Miss Universe coach unlocks women's inner strengths

Many Japanese women must have felt proud to see representatives of their country doing well in recent Miss Universe beauty pageants - Riyo Mori was crowned Japan's first Miss Universe in 48 years this year, and Kurara Chibana took second place in 2006.

At the same time, some people might also have been struck by the way the two women looked so dignified and confident - not characteristics that are always associated with Japanese women. Rather than being merely cute or adorable, these two carried themselves with a very cosmopolitan air.

"I think Japanese girls are (among) the world's most special, unique, beautiful fast learners," says Ines Ligron, who has been coaching this country's Miss Universe contestants for the past decade as director of the Miss Universe Japan organization (MUJ). "Japanese women are almost perfect. It's just (necessary) to bring some color to them, some spice, and suddenly they look so much better."

Ligron, from France, trained Mori and Chibana in how to walk, stand, talk and behave - going beyond how they look to address how they think.

"I'm a guest of Japan, and I'm very honored and respectful about that," she said.

In 1998, U.S. entrepreneur Donald Trump - the organizer of the beauty pageant - assigned Ligron to train Japanese women for the event.

Since European women project a more confident air, Ligron was excited by the chance to coach Japanese women, whom she found to be humbler and shier, and less adept at expressing themselves.

"The most important thing in my training is to make finalists understand how to `seduce' people," she said. "I think seduction is the key to success in life. If you know how to seduce, you get everything you want in life."

Ligron says she believes any woman can have a special power over men, or even people in general, but says that most Japanese women aren't aware of their advantages. However, Mori and Chibana understood the concept, and employed what they learned in their training "200 percent," she said.

According to MUJ, 4,000 people applied in October last year for the 2007 pageant. Within two months, Ligron and MUJ had screened them based on resumes and interviews and cut the number of contestants to a dozen. In the meantime, contestants attended events organized by sponsors, where they got to meet Ligron. She gave them advice while observing who had the potential to be competitive on the world stage.

"I always wait for girls to come to talk to me. Because (then) I see who's smart," she said.

The selected girls are taught how to generate a certain aura.

"There're two definitions of beauty. One is perfect symmetry. That means that your face is completely symmetrical. Everything is perfect, like a doll. And the second definition of beauty is `aura.' It's that you're not perfect, you are almost perfect, but aura brings you perfection that you don't have at birth," she said.

She says the aura comes with intelligence and seduction.

"Imagine if you enter a room, if you know how to seduce by body language, facial movement, eye contact, everybody is going to meet you. And if they meet you and if you keep seducing by your intelligence, by sense of humor, by your natural elegance, then you can ask people anything you want. That's the seduction. That's the power of women," she said.

While aura can be developed internally, Ligron said it's also important for contestants to realize their poise is what brings the aura out. To achieve this, her assistant videotaped the contestants' movements nonstop for seven months.

"I think many Japanese women don't know how they look when they talk," Ligron said adding that most of them have a relatively blank facial expression and usually fail to make eye contact.

She says she shows them how to talk, as well as how to put the right kind of space between themselves and other people they are talking to. She also warned them to be careful how they look from the back.

"Japanese people are shy, but as soon as you turn, they look at you - your legs, your bum, your back, your hair," she said.

The most amazing transformation that Ligron performed on the contestants, however, was when she taught them how to walk. She says Japanese people are so shy that they walk with a hesitant stride, as if saying: "Don't look at me. I'm here but shouldn't be."

The contestants are helped in this way until the Miss Universe Japan finals, held in Tokyo every March, where the first-prize winner gains a ticket to the world contest.

"I changed a lot," says Mori in an e-mail interview. "My makeup changed, my fashion sense changed and my confidence changed - areas I had little knowledge of until my training with Miss Universe Japan."

From that point, each Miss Universe Japan - Mori and Chibana in the past two years - receives one-on-one training from Ligron before leaving for the host country about a month before the final. Ligron told the two to meet as many people as possible when they got to the host country, and to make as many appearances as possible in the local media so that people there would come to know them.

"It makes a difference because if the country likes you, when they are at the finals, everybody cheers for them. And this energy is very important to feeling good, and judges can hear (the cheering and then think:) `Wow, this girl! Everybody loves her,'" she said.

And her strategy worked, with the audiences at the contests cheering both Chibana and Mori, Ligron said.

Ligron's imported training philosophy may be one of the factors that made Japanese finalists look so cosmopolitan. However, the finalists chosen for the Japan contests - including Mori and Chibana - already had a strong will and an ability to express themselves, as demonstrated by their ability to win the Japan selection over 4,000 other candidates. They looked strong and confident to begin with, and just needed polishing.

"I learned how to have confidence, pose, and be myself. The toughest thing is not in Ines' training, but in bringing ability and confidence to yourself. Her teachings help to do that. It worked for me," Mori says.

Ligron's coaching style is known as strict, direct and radical, and only those who can endure such severe training will make it to the finals - if you've seen the film "The Devil Wears Prada," you will have some idea of how she works.

"My first impression of Ines was scary, as she looks very severe," said Rei Hamada, runner-up to Mori in the Japan contest this year.

Hamada, 22, turned up dressed in a turtleneck sweater and jeans when she was called for an interview with MUJ officials during the selection for the Japan contest. Ligron told her the outfit was unfashionable, even a bit tacky.

Instead of being intimidated or disappointed, Hamada told Ines that she shouldn't have expected her to be fashionable because she had never been shown how.

"I thought I had to be direct with her," she said, adding that many of the applicants who dropped out or failed looked anxious and lacked confidence.

Direct as she was, Hamada said she was told many times to be more outgoing, and warned not to shy away from doing something she was not good at. Through the training, she said she learned how to express herself - not by being aggressive, but by understanding what other people expect from her.

That tallies with what organizers say. "I think the biggest trends we are seeing is not only are the contestants beautiful, they exude self-confidence and feel very comfortable in showing their true personality. By being so real and so genuine, they consistently win over the crowd during the competition," says Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization in New York.

Even though it's a global competition, however, Hamada says Japanese virtues should not be forgotten, but rather be presented in a balanced manner.

"I think we should know how to convey our inner fortitude - an admirable characteristic of Japanese women that shouldn't be overlooked," Hamada said.