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|October 28, 1997||
"When I was a young girl," Suzanne Sabloak reminisces, "I used to wait to see the Miss Universe. I always dreamed about how lovely and fascinating it all was: this young girl who comes on the cover of all the magazines. I used to say to myself that one day I will have my photograph on the cover of all magazines too."
But returning as the first Indian girl in 15 years to come in the final ten at the Miss Universe pageant, she has a sadness to her story. Strangely it echoes sentiments many former Miss Indias have conveyed to me subtly, and in veiled phrases. As another ex-Miss India put it: they just 'faded away into the dust' after the contest
"As a model, I was part of the Femina Miss India show and was content to watch the Miss India show until one day Sharmila Roy asked me why I didn't give it a try. I was very scared because when you think of a Miss India, you think of a very tall, swarthy, raven-haired Indian beauty and I always felt I lookedtoo westernised. Besides, in my year, many other models like Ritu Shivpuri, Achala Sachdev and Anu Ahuja were also taking part and I thought one of them would definitely win because they were so Indian-looking. I never felt I was Miss India material, and so perhaps relaxed, I somehow won. My prizes were totally worth some Rs 5,000. One hamper contained two pickle bottles, one coffee powder and things like that. I never found out what was in the other one because when the press came to take photographs and I turned around, it had disappeared!
"I was crowned on December 16 and by April 1, I had to be in Los Angeles for the Miss Universe contest. It was in the contract that one had to take a gift from the country for the mayor of Los Angeles. I went to see Vimla Patil about it, and it really disillusioned me that they were just not interested, because an Indian girl had never placed at the Miss Universe. I had spoken to Sonu Walia and she told me, "Suzanne, I felt like crying too, because I had not taken a gift and when all the gifts were displayed, there was a blank for India." So I bought a Taj Mahal in marble. Later, they did give me Rs 250 but it was nothing compared to the price of the gift. These days Femina trains the girls and provides their wardrobe, but I didn't get anything. Hemant Trivedi, Sheetal, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla were the people who came forward and said, 'Suzanne, we'll help you.' They provided my evening gown, my national costume and my interview outfit -- and they didn't charge me.
"At the Miss Universe, they asked me if I had a bathing costume round in my country and when I said 'no' they were dumbfounded because I was the only girl at the pageant who had not entered the swimsuit section of the contest. All the other girls wore g-string bikinis and flaunted their bodies and I was so conscious, I would wear my track pants all the time! I would take them off, shoot and quickly put them on again. Funnily enough, I later found out I had come second in the swimsuit round!
"From morning to night all we did was rehearse for the main event. It was hard work but I made sure I was always punctual. I came five minutes before time and was perfectly groomed because I wanted a Miss India to make a good impression. Even during the interview round I literally sold the judges on the beauty of India.
"When they announced my name amongst the final 10 from 79 contestants, I was so dazed that I muffed my final answer. The names were announced in random order and mine was the first. They asked me what was the similarity between the Indian woman and the American woman and I was no nervous, I got tongue-tied. Looking at all those people down there, I didn't know what I was saying.
"I flew back to India the next day and until I telephoned Vimla Patil and told her, nobody knew. When you achieve something you expect your country to at least acknowledge it. But there was no publicity, nothing. And finally I just got fed up and flew to Singapore to meet my parents and boyfriend. In Singapore they had just seen the Miss Universe on television, and they were thrilled to see me. Everywhere in Singapore I was recognised, but not in my own country."
Excerpted from Pride of India by Persis Khambatta, Rs 1495, Parijat Media Limited, with the publishers permission. Special copies, signed by many of the Miss Indias and priced at Rs 5000, are also available. The proceeds of this special copies will go to the Missionaries of Charity.
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