Miss Bhutan Universe, Tashi Choden, 23

Breaking stereotypes and conventions: Miss Universe Bhutan

Bhutan, which is still seen as a deeply traditional country across the world, will be sending a Miss Bhutan to the Miss Universe Pageant, who is openly Gay, is of mixed ethnicity and despite losing both her parents at a young age, has achieved so much on her own terms.

A tragic childhood

The story of Miss Bhutan Universe, Tashi Choden, 23, does not start in Bhutan but in the Indian state of Nagaland where she was raised by her Bhutanese mother and a Tibetan Khampa father for the first three years of her life.

Her mother, Kinley Wangmo, was from Shaa region in Domkha village in Wangduephodrang, ran a shop in Bajo town, and used to come to Thimphu to fetch supplies for her business. In one of her trips, she met Tashi’s father, Chombal, who was a Tibetan Khampa businessman from Nagaland on a business trip to Thimphu.

It was love at first sight, and the businessman stayed on for a year in Thimphu until the couple married and eventually all moved to Nagaland along with their new born daughter.

At the age of three, Tashi and her mother moved back to Wangdue, as the father had to constantly travel for business, leaving the two mainly alone.

Tragedy struck as at the tender age of four when Tashi lost her father to an illness, and ten years later, her mother also succumbed to an illness, when Tashi was just 14 years old.

“They had some medical issues. Their tried their best to hold on, but they passed away,” said Tashi.

When Tashi came back to Bhutan with her mother she said her maternal aunty and grandmother recalled her only being able to speak some Hindi and Naga language with no Dzongkha.

Losing both her parents at a tender age was a major blow for her, as it would be for any person, but she had support in the form of her maternal aunty, maternal grandmother and her stepfather and her two half siblings (a 13-year-old half-sister and 10-year-old half-brother).

She said, “It was a difficult period for me. I am the oldest, and so I had to pick up the pieces and make it work, and be an example (to her siblings).”

Tashi did her schooling at Wangdue Lower Secondary School, Bajothang Higher Secondary School, Ugyen Academy and then finishing with Utpal Academy.

Modeling

Tashi’s tryst with modeling started at the age of 15 while on a trip to Thimphu where she came across ‘Project Bhutan’ for models, started by Paljor Gyabak, a model himself, who had success in India.

Tashi said she was asked by Paljor if she is interested is modeling, and she developed a passion for it from that age and started taking part in shows and even pageants. She started doing shows even outside Bhutan, like the North-East Fashion Week, and she even won a Miss Indo-Bhutan pageant.

She also took part in Miss Asia and made it to the Top 15. Apart from commercial modeling assignments and pageants, she took part in Bhutanese movies, like Singye and Nyingtob. 

Tashi said initially she would go back and forth between Wangdue and Thimphu for work, but given her work in Thimphu, she decided to take a small apartment for herself and stay here. She now calls herself a ‘Thimphu girl.’

Coming out

On her sexual orientation, Tashi was among the first few people in Bhutan to come out publicly and she did so at the age of 15.

“Initially, I am came out as a bisexual person on my Facebook account, but as I did more research and reading, I realized that I am actually a woman comfortable in my body and attracted to other women,” said Tashi.

She said sometimes as a kid she used to be called a tomboy, but that is not how she identifies herself.

Tashi said she is not trans, as she is comfortable with her body, but it depends on the emotions and moods she is going through. There are days where she feels very feminine and she dresses up in a very feminine way with full make up and everything, and there are other days she feels more masculine or wants to feel in control, and that is when she dresses in a more masculine or boyish way.

When asked about the reactions of her coming out, she said that she was not very nervous, as at the time, she was not a public figure, and she thought she would get through with it and not many people would know.

She received positive reactions from her friends who congratulated her, and they said that they kind of knew it as she gave a certain vibe.

The only struggle was to come out to her own family, which she did on the International Pride Day on 2 June 2021. She said her family is very conservative minded, and the reaction was strong form her aunty and grandmother, but after a month or two, they also accepted the fact.

She said she and her female partner spend time together and do things that couples do, but they also give each other space and she has her own place. Tashi’s partner has also come out to a few of her family members. Her partner is into sports and plays basketball, but also does part time work and assignments.

College

Another area where Tashi has broken convention is that despite completing high school she has not yet gone to college.

“For me, I did not want to go to college as I have never been a bookish person, and I would rather have some experiences and achievements before going to college,” said Tashi.

She said there is no financial constraint on her, but she is working on some projects lined up which she would like to focus on, the main one being the Miss Universe Pageant.

