The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: India has fallen out of love with beauty contests, 40 years too late

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about how, when the West fell out of love of beauty contests, it opened the door for Indians such as Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen. But now, India too is over beauty contests.

vir sanghvi Updated: Apr 04, 2018 09:58 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan,Sushmita Sen,Priyanka Chopra
Each of our biggest winners - Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sushmita Sen, Priyanka Chopra - have gone on to have illustrious careers.

If you are an Indian of a certain age then you will probably remember that day in 1994 when Sushmita Sen was crowned Miss Universe. And, if you remember Sushmita’s victory, then the chances are that you sat in front of the TV set watching the Miss World competition a few months later and praying that Aishwarya Rai would win that crown and make it a double for India. When she did win, you were probably overjoyed.

How long ago that seems now! The current Miss World is Indian and though we were properly respectful of her success when she won her crown, there was nothing like the national rejoicing that greeted Sushmita and Aishwarya’s victories.

There was a time when the Miss World and Miss Universe crowns seemed to belong to India. Priyanka Chopra and Lara Dutta are the global beauty queens we remember. I am sure there were others too though I am ashamed to say that I can’t remember most of their names, except for Yukta Mookhey but that was because I had a tiny role in her selection as a Miss India (more about which later).

Two responses greet beauty queens now. There are the (quite reasonable) feminist objections which have haunted beauty pageants for half a century now. (Though, if there were feminist objections to Sushmita and Aishwarya’s victories, then they were either muted or drowned out in the celebratory din.)

The second response is one of a blasé disregard. We have all been here before. We have seen beauty queens come and go. It is no big deal.

Both responses are actually entirely predictable. Whether we realise it or not, we are reacting in exactly the same way as the West did. Only, we are about 40 years behind the curve.

The Miss Universe competition emerged out of a crisis at the original big-time beauty pageant, Miss America. By the 1940s, the Miss America contest was so successful that its organisers did not bother to send the winning Miss America to any global contest. For them, America was the world.

All went well till 1951 when Yolande Betbeze was chosen as Miss America. Betbeze was hoping to become an opera singer and demonstrated some early feminist zeal by refusing point-blank to wear a swimsuit when she went on tour. This offended one of the pageant’s sponsors, Catalina Swimwear, who had paid good money for the right to photograph and parade Miss America in its bathing suits.

Catalina Swimwear then sponsored a rival pageant to choose a Miss USA. While Miss America included talent rounds, Miss USA was only about beauty. And the winner of Miss USA would participate in a new pageant, also created by the same organisers, to be called Miss Universe.

There were endless swimsuit rounds at Miss Universe and when, in the late 1960s, the pageant was bought by a lingerie company called Kayser-Roth, it was clear that bikinis, swimsuits, undergarments and the like were the point of the whole exercise.

The swimsuit round at the Miss Tifffany contest in Thailand. (Shutterstock)

Though Miss America continued to be the biggie, Miss Universe, with its parade of skimpily-clad international beauties, also found success. In 1984, its telecast attracted 35 million US viewers, a not inconsiderable number. A rival British pageant called Miss World had faced rougher weather. This had always been a more down-market, slightly tackier affair and after one event was disrupted by angry feminists, British TV channels began to wonder about telecasting it. (Eventually, it lost its primetime slot on terrestrial TV.)

By 1996, both contests were in trouble. That’s when Donald Trump bought Miss Universe at a bargain price. In 1997, the Trump-owned pageant only attracted 12 million viewers in the US (down from the 35 million it had attracted in the 1980s).

It was around this time that all the pageants decided that the jig was up --- at least in America and Britain. Shrewdly, both Miss Universe and Miss World focused on new markets –markets such as India, for instance, where the beauty contests had not fallen into disrepute or become the subject of feminist ire and ridicule.

Trump made it clear that his version of Miss Universe was only about chicks in heels. According to Jeffrey Toobin, writing in The New Yorker, Trump had no time for the talents or intellectual accomplishments of his contestants. He told the radio shock jock Howard Stem that before Trump took over, the Miss Universe pageant “had a person who was extremely proud that a number of the women had become doctors. And I wasn’t interested.”

Later, Trump bragged that under him, the Miss Universe contestants’ “bathing suits got smaller and the heels got higher and the ratings went up.”

