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By Brandon Griggs
On her first full day in Thailand to fulfill her lifelong dream of competing in an international beauty pageant, Camille Anderson wrapped a day of glamorous photo shoots and returned to her hotel room.
And burst into tears.
Maybe it was all too much.
Twenty-five years earlier she had been Mark, an effeminate boy trying on his mother’s clothes in a small city in the Philippines.
Now she was Camille, a grown woman preparing to represent the United States in Miss International Queen, the leading global pageant for transgender women, where she was competing against two dozen beauty queens from around the world.
She was jet-lagged and fighting a cold. Sure, she’d won beauty pageants back home in Los Angeles, but this was another level. The other contestants all looked gorgeous.
“I felt nervous and intimidated,” Anderson said.
That was nine days ago. Now, on the eve of Friday night’s pageant, she feels more optimistic about her chances.
“You walk in heels day and night. It’s like a test,” she told CNN. “But you have to be able to handle this, because you’re going to be in the spotlight. Whatever happens, this is an experience I will never forget.”
‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’
Childhood in Tacloban City, Philippines, was a confusing time for the boy known as Mark Cordeta.
He preferred playing with girls. By age 8 or 9 he was sneaking into his mom’s closets to try on her heels or bras.
“I always felt like I was different,” Anderson said this week.
His devoutly Catholic family knew he was different, too. They thought he was gay. But nobody really talked about it.
“It was like a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ thing. I was always afraid of what my family would say, and what other people would say.”
So to minimize being bullied at school he buried his true self and tried to act straight. Not until he immigrated to the United States at age 21 did he begin to show more of a feminine side in public.
Two years later, he began transitioning to becoming a woman. It was a gradual process at first. Eventually he began hormone treatments and had breast implants. And Mark became Kim, complete with a legal name change.
The transition created some distance at first between Kim and her parents, who by then were divorced and living in Los Angeles. She found herself acting differently around them than with her friends.
“I felt like I was living two lives,” said Anderson, who asked to be identified by her pageant name.
But they adjusted and became supportive. And in 2013 Anderson married her boyfriend, Marco Hudec, in a glamorous outdoor ceremony.
He was the one who encouraged her to compete in beauty pageants.
“I never had the confidence (before),” said Anderson, who now lives in Torrance, California, and works as a registered nurse. “He believes in me more than I believe in myself.”
Camille proved to be a natural. Within two years she had won three local and national pageants: Miss Los Angeles Pride 2014, Queen USA 2014 and Queen of the Universe 2015.
She got to meet Caitlyn Jenner. And her previous crowns qualified her for the big one.
It was time to go to Thailand for Miss International Queen.
‘I don’t want to be an activist’
For the uninitiated, pageants for transgender women are not that different from other beauty pageants.
There’s an evening gown competition and a swimsuit competition, and finalists are asked about their hopes and dreams by a panel of judges. Winners wear a tiara and carry flowers.
There is one key difference, though. Most traditional beauty queens haven’t faced discrimination, or worse.
“Many of the contestants have had trouble being accepted by their families. So we’re trying to bring up their self-esteem,” said Alisa Phanthusak, chair of Miss International Queen’s pageant committee. “It’s not just beauty we are looking for. It’s confidence.”
Miss International Queen, held annually since 2004 in Pattaya City on Thailand’s coast, is open to female contestants between the ages of 18 and 36 who were born male. They must represent either the country of their birth or the one listed on their passport.
Gender-reassignment surgery is not required, and most contestants haven’t done it. Anderson is considering the surgery but hasn’t made up her mind.
Winners of Miss International Queen have gone on to movie, TV and singing careers in Asia and elsewhere. The only past American winner, Mimi Marks, has been a regular at the Baton, a drag club in Chicago.
For Anderson, the past week in Thailand has been a blur of costume fittings, media interviews and other appearances. Her husband, Marco, is with her, although her parents couldn’t make the trip.
At 36, she is the oldest of the two dozen women competing this week. Anderson is a little anxious about the swimsuit part — she has a scar on her stomach from a childhood surgery — but she feels better about the message she’s sending to young LGBT people who may be watching.
“I don’t want to be an activist. But if you become a beauty queen you become a role model,” she said.
“There’s a lot of visibility for our (transgender) community these days. But there also are a lot of people who will hate, so you have to stay strong. Our voices are being heard now more than before. It’s just going to take a while.”