Being born in Dubai gave Miss England 2020 finalist and Indian actress Rysa Saujani the much-needed edge at the beauty pageant that prides itself for diversity.
“I was born in Dubai … I have had some incredible childhood memories there. I learnt a lot about different cultures and had a taste of a multicultural life in Dubai,” said Saujani in an exclusive interview with Gulf News over the phone from the United Kingdom. She currently lives in Newbury and will attend grade 12 this September.
The 16-year-old teenager, who attended Dubai's Repton School when young, believes that her brush with the UAE embedded her with “life skills”.
“Because of my Asian heritage, I have learnt the importance of family and forming relationships and having respect between family members and for people outside. Being from England, I have a learnt a lot about being focused on my work life and having the discipline to do things to the best of my ability,” she said.
Saujani, whose grandparents still live in Dubai, is also acquainted with Bollywood. The model and actress played the young Sunny Leone in the hit web series 'Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story Of Sunny Leone', which chronicled the popular adult actress’ rise to fame and notoriety. Aside from this, Saujani also acted in the horror film ‘Dobara’, a Hindi adaptation of the Hollywood film 'Oculus,' starring award-winning actor Adil Hussain.
She’s the wild card entry in the Miss England 2020 pageant, which essentially means that she is the chosen one to enter the semi-finals without going through the initial rounds of the contest.
Excerpts from our interview with Saujani as we talk mental health, the criticisms around beauty contests and keeping the faith alive …
Beauty pageants are often criticised for reinforcing the idea that girls should be valued for their physical attributes and are superficial … What are your thoughts on this?
There has been like a negative stigma around pageants, but I feel like it is so different when you are involved in it because you realise there is so much more behind it. Everyone has always thought that pageants are going to judge you purely on what you look like, but it’s the opposite. It’s now more about your views in life, the kind of person you are. It’s more about what’s on your mind.
So it’s not just about world peace or cat fights among contestants …
It’s more on the lines of ‘beauty with a purpose’ rather than just that beauty element. In Miss England 2020, we are showcasing our different talents and skills and they have made it an inclusive environment for all kinds of women … Every contestant is so supportive of each other’s successes and it is such a nice environment because at the end of the day I feel like your only competition would be yourself … There is no real need to be catty. Everyone is so lovely and the minute you win an award everyone is congratulating you. It is such a down-to-earth environment and everybody is very happy for you.
Speaking of beauty with a purpose, you are championing the cause of mental health. Why did you choose that particular cause to bat for?
Mental health issue is such a common problem that many are facing continuously. The impact of social media on young people today are insane. There is so much negativity that can be found in our lives today and it has come to the point where because people who don’t see you face to face have this ability to say anything they want without thinking about consequences.
A lot more people should be talking about the importance of mental health. We need to normalise that subject and that is why it was something that I really wanted to talk about. I want everyone to become aware about it. The only way to understand it is to learn about it. You will have to kind of educate and help yourself about mental health.
As a young teenager, have you survived mental health issues in your life?
I have personally been in therapy for the last five years … In today’s times, it could be the little things like our exam stress or stress due to friendships that causes an issue. Therapy was an amazing thing for me. People are generally scared to talk about it all. It’s not a bad thing and therapy makes it easier for you to express your emotions.
It helps you work through certain things to make yourself more comfortable in the form of a better person. Therapy isn’t something to be ashamed. It’s a wonderful thing because it gives people the opportunity to talk about things that they are not comfortable talking about in a particular setting … During my stressful times in my life it was just nice to sit and talk through certain things.
It’s interesting that you are talking about being vulnerable when beauty queens are stereotyped for maintaining a perfect, flawless persona?
It’s so important to be as real and vulnerable as possible because I feel like it is unfair to give people the image that you have a perfect life. At the end of the day everyone faces their own struggles and they are going through a lot of things that they might not necessarily going to showcase. Social media often makes you feel bad about yourself. Why is everything with them so perfect, you think. But it’s obviously never the case.
Actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in Bollywood has re-ignited debates on the importance of mental health, especially among public figures in the world of entertainment and modelling. You are young and impressionable, but how do you keep the faith alive?
Being in such a competitive industry at such a young age has shaped me into who I am today. It has taught me a lot of valuable lessons — especially about failure and refusing to get up. You may go to about 100 or 200 auditions, but out of that you may only get through one of them.
You might have to learn early that you might not get everything for so many different reasons. For instance, you may not be right for the part you are auditioning for, but you can’t get hung up over things like that. I have learnt that you should never focus on the outcome. And that theory has helped in not getting upset about getting certain roles. When one door close, another opens. I try not to dwell on things.
You played the younger version of Sunny Leone in her web series about her life. Leone is a polarising figure in the world of entertainment. Did you have reservations about taking on such a role?
No, not at all … Playing the young Sunny Leone was such a challenging role because it compelled you to be vulnerable and honest with yourself. I wanted to play that role as realistically as possible.
When I got offered the part to play the young Sunny Leone, I googled her and it was confusing at first because you are not sure what you must think of her. But after reading the script, I felt it was such a beautifully-put story and I really wanted to do justice to it. While growing up in my household, we have always been taught not to judge anyone. And did you know that she was badly bullied at school? It is such a current issue in today’s society.
Many tend to go by their initial impressions of a person when they don’t really know them. My experiences with Sunny Leone was amazing. She was one of the most down-to-earth and humble people I have ever met, When we were on the set together, she would always check up on me to make sure I was OK. She even took me out for dinner one time and she was so lovely. Ideally, we mustn’t form pre-emptive opinions without really getting to know a person and learning their story because there is so much more happening behind closed doors.
What does it take to be a beauty queen … Are you on a strict diet and exercise plan?
I believe it’s important to keep yourself disciplined but not put too much pressure on yourself for the outcome. Although you have to make sure that you are looking after your self, I will never put too much press on myself to be that idealistic fit and model person. It goes against what pageants represent today. Today pageants are all about representing diversity through different kinds of people who project a natural kind of image of women as opposed to what other people might think of them as.
The idea is not be the most perfect person with the most perfect body, skin … That’s not real … Everyone has their own uniqueness to them and I think that is something that is more important for people to understand.
“I have been wanting to promote the subject of emotional intelligence where the young are taught how to combat challenges in life. They are allowed to indulge in their emotions and understand why they feel certain things. Mental health and emotional intelligence are subjects that should be made mandatory in all schools so that people are able to understand themselves.
Did you know?
Rysa Saujani will be competing with 19 other finalists at Miss England 2020. The winner will go on to represent Miss World.
“The reason I wanted to take part in Miss England is because it was an opportunity to grow by putting yourself in unpredictable situations which forces you to be completely vulnerable and honest. Such contests puts a lot of people outside their comfort zones and that’s how you really develop the resilience to what life offers you at any stage.”
Saujani will study in year 12 in September and has opted to study psychology, business and English literature.
“I place a lot of faith in education. I work hard and I have always loved to learn.”
Miss England 2020
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, like many other events, the Miss England contest was forced to cancel a series of events scheduled to be held between March – June 2020.
The semi final was due to take place on June 8 but due to social distancing and lockdown restrictions, this was not possible so it was moved online. Rysa Saujani won two awards, winning both the public and social media vote.
Organiser Angie Beasley said she hopes to hold the next final of Miss England either in October or early next Spring depending on government restrictions in the UK but was not ruling out a final virtual style event to choose the next winner to go forward to the 70th Miss World in 2021.