How an Asian immigrant grew up to be Miss Great Britain

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The Independent Online

Preeti Desai knows more than most people about the difficulties of integrating into British society. Her mother, Hema, suffered depression and twice attempted suicide after moving to this country from India. It was made worse by the stigma in her community of giving birth to two daughters rather than sons.

Ms Desai, 25, felt she wanted to achieve something as a way of paying tribute to her mother. So, after leaving home in Guisborough, North Yorkshire, to pursue her modelling career in London, she entered her first beauty pageant.

She is now celebrating after being named Miss Great Britain, the first woman of Indian extraction to win the title. Ms Desai was selected by a poll among readers of a national newspaper after the original winner, Danielle Lloyd, was stripped of the crown because of her alleged relationship with one of the judges, Teddy Sheringham, which she denies.

Mr Desai's success has shone a spotlight on the struggle still facing women in some immigrant families. Her mother, who moved to Middlesbrough from Gujarat in 1980 after an arranged marriage with Jitu Desai, had been told that she should bear her husband a son. "Better luck next time," was the response from many when she had a girl.

While her mother had difficulties adapting to British life, Preeti assumed responsibility for her younger sister, Anjlee. "Mum's life was solitary. She didn't really have anyone to stick by her," Ms Desai said.

She recalls reassuring her mother that she would "make up" for being a girl - a promise that distressed Mrs Desai. Indeed, the stigma of lacking a son in the family seems to have driven both sisters to make something of their lives. Anjlee, 21, has become a successful R&B singer, who beat 10,000 others to get into the finals of a national contest when she was 15.

In some ethnic minority communities, the girls' aspirations might have met resistance but in the predominantly white community they were raised in - as the only non-whites at the Roman Catholic secondary school they attended in Middlesbrough - there was no qualms about the route they were taking.

"There has been no problem with any of it - and maybe we were helped by the fact that the community we were growing up within was white only," said Ms Desai. "I have to say that I have not felt any sense of racial tension in Middlesbrough, either. The community have accepted us. When we used to run a shop, there was always respect from those around us."

Preeti left school to work in the beauty therapy business, managing a salon for three years. She has also worked for her father, who runs a fireworks business in Middlesbrough, although for a time, at the age of 18, she abandoned work to look after her mother.

"It was awful seeing her in that state," she said. "Mum was from a poorer background than some other members of our family and that might have contributed to her problems because some [of the extended family] thought they could treat her as they wanted. We just wanted to help her."

Mrs Desai said: "I was from a village, I couldn't speak English very well and I had so many problems within the family."

If Ms Desai needed any encouragement to run for Miss Great Britain, it came 15 months ago when Hammasa Kohistani, a student, became the first Muslim to be declared Miss England. Ms Desai came fifth in that pageant and unexpectedly took the crown last week.

"I don't have any intention of staying in the beauty business for years," she said. "My ambition is to move into property development. But winning this prize has given me the confidence to believe in myself. Mum didn't have that as she endured the stigma of having girls.

"You can be sure of one thing: if I have daughters, there will be none of that."