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When I Met India's First Miss World

Last updated on: February 22, 2024 13:17 IST

Miss World 2024 will be crowned in India soon.
Long before Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra, Yukta Mukhey and Diana Hayden, a beautiful woman from Bombay was crowned Miss World.
In 1966.
Reita Faria was India's first Miss World.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/ met the 80 year old in Dublin recently, still as elegant, still as attractive as she was all those years ago.

IMAGE: Reita Faria Powell spends her time these days with her grandchildren and cooking, baking, golfing, and more. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

On one of those typical soupy Dublin mornings, I was walking down dewy, leafy Palmerston Road, lined with red brick Victorian homes, mildly lost, when an elegant, tall Indian woman, standing at her doorway, called out to me in a clear voice.

"You are walking past my house," said she amusedly.

Indeed, I was, and already five or six minutes late for our appointment.

It was a date to interview Ireland's most famous Indian, Dr Reita Faria Powell, our nation's first Miss World, today 80, although, with her unlined face, clear skin and youthful lanky slimness, she did not look a day older than 70.

IMAGE: The 5'8" beauty outside her home in a quiet, green neighbourhood of Dublin. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

Celebrated Indian though she was, the search to find her had taken me well over five days.

While I found her address after not that much googling, I was loathe to, rudely, show up on her doorstep unannounced. And it might have taken too long for a letter to reach by post.

But find her phone number or e-mail I could not.

The only number I could locate was for the clinic of her endocrinologist husband Dr David Powell.

I had to wait till Monday to dial that number and then a recorded message informed me that he had retired from his practice at Mater Misericordiae Hospital and I would have to contact the hospital directly. I drew a blank there.

IMAGE: A sketch on the wall of Dr Reita's drawing room depicts her in huge jooda (bun) of lovely jet black hair. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

I kept searching. Googling was, in the process, fleshing out Reita's life for me, little by little, stroke by stroke: Her astonishing victory, ahead of 66 other contestants, in London in late 1966 no doubt because of that enchanting, infectious smile and huge jooda (bun) of lovely jet black hair.

Fetching wedding pictures of her, under a lacy veil, with her fine-looking Irish physician husband in a waistcoat and top hat. A family pic with a few strapping grandsons.

A recent visit -- she looking evergreen -- to an Indian embassy do in Dublin.

A legal document about a dispute with a neighbour who was trying demolish a heritage portion of his property, on the street where they seemed to have been living for many years.

They were intriguing random bits and pieces of her life that in cyberspace, chummily and unrealistically, closed the distance between you and a celebrity.

IMAGE: Dr Reita Faria with her husband Dr David Powell and two infant daughters Deirdre and Ann-Marie in Ireland. Photograph: Kind courtesy Dr Reita Faria Powell

But umpteen hours spent on Google might have been bringing me closer to Reita but not to a phone number.

In an earlier article by my late colleague Arthur J Pais, who had visited her in Dublin in 2006, I read she had two daughters, who were doctors too.

I could not find any professional information about them either, but instead social media was full of details of the golf exploits, handicaps and wins of these two graceful, pretty women, as attractive as their mom.

One was the captain of a local golf team and another had played for Ireland. Phone numbers? Zip.

Who were they married to? Maybe that could aid my search.

More hours of combing the Internet --by that time I felt I was beginning to get to know Ms Faria quite well, unbeknownst to her -- landed me on a sweet little notice in personals of the Irish Times, from January 2021, congratulating David and Reita Powell for their golden anniversary and it was signed with the names of the whole family including the sons-in-law.

Sons-in-law, finally! That was the new avenue I was looking for to channel my search, but there were no last names.

Yet, voila, I searched different combinations of the daughters and sons-in-law's names and I came to notice of a doubles golf tournament, where one of Reita's daughters and her husband were paired off together.

He was a leading cardiologist, it turned out, and I quite easily found his office e-mail.

The gentleman helpfully immediately put me onto his legendary mother-in-law and hardly a few hours later my days of persistence had paid off, and, to my excitement, my WhatsApp pinged with a message from Miss World 1966!

IMAGE: Dr Reita Faria Powell hopes to leave her Miss World trophy, which she adores, to her grandchildren. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

We set up to meet at her home two days later in the beautiful Rathmines neighbourhood of south Dublin. I was given very precise instructions on how to reach.

And there I was standing face to face with a leggy woman, with a bun of lustrous white hair and that still girlish, charming smile that irrevocably captured hearts in four hemispheres back in the 1960s.

