Newly crowned Femina Miss India 2019 Suman Rao rubbished the popular perception that Indian beauty contests are reductive, lack diversity and are partial to fair-skinned women.
In an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid!, Rao claims that participating in Miss India 2019 has been an empowering, life-changing experience.
“I do not believe that [they are partial to fair skin] since I have a dusky skin colour myself... If there was a lack of diversity, then there wouldn’t be participants from the North, the South, the North East and the Western parts of India,” said Rao in her first interview since her momentous win on Saturday.
The contestant from Rajasthan beat 29 beauty queen hopefuls to win the coveted crown judged by the likes of Bollywood actress Huma Qureshi, fashion designer-duo Falguni and Shane Peacock and choreographer-director Remo D’Souza.
“Every participant from various Indian states had distinct personalities with varying skin colours. So I do not feel there’s a lack of diversity in our pageant,” said Rao.
Femina Miss India 2019 has been battling criticism for cherry-picking contestants that look like clones of one another. But Rao disagrees. She calls her fellow participants “her sisters”.
For this Chartered Accountant student, 20, the title represented change and an opportunity for global exposure. Rao, who was groomed by former Miss India and actress Neha Dhupia for more than a month, will represent India on an international platform at the Miss World 2019 in Thailand in December.
“It will be the first time I will travel outside India,” said Rao. While she waits for her first stamp on her passport, we talk beauty, Bollywood dreams and petty rivalry. Excerpts from our interview before she was rushed off towards her first media interaction in Mumbai...
Q: Congratulations on your big win. Did you expect to win the Miss India 2019 crown?
A: I was actually expecting to be among the top three contestants, but I wasn’t sure if I would win the crown though. It has finally happened and I am so happy. It’s yet to sink in.
Q: What was the experience of competing in such a fiercely-contested competition that saw participants from 29 Indian states?
A: It was amazing because we were told that we were the best batch that they had so far. All 30 of us had a good bond for the last 30 days. None of us were feeling low at any point nor were we in any bad mood either. We enjoyed every bit of our journey together. There were no groups that separated us. We were together and had a good time together. We were 30 sisters who faced it all together.
Q: So the stereotype of catfights and rivalry in beauty pageants is limited to films and TV shows alone?
A: People do say that catfights break out when women get together for a beauty contest. It never happened in our batch. We were very happy together. We were learning together. Such catfights never happened with us, perhaps that’s why we were called the “best batch”.
Q: What would you like to say to all those who believe that beauty pageants are regressive and focus on the physical beauty of a contestant rather than their intellect?
A: I just want to say that those are just rumours. The reality is experienced only if you participate in them. Here, I had a complete different experience than I anticipated. I was a part of a great team. I got to learn a lot of things and it changes your entire personality. This contest helped me gain confidence in my personality. These are just rumours.
Q: Did you always want to enter a beauty pageant?
A: I had just appeared for my second year of CA examinations when I heard that Manushi Chillar had won the crown for Miss India/World. Around that time, I started googling about the various kinds of contests and how Miss India and Miss World worked. After reading about it, I became passionate about entering one. I began learning a lot about it. I was like any ordinary girl from a conservative background who didn’t pursue such dreams. I am the first model in my community, not just my family. It’s all very new. I enrolled into a local pageant to know how it works. It helped me perform better at Miss India. Once I decided to take it seriously, I began to train myself for it.
Q: Did you put yourself through a harsh fitness and diet regime as a part of your Miss India prep?
A: I was blessed with a good body already, so I didn’t have to work a lot on it. But I had to work a lot on my inter-personal skills. Since I was studying for CA, I was always into my books in a closed room, studying to clear my various levels of CA. I was never a student who came out of their rooms to chat with other students. So I had to learn how to reach out to people and how to talk to them. That was the true preparation I had to do.
Q: What was it like being mentored by the likes of former beauty queens Neha Dhupia and Dia Mirza?
A: Neha Dhupia was my mentor and I learnt a lot from her by observing the way she carried herself. Her aura is so strong that you can get influenced by just standing beside her. So that’s one thing that is amazing. She made me realise that you need to be strong and confident in who you are. Having a strong personality is essential to influencing others. She made me realise that we all have a voice and we can speak for others, too. I learnt that from her.
Q: You are going to head to Thailand for the Miss World contest this summer. How are you gearing up for it?
A: It will be the first time I will travel outside India. I need to work a lot towards it. I met the members of the Miss World organisation yesterday after my win and I have already started getting familiar with them. I need to work a lot towards the Miss World contest. For now, the preparations are yet to start. But am hoping for the best.
Q: What will you do with your first pay cheque from your Femina Miss India win?
A: Honestly, I haven’t thought about it since I won the crown only day before yesterday. I have been busy with several interactions with the Miss World organisation members and I am about to attend my first press conference.
Q: Is Bollywood on your radar as most beauty queen winners graduate towards films eventually?
A: I would love to be a part of it if I get an opportunity. As of now, I am enjoying this moment. Everyone in my town and family are eagerly waiting to see me.
I studied Kathak (traditional Indian dance form for four years, but it’s a 13-14 year process for me if you want to be a master in it. I have a few more years pending.
“I studied Kathak (traditional Indian dance form for four years, but it’s a 13-14 year process for me if you want to be a master in it. I have a few more years pending.” — Suman Rao on her dance skills that are essential for Bollywood.