If being a beauty queen is her dream come true, Shenise Wong has had her prayers answered several times. The Miss Singapore Universe 2008 title, which she bagged last month, was her fourth crown in as many contests.
'Winning each pageant is like climbing the rungs of the ladder. So after Miss World, the next one was Miss Universe,' says the 26-year-old, who was also Miss Singapore World 2005,
Miss Singapore International 2002 and Miss Asia Pacific Singapore 1999.
The foreign exchange broker is one of about 10 serial thrillers currently on the pageant circuit.
Practice, as they say, makes perfect.
'You just want to keep doing better,' said Colleen Francisca, 26, who is both a Miss and
Mrs Singapore World, on why she has taken part in nine beauty contests since 2001.
Pageant veterans have worked out that the more contests they take part in, the better they get at perfecting their pouts and poses.
'You get that adrenaline rush from being on stage and you get that feeling that you can do much better in the next contest,' adds Francisca, who runs an online cupcake business.
Another veteran is Manjula Rajendran, 28. But she quit while she was ahead, after taking part in seven contests, including sweeping seven of nine supporting awards at Best Model of the World Singapore in 2000 and being named first runner-up.
Then there are newbies such as Sheralynn Jega, 20, who have been quick to make their mark. The advertising student made her beauty pageant debut in Miss Earth Singapore two years ago and has joined three other competitions since.
Even with falling public support - the Miss Singapore Universe pageant was taken off air this year due to 'a decline in viewer interest', according to MediaCorp - prizes for these pageants can still run into thousands of dollars, including endorsement deals.
While nobody keeps count of the number of repeat contestants, anecdotal evidence from organisers, sponsors and contestants shows that there is indeed a group of pageant regulars.
'Every three to four years, you'll see a few girls running around (joining beauty contests) and then you start seeing another batch,' says Jeffrey Chung, 41, owner of Jeffrey Chung Models.
With the age limit of most pageants set at 25 or 26, it's easy to see why a new lot of beauty queen bees hatches every so often.
Fabulous nobodies out there wanting to take part but are put off by the cosy cartel of crown wearers can take heart: Both Francisca and Wong are retiring from the circuit after next month.
At Urban's photo shoot at Swirl boutique, it's clear that the world of serial beauty queens is more friendly than nasty.
When Rajendran arrives and hears that Francisca is being made up at the end of the room, she hurried over to greet her.
'Let me kiss you,' squeals Francisca, springing up from her stool and embracing her. It turns out they were friends from 'a long way back'.
There is some sort of learning curve when it comes to winning pageants, they say.
The first contest is always the worst. Most first-timers have no idea how to walk, no stage presence and let nerves get the better of them.
Rajendran's start was worse than most: 'I broke my leg during the rehearsals of the first contest I joined,' she recalls of the 1998 Miss India Singapore pageant.
On why they decided to take those first faltering steps onto the pageant stage, Wong says: 'I grew up watching beauty pageants and it was always my dream to take part in them.'
For Francisca, it was her way out of her troubled schooldays where she was 'the tall girl who didn't fit in' and was bullied by her peers.
'Taking part in these contests was a way for me to gain confidence,' she says.
She adds: 'I took part with the aim of having fun and meeting new people. If you go in with the attitude of just wanting to win, then you'll become that type of competitor.'
With that attitude comes a certain measure of nastiness and back-biting, she warned.
Still, it can be a good way to get a foot in the door of the modelling and entertainment industries.
Rima Melati Adams, 28, an actress and host on television channel Suria, kickstarted her career by joining pageants.
'If not for my modelling agency which pushed me to join these contests, I would not have gained self-confidence and be in a position to develop my passion for acting,' she says.
Sharifah Fazzeleen, 32, general manager of Signature Beaute beauty salon, the official beauty sponsor of Miss Singapore Universe 2008, agrees pageants are a good way to get noticed.
'It's human nature for a client to hire a Miss Universe or beauty queen because it's seen as a big deal for some. Bridal fashion shows in particular hire a lot of ex-beauty queens.'
But wannabe actresses and models should not regard this as a surefire way of making it big.
'Many girls join for the glamour and the recognition that they're pretty,' says Chung, who has more than 15 years' experience in choreographing beauty pageants.
'They hope that by winning, big things will happen and they'll get bigger jobs,' he says, referring to modelling, endorsement or acting offers.
'But in Singapore, pageant girls are not necessarily wanted because pageants do not get much attention from the media so clients may not want to hire them.'
Stylist Jerome Aswathi, 27, adds: 'Beauty queens become too associated with their crowns and clients prefer girls who can represent their own brands.'
How about the anonymous girls who keep trying out but never get into the finals?
Daryl Pang, 35, business and promotions director of Derrol Stepenny Promotions which holds the franchise to the Miss Singapore Universe pageant, says: 'I try not to discourage them. Instead I tell them to have confidence in themselves and in life.'
Tan Yang Lay, 38, owner and designer of jewellery company Beneath The Stars, the main sponsor of this year's Miss Singapore Universe, as well as Miss and Mrs Singapore World, says: 'It's a competitive world but there are different pageants that want different looks and personalities.'
Sometimes though, enough is enough.
Yeo Wee Teck, 39, a correspondent at The New Paper who has been a judge at The New Paper's New Face contest since 2002, typically sees a dozen repeat contestants for the New Face each year.
'By all means, try and try again,' he says. 'But when the judges are rolling their eyes and know you by name, it is time to mosey along. Not everyone needs to be a beauty contestant.'
This article was first published in Urban, The Straits Times on Jun 5, 2008.