Reita took me into their homey drawing room, full of comfy leather chairs, strewn with books and art.

Gold numerical balloons, from their recent 80th birthday celebrations -- she and her husband are of the same age -- still hovered near the ceiling.

A large antique piano occupied one corner. Paintings decked the walls.

There was an uninterrupted view of an enticingly green back garden and its apple trees and strawberry bushes.

On the mantlepiece the proud silver, globe-shaped trophy, she won more than five decades ago had pride of place.

IMAGE: Can you believe she is 80? Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

Dr David Powell kindly came in with a tray of coffee and banana bread that Reita had just baked. And our conversation took off.

For the next 45 minutes we just chatted, exchanging family pictures, recipes and political views, she offering me health advice for my grandson's diet -- Reita came across as a gracious, warm person, easy to get on with, vivacious, young at heart.

At one point her husband popped his head around the door expecting the interview to be drawing to close.

Reita told him "No, no, we are just gossiping." Her accent is not Irish, more British, perhaps still echoing a convent education, with a slight Indian inflection here and there.

Much has been written about Reita's Miss India win and the way Reita wowed audiences that November at the ballroom in Lyceum Theatre at the West End, becoming the first Asian, and one of the first persons of colour, to take the crown, in spite of 1:66 bookie odds.

Little is known about what a dizzying roller coaster adventure it was for a sheltered, anonymous 23-year-old Bombay girl from Matunga, who had never bumped into Fame, to suddenly fly off into the West, with just £ 10 in her pocket, as per the rigid Government of India forex rules then, and a few, not-so-suitable items of clothing and borrowed jewellery in her suitcase to take on the world in its most prestigious beauty contest.

To say that Reita was ill-equipped is an amazing understatement.

IMAGE: She grows her own fruit and makes her own bread and ice cream too. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

When Reita looked back on it, she remembered, "It was all happening so fast. Later I wondered how I coped with it. I had no relatives and friends in London. But I was so busy doing something all the time" during those seven days when they were taken around, to see Buckingham Palace etc in a London she found "fantastically neat and tidy and different."

She had gotten onto an escalator to instant stardom she could not step off or stop. Nor could her parents.

Reita grew up in Bombay, in a sprawling old flat in a family-owned building on Jame Jamshedji road, near Five Gardens, central Bombay, and fondly recalled the childhood trips to the swings, seesaw, slides at the park and coming home to a special hot tea-time snack.

Both her parents' families hailed from north Goa, her dad from Danva, Tivim, and her mom from Santa Cruz near Panjim, but they were Bombay Goans, having been born and brought up in the city for generations, their very "catholic upbringing" being the differentiator.

Her mom ran a hair salon and her father worked for a mineral factory.

She attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary (now St Agnes), Byculla, south central Mumbai, and then from age 10, St Joseph, Panchgani -- "that was the real change for me. I had suddenly had to make my bed and clean my locker... a lovely school" -- and excelled in sports, studies, sewing and painting, winning the all-rounder award in her final year.

Ever since she had had asthma as youngster, and recovered from each "gasping" bout at the magical hands of a doctor, she cherished the dream of joining the profession and began studying medicine at the Grant Medical College, with plans to eventually become a gynecologist.

Reita, while she was completing her fifth year of medicine, entered the Miss Bombay race in 1966 on a lark, at her elder sister Philomena's bidding ("she brought the Miss Bombay ad and said, 'Why don't you have a go at this?', because she thought it would be fun to go abroad" and "see the world" as that would be the only way they could get a chance to travel and "she took me to a photographer"), expecting fully to come away from the competition empty handed.

She, never in her most madcap dreams, imagined she would triumph and go on to claim the title in Eve's Weekly-run Miss India gala too and be taking off for London, with just a week's notice, much to her mom's dismay and anxiety.

"Mother was absolutely horrified. She had all these ideas of men taking advantage (when she went abroad). She was terribly nervous."

IMAGE: Dr Reita Faria Powell on that fateful day in November 1966, when she became the first Indian and the first Asian to be crowned Miss World. Photograph: Kind courtesy Dr Reita Faria Powell

Reita hardly had time to catch her breath, let alone prepare. Nor did she have anything remotely appropriate to wear for the events that focused on three prizes, an evening wear/gown event, a personality challenge and the final Miss World night.

She decided on a sari because it would be the gorgeous traditional garment that could set her apart.

She said, "I had no time to even get any outfits, because in just two months I had won Miss Bombay, Miss India and Miss World. They were that close.

