A positive, intelligent, humble, beautiful, talented individual with an incredible work ethic: that’s how we describe Ayesha Gilani. In June 2009, SAPNA make up artist and model, Gilani was crowned Miss Pakistan World. Born in Lahore, Pakistan and residing in the outskirts of Washington, DC, Ayesha traveled to Toronto, Ontario to compete for the controversial crown. Over the past several months, she has represented Pakistan in the international pageant circuit. At the end of her whirlwind tour across the world we grabbed her for some serious girl talk!
You know, it’s been so long since then, literally and figuratively, it feels like it was a dream now. Looking back, I remember being drawn to the pageant because of its mission to promote a more modern Pakistan, and I felt I was a great example of that. Also, I was aware of the grounds for judging that would be utilized during the entire 10-day process; we would be judged not only on our evening and traditional gowns, but our knowledge of
the history, politics, current events, entertainment history and societal issues. There would be pop quizzes and essays, photo shoots and television interviews, and we would be marked from the moment we arrived on our personalities, speaking skills, posture, how we carried ourselves, and even table etiquette. I felt this was a great opportunity for me to work on improving myself; by nature I’m a shy person, and always avoided the spotlight, hiding in the background as a makeup artist and creative designer. I wanted to force myself out of my comfort zone, and I love a challenge. I felt like it would be a tough road, but if I really pushed myself, it would pay off.
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Describe exactly what was going through your head when only 3 women remained on stage for the Miss Pakistan World title and one of them was you! What were you feeling up until the moment you heard the name of the first runner up and knew then you were the winner?
Now that feeling, I remember as clear as day. After I’d given my answer to the final question round with the other two contestants who’d made it to that point, I felt like I’d lost points and would place as a runner up. Back then, when I was so new to public speaking, appearances and the spotlight, I sometimes botched responses out of nervousness. I gave an answer that I felt was terrible, and was not nearly up to the standard of my capability. So when they called us back on stage, and they announced the second runner up, I was, admittedly, excited to find it was not I. I was content with being first runner up amongst such an able group of girls. The remaining
contestant, Yusra, and I walked to the front of the stage, and clutched each other’s hands, sharing in one another’s excitement, anxiety and the suspense. The emcee toyed with the audience’s anticipation, and ours, as she asked, “Do you want to know who the new Miss Pakistan World is? Do you reeeally want to know?” And then, as she slowly opened the envelope, paused, and said, “The first runner up is,” I was sure she’d call my name. But she didn’t. “The new Miss Pakistan World 2009 is Ayesha Gilani!” I was in shock. My jaw literally dropped to the floor, and I was practically jumping up and down out of excitement. I’m not kidding. It’s on the video and is quite comical. Apparently, what carried me through the final question round and my lackluster response was my gowns, my prejudging session which consisted of about 24 questions by eight different judges, my performance during pop quizzes, and my essays on controversial topics such as Jinnah’s speeches, cousin marriages and the inclusion of bikini segments in international pageants. The crown was placed upon my head, sash across my chest, and a bouquet of flowers was handed to me. I walked up the catwalk and did the wave I’d seen on television since I was a little girl, as Haroon Rashid crooned “Dil se maine dekha Pakistan” in the background. I remember Yusra giving me a long hug after I returned to my place on stage and saying in my ear, “You deserve it.” That’s a memory I cherish.
There are still a few people that believe pageants send the wrong message to women, that they must look a certain way, be well spoken, and demure. Why do you think they are wrong?
Let’s face it. Our world is obsessed with beauty. Why do we watch movies, music videos, magazines? Why are we obsessed with fashion and pop culture? Since the dawn of writing, poetry has expressed its infatuation with beauty. 99% of TV commercials are for beauty, diet or fashion products, or showcase beautiful celebrities. Time magazine did a recent story on the 100 most influential people in the world. In that list was Lady Gaga.
Yes, there are people who are opposed to pageants, yet those same people are infatuated with beauty in all its forms. Until the perception is changed worldwide, people should not be concentrating on bashing beauty pageants. They are a very small percentage of the entire beauty industry. Beauty has always been and will always be an obsession of the human race.
Miss Pakistan World is not held in Pakistan due to the region’s traditional culture. Even though you did not win the crown in Pakistan and do not currently live in Pakistan, do the people of Pakistan receive you as a representative of their country? What positive and negative feedback have you received from your fellow Pakistanis? What is your response to the feedback?
As I always say, there will forever be people opposed to the paths we choose. Being in the entertainment and fashion industries requires one to have a thick skin, and this is a useful quality to remember in life. I respect others’ opinions, contradictory to mine as they may be. I have opposers, and I have supporters.
