Contestants in the 2005 Freshie Boy and Girl perform a choreographed dance routine as part of the annual competition.
F or 16-year-old Saray Sakana the transformation from high school student to aspiring supermodel has brought about some serious lifestyle changes.
Until a few weeks ago, most of her time was spent rushing between public school, English lessons and private classes. Any free moments she had were generally allocated to helping with household chores and her three younger siblings.
But these days Sakana finds herself under a microscope. Her time is spent fine-tuning her every action. The way she looks, speaks and acts is now a matter of much scrutiny.
Hers has become a life of constant composure.
She wakes each day at 6:30am to the sound of her neighbors' roosters and begins a regular routine. First it's a cold shower, then a small breakfast of rice and fish. This leaves time to fix her hair and make-up before zipping out of her parents' house.
It's almost 8am and she's off to the beauty pageant training facility.
When she arrives the place is transforming as well. Usually an unused, empty warehouse the building is today a multimedia mix of music studio, fashion catwalk and performance stage. Besides Sakana there are 16 other teenagers present - eight boys and eight girls - and all have the same driving ambition: to be crowned Freshie Boy or Girl 2006.
After a decade without a national beauty pageant, tens of thousands of young Cambodians have begun participating in a new wave of highly-visible beauty-based competitions.
It's a cultural trend that has fixated the shopping-mall set. A lucky break for some, and a spectator sport for most, the new beauty pageants are increasingly popular - in an era when beauty pageants in the West have withered under the scorning reproaches of feminists and the politically correct.
According to Mom Reaksmey, co-organizer of the first annual "Srey Sroh Pros Saat" (Pretty Girl, Handsome Boy) nearly 10,000 applicants from 12 different provinces competed. Event organizers claim that more than 3,000 contestants are participating in the 2006 Freshie competition and that roughly 2,000 text messages are sent to the televised program each week.
"These competitions have increased in today's society because the country is experiencing a lot of forward progress," said Sapor Rendall, 32, a Cambodian-born former model and owner of what she claims is Cambodia's only modeling agency. "Just look at the beauty industry and its services as proof. Today, there is such a big difference - more brand names in department stores, beauty salons dot every street corner, and so many diverse fashion styles."
"Khmer women are beautiful and we like being pampered," she added. "I guess the crowd is getting younger and younger."
Rendall said that when she returned to Phnom Penh from Australia in 1994 there were few beauty-based services. However, in 1995 a national beauty competition was successful and in 1997 she opened Sapor's Modeling Agency.
Suon Siphat, 23, co-organizer and supervisor for dance choreography at Freshie 2006, said, "Since our inception in 1999, the Freshie competition has gradually gained momentum. We see this in the increased attendance, sponsorship support and rising applicants."
Sakana and her fellow Freshie hopefuls, all aged between 16 and 22, are evaluated by a panel of 13 judges drawn from the entertainment industry, sponsoring companies and local media. The contestants are graded from one to ten on beauty, talent, personality and personal background.
Although the grading can be deflating, many contestants brave the scrutiny in the hope of fame and financial reward. Teen star and Freshie 2000 semifinalist Duch Sophea, 20, is a success story. In the two years since her Freshie debut, Sophea has been pictured on the covers of numerous local magazines, starred and acted in feature films, and appeared in dozens of karaoke videos and TV commercials.
Other notable ex-Freshies are television idols Meas Molina, Khiev Samphet, and Nuon Chanthoeun.
In the most recent "Srey Sroh Pros Saat" event, In Vorlak Tepy, 17, won a two-year employment contract with CTN, $1,000 and a new motorcycle. She has also had special appearances on television, cameos at the Water Festival, and was featured on the front cover of the Angkor Thom magazine.
"I felt very happy and excited. There are so many beautiful girls in Cambodia and I never thought my daughter could win first place," said Tepy's mother, Mom San, 40, from her home in Banteay Meanchey.
For Sakana, the final round of the three-month competition is only weeks away. One boy and one girl will be eliminated each week until the January 21 finale, which will come down to six boys and six girls.
"I was happy and relieved when I advanced," said Sakana. "I won't feel bad if I lose. I've got-ten pretty far already."