Upon hearing that Lara Dutta (21) won the Miss Universe pageant on 13 May, I conducted a small, unscientific poll. asked several of my South Asian friends in the United States if they had heard the ‘sensational’ news: most had, this within hours of the announcement in Nicosia, Cyprus. Then I asked a host of non-South Asians, and I checked the US newspapers. I drew a blank. No one| seemed interested.
So what is Miss Universe, this annual pageant that makes the Indian media go all barmy (“Lara Dutta’s sister says she used to love posing for photographs as a child”)? And even bring forth this frothy homage from Prime Minister ABV: “I wish to congratulate you on your winning the Miss Universe contest. Your success is a tribute to the Indian woman and her aspirations for excellence.”
Founded right after World War II, the Miss Universe jamboree is the junior partner to the Miss World contest. The latter was created by Eric and Julia Morley in 1951 as a promotional device for Morley’s company, Mecca, which he likes to call a “leisure group”—travels, entertainment, etc., all, of course, at a high price. In 1970, Julia Morley had this brainwave of coining the phrase “Beauty with a Purpose”, thus thrusting what was essentially a parochial British television event into the world stage.
The Miss Universe contest, in comparison, was much smaller, and remained far less ‘prestigious’ until CBS television and the maverick New York City real estate developer Donald Trump took over the enterprise in late 1996. They chaperoned the contest into the age of liberalisation, in direct rivalry with the UK’s Miss World. It is funny, therefore, to hear Trump on the contest: “There is nothing to compare with the Miss Universe organisation. We have a rich history of bringing together some of the most impressive, beautiful and interesting women from many backgrounds and cultures and then helping them achieve their goals.”
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, US capital and its media outlets have been on a global binge. The reach of the American (and Australian, courtesy Murdoch) media is now incredibly long, and there is a move by many of these outlets to extend their market share in places like India (where, as Lloyd Bentsen, US treasury secretary in Clinton’s first administration, put it, the middle class is “the size of France”).
CBS-Trump’s Miss Universe contest conceived of something called “Big Event Television”, a hugely promoted stunt that draws a large viewership who will then be turned on to ancillary programmes and products through expensive advertisements. There are a host of promoters who sign up eagerly to push their products to a world for which these pageants had become something of an opiate, the Bread and Circus of capitalism.
Svelte and elite
It took the liberalisation process, started in 1991, to bring forth the crowns of beauty onto the svelte and elite women of India —a mite conspiratorial perhaps, but there’s pore than a grain of truth in the linkage. Indian models, of course, were no strangers to the gushing at the winner’s podium. The model Reita Faria was the first of the lot, when she became Miss World in 1966, followed by six semifinalists and finalists (’70, ’72, ’75, ’78, ’80 and ’91). Meanwhile, at the ‘lesser’ Miss Universe, six semi-finalists and finalists (’66, ’72, ’73, ’74, ’90, and ’92) were clearing the ramp for Sushmita Sen’s victory in 1994, the year in which another Indian, Aiswarya Rai claimed the Miss World title.
The flash flood continued — Manpreet Brar (Miss Universe runner up, 1995); Diana Hayden (Miss World, 1997); Yukta Mookhey (Miss World, 1999); and now Lara Dutta, the new Miss of the Universe!
The 1990s ushered in the Indian beauty, that vehicle of desire who could arouse in the gullible Indian consumer a craving for products most beautiful. The creation of desire, it is said, transforms luxuries into necessities.
Not only do the beauties serve as effective ambassadors for global firms, they also do a star turn for bourgeois nationalists. Sushmita and Aishwarya saved India from the Surat plagues and the Bombay riots of 1994. Now Dutta saves India from the drought. Foul images of the Third World get erased by waxed images of radiant women. Reality can be easily occluded by glamour television. After Ms. Dutta went delirious at her crowning, Femina’s editor Sathya Saran wrote in The Economic Times, “Today, reality has overreached the dream. The country is proud, happy. But not surprised.”
What nonsense. Most of the ‘country’ had no idea that this graduate of St. Xavier’s Mumbai had spent the last three weeks in war-torn Cyprus as part of a campaign to revive the tourist industry on that island (Cyprus spent a cool USD 7 million on the effort). In Nicosia, protests outside the basketball stadium decorated like a Greek amphithe-atre ensured that we did not forget the trials of the world while celebrating this shallow kind of universalism. A banner proclaimed that “we want schools and hospitals”, driving home the point, particularly in the case of Ms. Dutta’s mother country, that her victory does little to shore up the pathetic situation of health care and education in India.
The final question asked the contestants during the pageant was, “What would you say to those who condemn the contest as an affront to women?” Ms. Dutta’s answer appealed to the judges: “Pageants like Miss Universe give us young women a platform to foray in the fields that we want to and forge ahead, be it entrepreneurship, the armed forces, be it politics. It gives us a platform to voice our choices and opinions and it makes us strong and independent as we are today.”
Of course, Miss Universe Dutta is entitled to her own high opinion, but what is of interest was the three options she chose: business, the military and politics. Money, Gun (or Nuclear Bomb) and Power. A true daughter of her times, shall we say?