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 crown and became one of the world’s biggest style icons.
India’s first Miss Universe
I still remember exactly what I was doing 20 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 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 cool 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 bring terms like ‘Miss Universe’ and ‘personal stylists’ into India’s beauty vocabulary.
Even as the country celebrated, the real fireworks were happening right there in my own locality – you see, Sushmita till then had literally 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, every beauty parlour 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 neighbourhood DIY contests. International makeup brands, couture clothes, designer fragrances, boutique skincare potions… all these 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 right on top of the style stakes. We did not even know enough to call for products from international lands – there was no internet and 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 started looking at the world. Parents saw a lucrative career for their daughters in modelling, college-going girls gained a 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 started looking at India in a new light. The world was opening up in the wake of Sushmita’s shimmering, sparkling adventures.
Time passed. Chitra went to Iowa for studies; I travelled half-way 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 a multitude of controversies – the Anil Ambani ring saga, the much-publicised rivalry with Aishwarya Rai, the numerous affairs, the single motherhood at the age of 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 over a course of 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 learnt her lessons early after being thrust into a brutal world and had honed her backbone to ramrod strength.
It’s a little known fact that Sushmita had decided to adopt a baby when she was only 18. In fact, her mother’s boutique in Dubai was named after Renee a year before she walked into their lives.
And while doing so, she changed the way 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 learnt never to use the words “your own child” unless I wanted my head bitten off by this follower of Goddess Durga. I learnt why it is crucial to hold your head high and never show your tears to the public. I learnt why it’s important to never apologise for who you are and what you want to become. I learnt how to dream bigger and how to achieve those dreams without losing yourself or your 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 colours, vibrant paintings, plush sofas, beds that you could sink into, slanted sun roofs 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 the time that Sushmita was at the very peek of her career – a time when most “stars” wouldn’t give a “civilian” the time of the day. Mom was floored, 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 the second time round and cut down on her acting assignments. I got married and received first a call from Sushmita’s personal 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 a bad time and out-of-the-blue I wanted to go back 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 saying simply that mom was unwell. Just hours later, while working on a late midnight deadline in office, Sushmita’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.
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 has launched I Am She – which prepares and sends Indian women to Miss Universe. I have gone back to writing about fashion and beauty and celebrities. Today, I touched base with Chitra after some half a decade. Tomorrow, I will meet her after more than six years. Yesterday, it was 20 years since an unknown girl was declared the most beautiful woman in the universe. Time seems to have come full circle. And I have finally realised the power, pain and hard work of being Sushmita Sen.
Kudos! Sushmita. I have no qualms in saying that you have been a huge inspiration to me along with countless other Indian girls and I hope our paths keep crossing again and again.