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I have to admit I am having trouble keeping them straight. Sush and Ash I could manage. But now there’s Yukta and Lara and Diana and Priyanka. All those beautiful women, those perfect teeth, those radiant smiles, the hair pulled up to show that smooth unlined forehead—they are just a blur of satin and sparkling crowns. And it’s not just me who is failing the identification lineup. I surveyed some red blooded Indian males asking them to match the queens to their pictures. My completely unscientific study found that Aishwariya Rai and Sushmita Sen are still way ahead of the competition. Some of that might be from their subsequent film careers. But mostly, being first off the block is what counts. They put India on the beauty contest map—its like Neil Armstrong on the moon. It’s hard to remember the 5th and 6th astronauts who walked on the moon.

My gay friends did a little better on the survey, but as one of them remarked “looking at the number of gay men involved in the fashion industry every ‘beauty’ queen has reached that shelf-life thanks to a gay man!” However when I wondered if the glut of Miss Worlds and Miss Universes were having any effect on the drag scene in Mumbai, he snorted “Those “beauty queens” can’t have any effect on the drag scene, they are surrogate drag queens themselves!” It’s not an invalid point given that both are all about conveying the essence of femininity through the way you walk, your dress and hair. Although the drag queens are spared making noises about working for the blind and world peace.

Now for those who are like me and keep mixing up their beauty queens here are some factoids that illustrate their unique personalities.

Priyanka Chopra (Miss World 2000) wants to study clinical psychology. She can sing gospel and loves North Indian folk dance. She is on the board of Thalassaenic Children, is associated with a polio program and the AIDS awareness program. Despite all that she still finds time to write poetry.

Diana Hayden (Miss World 1997) is the only Miss World to have won a hat-trick at the event—Miss Photogenic, Miss Beach-wear/swimsuit competition and Miss World. She loves chess, partying, horse riding and her favorite book is The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. She was signed on by L’Oreal for a rumored million dollar contract.

Aishwariya Rai (Miss World 1994) was studying architecture when modeling beckoned. The saddest moment in her life was when she did not make it to the top three in tenth grade. She hates cockroaches and loves the movie Casablanca and Happy by Clinique.

When her father refused to let her go to the disco, Sushmita Sen (Miss Universe 1994) wrote a poem. She told the Miss Universe audience “Namaste, I am Sushmita Sen from India where love is the essence of life,” and went on to define the essence of a woman. She loves beer and spaghetti bolognaise and one of her favorite books is My Feudal Lord by Tehmina Durrani.

Yukta Mookhey (Miss World 1999) is a zoology graduate. She wants to “drive this beauty into every person’s heart.” She likes listening to music, drawing, swimming, singing Hindustani classical music and doing social work for the blind and leprosy foundations. She wants a career in mass communications and computer graphics. Her favorite dish is prawns in garlic sauce and her favorite book Pride and Prejudice. Favorite magazine— India Today and Femina.

Lara Dutta (Miss Universe 2000) who is an economics graduate would like to do IMD in Switzerland and study Media Marketing and then join CNN or BBC. Or market for a couture house. When asked if ignorance is bliss, why do we seek knowledge, at the Miss Universe contest, she replied “Ignorance may be bliss, but would you like your children to be ignorant?” Apart from ignorance she does not like body odor or cockroaches and would like to go on a blind date with Mel Gibson. Her favorite book is Thorn Birds and her favorite magazines are National Geographic and Femina. (In case you were wondering, Femina sponsors the Miss India contests.)

Of course there was Rita Faria before them. In 1966 she became Miss World as well. But that was before the market liberalization in India. So she does not count. That’s what the beauty contest X-files are supposed to reveal—its not just a lucky coincidence that Indian women are winning the big titles at the same time as the Indian markets are opening up to the giant cosmetic companies. I see the shadow of the cigarette smoking man there, and there’s lipstick on his cigarette. Plum Red from Revlon.

Its not just me—even the New York Times muttered darkly about contest fixing. When Priyanka Chopra won the crown they commented that the contest was being carried live in India (but not the U.S.), an Indian network was broadcasting it, and an Indian was a judge. After all, is it not true that when Priyanka was asked who was the “most successful living woman in the world today,” she chose Mother Theresa who has been dead a few years, as was her second choice—Princess Diana. And she still won, inviting writer and well-known connoisseur of female beauty, Khushwant Singh to remark “We Indians send out some bimbo and she returns with the prize, and we act like we’ve conquered the world. This one is singularly stupid.” At any rate I feel that now that the judges have spoken and crowned a winner, we should put petty politics aside and unite behind the winner. Just like in the U.S. presidential elections.

Just like the presidential elections the impact of the beauty queens will be felt far and wide. At least in aerobics studios and orthodontists’ offices. In beauty contests that have sprouted up in mohallas and neighborhoods in India, many of which are fixed and mislead their teen contestants by pretending to be gateways to the national contest.

Femina, the magazine that launches the beauty queens and took over the Miss India contest from Eves Weekly is laughing all the way to the bank. Nowadays the Femina Miss India contest has dispensed with the ugly hierarchy of winner, first runner-up, and second runner-up. Instead we have Miss India Universe, Miss India World and Miss India Asia Pacific. There are even four new categories like Miss Talented, Miss Body Beautiful, Miss Beautiful Smile and Miss Photogenic.

