Miss World’s return to India after 28 years provides global cachet

EXPERT Q&A

India will host the 71st Miss World pageant in Mumbai March 9. This is India’s second time hosting Miss World, the oldest existing international beauty pageant, after a controversial first time in 1996.

Swapnil Rai is an assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media at the University of Michigan. As an interdisciplinary scholar, she works at the intersection of media studies, critical cultural communication, women’s and gender studies, and industry studies. Focusing on the Global South, she investigates how transnational networked cultures intersect with the media industries and with questions of policy, geopolitics and audiences.

Tell me about your work on the Miss World pageant.

The Miss World Pageant, held in Bangalore, India, in 1996 and organized by Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan’s company ABCL, was a big step in the evolution of essential institutions that helped the broader realm of entertainment. My work looks at what the Miss World contest did for the Indian entertainment industry structurally. I focus on how it added a new crop of global beauty queens to Bollywood, who went on to embody and symbolize the rapid globalization of India and the nation-state itself as a worldwide brand.

Why do you think Miss World is so important to India?

The first Miss World pageant held in India was the center of many controversies. It came at a time when India opened its doors to economic liberalization and things were changing rapidly. The Bangalore pageant site was where Indian anxieties about globalization played out. The event garnered massive protests from all manner of activists, including women’s organizations, left-wing parties, conservative right-wing groups, religious groups, farmers, and even Phoolan Devi, India’s infamous female bandit, referenced it as a "foreign invasion.-

Miss World symbolically represented the threat of the Western world infiltrating a nation that had been rooted in socialism up until that point. It was an easy target because it was a foreign pageant where women’s bodies were on display for global consumption, and it represented a leisure, commodity culture, which was new for India at that time.

What is the significance of having the pageant in India this year?

India is now a huge market and one of the world’s most important emerging powers. The pageant is providing large corporations an opportunity for expansion in the country. It also serves as one of the many prestigious global events being hosted in India recently (Cricket World Cup, G20 summit, etc.), further solidifying the nation’s branding. Miss World and its winners provide a global cachet and recognition.

I know India has won Miss World six times (and Miss Universe three times). What’s helped with India’s success?

The repeated Miss World victories were very strategic. There was an impetus to create a strong foothold for luxury brands and industries in India. After two wins, there was a well-established model to keep churning out beauty queens. In fact, after the initial wins of Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen, Indian women went on a pageant-winning spree and, in some years, brought home all three crowns of Miss Universe, Miss World and Miss Asia Pacific. In essence, there wasn’t just a desire for India to win but a well-established and well-rehearsed formula for honing and mentoring global pageant winners.

Some of India’s Miss World winners have become some of India’s most prominent stars globally. Explain how/why you think this happens.

The early stars like Aishwarya Rai were pathbreakers. Rai had an excess of aesthetic capital that positioned her as "corporeal transnationality,- meaning that with her gray-blue eyes, pale skin and lighter brown hair, she represented a "global- face of beauty. The cosmetic industry loved her, and Hollywood tried to recruit her for international projects. She created visibility for Indian entertainment that helped the next pageant winner, Priyanka Chopra, with more traditional "Indian- looks. It helped develop an infrastructure to promote the crossover of Indian stars into global markets. Now, most pageant winners get offers for films and international projects, which hadn’t happened in India before.

Your work focuses on the star power of Indian celebrities. How does that relate to your work on Miss World?

I look at how Miss World winners became a part of the Bollywood industry and their perception and prestige have changed. The beauty pageant winners Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen marked a new phase in which beauty pageant winners became closely tied to national identity. Compared to the Miss Indias of the 1950s, the latest global beauty queens possessed abundant symbolic and sociocultural capital, which lent them power.

Rai and Sen were a class apart from the Miss Indias of yesteryear, who were diminutive starlets, considered less than Bollywood actresses. An example is when Rai returned from her pageant win, she visited with the prime minister and conveyed Mandela’s message to him. This marked an inflection point when the pageant winners were elevated to cultural ambassadors and utilized for national branding. Of all the beauty queens, including Miss Universe winners, the most prominent are Rai and Chopra, who both started their careers with a Miss World victory.