In 1994, when 25 contestants withdrew from the Miss India pageant because Aishwarya Rai was participating, 18-year-old Sushmita Sen stood firm.
And dressed in a gown tailored by the colony darzi from forgotten silk pieces, she wowed the country with her razor-sharp intellect, made off with the Femina Miss India Universe crown, and became one of the world’s biggest style icons.
India’s first Miss Universe
I remember exactly what I was doing 30 years back — on May 20, 1994 — when an Indian girl was declared the most beautiful woman in the universe.
School had just ended, the college era was about to begin, and I had spent the morning shopping for a new wardrobe with my BFF Chitra Subramanyam.
After picking through all the clothing stores from Connaught Place to Vasant Vihar in Delhi’s sweltering summer (and buying my first ever lipstick — a muddy-brown shade from Revlon), I came home to sleep in chilled bliss, just in time to hear the radio announcing that someone called Sushmita Sen had won Miss Universe.
The first Indian to bring home the crown. The first Indian to put India on the contemporary global beauty map. The first Indian to carry terms like ‘Miss Universe’ and ‘personal stylists’ into India’s beauty vocabulary.
Even as the country celebrated, the real fireworks were happening in my neighborhood — you see, Sushmita, till then, had been the gangly, often-overlooked girl next door, staying just a few buildings away in the apartment blocks of Vasant Kunj. Suddenly, everybody within a five-mile radius had a “Sush memory.”
Every Vasant Kunj boy I was to run into during the next few weeks had “gone out” with the new Miss Universe, every girl had gone shopping with her, and every beauty parlor had styled her hair and taught her how to do makeup.
Sushmita Sen was everywhere. And though I have to admit to feeling pangs of envy at the time (we were almost the same age — she was ruling the universe, and I still did not know how to tame my horrid, frizzy hair!), now I can understand why the attention was justifiable.
How Sushmita Sen changed India
In India, there are generations who believe that time is divided into an era before Sushmita and an era after Sushmita. I belong to one of those generations, having seen my country change after May 20, 1994.
Before Sushmita, beauty pageants were merely a step above neighborhood DIY contests. International makeup brands, couture clothes, designer fragrances, and boutique skincare potions were not even a dream. Rather, they were totally non-existent from our vocabulary.
Sunscreen? What was that???? Getting ready for a massive party? Homegrown Lakme lipsticks, Tips’ n Toes nail polishes, and Revlon’s Fire & Ice put you on top of the style stakes.
We did not even know enough to call for products from international lands — there was no internet. A handful of locally produced magazines and one single government-controlled television channel were our only sources of information about the rest of the world.
Sushmita Sen’s Miss Universe crown changed all that. The world started looking at India, and India began to look at the world.
Parents saw a lucrative career for their daughters in modeling, college-going girls gained new confidence by knowing that their beauty could compete with the best in the world, beauty salons started sprucing up their homegrown offerings as demand for professional grooming increased rapidly, experimenting with makeup became all about hope and international fashion publications began looking at India in a new light.
The world was opening up after Sushmita’s shimmering, sparkling adventures.
My personal journeys with Sushmita Sen
Time passed. Chitra went to Iowa for studies; I traveled halfway across India, studying first journalism and then law in Pune, living the software culture in Bangalore, working with a law firm in Mumbai, and then giving it up for my first love – a career in lifestyle journalism. Chitra and I lost touch… blame it on the lack of email, Skype, and affordable ISD rates. I got married, and my BFF wasn’t there.
But I met someone else during this journey of ups and downs. I met Sushmita Sen. In person.
During an interview for Cosmopolitan, the by-now larger-than-life Miss-Universe-turned-model-turned-actress became a flesh-and-bones person for me.
Sitting in her makeup van as she readied for Samay, Sushmita finally captured not just my attention but also my heart. Mired in many controversies — the Anil Ambani ring saga, the much-publicized rivalry with Aishwarya Rai, the numerous affairs, the single motherhood at 24… it couldn’t have been easy.
