Transitioning from women’s and fashion magazine centre spreadsheets to Forbes covers isn’t easy. But more and more Miss India titleholders are doing exactly that.
They are entrepreneurs in their own right today and are acing the startup game. They are spearheading beverage companies, running yoga centres, creating sustainable products, covering sports on television, and even winning the UPSC race.
From former Miss Universe participant Vasuki Punj to former Miss India Vanya Mishra, these women are proving their mettle every day, telling the world that they are more than just their ramp walks, designer outfits, and crystal-studded crowns. Femina Miss India 2016 finalist Aishwarya Sheoran, for one, made the ultimate power statement by clearing the UPSC examination to become a civil servant. She passed the exam with an All India Rank (AIR) of 93 in 2020 and is now an Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer.
Pageantry isn’t all that these women want to be known for. Winning or participating in an acclaimed competition is only the beginning.
Vasuki Punj—who represented India at the Miss Universe pageant in Brazil’s Sao Paulo in 2011 and was crowned ‘I am She—Miss Universe India’ that same year—used to work at the United Nations before entering the pageant world. She now runs Rainmaker, a corporate consultancy firm, and is also the co-founder of a famous gelato chain Frozen Fun in New Delhi. While Vasuki does not wear her Miss Universe credentials on her sleeve, the world ceases to move on from them.
When invited to an Entrepreneur’s Organisation event in the capital, people only saw her with a crown on her head. “Every person there was only interested in the fact that I was Miss India, but it did not matter to them that I was a second-time entrepreneur as well. Everything else I have done is almost immaterial to some people,” she recalls.
A lot has changed in the past two decades. From being seen as Western imports ‘corrupting’ the Indian women’s movement, ‘guinea pigs’ for global cosmetic companies, and receiving brickbats for their bikini rounds, Indian beauty queens have come a long way.
In Bangalore in 1996—where the Miss World pageant was supposed to be held that year—politicians, women’s rights groups and even farmer unions took to the streets to protest against the ‘commodification’ of women by way of such competitions. The Mahila Jagran Samiti gave self-immolation threats, and about 1,500 people were held for angry demonstrations.
Even today, beauty pageants continue to be trolled in the form of memes portraying Miss Indias as nothing but pretty mannequins working for ‘world peace’.
“The Miss India contestants are all different individuals. In our times, we had lawyers, pilots, and girls pursuing their business degrees. These are never plain women. We always chose women who represented different backgrounds and walks of life,” Sathya Saran, former editor of Femina magazine, told ThePrint.
Kanishtha Dhankar, who was crowned Miss India in 2011, has been a model, an actor, a psychology student and a strong advocate for sustainability working with Tetra Pak and Uneako. But modelling was always her first love, and she even starred as one in Madhur Bhandarkar’s 2008 Bollywood directorial, Fashion. Yet, she always felt like she was never fully recognised for her multiple interests and talents. “I am so much more than a pretty face that people see in magazines. I have an intellectual and passionate side too that people never got to see,” she says.
The stigma sticks
After seeing these women in glamorous avatars, donning glittery tiaras and flowy gowns, most assume that modelling and acting are the next logical steps in their career. “When they do stints in movies, it is usually [just] a stepping stone. Because that world is also not easy,” says Sathya.
And no matter what they achieve, a social bias always accompanies these women. Miss India World 2012 Vanya Mishra, an IIM-Ahmedabad graduate and a strategy consultant with Accenture, recalls similar experiences. She was often asked to “start grooming academies” or “get into movies” after winning the pageant. But Vanya remained true to herself.
“People wonder why one would refuse more fame by shying away from acting. They talk about it as if it is a very easy profession to transcend into,” she says.
Aditi Arya, who won Femina Miss India World in 2015 and later starred in the 2022 Bollywood film 83, also claims that her work in acting “was only out of interest and experience, rather than actual passion.” Being in front of the camera was never Aditi’s dream—it was just a step toward self-discovery.
Now pursuing an MBA at Yale University, Aditi talks about her experience after winning the pageant. “I was new and untrained in this world and wasn’t too aware of makeup, angles and used to get trashed for it online while still coming to terms with the fact that I had won the pageant. I felt like I had to always prove to the world that I was a good choice.” Yet, she says that the entire experience helped her better herself overall. Aditi is currently working on a beverage startup, even considering a lucrative job offer in New York.
Drawing energy from experience
Pageants are more than just enviable designer clothing, perfectly blow-dried hair and petty squabbles: Participants struggle to clinch their rightful place in the competition, going through a tough test of skills, personality and demeanour. The difficulty only shapes the future course of their lives.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee, crowned Miss India World in 2016 and a former presenter on Star Sports, says that the whole process can be “too much for a young individual to undergo,” adding that the daunting experience made her learn how to do her taxes.
Having covered the 2019 Cricket World Cup and the Indian Premier League (IPL) during her stint as a sports presenter, she reminisces about the excitement of doing live coverage from the ground. “I am a big sports girl, and I would love to get back to doing something like that in the United States again if I find the opportunity.”
Calling it a ‘high-pressure environment’, Vasuki says that her Miss Universe experience made her “grow up a lot”, giving her invaluable lessons in hard work, empathy and respect. “I was proud to represent my country, but for all these women, this one day meant so much for their lives, and that is what I learnt.”
Pageants just the beginning
Travelling around the world at 21 opens you up to a lot of experiences, says Kanishtha. Competing in pageants helped her develop her range of interests and allowed her to express herself more. Her next project is vintage clothing, where she wants to combine her love for fashion with waste management.
Priyadarshini, who is currently modelling in New York, wants to dabble in production. She is beginning to work as an assistant camera operator. From sports news to camerawork, Priyadarshini has found her space in entertainment and continues to expand her horizons. She says that pageants draw out the uniqueness in people. “It’s a lot more than just looking nice,” she adds.
Glamour is just scraping the surface—prolific careers and a bigger stance in the world follow these diligent women. For instance, soon after the pageant, Vanya became the co-founder of a fashion discovery mobile app called SummerLabel. “The whole experience of becoming Miss India helped me gain this sudden voice and edge in a way that people now value my opinion,” she said.
Ultimately, it’s all about the confidence they gain from the global experience. Success, after all, means different things to different people. But being tall, beautiful and popular doesn’t make former Miss Indias immune to struggle, says Vasuki.
“As a former beauty queen, I have to work twice as hard just to be taken half as seriously as men.”
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)