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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

From Hmong Village to Miss Universe: Payengxa Lor’s Journey to Inspire Women

This Week

In 2022, a young Hmong woman made history as the first person from her community to win the title of Miss Universe Laos. She then competed in Miss Universe where she was placed as one of the top 16 finalists from the 84 participants, setting a new record for her country. The 21-year-old Payengxa Lor spoke to Laotian Times about her humble beginnings, what made her want to participate in beauty pageants, and how she wants to use her platform for social good.  

Payengxa Lor is a difficult woman to get a hold of these days, what with an international pageant star’s busy itinerary, social commitments, and brand deals that have kept her ever-so-relevant. 

Speaking between engagements in a posh Vientiane hotel lobby, she pauses briefly to take a phone call from her manager–he cannot be by her side and look over her busy schedule due to family illness. And yet she seems prepared for everything. 

“That’s alright, just take care of your family,” she tells him, seeming ready to handle the demands of her newfound stardom entirely independently. 

Lightly made up, with hair styled to perfection, and wearing a splendid pink sinh, her demeanor embodies easy confidence and refined, timeless beauty. She engages graciously with passers-by who recognize her, and pause to ask for photos–but it has been a long and unlikely road for her to get to this point.

“I was born in Xaysomboun province but raised in a rural part of Khoune District, in Xieng Khouang province. My father was a provincial government officer and a farmer who sold pigs and crops to support his family. Because of our financial difficulty, it made me feel like I needed to work harder than other people,” says Payengxa. 

Payengxa Lor and her siblings when she was a child.

Her vivid memory of the difficult rural lifestyle of rice and crop harvesting with her family is a reminder of her humble beginnings and how that paved the way for who she has become.

“It was very difficult. I had to help my family cultivate rice, bamboo, and vegetables to make a living. I recall the unfortunate year when our rice paddy was destroyed by pests, but we were able to survive because we also grew other crops,” says Payengxa. 

While still in her teens, Payengxa’s parents began preparing her for an arranged marriage with a Hmong man she had never seen in person. They began to plan the wedding despite her reservations.

“I tried to communicate online with this man my parents had set up for me in the United States. I wanted to please them so I talked to him for two years. But deep down I knew this was not what I wanted. I begged my father to cancel the engagement,” she says. 

Payengxa informs that modern arranged marriages are still a reality for many Hmong women. Getting set up for marriage by one’s elders includes communicating with a potential partner via social media, with Hmong women in Laos contacted by Hmong men living abroad.

“My mother was married when she was fifteen, so it’s normal for my family to marry young. However, I pleaded with my father… I convinced him that I would achieve more if I could complete my education,” she says. 

Despite difficult circumstances and disagreements with her family, Payengxa persevered in her studies. After graduating from high school in Xieng Khouang, she enrolled at the Lao-American College in Vientiane to further her education.

Payengxa Lor in a photo from her last year of high school in Xiang Khoung.

Payengxa’s introduction to beauty pageants was through her mother who took her to watch Hmong Beauty events when she was a child. She promised her mom that she would bring home the crown one day as well. And sure enough, in early 2019, she won her first beauty contest and was crowned Miss Hmong Vientiane. 

“After winning the Miss Hmong Vientiane, I could see the positive impact it had on the representation of women in my community. It inspired me to become a role model for young women and to help them achieve their goals. However, winning the title did not provide me with much authority, so I decided to compete in the Miss Universe Laos pageant,” says Payengxa who was the first Hmong woman to apply to compete in the Miss Universe Laos contest. 

“I knew that there had never been a woman from any of the ethnic minority groups in Laos enter – let alone win – this pageant. This was really special for me – it made me work that much harder for the crown,” she says. 

Tonkham Phonchanhueang, Miss Universe 2019, crowned Miss Universe 2022 Payengxa Lor in October last year.

After winning Miss Universe Laos, Payengxa gained thousands of followers and well-wishers overnight who understood the significance of a 21-year-old Hmong woman representing their country on a global stage. A sea of fans came to not just see her off at Wattay Airport but also welcome her with open arms at every city she visited in the US. There was even a traditional Baci ceremony held in her honor upon her arrival in Las Vegas.

Instead of letting the pressure of so many people’s expectations get to her, Payengxa let it bolster her confidence as she stood out in every round at the 71st Miss Universe Competition in New Orleans where she was one of the top 16 finalists, the first person from Laos to ever make it this far in the pageant.

“I couldn’t believe it! I was chosen in the first group of five finalists among all the beautiful women from 84 nations, one of which was Laos. That was a proud moment not only for me but for our whole country.” 

During the National Costume Show, Payengxa proudly wore an inclusive and elaborate outfit inspired by the designs from three ethnic groups in Laos; the Khmu, Lowland Lao, and Hmong. 

“As the Miss Universe candidate from Laos, I not only represented my own country on the stage, but I was able to represent the richness of our ethnic cultures as well,” says Payengxa.

“The costume helped celebrate diversity, as well as the livelihoods of Lao people which are closely linked to nature,” she said. 

Payengxa Lor in an outfit inspired by three major ethnic minority groups in Laos during the National Costume round of the Miss Universe competition.

During her time in the United States as part of her tour, Payengxa was interviewed on national television and took part in the filming of an American action movie that she will return to finish shooting this year. 

“News 3 Las Vegas approached me for an interview, during which I wore my blue outfit. I must admit that I was exhausted from travel, but I was so delighted to be there that the whole thing just flew by for me,” informs Payengxa. 

She performed as “Death Kiss” or “Angel Sorayama” in some scenes for the American action film “Jade Warriors,” which was directed by Airr Phanthip, a Laotian-American filmmaker, and Mark Heller, a comic writer. 

Miss Universe Laos, Payengxa Lor, gave an interview on Las Vegas’ KSNV News 3 Today, telling host Kim Wagner about the cultural significance of winning the crown.

This year, Payengxa will become one of the judges for Miss Universe Laos, and share her experiences and learnings as one of the top 16 finalists on the stage for the next Miss Universe 2023. 

“I expect a self-assured, intelligent, and beautiful Miss Universe Laos this year, as well as someone who has strong motivations to succeed, and is open to learning, as the international stage is extremely competitive with participants from all over the world,” she said.

 As Miss Universe Laos 2022, Payengxa will continue with her university studies, as well as work on her own social enterprise ensuring food and water security to help her country achieve its sustainable development goals.

In a moment of life, coming full circle the young beauty queen and social entrepreneur, Payengxa has even published her first book, titled “Road to Miss Universe.” 

“I feel, whatever you can have in your mind you can have in your hands–once you decide on something, it is up to you to make things happen for yourself,” she says. 

Although success can be a malleable, slippery, and transient thing, Payengxa sure comes across as a beacon for young people dreaming of big things and making them come true through hard work and an innate confidence in oneself. 

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