India stakes its claim as a beauty superpower

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The Independent Online
THE DEMONSTRATORS outside Olympia last week denounced the Miss World contest as "irrelevant, sexist and reactionary". Sexist and reactionary it may be, but for the latest Indian winner, irrelevant it certainly is not.

India has won four major beauty titles in the past six years, three Miss Worlds and a Miss Universe, and this time the resonance back home was ear-splitting. The new Miss World is called Yukta Mookhey, and her name and face are everywhere in India this week.

"By winning, Yukta has played a vital role in furthering India's presence in the world," raved Pradeep Kar, boss of a software development company called Microland.

"The general impression of India as a country of poverty and riots will now change to that of a country with both beauty and brains," seconded another CEO, Vinay Rai, head of Usha India.

Nobody doubts that Indian women are beautiful, and the spiritual training Ms Mookhey and her predecessors enjoyed may give them a unique edge. Mickey Mehta, Ms Mookhey's personal trainer, said: "She was my most diligent follower. I trained her to be the most vibrant person in the contest."

But it is the rewards that lie beyond winning the title that may be the most important spur in driving the Indian candidate. Beauty queens from the West can look forward to a brief interlude of celebrity, followed with luck by a modelling career. Indian Miss Worlds, by contrast, become household names within days of winning, and stand a good chance of going on to star in Bollywood films.

Aishwarya Rai, the statuesque Miss World of 1994, has converted her title into a monster career in films. Sushmita Sen, 1994's Miss Universe, has gone the same route, and 1997's Miss World, Diana Hayden, is currently enrolled at RADA. Only the first Indian laureate, Reita Faria, who was Miss World back in 1966, ran counter to form; she settled in Ireland, to work as a doctor.

The Times of India spoke of Ms Mookhey's success as "establishing India as a beauty superpower", and it is clear that the Miss World crown was captured thanks to professionalism which, if repeated in fields such as manufacturing or tourism, would transform India.

The candidate is chosen by a women's magazine called Femina through a process so serious that it verges on the solemn. "We travel across the Indian cities and choose from the girls who have been shortlisted. Height and looks are of course important but they also must have the right attitude, mindset and intelligence. Getting through to the finals is as demanding as any job interview," says Sathya Saran, editor of Femina.

The Miss World contest is judged by a panel of sportsmen and media celebrities. But it's an indication of how seriously India takes the challenge that the judges for Miss India included a business tycoon, Anil Ambani, and Sabeer Bhatia, the computer whiz who invented Hotmail and sold it on to Bill Gates. "The key is that we are no longer choosing Miss India," said one of the organisers. "The brief to our judges is that they are selecting a Miss Universe or a Miss World, who is incidentally from India."

"It's a very middle-class competition, isn't it?" I suggested to Ms Saran. She agreed, but we were at cross-purposes: what she meant was that competing was no longer the prerogative of the Indian upper-class.

What I meant was that for many hundreds of millions of Indian women who are neither in the upper nor the middle class, the Miss World contest had little bearing on their impoverished lives. In that sense, the demonstrators' "irrelevant" tag has a point.