“Beauty pageants often represent girls who just want to look good wearing so much makeup and all the jewelry,” said Lee, a second-generation South Korean who majored in business management with a concentration in global business. “But I, and many of the other girls in this particular pageant, entered this pageant to share with the world part of my family’s history, not to tell the world that I’m beautiful.”
Virgelia Productions hosts numerous cultural pageants, including Miss Latina global, where more than 50 pageant participants are not only expected to do the usual dance numbers and stage walks but also demonstrate love for their culture. Virgelia Productions has been hosting these pageants for 32 years but caught Lee’s eye back in 2011 when Jacqueline Kim became the first Korean American to win the pageant. Lee read Kim’s story in the monthly San Diego Korean American Community Magazine, and since then, she’s had her eyes set on the pageant.
“There aren’t a lot of people in the Korean community within San Diego, so we’re tightly knit,” said Lee, who has been an active member of her community and Korean church since middle school. “If one of us joins a pageant like this, the whole community finds out about it. And when a member of our own community won the pageant, it inspired not just me, but so many of us.”
Already passionate about her family’s heritage, Lee says there was an event at the pageant that stood out above all the cultural performances — the National Costume Competition — where Lee took on the wore a white Korean queen-styled dress, covered in Swarovski crystals, and fashioning a tall golden-leaf headpiece. The costume tells the story of a fallen mythical angel from Korean folklore who escapes back to the sky despite having her wings stolen by a deceitful human man.
“I’m a very quiet and shy person by nature, so there’s not a lot of areas in my everyday life to express my voice or speak up and be heard,” said Lee. “But getting to bring that story to life within this piece of fabric, in front of such a big audience, I truly felt at that moment that I was Korean and that was probably the most emotional moment in my life.”
Following in Kim’s footsteps, Lee earned the pageant’s title of Miss Global Ambassador and in the past couple months has attended Oscar gala dinners, Lunar New Year celebrations, global film festivals and more to network with culture-based fashion designers, business owners as well as nonprofit and even medical field workers to both be a representative for minority communities and offer help with fundraising and organizing charity events.
“I’ve met a lot of business owners who really want to change the world and give their culture a voice,” said Lee, who recently took part in a fashion show to raise awareness for a local nonprofit against domestic violence. “Knowing that I now have a part to play and a platform to use to helping these people achieve their goals, it’s very eye-opening.”
She added: “This experience has made me a better version of myself and introduced me to people who are all just trying to make a difference in any small way. Being able to offer real support to them, it’s a beautiful cycle.”