I open the door and step into the sweaty gymnasium of the Rajiv Gandhi Polytechnic College of Arts and Production. The overwhelming odor of nail polish and hairspray is almost too much to bear. I wonder how long the dozens of participants and spectators have withstood the harsh fumes. Still, the action here is well worth the light-headedness.
The room is alive with colors and textures, a teeming mass of cosmetics students, hair design trainees, and nail artist apprentices rushing to finish their creations before the deadline. It feels like an episode of a fashion-based reality TV show. Tensions are high. The focus and intensity of the contestants is palpable. Rihanna, Swedish house Mafia, and rave music blast my ears. I imagine the models going to an epic after party following the contest, but I’m told there is none!
Glitter and dyed hair, cut by the stylists, litter the floor. Attendants with brooms and dustpans struggle to keep up with the debris showering the basketball court. Gracious and trusting volunteers in white smocks sit in rows of chairs as their classmates bring their creative experiments to life. Most are friends or classmates of the beauticians.
Long lines of tables ring the perimeter of the gymnasium, manicurists and hand models seated across from one another. The competitors painstakingly push back cuticles, paste on fake nails, and paint intricate designs in neon, black and white, silver, and gold. Models sport masks, tutus, dresses made of plastic trash bags, and even neon jumpsuits.
In a corner of the basketball court body paint is applied to two topless teenage students standing in nothing but booty shorts. On display for dozens of fellow classmates, teachers, and administrators I can’t believe the half nude spectacle! This would NEVER happen in the US!
As the time limits approach panicky stylists put the finishing touches on their designs. Models take off the smocks covering their outfits and volunteers hand out numbers. Judges slowly pace the aisles stopping to chat with one another and pointing, clipboards in hand.
Before the winners are declared the models practice their runway walk. In a long line they circle the rows of chairs as the crowds lining the walls snap photos with smart phones and murmur to one another. Groups of stylists stand back and compare their work with their classmates, anxiously awaiting the decisions. Models once again take their chairs and the judges hand out small slips of colored paper to the models of stylists who have placed in the top three.
A few minutes later the chosen models, dummies, and stylists are brought to the front of the gym. An announcer in a shimmery navy blue suit calls out the winners. The crowd cheers wildly, but not everyone is happy.
“Good job,” I congratulate a first-year hair stylist student from my English Club, passing her in the crowd as I try to get a better camera angle. I’d watched her work and was impressed. “No! Not good. No good,” she turns away, wiping tears from her eye. Oops!
At first I don’t realize how important this school event is but soon a co-teacher informs me that winning means advancing to the national competition and potentially gaining recognition among the top hair design studios and beauty salons in Mongolia. There are five students in the room who won the national competition last year for their respective events and traveled to Brazil. One student won two gold medals at the international competition for creative hair design in the men’s and women’s categories for her age group.
Good luck at nationals Rajiv Gandhi students!