Perusing Pages: Beauty Queens of Bishan by Akshita Nanda (Review)
A celebration of womanhood and femininity in all their facets, set against the ever-intriguing world of pageants.
Love it or loathe it, everyone wants to feel pretty. And in this age of reality TV, celebrity worship and social media obsession, it’s becoming increasingly harder to match up to society’s standards of beauty, what with the bar being continually raised. The business of beauty is booming, and everyone wants a piece of the pie.
In the follow-up to her Epigram Prize-nominated debut, local author Akshita Nanda’s sophomore novel tackles the beauty industry head-on, specifically, the often unexplored topic of local beauty parlours, and the clientele they serve. In Beauty Queens of Bishan, Akshita introduces us to what might almost be seen as a counterpart to Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, presenting a world of Mediacorp celebrities, influencers, and even a couple of who’s whos of high society, all finding themselves in salons in the heartlands of Bishan.
Beauty Queens of Bishan is an easy read, and a joy from start to finish. The novel follows the plus-sized Gurpreet Kaur of Monty Beauty Spa, an ordinary HDB-dwelling mother of two who develops a fierce rivalry with newcomer April Chua of D’Asthetique, boasting of star clients and opening a new society to control the beauty parlours of Bishan. With the rivalry continually fueled by micro-aggressions and circumstantial stress, Gurpreet and April decide to settle the better of the two once and for all by hedging their bets on their clients, both entering the Grand Slam Singapore beauty pageant, with the winning contestant proving the superior beauty queen.
The joy of Beauty Queens of Bishan lies in how Akshita once again shows off her knack for developing rich, multi-faceted characters, fleshing each one out with a deft hand, keen observation and vivid descriptions to showcase them in all their flaws and fabulousness. Beyond Gurpreet and April, their respective clients are just as formidable, if not more – Mediacorp darling and influencer Candy Kang is struggling to hold on to stardom as newcomers continually threaten to overshadow her, while lawyer Tara Chopra simply wants to prove that she too can be capable both in court and on stage.
From there, the introduction to the remainder of Beauty Queens’ diverse cast of characters feels incredibly natural, all friends and family of the aforementioned four, from daughters to monster-in-laws, television producers and meek husbands, former national athletes and even society types who wouldn’t be out of place in an issue of Singapore Tatler. While many in number, it is to Akshita’s credit that each one has been written with enough familiarity and detail to be distinguished easily from the other, done succinctly without the need for long backstories or lengthy history lessons.
Always though, Beauty Queens of Bishan is entertaining, with an awareness of quintessential Singaporean attitudes and phenomena that any local will recognise, and humour that arises in the most ordinary of moments and reactions. There is a constant incentive to stay on and devour this book in a single reading, with each of these characters facing their own issues and mini-plotlines that readers are hungry to see to the very end, particularly once preparations for the pageant begin. Akshita manages to recreate the feeling of watching a pageant happening live, the staged experience and tantalising backstage drama all present in her words.
Contrary to what its title suggests, Beauty Queens of Bishan is also far deeper than it may initially look. With its multitude of characters, we see just about every facet of the modern Singaporean woman represented here, with knowing winks towards pop culture that only add to the authenticity of it all. Beauty Queens is a wondrous collection of contradictions, where beauty parlours represent the best and worst of femininity, strength in sisterhood and vulnerability in treatment, obsession with physicality and taking pride in that. Always though, it never derides its characters for these, each one understandable in their respective goals and motivations, places readers might well have been in themselves.
Best of all, all of these issues are neatly, naturally packaged into a single paperback that makes for light reading while leaving undeniable entertainment on every page. Beauty Queens of Bishan is a refreshing, representative and reassuring celebration of women from all walks of life, each one beautiful in their own right, regardless of how many mani-pedis, slim wraps or Fair-and-Lovely treatments they’ve done, and a fun romp that will leave you positively glowing with delight.
Beauty Queens of Bishan is available at all major bookstores, and available online here