But Sushmita stood rock solid. By then, I had become cynical about celebrities, mentally editing out their cliched statements, evasive answers, and holier-than-thou attitude for 100+ Bollywood interviews.
Sushmita shook that cynicism. She was not one to mince words, whether on or off the record. She said what she felt, did what she wanted, lived how she liked — and the world could be damned.
This once-awkward teenager had learned her lessons early after being thrust into a brutal world and had honed her backbone to ramrod strength.
And while doing so, she changed how Indian law (and society) looked at single women, unwed mothers, fatherless children, and adopted kids.
I heard stories of the heartwarming way in which she explained the adoption process to Renee (who once told me I was “boring because I was born from the stomach, rather than my mother’s heart”).
I quickly learned never to use the words “your own child” unless I wanted my head bitten off by this follower of Goddess Durga. I understood why it is crucial to hold your head high and never show your tears to the public.
I learned why it’s essential to never apologize for who you are and what you want to become. I learned how to dream bigger and achieve those dreams without losing myself or my family in the process.
Over the next couple of years, Sushmita and my paths continued to intersect — whether in person on photo shoots and interviews or through bizarre coincidences like when she was dating my schoolmate Randeep Hooda.
Over time, the familiarity bred an easy banter. I fell in love with her house: Earthy and warm, with dark wooden floorings, bright rustic colors, vibrant paintings, plush sofas, beds that you could sink into, slanted sunroofs with electrically operated shutters, spa-like terraces… the perfect place for a girly chat and the one aspect of her life that’s totally off-limits to public scrutiny.
One day, she heard that my mom was dying to see a film shoot and invited her on set, then proceeded to pamper and indulge her every whim. This was when Sushmita was at the very peak of her career — when most “stars” wouldn’t give a “civilian” the time of the day. Mom was floored, and my cynicism was totally shattered.
Losing and finding Sushmita Sen — for mom!
Times changed once again. I took a sabbatical from lifestyle journalism. Sushmita became a mother for the second time and cut down on her acting assignments. I got married and received first a call from Sushmita’s assistant saying that she would love to come to the wedding, followed by a message of regret. Then there was silence.
Till my mother fell very sick.
It was the wrong time, and I wanted to return to the wellspring of strength that always radiated from this remarkable woman.
Not wanting to bother her, I dropped a small note with her watchman, simply saying mom was unwell. Just hours later, while working on a late midnight deadline in the office, Sushmita Sen’s number flashed up on my phone.
She wanted to meet mom — there and then. She wanted to cheer her up. She wanted to be there in any way possible, even if it meant sitting at the hospital for hours. By then, I was not even working with a fashion or celebrity-led magazine — Sushmita had nothing to gain by being at my family’s side.
This was just who she was. The woman with a big heart who gave of herself freely and without expecting anything in return.
That time also passed, and our paths diverged once again. It’s been three years since I last met India’s first Miss Universe. In the meantime, she launched I Am She — which prepared and sent Indian women to Miss Universe.
She has changed the face of Indian television with the rare woman-focussed series Aarya, where she plays a mafia boss.
Soon, she will be playing the role of a transgender activist in a web series called Taali.
She had an unexpected heart attack (because at the age of 47, she is one of the fittest people I know), showed the world how to get through it with strength and grace, and has been spreading knowledge about the importance of being healthy and incorporating medical diligence in our lives.
I have gone back to writing about fashion and beauty, and celebrities.
Today, I touched base with Chitra after half a decade. Tomorrow, I will meet her after more than six years.
Yesterday, it was 30 years since an unknown girl was declared the most beautiful woman in the universe. Time has come full circle. And I have finally realized the power, pain, and hard work of being Sushmita Sen.
Kudos! Sushmita. I have no qualms in saying that you have been a massive inspiration to me, along with countless other Indian girls, and I hope our paths keep crossing again and again.