the instrument of performance” painting her as a “Miss Trendy” and a member of Generation Me.
It is also an external display of beauty for Miss Vietnam 2014 to show her “autobiography”, a collection of every story about herself displayed to “online audiences”. This act matches the key element in confession according to Foucault (2003): “speak the truth, do it consistently and frequently, and do it in the presence of evaluating others”.
Moreover, in the age of social media, Facebook and Instagram are invaluable tools which provide countless opportunities to describe and display our physical qualities in multiple formats: through words, pictures video, etc. It is easy to update our autobiography to follow the “like economy”, to attract attention, validation and likes from online audiences. Blommaert describes the cultural impact of these affordances under the lens of Foucault's work as follows: “Much of what we are invited to do on social media, I propose, revolves around the construction of a “permanent autobiography” in Foucault’s sense: a sequence of small and big veridictional narratives by means of which we show ourselves to others as “true”, “real”, “authentic” and – derived from that – “likable”, “cool”, “attractive” or what not” (Blommaert, 2017).
The year Ky Duyen was Miss Vietnam
Both her appearance and her manners did not meet the classic standards of Miss Vietnam. Ky Duyen had small eyes with a big gap between the eyebrows—her asymmetrical jaw was also very noticeable. Her body proportions were not impressive either, and her BWH measurement was below the average. All these factors made her coronation as Miss Vietnam very doubtful for many Vietnamese people.
Moreover, on top of her unattractive body (by Vietnamese standards) came her "bad manners". She insulted taxi drivers, mistreated her parents, and slept in an inappropriate position in a first class airport lounge, which is considered a public place in Vietnam. Ky Duyen also made a bad impression in public by showing up late to social events on many occasions.
But it doesn't stop there. Her school records and her grades for university admission came into question as well. In 2014, she gave a speech in front of thousands of students, teachers and journalists in "broken French". This was surprsing given the fact that she spent 7 years studying at a high school for the gifted specializing in French language.
After being a Miss Vietnam
After 2014, Ky Duyen has changed a lot about her face, body and style. She has been showing off a glamorous lifestyle with extremely expensive cars, clothes and accessories, which relates to her recognizability as a "baifumei" since “[the label] is easily associated with an extravagant, luxurious and mercenary lifestyle.” (Blommaert & Li, 2017).
More specifically, her Instagram, @kyduyen1311, contains multiple pictures of her in fancy clothes costing up toa billion Vietnam Dong, and more pictures of her on expensive trips around the globe: one day you see her in America and the next day she is having fun traveling in the Europe. Moreover, her obsession with showing body implies that her image is body-driven, "a code of carnal"—“[t]he body and its pleasures, rather than the required form for legitimate union, become, as it were, the code of the carnal.” (Foucault, 2003).
"The body and its pleasures, rather than the required form for legitimate union, become, as it were, the code of the carnal."
Furthermore, there have been a lot of stories about her personal dating life, including stories on how she dates millionaires in order to have money to support her fancy lifestyle, and sensationalistic stories on her dating her female best friend. The worst scandal around her name came in 2016 when pictures of her kissing a boyfriend in public, smoking and being high on laughing gas started circulating in public. This kind of behavior is seen as being completely against the image of a good Vietnamese woman, Vietnamese culture in general, and of course especially inappropriate for the reputation of a "Miss". Not only her own individual scandals but also scandals concerning her "BFF girl club", also obsessed with cosmetic surgeries and living the good life, became main topics in the press.
Restyling oneself as a “fashionista” and influencer
Such a series of "scandals" might have ended Ky Duyen's career immediately. However, Miss Vietnam 2014 quickly found a new direction in which to build the image and win the hearts of the public. Instead of justifying past mistakes, Ky Duyen made an effort to create a better future image. She quickly moved past the image of "Miss Scandal" to become one of the most popular fashion icons and altogether one of the most influential celebrities in the country. And the way she chose to rehabilitate her image was mainly through her social media representation.
When Ky Duyen made her first steps in the world of showbusiness, her choice of clothes was always evaluated as lacking in aesthetic touch. However, after some years of work in the entertainment industry, Ky Duyen's public fashion image became more curated. Her investment in clothing—minimalistic but luxurious—has made Ky Duyen's image more beautiful and turned here into a "fashionista", an apt follower of trends in fashion. Alongside her new fashionable image, she has started actively promoting a healthy lifestyle on social media,mostly on her Instagram, which has turned her into an influencer as well as a fashionista.
When looking at her street style, it is evident that Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen's fashion sense has been through fundamental changes. She has shown her ability to keep up with the trends as quickly as respected major Vietnamese celebrities such as Ho Ngoc Ha, Yen Trang, Pham Thanh Hang and others. Ky Duyen has now come to be considered the most fashionable Miss. On her social media accounts, she constantly puts on display an expensive wardrobe that many would envy. The accessories she dons, for example, are usually from famous brands like Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Hermes.
Through her Instagram pictures, online audiences can clearly notice a central aspect of her style: Ky Duyen focuses mostly on clothes that accentuate her figure. Her clothing choices are aimed at fitting her physique perfectly. The way she dresses amounts to a clever mix-and-match that shows sophistication, not merely empty "branding".
