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|October 29, 1997||
When I met Juhi Chawla, I found her good-natured, friendly and she exuded a very positive exuberance. Her filofax was bulging with comic strips (her favourite is Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes) which she cuts out and saves for when she is 'down'. She is at present busy between her acting career and her TV production company but she still has the air of disbelief of how she got this far. She laughs as she remembers that in school when asked her ambition, she wrote: "To be rich and famous."
Her friends didn't make it but luckily Juhi was called for the (Miss India) contest, co-sponsored by Kaysons. She called upon her army of resourceful friends to help her out. "One friend did my make up, another told me what to wear. I was literally put together. I dragged my best friend Manju to the show and told her, 'Don't leave my side for even a second or I'll lose my nerve.' The contest wasn't too elaborate. We had a round where you had to walk to the end of the ramp and give a frozen smile; then they asked you about your hobbies and, if you made it to the finals, they asked you a slightly tricky question. That year it was: 'What is the similarity between saris and the people of Bombay?' I replied that both are colourful. My mouth fell open when they announced my name as the winner. I still have no idea why I won the crown. Perhaps it was my frozen smile!"
Her prizes included a Kaysons sari which she took to the Miss Universe contest in Miami. The pageant that year was a 22-day affair and for the first two days Juhi found herself lost amidst a bevy of amazing beauties from 80 different countries. "At first I was quite unnerved," she remembers. "I even felt a little homesick and cried. Then I said to myself, 'Listen, you don't really stand a chance among these girls because they are all tall, beautiful and well-groomed, so just enjoy it!' From then on, I had a great time. I made friends with whomever I could and whoever spoke English. I took lots of bad photographs: all out-of-focus, with somebody's head cut off! I still have those pictures and the gold-plated trophy I won as the Best National Costume award for a ghagra I bought from Kala Niketan. My mother came to Miami two days before the contest and took me to Disneyland and London after the pageant, which was the icing on the cake. Everywhere I went, I took my trophy. People would ask me, 'Did you win the Miss Universe?' and I would smile and say, 'No, no, this is just for the best national costume'."
After 50 films and half-a-dozen regional films, she still blushes when she is recognised as a Miss India. "In college you do these mad things but when I look back I am amazed that I actually did it. If somebody comes and asks me if I was really a Miss India, I tell them: 'No-o-o, don't believe it, because I don't either'!"
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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