During last year's Miss Vietnam USA pageant, Caroline Nguyen, 24, sequestered herself. "I only left the laundry room when it was time to be onstage," she remembers. Five hours later her paranoia paid off. Wearing a traditional Vietnamese ao dai, Nguyen won the crown, $20,000 in cash and a new Mercedes-Benz.

Asian beauties are strutting their stuff at contests created especially for them. The Asian pageant circuit boasts hundreds of local contests, like Miss Philippines California and Miss India San Francisco, and six national pageants including Miss Teen Chinatown, Miss Asian America and Miss Asia USA. Many of the events require contestants to wear cultural clothing and some are conducted exclusively in the country's language. The Miss Chinatown USA pageant demands knowledge of "original village ancestry." A spate of new pageants has emerged. In only its second year, Miss Vietnam USA received 1,000 applications from 46 states. Coordinator Guy Hua crafted the pageant as a steppingstone for Vietnamese women to make it in the mainstream. "Our pageant is not to promote the Vietnamese traditional culture but to find the best-looking Vietnamese girl so we can bring her to pageants such as Miss USA," Hua says. The pageant requires contestants to wear bikinis, is conducted in English and has a height requirement (5 feet 2). The value of winning the pageant will be tested when Nguyen enters her next big event. If Hua has his way, the next Miss USA will hail from Saigon, not San Diego.