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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Miss Universe director turns Japanese into women of world


Staff writer

Behind Riyo Mori's striking presence that helped win her the Miss Universe 2007 crown last month was an unflinching confidence that she would triumph over the 76 other contestants from around the world.

News photo
Ines Ligron, national director for Miss Universe Japan, watches Miss Universe 2007 Riyo Mori speak during a news conference in Tokyo on June 11. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

But it was Ines Ligron, Japan's national director for Miss Universe, who turned Mori from a chubby dancer from Shizuoka when she came to her a year ago into a global star.

The elegant 44-year-old Frenchwoman has trained Japanese contestants for 10 years. She told The Japan Times in a recent interview that her focus is on redefining Japan's perception of beauty.

"I feel that the concept of feminine has been long mistaken here," Ligron said, speaking in English.

She scoffs at the popular ideal of the "kawaii" (cute) and "sekushii" (sexy) woman.

"The kawaii concept is for 12-year-old girls," she said. "Real beauty for women comes from the inside. It's a mental thing. It's about sensuality and intelligence."

Ligron said the current concept of beauty can be seen by looking at all the young women who dye their hair blonde, something the Miss Universe director said makes them look like "mushrooms."

"To them, the beauty is only about their face. They don't understand that their body, the hips, the shoulders . . . are all key factors in being seductive."

Ligron begins making over contestants by teaching them how their bodies can project their characters. She tells them often how striking-looking they are to improve their confidence, something she said is crucial in creating a Miss Universe.

Yoshiko Kawazu, a public relations officer with Miss Universe Japan, has witnessed Ligron's magic in transforming ordinary women into confident, sensual candidates.

"She understands Japanese beauty and added to that a sense of confidence, a strength that women in the Western world have," Kawazu said. "I have seen how the girls gained confidence under Ines' instruction and how they become so much more attractive."

Ligron began training Japanese contestants for the Miss Universe contest in 1997, after working in Hong Kong as the Asian regional director for IMG Models Inc., an international model management firm.

Billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, the owner of the Miss Universe organization along with NBC Inc., offered her the job himself.

"I think deep down, Mr. Trump always wanted Japan to win," Ligron said. "Japan is the second-biggest economy in the world and he was interested in a strong country to succeed."

After Ligron moved to Japan with her family, she found that unlike in many of the Western countries where the competition is popular, the Japanese dismissed the Miss Universe contest as just a swimsuit gala. There were so few good applicants, Ligron was forced to scour the streets looking for women she could turn into winners.

Ligron's hard work began paying off in 2003, when Kumamoto native Miyako Miyazaki became the fourth runnerup in the Miss Universe contest in Panama City. She was the first Japanese to break into the top 10 in 15 years. This success was followed in 2006 by Okinawan Kurara Chibana, who was the first runnerup and the first to get widespread media attention here.

More than 4,000 women applied to compete in this year's Miss Universe Japan and become the country's representative in the international competition.

Ligron said that one of the applicants, while plump and undeveloped, captivated her with her strong character and seductive aura. That applicant was Riyo Mori.

Born on Dec. 24, 1986, Mori studied dance in Canada — she wants to be a Broadway dancer — and is fluent in English. She was an instructor at her mother's dance school in Shizuoka when her grandmother urged her to apply for the contest.

Mori underwent intensive training under Ligron's tutelage. Ligron instructed the 20-year-old on everything from her clothes and makeup to her facial expressions and posture on stage. As many as 150 questions were prepared for her grounding of the interview section.

During the final stage of the Miss Universe Competition — which comes with a $250,000 prize, at the National Theater in Mexico City in May, Ligron, who is fluent in Spanish, advised Mori to speak the local language and to try to amuse the crowd. She also told her to look into each of the cameras along the runway intensely but with grace.

Looking back on the experience during a news conference earlier this month, Mori said she was confident she would become the first Japanese in 48 years to be named the winner, and her will to succeed kept her fears and anxieties about the high-pressure competition in check.

"I was self-assured because I knew I had prepared myself more than any of the other women," she said.

Ligron, who was personally congratulated by Trump after the victory, said Mori was so certain she would win the title she had her bags already packed on the last day of the contest, knowing she would take the crown and have no time to go back to the hotel to pack.

Ligron said she is surprised it took her a decade to create a confident Japanese woman to take the title, but is convinced that it won't be another 48 years until another Japanese is Miss Universe.

"I'm sure Riyo's victory will change many things," Ligron said. "Men might become upset that we killed the kawaii trend, but women are going to feel liberated. They can finally look like a woman and not like a 12-year-old girl."



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