Shimmering in a tight gold evening gown, a Japanese television host wept and called for greater tolerance as she was crowned the world's most beautiful transsexual at a pageant in Thailand.
Haruna Ai, 37, beat off stiff competition from 20 other glamorous contestants at the Miss International Queen 2009 who came to the Thai beach resort of Pattaya from as far as Brazil and the United States.
"I am very, very, very happy," a tearful Ai told AFP minutes after the previous title holder carefully placed a faux-diamond tiara on her head.
"I want contests like this to show everyone that they should love each other and live freely. The way of life in Japan is more traditional and transsexuals cannot live freely, but in Thailand they can do what they want," she said.
The contest, which was called off last year because of political turmoil in Thailand, is taken just as seriously as more traditional pageants in a nation famed for its sexual tolerance.
Millions of Thais watched live on television late Saturday as the statuesque beauties -- all of them born men -- strutted their stuff at Tiffany's Show Pattaya, billed as the world's largest transsexual cabaret.
The first round saw them in kitschy national dress, with a US contestant resplendent in a feathered native American costume and a British entrant donning a Beefeater outfit with black satin leggings and Busby hat.
The lights then sank low as the contestants paraded elegant evening gowns and later modelled pink swimsuits, while giant fluorescent kites soared over the stage.
Japan's Ai won 10,000 dollars, a year's stay at a Pattaya hotel and a 500-dollar surgical voucher after judges picked her over runners-up Karngsadal Wongdusadeekul from Thailand and Daniela Marques of Brazil.
While the audience may have whooped and cheered raucously, contestants and organisers said there was a serious side to the pageant -- boosting public awareness of transgender issues.
"An event like this for us is something I can only hope for in the United States," said US contestant Sunny Dee-Lite, 32, a party promoter from New York City who won the best evening gown gong.
Many participants had stories of discrimination.
Maggie Gao, from China, earlier this year won Miss World Shenzhen, a women's beauty pageant in the southern Chinese city -- but it then emerged that she was a man and the organisers withdrew her title.
"So I am very glad that Miss International Queen has given me the chance to take part," the 27-year-old ballet dancer from Shanghai told AFP backstage before the contest.
Camilia Dzelma, 22, from Singapore, said her Muslim family had accepted her as she is and called for more transgender beauty pageants.
"I am here to open up things and show the world that I am not a freak," said Dzelma, a children's dance instructor at a government-run school.
"These competitions reduce discrimination. My family is Muslim but they do not care about what my identity is as long as they know that I am happy. My mum just called me and wished me good luck," she said.
Thailand's laws have failed to keep up with the country's tolerant reputation.
Transsexuals in Thailand complain that they are legally discriminated against because they cannot change their gender on their ID cards, while new rules on waiting periods have been imposed for sex-change operations.
"In Thailand, after they operate they are physically a woman but legally a man. In the US and Britain and other countries they can change their passport so they are a woman," said Alisa Phanthusak, one of the contest organisers.
Thai contestant Sorawee Nattee, who won the domestic version of the pageant in May, said that she had been drafted for military service despite having had a sex-change.
"But when I went to the drafting centre looking like this, like a girl, with boobs, they told me to go away," the 21-year-old said.
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