All in all plenty of advertising opportunity for all the happy sponsors like Palmolive who are rumored to spend almost Rs 100 million on the pageant. The beauty queens officially bloom for only a year. But the industry that manufactures them up goes from strength to strength with each new crown. Whether its Ash or Lara or Yukta, the faces behind them remain the same—outfits by designers like Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani, and Ritu Kumar, moves and poise by choreographer Shiamak Davar, witty repartee by theater personality Sabira Merchant, hairdo and makeup by the likes of Cory Walia. And presiding over it all Femina supermaven Sathya Saran.

As a country of 1 billion (no matter that Priyanka upped it to 2 billion in another contest blooper) we often flagellate ourselves about our inability to produce medal winners at the Olympics. At least beauty contests are an international competition that we (or at least Tarun and Sathya Saran and co.) seem to have worked out the magic formula for. The juggernaut of Indian beauties seems as invincible as the Indian hockey team used to be. A bona fide beauty superpower! I wonder what will happen when the magic wand of market liberalization moves on to China and the giant cosmetic companies vie for that market place.

Of course there will always be protesters. There always are. The path to true beauty is beset with thorns. But beauty contest protests make strange bedfellows. The 1996 contest in Bangalore found ardent feminists in unlikely cahoots with Hindu nationalists who threatened to immolate themselves for a worldwide audience to see. All in the name of protecting the virtues of Indian womanhood.

At her maiden press conference in Mumbai, Yukta Mookhey had little time for the protesters. She asked them to go and protest the screening of obscene films and the people surfing the Internet for pornography. “Beauty pageants at least encourage beauty with a purpose,” she retorted. Poor Priyanka has not been exempt either. Her triumphal return to her hometown of Bareilly has been marred by the non-aesthete chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath Singh who has banned beauty contests in the state because they are “vulgar”. Priyanka who has said that she wants to study clinical psychology to understand why people turn demented is still hopeful that she might be able to reason with the chief minister from her new-found throne. Signs however are not very hopeful right now. It seems grossly unfair given that Prime Minister Vajpayee personally told her predecessor Yukta Mookhey “your success has proved yet again that India has the best of both beauty and brains.”

The brains part has always confused me. Zoology degrees notwithstanding, none of these women are coming up through the ranks of Kaun Banega Crorepati. They may be smart and poised but being able to give their opinion on the most successful living woman does not really merit Prime Ministerial praise for brainpower. In that sense the drag queens got it right—they are unapologetic about the aspect of femininity they flaunt, instead of trying to disguise it as Cinderella-with-prefect-curves-and-a-zoology-degree-saves-dying-babies-in-orphanages-before-adoring-reporters.

Outside of Bareilly however, they have certainly been a godsend for parades and functions. Organizers of the India Day parades in the U.S. are always struggling to bring in a crowd puller. And Medha Patkar with her grim Narmada damning or yesteryear stars like Asha Parekh just doesn’t have that kind of oomph. But a beauty queen is perfect for standing and waving to the teeming NRI multitudes. In fact, when the FIA in the Bay Area split and held two rival India Days, one of the groups managed to pull off a coup of sorts. Miss World Lara Datta will be present at our parade their ads crowed. The other group could only retaliate with a feeble actor Raj Babbar (expected). It was just not the same.

The beauty queens certainly live up to their roles as goodwill ambassadors. They are elegant, charming, silken-tongued, and the NRIs queue up at $100 a head banquets to have their pictures taken with them. Sushmita Sen has even been known to regale Bengali audiences with a bit of Rabindra Sangeet though she is a bit of a one-song pony. “Aami chini go chini tomarey ogo bideshini,” (I know you, I know you, oh foreign lady) she warbles prettily to the NRI crowd. “No doubt” says my cousin caustically “The audience just melts. A beauty queen, Miss Universe and she still sings Rabindra Sangeet!”

Nobody said it was easy being Miss World in the 21st century struggling to lift the contest beyond swimsuits on the catwalk. That diamond tiara rests heavy. Former Miss India, Manpreet Brar, one of the runners-up at the Miss Universe contest, had her angular jaw chiseled into a softer oval by a cosmetic orthodontist. When the starving contestants in Seychelles went on an eating binge, it was only her will power that kept India’s Diana Hayden on her diet of fruits and vegetables. “Small sacrifices one has to make, I guess,” she said with a smile.

So what’s next for our lovely ladies? Rita Feira went on to become a doctor. Lymaraina D’Souza, Miss India l998 apparently abandoned the beauty world so she could self-confessedly “eat like a horse,” and study psychology and travel and tourism in Hawaii. Aishwariya and Sushmita are still trying to find their place in Bollywood. Diana Hayden went off to the New York School of Acting while her boyfriend filmmaker Kaizad Gustad was reportedly looking for a launch vehicle worthy of a Miss World. Yukta Mookhey is considering films—not just acting but also directing but she feels she is too tall for Indian heroes.

In the new world of the Internet the latest beauty queens are no slackers. Both Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra have their own websites. I type out an excited email to Priyanka. I imagine her sitting at her computer in Bareilly in an elegant Ritu Kumar dress, carefully typing out her replies with those exquisitely manicured fingers. I wondered if I should put L’Oreal or Revlon in my message header to get a quicker response. I need not have bothered. The reply was instantaneous.

Hello Dear

This is an automatic reply to acknowledge the receipt of your message. There is no need to reply to this message. Thank you Priyanka Chopra.

(it said)

Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the New California Media TV show.