"I didn't have years of preparation like now Miss Indias are trained, exercised and massaged (smiles).

"I had to borrow a sari because I had never worn a sari in India. It was too late to make a gown.

"I borrowed a sari from a minister named Bajpai in the Bombay government (who had some connection with the pageant). It was his daughter's wedding sari. Beautiful."

When she reached London, the organisers and chaperones were a bit crestfallen at the contents of her wardrobe.

The swimsuit they felt was not proper -- it was too short and didn't fit her well. And she had come with only low heels because her nickname "Mummy long legs" made her conscious of her height.

Two evenings before the Miss World night, she was hurriedly despatched to the stores with her meagre, guarded few pounds that she had come to London with.

"All the summer things were on sale. So, the swimsuit was £ 3. The fact that it was three pounds intrigued me. And 10 shillings (50 p) was the shoes -- they had six-inch heels."

But Reita carried the day, November 17 -- and how! -- all 5 feet 8 inches of her, in her £ 3 black-and-white swim suit, cheap heels, borrowed golden sari and quick, intelligent answers about the need to curb India's population.

By morning the whole world and Reita's parents knew of her stupendous victory.

"A wire went to India. So, the first thing in the morning, my mother knew. She must have been praying."

The tremendous, inescapable reality of it all hit shortly after she was crowned. The weight of that sparkling tiara would transform her life, beyond description, forever.

This was no breezy joy ride to London as a Miss World hopeful, getting placed well in the contest ranks, as she wished, and going jiggety-jig home like all the past Miss Indias before her.

She had become Miss World and would be staying on in her £5-a-night Waldorf hotel and not be returning.

"We never thought I wouldn't come back." Her life became a breathless whirl of engagements and travel, with just her "rags" to wear until her mom sent her a bunch of saris (she proudly wore through the year for formal engagements) and clothes, and a lot of eating out, that saved her pennies.

Nor had she quite fathomed what a year as Miss World would entail. Her next worry was her profession. She was a medical student, with a serious, sober career ahead of her and she could not just go sashaying about wherever she pleased -- "None of this going to a night club and giving a performance.

"I made it very clear to them that I wasn't going to take part in, you know, wearing swimsuits, advertising and things like that.

"And I said, 'Look, I really didn't mean to win this title. But I mean, I'm here and I'll do the year'.

"But I said I won't advertise. I won't do anything stupid and go on the stage or something.

"I would just make personal appearances. That would keep me clean (with respect to) the medical ethics, because we're not allowed, as doctors to advertise."

Her commitment to her career and life goals, she recalled, helped keep her level-headed, sensible, cautious, and not get consumed by the giddiness of her new superstar status.

IMAGE: Miss World 1966 Reita at Entebbe airport, Uganda. Photograph: Kind courtesy Frederick Noronha/ Commons

When Reita's very "interesting, educational year" as Miss World, travelling the globe including trips to war-torn Vietnam (setting off a discussion in the Rajya Sabha), meeting kings, queens and celebs, was nearly up, the organisers came to her and very generously offered her the opportunity to complete her medical degree at the prestigious King's College Hospital in London.

That was where she ran into Dr David Anthony Powell in 1967. And her life changed further.

A little rewind here: Powell didn't usually watch beauty pageants. But as an intern he was on duty in November 1966 in his hospital in Dublin and happened to catch a telecast of the events unfolding at Lyceum Ballroom and was smitten by this dusky Miss India -- "Absolutely intrigued that I was a medical student. He could not believe it."

He hoped to run into Reita somewhere and even attempted to engineer a meeting with her, on her visit to the College of Surgeons in Dublin for one of her Miss World engagements, when she had opted to hear the illustrious American cardiologist Dr Michael DeBakey speak.

But the meeting never happened because Reita had been swamped with admirers and the introduction could not take place.

"He was so disappointed. He must have found me charming. The fact that I was a medical student wouldn't have intrigued him that much, if he didn't have an ulterior motive.

"So, he goes back to his, as he calls it, medical student quarters, thinking that was his last chance and that he'll never get another."

IMAGE: Reita and David Powell on their wedding day. Photograph: Kind courtesy Reita Faria, from the Rediff Archives

But when Reita started her fifth year of medicine at Kings College in September of 1967 she was attached to a consultant.

Her consultant was the newly-appointed eminent hepatologist Roger Williams, who did the first liver transplant with surgeon Sir Roy Caine.

