India were actually no-hopers and almost non-contenders for years and years at global pageants despite the Reita Faria victory way back in 1966 at the Miss World. For decades after that, as Sathya Saran, the famous editor of Femina in the 1990s put it, “We used to send these pretty but short girls out there who did not stand a chance against the tall, blonde blue-eyed beauties”. Then Madhu Sapre, dark and dusky as she was, finished third at the Miss Universe pageant in 1992. Namrata Shirodkar ended up a creditable fourth the next year.
Then came 1994. The Times of India, the owners of the Femina Miss India contest, shifted the venue of the pageant to Goa, the first time outside of Mumbai. Aishwarya Rai, by then a reasonably well-known model was predicted to be the winner by one and all. She was stunningly beautiful and was a well-known face because of her “Hi! I am Sanjana” Pepsi ad with Shahrukh Khan. Yet Rai had competition. As Sathya Saran recounted a couple of years ago, “There was Jesse Randhawa who was tall and stunning and Komal Rampal who was as beautiful as her brother Arjun is handsome. In the midst of these beauties, no one noticed Sushmita Sen. Sush had been spotted at a night club by Ranjan Bakshi, then a senior manager with the Times of India Group. She had appeared in the magazine when she had modelled for one of JJ Valaya's fashion spreads. But Sush was still gauche; she didn't have what Ash had. Aishwarya was instant magic before the camera”.
After the final Q&A round with the final five contestants was over, Dalip Tahil the compere sprung a surprise no one was prepared for. For the first time in the 29 years of history of the Miss India contest there was a tie for No. 1 between Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen. Both Aishwarya and Sushmita had scored 9.33 after the Q&A round and judges had to ask another question from each of the top 5 contestants to decide the final winner.
The question asked to Aishwarya Rai during the tie-breaker round at Femina Miss India 1994 was, “If you have to look for qualities in a husband, would you look for the qualities in Ridge Forrester from Bold & Beautiful or in Mason Capwell from Santa Barbara?” Aishwarya’s answer, “In Mason. Though they do share a lot in common, from what we get to see, Mason does have a very caring side to him and a terrific sense of humour. And that really gels with my character”. Aishwarya scored an average of 9.39 on this answer.
The question asked by the judges to Sushmita Sen during the tie-breaker round at Femina Miss India 1994 was, “What do you know about the textile heritage of your country and how old has it been?”. Sushmita answered, “I think it all started with Mahatma Gandhi's Khadi. It has gone a long way since then but the basics of Indian textile heritage has been from there”. Sushmita scored an average of 9.41 on this answer and won the crown, relegating the favourite Aishwarya Rai to second place.
The run-up to the tie-breaker actually had had its own ups and downs. Sathya Saran has been on record to say, “Everyone was fawning over Aishwarya (in the preliminaries). Make-up artistes would shower special attention on her. The judges were leaning towards her. She won Miss Ten, a title given to someone with the best body in the competition. Internationally, this is often the decider. Once you win Miss Ten at the Miss Universe, you are as good as home. But Aishwarya's body wasn't toned; I protested but the other judges shot me down”. Aishwarya, despite being a trained fashion model, however tripped over her gown on the ramp in the final round. Some say, that little fall was instrumental in getting her to lose points on poise and getting bracketed with Sushmita, and eventually was the stroke of fate that put her into the Miss World contest as the No. 2 winner rather than in the Miss Universe fray as the No. 1.
But the bigger excitement was yet to come. At the Miss Universe contest, Sushmita Sen ranked third overall in the preliminaries, right behind preliminary winner Miss Colombia Carolina Gómez, and Miss Greece Rea Totounzi. Sen went on to place second, fifth and third in the forthcoming rounds, and finally won the overall crown. Back home in India, this victory was received with almost as much excitement and happiness as the cricket team’s World Cup win in 1983! Aishwarya Rai then made it a glorious double, winning the Miss World contest a few months later. When Aishwarya returned to India, her homecoming procession in Mumbai along Bandra's Carter Road had over a million people lined up on both sides chanting, “Ash, Ash, Ash!” catapulting her to instant super-stardom.
My wife Tanya and I were in Pune for the Femina Miss India contest in the year 2000. My client Palmolive was the title sponsor and we were privileged to have front row seats at the show. Sizzling beauties Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra and Dia Mirza ranked Top 3 and were nominated as India’s entries to Miss Universe, Miss World and Miss Asia Pacific. All three returned home proud winners.
It has been a 17-years long drought for India at the global beauty pageants since Lara-Priyanka-Dia last brought home a hat-trick of winners sashes in the year 2000. The Miss World crown has come back to India earlier this month with a stunning win by the relatively unknown Manushi Chhillar, a 20-years old medico from Sonepat, Haryana. The 1.75 m (5 feet 9 inches) tall, brown-haired, brown-eyed beauty is the sixth Indian to win the Miss World tiara after Reita Faria, Aishwarya Rai, Yukta Mookhey, Diana Haydon and Priyanka Chopra.
Chhillar as the Indian entry to the world pageant was almost a non-news till the young lady actually won the crown, surprising India and the world. The Femina Miss India contest has somehow lost its sheen over the years and got somewhat degraded even further with a down market sponsor like FBB. No offence meant, but FBB is not really an aspirational brand, and its imagery has sort of rubbed off on to the Miss India pageant, rather than the other way around.
I am a bit under-whelmed by the lukewarm response that Chhillar’s win has received in media and in advertising. She is a really pretty looking girl. Beating over 150 other contestants to the crown globally is not easy. The days when the Times of India group used to invest a lot of time, energy, effort and money under Pradeep Guha to groom India’s beauty queens to become world beaters are long past. Manushi Chhillar has therefore won against all odds, and with very few inputs from her sponsors.
20 years ago when I was at Rediffusion, the title sponsorship of the Femina Miss India contest was a very very prestigious one to get for any client. When we cornered it for Colgate-Palmolive, it was a big and coveted achievement. With three global winners in 2000, the sponsorship paid for itself many times over through the PR and publicity that surrounded the winners and all the hoopla around their victories. I hope Chhillar’s win re-ignites interest of better quality sponsors in the contest all over again and Miss India winners start to receive once again the support they used to get in the days gone by.
Beauty is a serious business after all.
(Sandeep Goyal has been privileged to work with most of India’s global pageant winners for his various clients’ campaigns over the years.)