Nobody likes to admit that they’re particularly beautiful—to say it out loud as if it’s something objectively true. Especially in a morally conservative country like Vietnam, it flies in the face of proper modest behavior, suggesting vanity, insecurity, shallowness and blatant fanfaronade.
There comes a point, however, when such modesty becomes ridiculous. In 2007, when a panel of international judges named Vietnamese model and actress Truong Tri Truc Diem among the top 50 most beautiful women in the world (to put that in perspective, the global population in that year was estimated at 6,646,000,000 people), surely that was the point where she could no longer say “maybe I’m kind of attractive” and keep a straight face. There must be a time when it becomes acceptable to look someone in the eye and say it openly—yes, I’m very beautiful—when the evidence is overwhelming?
Culture, it seems, wins out over pride. When Truc Diem is asked directly, “What makes you a beautiful woman?” Her answer is disappointingly traditional— she flashes that million dollar smile, and says humbly, “I think my personality.”
The fact is that Truc Diem still has trouble believing it. No matter how many people have insisted on praising her for her fine features, all this attention to her looks is not something she was ever prepared for—in fact, her life before modeling suggested quite the opposite.
“I was shy, because every day that I went from home to school, the minute I entered there would be people picking on me,” she says. “’Wow you’re so tall, hey there’s that skinny girl.’ The nicknames that they thought of for me. My class was on the top floor, so I had to walk past the entire school every day. Sometimes I felt a little bullied.”
“I grew up in a way that… I don’t look like anybody else,” she explains. “They told me I didn’t look Vietnamese, I have a high nose, I have the features of a non-Vietnamese person. I was considered very tall in school, so they could always spot me because I was too tall, too skinny, white-skinned. They always made jokes about me. So I didn’t feel confident. People were always teasing me. The way that Asian people raise and teach their children is very strict, too. Not a lot of compliments; we’re not really open to each other. So basically I had no idea if I looked pretty, nobody ever told me that.”
Initially, the only person who recognized Truc Diem’s beauty was her own mother, and it was on her insistence that Diem auditioned for a beauty pageant in order to stand in for her mother in realizing a long-held ambition.
“My mother told me that she always had a dream,” she says, “that there were a lot of things that she would have done in her lifetime, but back then she didn’t have the strength to do it. It was wartime and everything. I’m her first child, and she told me that I’m a lot like her. She wanted me to go far in life, and she wanted me to try a beauty pageant. Back then, if Grandma had let her, she’d have done it herself. She thought that I could do it, because she was already too old. I’m a dream-reacher for her.”
Unexpectedly, Diem’s first shots were enthusiastically picked up by the contest organizers. Within a day, she was told to report to their office to take official pictures with a professional photographer. The results were not good, but a sympathetic editor decided to give her a helping hand.
“She gave me all these kinds of international magazines that she had in the house,” says Diem. “She said, ‘I know there’s no professional school here that shows you how to pose, But here’s a source, you can learn.’ I said, OK, I’ll try. I went home and studied, I posed in front of the mirror, my sister and brother came back and looked at me like I was crazy. But the next time I went back, I got a picture on their cover. My first-ever picture, when I was 18 on the cover of this big magazine, The Gioi Phu Nu. It was a shock.”
Placing as runner-up in the pageant ensured immediate recognition for her unique look. “It was like this,” she says, snapping her fingers. “I started to get titles bam bam bam, just like that. I didn’t ever expect it or dream about it, I just did it. It was just like a tornado had sucked me in, and then boom—I’m in another world. Lots of things that I didn’t expect turned out to actually happen. Life is really about the unexpected.”
Truc Diem’s explanation for her international appeal has its roots in her initial lack of confidence from being bullied for her look. “I never thought I could become a Miss-something, or one of the most beautiful women in the world… that’s too far, it was kind of amazing. Honestly, I felt that the people outside of Vietnam could understand my beauty. Most of the Vietnamese beautiful girls, we’re all unique and different, but I’m usually told that my smile is so big, and they like small, small lips.”
That, it seems, is what it comes down to—if anything, Diem’s smile is one of the broadest and most easily recognizable in the industry. Even when no other part of her face is visible, it’s hard to mistake that grin: inherited from her tall and handsome father, it’s her smile that, more than anything else, has distinguished her as an unmistakable beauty.
Diem is now 29, happily married, and currently focusing her energies on the watch business she manages with her husband, which sells from the ground floor of Bitexco Tower. Even so, she recognizes the importance of maintaining her appearance for the time being—at this point in her career, she does admit that, all modesty aside, being beautiful does have its value.
“It gives people confidence,” she agrees. “When people meet you, and you have a decent look, they feel you’re more approachable. They feel closer to you. That’s why there are pageants. Miss World, Miss Universe, the beauty that inspires people. It gives people a peaceful feeling when they look at it, because beauty really does bring people together.”
To read the other articles in our series on beauty, click here.