For a few weeks during the recent Christmas/New Year holidays, Thailand was visited by the reigning Mrs District of Columbia (Washington DC), from the Mrs America Pageant.
In this sense, she has bust through the ‘bamboo ceiling’ of American beauty pageants. So this crown is quite a notable accomplishment for Asian Americans, and serves as a marker for Thai representation abroad.
A businesswoman too, not just a beauty, Gift actively works with the Asian American Chamber of Commerce to develop Asian businesses in DC.
Beautiful, intelligent, humble and polite, Gift is perfect for doing promotions for Americans to come to Thailand for tourism. And this is why she was here during the New Year holidays, visiting Chiangmai, Phuket, Bangkok, and several other destinations - promoting Thai destinations in an unofficial capacity for the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Gift speaks Thai and English, and is a self made entrepreneur who was born into a poor rice farming family in Esarn. With her cultural and career successes in America, Gift can be an inspiration for many people from the grassroots of Thai society.
The world has changed from the time that a world class beauty such as Pui (Pornthip) had to come to Thailand to be crowned Miss Thailand before going on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant - even though she was American. Thais and Asians used to have far less chance in the US to be stars.
But now, Gift Hughes shows us that through hard work, perseverance, humility, and intelligence, that we can all knock on the doors of opportunity, and be seen - right there in the USA.
Shattering the Bamboo Ceiling
American beauty pageants are becoming increasingly more diverse. Previously, during 70 years of Miss USA contests plus 100 years of Miss America competitions, among 170 winners, only three ladies of Asian heritage were crowned.
However, in the last two years, Asian American beauties have exploded onto the scene. On the state level, Mrs District of Columbia 2021 and Mrs District of Columbia 2022 are both Asian, as well as Mrs Maryland 2022. Additionally, Miss Texas USA 2022 and Miss Texas America 2022 are both Asian. And on 14 January 2023, the Filipino-American Miss USA was crowned Miss Universe 2023.
2022 was a banner year, with all three of the top national pageant winners being of Asian heritage.
- Macel Leilani Wilson, Miss USA 1962
- Mai Shanley, Miss USA 1984
- Brook Lee, Miss USA & Miss Universe 1997
- Angela Perez Baraquio, Miss America 2001
- R'Bonney Gabriel, Miss USA 2022 & Miss Universe
- Faron Medi, Miss Teen USA 2022
- Emma Broyles, Miss America 2022
In the midst of all this, we had a visit in Thailand by the Thai born Gift Hughes, who holds the crown of Mrs District of Columbia 2022.
From Esarn farm to American beauty queen
Life by Design, Not by Default
“They have only experienced a good life in the US, which is much more of a luxury life than when I grew up in Khon Kaen, Thailand. I want them to understand the path to a meaningful life.
“When I was young, my family lived on a farm. I was the seventh kid in the family, so nobody paid me any attention. Where we lived, people had a lot of kids, and this was great for free labour.
“I was raised by my grandmother, and I remember crying for attention. Because we didn’t have electricity, the house was very dark, so we would go to bed at sunset and get up at sunrise. We used candles to see in the evenings, and we went out early every day to take care of the animals. Our farm had dogs, cats, chickens, and ducks. We used the buffaloes to work the rice fields, and the cows to carry items from the house.
“I remember that my first picture was taken when I was five or six years old and I had short hair. My dad got a job in construction in Saudi Arabia, so one day, my mom said: ‘Let’s go take pictures and send to your dad!
“After the rice planting and harvesting was done, we would grow bananas and watermelons to sell at the market. My mother was always trying to work jobs and sell things. I learned how to make money, from her. I want to tell my children that it is important to have Motivation.
“Opportunity doesn’t run to you; you have to move toward your goal. What you have to do to be successful - is to believe. I see what I’d like to become, and I always improve myself. I see what is new, and I adapt, I educate myself. This is my expertise. I always grow.
“I first got to Washington DC by following my sister. I had only $300. We shared a room with Laotians, and I worked in a Thai restaurant until I graduated. My sister met her husband at this time, and he became an orthodontist. So I studied for a certificate so that I could work with him as his assistant.
“Then, I met my husband and got married. When my daughter was born, I started to study real estate, so that I could work part time and spend time with my children. But then sometime after my son was born, my work got so busy that my husband quit his job to join my real estate business.
“The secret to my success in real estate is to provide the best service to clients. I love helping people. That is how we become friends. My clients come from referrals. I have 12 years’ experience, so I have serviced several types of clients: Divorce, Moving up, Luxury, and Investment The post pandemic market in 2023 is different. But DC is still the best investment, because DC is the capital of the free world.
“I have reached a plateau, so in my personal life, I feel very happy. On the business side, I feel that I would like to raise the ceiling of my accomplishments, and I have plans for that. But it is now time to give back to the community. I am looking for better opportunities to do different things in all areas of my life.
“For community contributions, I help the charities working on issues that I am familiar with. I know two people who died of cancer, so I help to raise funds for survivors of cancer. During Covid, I helped to raise funds for the Wish List of Cancer patients and survivors. We live close to the Frying Pan farm park, so I help them.
“During Covid, the gyms were closed, so we had to run outside. The Fairfax County government workers needed facilities, so I helped to raise funds. I also support Women Giving Back, which is similar to Goodwill.
“Being an entrepreneur, I have learned that if we don’t take action, nobody else is going to do it for us.
“My kids may wonder why their mom had the idea to be a model, starting at the age of 40. I wanted to show them that everything is possible. A pageant title is not easy to get.
“To be successful, in pageants as well as in life, we have to not be afraid to do something outside of our comfort level. I didn’t want to just be focused on making money. I have come a long way from those childhood days on the farm in Esarn. I want to enjoy life, and I am content to give back to the community through charities, helping people to be better.
“We need to be open, to go with the flow, but we should live life by design, not by default.”