As Toobin points out, the bit about ratings was a lie. Audiences for all beauty contests have shrunk in the West. In 2013, less than four million Americans watched Miss Universe, a far cry for the audience of 35 million who watched in 1984 and even smaller than the 12 million viewers it had when Trump bought it.

Trump took the contest abroad where it was taken more seriously: to Panama City, Sao Paulo, Quito, Mexico City and most famously to Moscow. (Where the wet events detailed in the Steele Dossier allegedly occurred). Miss World travelled out of the West too: to China, to Africa and even to Bangalore, India where Amitabh Bachchan’s ABCL organised the event.

Did so many Indians begin to win international pageants only because the organisers, having failed in their own countries, were desperately searching for new markets? It would be insulting to the Indian winners to say that they won because of some consideration other than merit. And yet, the unworthy suspicion that India was simply a target market for the organisers is hard to dispel.

At the time though, we hadn’t worked any of this out. I rejoiced when Sushmita and Aishwarya won. And in 1999, I was a judge at the Miss India contest in Poona, the only faaltu on a heavyweight judging panel: Aishwarya Rai, Zakir Hussain, Kareena Kapoor, Urmila Matondkar, Samir Bhatia, Anil Ambani, Viv Richards and others.

People say all kinds of disparaging things about how these contests are judged so I want to put on record that the year I was a judge, the jury process for Miss India was entirely fair. We made Gul Panag our winner because we thought she was intelligent and articulate and no mere glamour doll. (Time has validated our judgement.) We chose Shivangi Parikh as a second Miss India because apart from being beautiful, she was also startlingly bright. (She eventually turned her back on the glamour world and went abroad to study.) I was surprised by the support for Yukta Mookhey who became one of the three Miss Indias. But that only shows you how out of touch I was with what the global pageants were looking for. Yukta went on to become Miss World!

Was I concerned about the feminist objections to the very concept of a beauty contest? Frankly, no. Though in retrospect, of course I should have been. And I have consistently refused to judge all such contests over the last decade. (Better late than never, etc. etc.)

But I think that, in those days, we were all so excited by the idea of India winning global contests that we did not stop to think about them as deeply as we should have. Nor, to be fair, did we see them as meat parades, the way some feminists characterise them. Sushmita Sen, who I have interviewed, is a remarkably sharp and thoughtful woman. And Priyanka Chopra, a later Miss World, is now regularly hailed as a heroine for our times by many of the very journos and commentators who deride beauty contests. And yet, had it not been for Miss India, we would never have heard of Priyanka.

In some way, I suspect, the beauty contests of the late 1990s and early 2000s, served the same purpose as TV talent shows do today. The India of the late 20th Century was still a very closed society where there were few opportunities for people from outside a small metropolitan elite to rise. Beauty contests attracted girls from non-elite backgrounds and from small towns. They gave them the opportunity to break barriers and find fame and success.

We care less about beauty contests these days, I suspect, because we have become a more confident society. We don’t need to be reassured that an Indian girl can become Miss Universe! We know India is capable of doing much more than merely producing beauty queens.

In 1994, when Sushmita and Aishwarya entered the Miss India contest, there were relatively few ways to get ahead, let alone find international fame. Liberalisation was only three years old and India was a very different country. The satellite channels had not yet taken off, the movie business was a fifth of the size it is today, there was no advertising boom and the first mobile phones were only just arriving. Miss India was the best way forward for a woman who wanted to enter the glamour/entertainment/beauty business.

Miss World 2017 Manushi Chhillar in a meeting with Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu at his residence in New Delhi. (PTI)

Now, Miss India is far less important and I wager that, at any given time over the last five years, most educated Indians would not have been able to name the reigning Miss India. In that sense, we are now like the West. Few Americans can name the current Miss USA and I imagine that only a handful of Brits know who their reigning beauty queen is.

The era of beauty queens is ending. The only place where the pageants still seem to matter is South America. Which was bad news for Donald Trump. When he launched his presidential campaign, he based it on abuse of Mexicans and a generalised loathing of South Americans and Hispanics.

Small wonder then that Trump had no choice but to sell his interest in the Miss Universe pageant . You can’t attack the one region where beauty queens still matter and then hope that they will help make your pageant a money spinner.

As for us in India, beauty queens served as morale boosters when we were still immature and insecure.

But we have grown up now.

First Published: Apr 04, 2018 09:46 IST