When Maiko Itai’s name was called out as 2010 Miss Universe Japan at the final in March, a roar erupted from the audience in the gallery – 40 of her friends had turned up to wish the 25-year-old well on the big night. “Actually, I didn’t say anything to my friends about the contest until I was a finalist,” says Itai, sitting down for a chat in the offices of Miss Universe Japan. “When I heard my friends yelling my name, I felt so confident that I could stand on the world stage.”
Born in Usuki in Oita Prefecture, the 173-cm-tall Itai says she never dreamed she would enter a beauty contest. “I didn’t have much interest in fashion. I really liked animals, and wanted to become a vet. I was also interested in foreign countries, so I decided to learn foreign languages. I had studied English at school and later at Sophia University in Tokyo, I studied Portuguese for five years (including one year in Portugal) because of the historical relationship between Oita and Portugal.”
After graduating, Itai worked in Tokyo for a year before returning to Oita where she got a job at the local ward office for 3-4 months last year. That’s when she decided to apply for the Miss Universe Japan contest. “I’ve always been interested in expressing my personality, and I thought Miss Universe would be an ideal opportunity. My mother encouraged me to go forward. She said to me: ‘Don’t be scared to take risks.’ She always pushes me forward even when I am hesitant. I’m not too sure what my father thought about it, but he wasn’t against my entering the contest.”
Itai beat nearly 4,000 contestants and since her victory, has been busy preparing for the Aug 23 final to be held in Las Vegas. She has been taking English lessons, learning how to walk and present herself, as well as getting beauty and nutritional tips. “I still feel like I don’t have enough self-confidence,” she admits.
Like her predecessors in the Miss Universe Japan contest, Itai is aware that when she goes abroad, she will be seen as the face of the modern Japanese woman. “Well, to be honest, I am more of a traditional Japanese woman, but I think that Japanese woman are warm-hearted and have a powerful core. It is difficult to show this kindness or core, but that’s what I would like to express in the final.”
Itai also knows that Miss Universe is not just about glitz and glamour and that she will be called upon to take part in many activities for charities. She says that children’s issues are closest to her heart. “That’s probably because my mother is a kindergarten teacher. I know there are children overseas who are not as fortunate as the children in Japan and I want to help them. Up until now, I haven’t seen their plight, other than on TV or in magazine stories. Miss Universe will give me an opportunity to experience the real world.”
As August approaches, Itai’s days are becoming busier. She has English conversation lessons twice a week. “I want to be able to express myself effectively at the final.” She works out the gym daily and is watching what she eats – even though she says she eats five times a day.
Itai’s trademark bangs will probably disappear for the final. “Right now, they come down over my nose,” she laughs. “For the national contest, that style was useful because I wanted to make an impact but at the final, I’ll be there for three weeks, and I need a more flexible hairstyle.” Itai’s fashion style has changed dramatically, too. “Previously, it was very simple. I never really thought how to use fashion to express my personality,” she says. “Now, it is a 180-degree turn and very stimulating, though I prefer casual clothes.”
When she is not busy preparing for the contest, Itai enjoys cooking. “When I was at home in Oita, I was in charge of meals and loved being in the kitchen.” She also tries to spend a bit of time each night updating her blog. “I’m still an analog person and never thought blogs were so important,” she confesses. “I was so surprised to receive comments from fans, and the responses I get instantly from people of all ages. Most of them want to know what I eat, what I wear, how I exercise, and so on.” No doubt, Itai now has a lot of male fans. So what type of guy does she like? “Somebody who is exciting and has the same sense of humor as me,” she answers.