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August 16, 2009

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'No regrets' glamor queen moves on to a new career

HAVING stamped her style on Hong Kong as a beauty queen, Margaret Kan is putting the pageant world behind her and moving into a new stage of her career, Nancy Zhang reports.

The tall and glamorous former Miss Hong Kong, Margaret Kan, surprises us as we meet for an interview and photo shoot in Shanghai saying: "You know, I'm really not photogenic."

But it was not false modesty, or neurotic self-obsession. The matter-of-fact Kan, now an MBA student, points out precisely why the camera doesn't love her. Her features are too fine for heavy makeup and she is a healthy weight for her 175-centimeter height.

Kan talks without regret or insecurity, just as she gladly has left the glamorous life behind.

Instead she chose to finish a degree in commerce at Toronto University and launch a career in finance and marketing.

"I grew up a lot in that year as Miss Hong Kong," she said. "But the most important lesson was not how to do make-up or catwalk, but how to reflect and look inward to what I really want - in the future and in general."

After finishing her MBA, Kan wants to work in business branding. She says branding is all about building up impressions overtime: "It really takes time for a company to think through who they are, what they offer. The principle also applies to people."

In Kan's case she has learned first to rebrand herself, from a beauty queen relying on her looks to an ambitious young woman relying on her brains.

In 2000, Kan was nominated as one of three Miss Hong Kongs of the year. Aged 20, it transformed her from a casual, baseball cap-wearing university freshman in Toronto, to a much filmed, photographed and publicized Asian star.

But quickly the dream turned into a nightmare.

In the curiously distorted world of show business, where extreme thinness and exaggerated personalities are rewarded, Kan's down-to-earth credentials earned only criticism.

There was endless debate about her appearance, with online forums criticizing her weight and her teeth. "They would say, 'why was she chosen? She isn't the prettiest.' It was quite hurtful."

It taught Kan an early lesson in the impossibility of trying to control what other people think.

Tabloids also followed her hoping to catch her without makeup, having a bad day or gaining a few kilograms.

Weight was a constant issue in Hong Kong showbiz circles. "Everybody was constantly dieting," said Kan of the celebrities she met, "because the press love to report on stars getting fat."

Even during the Miss Hong Kong competitions, all the girls were concerned with their weight. Kan herself, at 54 kilograms, was worried that she was too fat. And after her win she lost another 4.5 kilograms so that her mother commented she "looked like a skeleton."

During this time, her long distance relationship with a boyfriend also unraveled.

Even one of Kan's happiest experiences, representing Hong Kong in the 2000 Miss World Competition in London, was steeped in the oddities of the beauty business.

One girl brought nine suitcases and their tasks all day were limited to making sure they looked good. "I was so bored," said Kan. Such was the devotion to upkeep that some girls even wore a different outfit for each meal of the day. The most exaggerated was the girl who wore an evening gown to breakfast.

"I thought, oh my god, why?" said Kan.

After a year's contract with TVB - the premier HK entertainment channel - Kan took a hard look at her life. She found that though fame opens doors, it made her extremely tired.

"I had to keep a smile on my face all the time. The dinners I was invited to with important people I couldn't enjoy because I had to pay attention to my guests. I looked at other people in showbiz - actors, models and managers - and they were also tired. I realized this is not what I want to do."

She hasn't looked back since. Returning to her normal school days, she has had a smattering of media appearances for Toronto's local overseas Chinese TV stations. But other than that she is happy for the spotlight to fade as much as possible.

Always a promising student, Kan worked for more than three years in market research after graduating in 2005. Last year she decided to pursue an MBA and chose Shanghai because "the future is in Asia, particularly on the Chinese mainland."

When we meet, her days are packed to the brim. She is the external liaison officer for her school's art appreciation week this August - she runs around most days visiting consulates and artists. In between she is interning at a brandy consultancy and next month is on study exchange in Spain. Her busy days often stretch late into the evening.

It's a far cry from the life of the beauty queen, constantly learning how to do makeup to look better on TV. Of the two other beauty queens of her year, both have gone on to get married, making family the focus of their lives.

Though Kan has a new love, she says being a housewife is not in the cards. "I would be so bored. My image of myself is someone that's not in the spotlight but good at what they do. For me it's important to deliver, to have concrete ability rather than be just a pretty face."


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