"Roger Williams was delighted. I was the Miss World who was coming to complete my studies. He said, 'I'll get my houseman to come and show you around'.

"I had the white coat on, the stethoscope and everything. And guess who arrives? David! 'Powell I want you to look after Miss Faria. She is our new student'. He couldn't believe his eyes."

David, the promising new Irish houseman at Kings, with a "fantastic" CV, dutifully and diligently took her under his wing, supervising her return to her medical books and their dating took off in a bit of a bumpy but delightful manner.

Reita was staying in a room rented out to her by Harold, the chef at the Savoy hotel, and his wife Anna, who like a pair of grandparents adopted her.

"By this stage, all that sort of high life had come down to really student digs. And I had no idea of cooking.

"Harold always had a lot of food leftover that he would bring back from the Savoy for me."

IMAGE: Reita Faria signs the cap of an American soldier in South Vietnam, 1966.

David and she became friends and he would escort her to her Miss World engagements. They would go out a lot and David suggested once they eat in at her lodgings.

"He said 'Why don't you cook a meal at your flat?' I said, 'That's a good idea'.

"And I'm thinking that he's used to tell me how he would shop for his mother. And of course, we didn't do anything like that in India.

"Never been in a kitchen in India. I was absolutely shocked when he said 'I'll get some chops and we can cook it'."

She gingerly confessed to not knowing how to cook chops. He practically suggested an omelette. "I hesitated. So, he said, 'Well, how about a boiled egg?' I am thinking to myself, 'What do I do to boil an egg?'

"He really got a shock. He thought I was bluffing. He said, 'Don't worry we'll do something.'"

IMAGE: One of Dr Reita Faria Powell's favourite pictures of her and husband Dr David Powell with Pope John Paul II in Dublin. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

The days of failed boiled eggs outings eventually lead to matrimony and a basic cookbook on her first birthday together.

Reita called finding David, "Divine intervention. Wonderful. Something as simple as one meeting. We are so similar in our personalities."

After marriage in 1971 in Dublin, they moved to Boston where David was completing a higher degree and Reita took a job as an epidemiologist.

Their first daughter Ann-Marie was born there and they then decided to come "home" to Ireland, the land she adopted as her own -- "The Irish are quite like the Indians, very welcoming."

Their second daughter Deirdre arrived a year later and Reita had to give up her profession to care for her children, since she had no one to help her and David was so involved and busy with his patients and work, eventually becoming a professor of endocrinology attached to University College Dublin.

She said the regret for leaving medicine was "small" compared to what she gained in terms of time spent with her daughters and helping them go ahead and excel -- "their upbringing is evident in all their achievements and that has come to the grandchildren now."

IMAGE: Reita and David Powell with their grandchildren. Photograph: Arthur J Pais, from the Rediff Archives

Even today her days are still very full and busy. She has five grandchildren, all of them brilliant students, most of them becoming doctors, while being musically gifted too.

She golfs, she gardens, cleans her home to keep fit, cooks and bakes -- they far prefer home food, made from scratch and she turns out all kinds of gourmet fare.

She happily and enthusiastically showed me around her garden and her kitchen, where fresh bread, bakery items, jams, newly-squeezed juice, ice creams are made (meals that would have made Harold proud).

IMAGE: Indian Ambassador to Ireland Akhilesh Mishra and his wife Reeti Mishra met Dr Reita Faria Powell and her husband Dr David Powell; discussed Dr Faria's role in the community as an inspiring icon of Indian Women. Photograph: Kind courtesy India in Ireland (Embassy of India, Dublin) @IndiainIreland/X

Reita and David go to quite a few classical music and opera concerts. They spend time at their holiday home on the sea in Wexford, two hours away.

Trips back to Mumbai and Goa have not been that many and a recent scheduled one was nixed by COVID-19.

Not long ago she donned a sari again for an India night, probably bringing up sweet memories of her Miss World year, and helped cook up an Indian meal at the nearby golf club, where now, after the success of the evening, dal and curry are fixtures on the menu (highly unusual for food-conservative, only-stew-and-boiled-cabbage Ireland).

David retired 15 years ago, not having taken a single day off in his entire career, and has much more time.

Would she have repeated those hectic, magical slightly unreal Miss World days, had she had a chance to choose all over again: "Well the end result was the man I met and since I met him, it has just been happiness, happy days.

"That was the eventual prize, not of my making, but someone up there (pointing to the sky).

"You couldn't, you couldn't ever imagine that meeting (happening any other way)."

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/