Being a model
Not only did she become a hot name on the street style race, but Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen also took over the runway when she started becoming the star of spectacular fashion shows. Her appearance in fashion shows of many famous designers such as Do Manh Cuong, Thuy Nguyen and
Adrian Anh Tuan has turned her image of "scandalous beauty" into one of a model with a professional attitude and excellent modeling skills. Famous designers constantly choose her to become the face of prestigious and prominent fashion projects.
Ky Duyen clearly does not come from a professional modeling training industry, and the fact that she is still young and does not have much experience in modeling might have made the public think that her background is lacking and might have hindered her efforts to change the direction of her career. However, Ky Duyen proved everyone wrong, confidently showing undeniable talent comparable to any famous model's as she constantly held the position of vedette in top fashion shows in Vietnam. Ky Duyen affirmed that she is a real model working in a critical position—a position that many models dream about. She always performed well when it came to presenting designers' concepts. Below are two appearances that showcase how she can be so successful as a model.
“Dreamy” show by designer Thuy Nguyen
In the fashion show that introduced Thuy Nguyen's "Dreamy" collection for the spring and summer of 2017 in the context of Vietnam's International Fashion Week, Miss Vietnam 2014 assumed the position of closing the show. Despite this being the first time Ky Duyen had taken the vedette position at the International Fashion Week, her appearance attracted much attention as she presented sophisticated modeling beauty with a sharp face and eyebrows thin as willow leaves.
"Her Legend - Legend of the woman" by Adrian Anh Tuan
On the 10-year anniversary of his brand, designer Adrian Anh Tuan organized the show “Her Legend - Legend of the woman” featuring many famous models. Ky Duyen was one of the most prominent faces there in her position as vedette.
This was not the first time Ky Duyen held this position, but on this occasion too she fascinated audiences with her perfect physique and superior spirit. Her wavy hair and her simple makeup in gentle orange tonesthat accentuated her eyes gave a luxurious aesthetic to her appearance.
Image changes: support and protest
After being publicly criticised for undergoing plastic surgery, Ky Duyen gradually became bolder in her styling choices by regularly choosing sexy clothes that showed off her physique. At first, the public was intrigued with the idea of an attractive and different Miss, since in the role of Miss Vietnam, women are seldom confident enough to choose revealing dresses with such deep cuts.
As Ky Duyen adopted such westernized beauty standards more and more, her sexiness started seeming offensive to Vietnam's traditional values. In a recent Instagram post featuring a revealing picture, many voiced explicit disapproval. Indeed, a large portion of the public seems to be offended by her images at the moment as it also isn't clear whether such rebellious behavior on Ky Duyen's part is a genuine expression of her personality or merely a curated media image.
Today, after all the changes Ky Duyen has made to her image, her actions remain controversial. Many among the younger generations who are active on social media and the internet in general are in favor of her image, regarding it as an acceptable change for women's image in modern society. As the youth are increasingly exposed to "Western" cultural values on lifestyle and entertainment through the Internet and mainstream media, younger Vietnamese people are more inclined to find Ky Duyen's image acceptable as it isn't shocking to them. Some even see her as a role model that represents the Vietnamese woman of the 21st century: beautiful, independent, successful and with a strong personality.
As a traditional dress, Ao Dai constitutes a statement for traditional Vietnamese beauty: women can look elegant and charming even fully clothed.
Still, the older generation's attitude towards the Miss remains unfavorable. The new image of Miss Vietnam 2014 is considered offensive by older audiences, who believe that she is trying to sexualize the cultural norms surrounding women's beauty causing a degeneration of traditional Vietnamese values. As traditional Vietnamese beauty norms are about being reserved, tender and natural, they expect a woman that represents the Vietnamese beauty standard to wear modest clothing such as “Ao Dai”, the traditional Vietnamese dress. "Ao Dai is a great work of art of the nation. In addition to the elegant beauty and structure, the hidden meanings are taught about "proper behavior" of the ancesors. Ao Dai is also a result of the national identity and spirit of Viet Nam" (Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, 2015). In this dress, the woman is supposed to look attractive, soft, and reserved yet can still show her sexiness because the material is supposed to embrace the body curves without revealing much of the body parts. As a traditional dress, Ao Dai constitutes a statement for traditional Vietnamese beauty: women can look elegant and charming even fully clothed. Having gone against such cultural standards in constructing her public image, Ky Duyen has received plenty of criticism and disapproval by traditionally-minded audiences.
Miss Vietnam 2014
Miss Vietnam 2014 always knows how to stir up public debate. At present, Ky Duyen's public demeanor has grown more "mature" and "reserved" and she is now rarely reported on as "scandalous". Still, no other Miss Vietnam has been the object of the public's attention as much as her, and she retains this status. News on her are still hotly discussed, both in a negative and in a positive light. Now, five years after her coronation, it is safe to say that Ky Duyen has become and still is one of the hottest and most influential names in the Vietnamese entertainment industry despite her many troubles.
Blommaert, J. (28 April, 2017). Small genres of veridiction: the Twitter profile.
Foucault, M. (2003). Abnormal: lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975 (Vol. 2). Macmillan.
Li, K., Blommaert, J. (2017). The care of the selfie: Ludic chronotopes of baifumei in online China. Tilburg University: Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies.
Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. (11 June, 2015). Vietnamese traditional dresses (Ao Dai) - symbol of Vietnamese culture.