They came laden with sequins and satin, their make-up bags bursting with thick mascara and bright pink rouge.
Thirty of Thailand's prettiest transvestites arrived in the beach resort of Pattaya to compete for the crown of Miss Tiffany's Universe, a nationally televised beauty pageant that grips the kingdom every year.
AdvertisementThis year it was Kangsadarn Wongdusadeekul, known by her stage name "Nonk," who tearfully accepted the crown.
Nonk, who grew up on a military base, particularly impressed the panel of judges during her question round.
Asked if she would be happy to join the army as a man, she told the audience: "Last year, I went to register as a soldier but my figure had changed, so the government did not let me.
"We are beautiful -- so we have no need to be soldiers," she said, getting the biggest laugh of the night.
Each of the finalists stand at more than 170 centimetres (five foot seven inches) without their six-inch heels. They have figures most women would die for at an average 34, 25, 36, and most are educated to degree level.
Winning brings considerable financial reward: 100,000 baht (3,200 US dollars), which is equivalent to a year's wages for a factory worker, and a car.
But with the cost of a single pageant dress at least 10,000 baht, winning Miss Tiffany is about more than the prizes.
Most of the transvestites parading across the glitter-filled stage said they were seeking social acceptance.
"Miss Tiffany has given me a chance to show my transvestite power to the world," finalist Pairaya Siripreeya told AFP shortly before taking the stage.
"Thailand doesn't offer a chance to transvestites, but Miss Tiffany Universe will give me a chance to show my power, my knowledge."
Alisa Phanpusak, one of the organisers, told AFP: "This kind of pageant gives transvestites the chance to show what talent and beauty they have. Everyone is the same, you can't discriminate."
Winners often forge careers as television presenters and the faces of beauty products.
Miss Tiffany 2004, Treechada Malayaporn, known as Polly, helped to present Friday night's show. She is now a successful actress and television presenter.
"Everyone thought I was a real girl before Miss Tiffany but after that everybody knew me as I am, a ladyboy," she told AFP.
"Everything changed. Now I'm studying international law. I just want to be someone who is clever and socially accepted."
Private expression of sexuality has long been accepted in Thailand, and has been celebrated in popular Thai films, such as "Beautiful Boxer."
But according to Philip Cornwel-Smith, who wrote "Very Thai," a chronicle of Thai pop culture, the import of Western values has created problems of discrimination.
"Thais view social difference as a private matter but in the West it is regarded as public and they make an issue of it," Cornwel-Smith told AFP.
"Asians feed on Western culture all the time ... and want to appear 'civilised' in Western eyes so their moral standards are shifting."
Still, Thailand's underlying acceptance of gender's "third way" is winning through.
Earlier this year, a transvestite won a public apology from a hotel in Bangkok after she was denied entry by a security guard.
In March, a military law that classed transvestites as "mentally disturbed" was overturned, although they are still barred from serving.
Nonk said she was lucky to have been accepted by her military family, who tell friends she is their daughter. They keep few photos of Nonk as a boy.
"They said I can be whatever I want to be so long as I take care of myself and other people," she told AFP after the contest.
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