“I feel like I can go to college when I am 30 or 40, or even end up having a baby and going to college after that,” said Tashi.

However, despite her lack of a college degree, Tashi is fluent in English, and is well spoken and mature, and comes across as someone who knows herself and her environment well.

When asked about this, Tashi said that while growing up, despite seeming to be an extrovert, she was actually a very introvert person, and she kept a diary where she expressed her feelings and emotions.

She said she was always into literature and loved poems, writing and debating, and made it a point to participate in all those events in school.

Identity

In terms of her identity, Tashi says her ‘official name’ is Tashi Choden given to her by her aunty and grandmother, but she considers her real name to be Tashi Chombal Dorji. Chombal is in honor of her late biological father, and Dorji is in honor of her Bhutanese step-father who met and married her widow mother, years after her biological father passed away.

In terms of her mixed ethnic heritage, she said that she always looked a bit different from her friends, and when she was small her late father and mother lovingly called her ‘Naley Pem’ for her tanned skin complexion. With her tanned skin and her unconventional looks, she would be often mistaken for a Lhotsamph model.

She said that she inherited her looks from her parents, but it was always a struggle, not looking more ‘Bhutanese’ but that also helps her to stand out a little, and she is now much more comfortable in her looks. 

Tashi said after her win, her family is planning a celebration for the relatives in Thimphu, and though it has been a while, she also plans to go back to Shaa village in Domkha and pray to the local deity of Agey Radap for her Miss Universe journey, as there is a strong belief that if people pray to him, he will support them.

Miss Universe

On her win she said, “When the stars are aligned that is when you hit home. It has been quite a few years since I lost touch doing pageants, as I worked on other projects. A lot of people think I had an advantage due to my experience, but I don’t think so as every contestant was worthy. To be honest, I was surprised to win after having quite a bad command over Dzongkha, but it was a learning experience for me, and I will go on and work to be worthy of the title.”

Tashi said she will be doing her interviews and other local social commitments in June, and her full preparations for the Miss Universe Pageant would begin from July 2023.

Tashi said that you need to have a social cause to represent, as that is how people know about you and you have to make a videography on it.

“I have had some discussions with sir Karma Tshering, and my first priority is on the LGBTIQ community and Pride for the community, and after that we can have more discussions with sir Karma.”

She, however, said that the real social commitments and other work would be more after the Miss Universe Pageant gets over.

Advice for young girls and the youth

Tashi also has some important advice for young girls who want to get into modeling or the fashion industry.

“When I first stepped into the industry, it was without knowing about the spotlight and how toxic it can get, as there are times you think you are not good enough. People think you are perfection, but people get that wrong.”

She said she went through her owns self-doubt and self-critique at the young age of 15, and she did not get the right guidance.

Tashi said it is important for girls to be strong, brave and aware, and know that the most beautiful thing is the inner beauty. She said girls should know how to handle the spotlight with elegance and grace, and be able to stand on your own feet.

She said it is most important to have self-love and acceptance.

On her message to the youth, she said it is important to find the voice to speak up, and due to the fact that she did not have things easy and laid out for her, the dark and hard moments that she went through has enabled her to appreciate her life now.

“When you dream of something in life, it is important to work hard and struggle, but also to believe in yourself and be true to yourself,” Tashi said. 

“Grab the small opportunities, as it happened to me. I took up modeling as a hobby in my free time, and I ended up winning Miss Bhutan Universe 2022,” she said, and further added, “Be proud of what you have achieved, and who you are and have self-love and acceptance. Every morning complement yourself, and you will note the difference that it makes.”

On certain rumors of adoption, Tashi said she has heard about it but she cannot remember such a time, and the current family is the only one she grew up with, and so it must not be true.

Support needed

Founder and Director of Miss Bhutan Universe, Karma Tshering, said that Bhutan was accepted into the Miss Universe Pageant only after years of communication from his side, and an interview of the technical team.

He said one of the requirements of the Miss Universe Pageant was a USD 12,000 license fee for which he first requested Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) as the relevant body since the event would showcase Bhutan, but the TCB turned him down. He then approached DHI  but was also turned down. Finally, he did receive the support, but the person or the institution behind the move does not want to be revealed.

Karma said the event is likely to happen in the Bahamas, and will entail other expenses like travel and also a month’s worth of events and various dresses required for it before the final event. He said he is looking for corporate and other sponsors on that front for Bhutan’s first ever foray into the Miss Universe Pageant.

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