Close to a decade ago, I was a finalist in a beauty pageant. At the time of my participation, I was a college student in the US, studying Economics, with no previous modelling or acting experience. I was young and naive, and I participated in this pageant because I idealistically thought that a beauty queen was a philanthropic do-gooder whose mission was to save the world and help humanity. Unfortunately my experience in the pageant proved me wrong, and instead of winning a crown, I ended up writing a book which, much to my surprise, became a national best-seller (aptly titled What Would You do to Save the World?).
Beauty pageants in India have a long history. They have become an inherent part of Indian culture, as much as fairness creams and hair oil. Indian communities across the globe, from Zambia to the island of Mauritius, have emulated their homeland’s obsession with beauty pageants and set up their own local beauty pageants. In India too, an entire beauty pageant industry has spawned, and beyond the pageants for young, unmarried Indian women, we have pageants for beautiful babies, handsome men and married women. But what does this deluge of pageants mean for the industry?
The reality is that the beauty pageant industry in India has lost its past glory. As I discovered through my own experiences, and through conversation with organisers, judges, and participants of a number of beauty pageants, there are a few different reasons for this.
Firstly, there are too many pageants floating around, diluting the prestige factor associated with beauty pageants. Every town, city and jewellery company organises its own beauty pageant. From the “Indian Princess” to the “Desi Diva” contests, malls across India advertise various renditions of the beauty contest. Even the heavyweight national-level beauty pageants have come up with new versions. For example, recently ex-Miss Universe Sushmita Sen started her own beauty pageant, the “I am She” pageant which sent its winners to the official Miss Universe pageant organised by Donald Trump. Unable to produce a winner over the past three years, the rights of the Miss Universe title are no longer with ‘I am She.’
Secondly, the identity of the pageant is somewhat confused. What does the contest set out to do, and who exactly is the winner? Is she the hottest girl? (But then, how did the contest become any different than a model hunt?) Is she the most intelligent? Or the one most likely to be a Bollywood star?
As I rudely discovered from my own experiences for most participants, the pageant is a ticket to Bollywood. As recently as a decade ago, beauty pageants were one of the only few legitimate ways to rise to Bollywood stardom, and many actresses, including Persis Khambatta, Juhi Chawla, and Aishwarya Rai rose to stardom after winning the crown. Today however there are numerous avenues for starlets to get a start in the industry. These include model hunts, reality TV shows and a slew of international and national talent and model management agencies. So what need then of beauty pageants?
Shreya, a leggy, attractive model in her twenties, who has been on the cover of leading fashion magazines, tells me that she and many of her model colleagues believe that beauty pageants are now a defunct entity. Shreya is being managed by an international talent management agency, and feels that this is a more professional way to manage her career then relying on a beauty pageant for a brief moment of glory. She tells me of about a friend of hers who spent years preparing for the pageant, only to lose in the first round. She was a successful model before the pageant, but after her loss, she lost all brand value.
“Beauty pageants are so 1984. They are an outdated concept. If you want to be a professional model or actress, you would not take that route. Unless you live in a small town and have no other option. Plus we haven’t won an international title in a decade, so what’s the point?” says Shreya.
But beauty pageants are here to stay whether we like it or not. What we need to do is to re-examine our vision of beauty, because beauty is often in the mind than in our eyes. We refuse to go beyond our stereotypical notions of upper-middle class beauty, and rarely do we find dark-skinned girls (if girls are indeed dark, they are made to look fair) or North-eastern beauties, or non-English speakers, winning the pageant. An erstwhile judge, a well-known personality who chooses to remain anonymous, told me that before they started the judging process, they were told the most important factors for international success by the organisers, based on previous winners. These criteria included height – tall, weight – thin, and skin – fair. And she must be able to answer questions in fluent English.
It is also time that we redefine the identity and role of a beauty queen. Who is she? A Bollywood starlet? A model? Or something beyond? At times I tend to return to that idealistic 18-year-old self of mine who thought a beauty queen was a larger-than-life figure who did her bit in saving the world. Sometimes our younger selves are more revealing than we give them credit for, and maybe a healthy dose of idealism would be a good thing for our beauty pageant industry.
Ira Trivedi’s first book What Would You Do to Save the World? was based on her experiences in the Miss India pageant.
She can be found on twitter @iratrivedi
From HT Brunch, October 13
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