LOOKING BACK M10 THE MAGAZINE
Aishwarya and Sushmita would have to come up
against each other once again.
In the final question round Aishwarya was asked first
to pick between Ridge Forester of the American
soap Bold and Beautiful, and Mason Capwell of the
equally popular soap Santa Barbara, as a potential
She went for Mason because ‘he has a very caring
side and a terrific sense of humor and that gels with my
Sushmita Sen was asked by judge Ritu Kumar, a
designer, what she knew of the textile heritage of India.
Her winning reply: ‘It started off with Mahatma
Gandhi’s khadi and it’s gone a long way since then. But
the basics of the textile heritage lies there.’
I was in the audience because I was to write a copy
for the next day’s edition of The Times of India.
Sushmita acted like she wasn’t surprised she had
But there was general shock. No one had expected
Sushmita to beat Aishwarya! I suppose Francesca Hart
came third because of the law of averages.
Soon after the event, Francesca disappeared from the
scene. No one knows where she went.
Sushmita and Aishwarya, of course, went on to participate in the Miss Universe and Miss World pageants
and made India proud.
In retrospect, everyone agreed that Aishwarya was
better suited for Miss World and Sushmita for Miss
The event ended at around 11 pm and I went about
looking in Panaji for some place to type out my story. I
found one, typed it out and sent it by fax because there
was no email back then.
We were all very tired. I was running a fever and went
All flights going out of Goa were early in the morning so
the hospitality staff made sure we were out of the hotel on
time and on the flight!
The thing about Sushmita is that she has great presence
of mind and charisma. She has an amazing memory. She
remembers names and she is a great people person.
At the Miss Universe pageant, I am sure she must have
met every single judge during the pageant and made sure
they remembered her. Much like her father, Sushmita is
very well-spoken and erudite.
We had very little time to train Sushmita. The Miss
Universe pageant was to be held in May that year. She didn’t have a chance to train but she modeled a lot for the magazine. Poor girl was made to pose next to Parryware basins
and commodes but she did it all with a smile.
Just before the Miss Universe pageant, Sushmita came to
me and cried. She didn’t think she stood a chance because
she was dark and thin and had black eyes whereas all the
other contestants were tall and blonde.
I told her she would stand out if she believed in herself.
I was in Goa shooting with (photographer) Rafiq Sayed
and (model) Meghana Reddy, standing on a high wall as
Rafiq was taking some shots of Meghana in (designer)
Krishna Mehta’s clothes.
From a distance, I spotted someone running in our direction. He said something to Rafiq who asked me to get down
from the wall.
I didn’t know what was happening. I insisted he tell me
right there and then.
After some persuasion, Rafiq finally told me that
Sushmita had won! I could not believe the news; I thought
he was playing a prank as he always does.
But it was true and I began jumping in joy right there on
the wall, much to Rafiq’s horror!
After she won the crown, we lost all contact with
That night she was moved into a special suite and then
she was tied up with the Miss Universe organization. She
didn’t come back to India for many months because she
was travelling the world.
Before her homecoming, I ran into her in Cairo. She was
to speak at the same UN conference I was attending. I got
her number and reached out to her.
She was staying at the Oberoi with a view of the pyramids and I was at the Hyatt on the other side of town. We
met that evening for the first time in months and we
spoke the entire night of how her world had changed
since then and all the countries she had seen. In a matter
of months she had changed so much. She was more
mature and composed.
She was inundated with gifts wherever she went. At a
time when video recorders were rare, she had four!
People were giving her diamonds and platinum rings... it
She too could not contain her excitement but she seemed
to have held herself together rather well.
Finally, when she came back, it was such a huge deal!
We went to the Taj in New Delhi where our regional
rounds were held earlier. And when she addressed all the
bellboys by their names, they were over the moon and were
swooning all over her!
She charmed Sonia Gandhi (who would later take over
as Congress part president) and Sheila Dixit (who would
later become Delhi chief minister) and she charmed
I was never very comfortable addressing huge gatherings and I was very uncomfortable when I had to
introduce Sushmita to the press. I mumbled some
words and let Sushmita take over. She did and how!
Journalists were asking her all sorts of questions.
When they asked her why she wasn’t speaking in
Hindi, she replied to them in Hindi. When someone
asked her a question in Bengali, pat came the reply in
the same language.
She was barely 20 and she was responding to all
questions confidently! That was when I lost my
stage fright; I told myself if this young girl could do
it, so could I!
Unfortunately, Sushmita hasn’t been able to make
much of her achievements. She hasn’t made it big
She has done some brilliant things with adoption
and has broken new ground, but with the promise she
showed and the potential she had, she could have
Aishwarya dealt with fame much better than
Sushmita. I don’t blame Sushmita because when
you’re young and you are, literally, the queen of the
universe, it is difficult to handle that. Someone has to
remind them that this thing lasts only for a year and
that they must use it to build whatever they can.
Aishwarya was already half a star so she wasn’t
exactly new to fame.
Also, unlike Sushmita, Aishwarya wasn’t jet-setting.
She came back to India soon after winning the
crown because the Miss World organization flies you
out only when you have an appearance to make on
their behalf. She was travelling in and out of Mumbai
for the whole year, but it wasn’t like Sushmita who
was just whisked away.
When you win the Miss Universe pageant, you are
pretty much an employee of the Miss Universe
When Aishwarya returned to India, we had her
homecoming procession in Mumbai along Bandra’s
Subhash Ghai soon announced that he was to sign her for
his next film ( Taal, which only released in 1999).
Aishwarya handled the success rather well. She smartly
signed on movies with big names like Mani Rathnam and
Sanjay Leela Bhansali among others. She has been fairly
selective about her movies. When critics panned her acting skills, she proved them wrong with a movie like
She has signed some huge endorsements (L’Oreal and
Longines are two of the biggest international brands she
And she has shaped her career carefully and intelligently.
So it isn’t surprising that she is still counted among the top
heroines of her generation even though she does so few films.
Miss India has often been criticized as a body show. Being
a woman, I didn’t want it to be exploitative, and somewhere I was the watchdog. My contribution to Miss India
was to keep it rooted.
Whenever I was with the girls I spoke to them of being
aware of being a woman, of being an Indian and projecting
yourself with grace and being proud of the fact that you
have the brains and beauty, and to not get exploited but
rather project it in a way you get worldwide recognition.
Yes, we were aiming for a contest that was a body show.
But to us it was not a body show and I suppose we proved
that because the women we sent there were real women
and not like the international models whose bodies are
sculpted to perfection.
And, look, it has been 20 years already! n
As told to Abhishek Mande-Bhot
Aishwarya Rai moments after being crowned Miss World 1994. .