Miss Pakistan World is a pageant held for Pakistani girls living all over the world. I am a Pakistani American and proud of it. Anyone with Pakistani blood knows our culture is inherent and strong in our upbringing, no matter what country in which we reside, no matter how proud I am to be American, no matter the length of my skirt. There are many people who appreciate what I do in order to repair the image the world has of Pakistan, and I feel indebted to their support and encouragement.
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While I do agree that there are people opposed to beauty pageants in Pakistan, Pakistan is one of the fashion capitals of the world, and every night, there are countless fashion exhibitions, soirees and shindigs featuring the respected models donning the very same level of apparel that I don at my pageants, which is what has been questioned about by some people. There’s even now a globally recognized and covered Lahore Fashion Week and Karachi Fashion Week. Many Pakistanis have a passion and appreciation for fashion, art, culture and entertainment. Were this not true, these exhibitions and events would not be raking in the lumps of change they currently do. As for those opposed to pageants, I acknowledge their presence. They are entitled to their own beliefs. I, as one human being, cannot singlehandedly change the minds of 170 million people overnight. As said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan ambassador to the United States, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart interview about Talibanization last year, “It is not an event, but a process.” I am only the seventh Miss Pakistan World to date. It took the Latinas and India, now the leaders of the pageantry industry, fifty years before they received the full support of their own people and received international recognition such as titles like Miss Universe and World. I have a duty
to represent Pakistan to the fullest extent of my ability, which I have done, and in August I will pass on the torch to the next Miss Pakistan World, while I will continue to do so in my own ways throughout my life. Pakistan is a very young country. People are already moving forward and pushing towards change. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the very man who created our great nation, built it on the principles of Islam: equality, democracy, acceptance of all kinds. “Live and let live” was his aim, which he stated in his addresses to the people. We cannot forget what our country’s father dreamt of when he created our home. It is our duty as the people of the land to march forth with his dream. We must each do so in our own way. This is my way.
I’d like to say something to my opposers, perhaps providing some food for thought. You criticize what you do not know. I’d like to take a moment of your time to tell you what it is that I do, and why I do it. Perhaps then you can learn to respect what I do, or you can hate me, but based on fact and no longer ignorance. Either way, make an informed decision.
Becoming Miss Pakistan World has allowed me the privilege of traveling the world and changing the mindsets of people one by one. In all my international pageants, many fellow contestants asked me why I look like them and act like them, why I don’t wear a burqah and even why I’m so friendly. Not kidding. I explained to them that Pakistani girls, like any other nationality, come in all variations. There are some who wear burqah or the head scarf, and many who do not. I have also defended women who choose to wear hijab or burqah in conversations with other contestants. Pakistani girls are strong, intelligent and outspoken, too. At a press conference at the
Miss Tourism Queen International beauty pageant (the world’s fifth largest pageant) held in Shanghai, China last August, an international reporter asked me why I speak English so well. I told him English is widely spoken in Pakistan, is in fact the second official language, and I attended American schools. He shot back with the question, “Don’t all Pakistanis hate America?” Amazed at his ignorance, I replied, “Absolutely not. Don’t be misled by what you see on television. Pakistan wants peace as much as America does, and has been an important ally to the States in the war against terror. This alliance would not be possible without the support of the people of Pakistan.” The reporter spoke no more.
Last November, at the world’s third largest pageant, Miss Earth, held in the Philippines, Miss Israel and I became fast friends. Before departing to our home countries, she said to me, “Ayesha, back in my country, if I were to have a Muslim friend, I would be shunned by society. You are my first Muslim friend. And you know what? I will go back to my country and tell them how great Muslims are, and how wonderful Pakistanis are.” And she proceeded with the words that will forever echo in my mind as one of my fondest memories. “You have done a great service to your country.” I literally had tears in my eyes.
People often pull the religion card. I believe religion is solely between the Creator and the believer. I am a very spiritual and religious person at heart. It is only Allah who can judge me. The judgments of man in matters of the heart and spirit have no standing in my life. Islam also teaches us to be good unto thy neighbor, and that backbiting is worse than eating of the flesh of your dead brother, to abstain from adultery, to never wish ill or inflict harm upon any living being, to be honest and moral, for starters. Perhaps if we as Pakistanis paid more attention to being good human beings as opposed to focusing on the length of a skirt, we could all be at peace with ourselves, and in turn, become a stronger, more united people.
The previous year’s Miss Pakistan World received a lot of negative attention for a CNN interview in which she misused the word condone, saying that she condoned the terror attacks. How did that media embarrassment affect this year’s competition? And this year’s reign? Have all Miss Pakistan World winners been banned from giving CNN interviews?
I can’t comment much on what happened at that time because I wasn’t part of Miss Pakistan World then. I can say that the only way it affected our competition was that the stakes became much higher. We had to spend at least six months heavily researching anything and everything having to do with Pakistan, so that when the time came to speak on an international level, we would be able and ready. The judging process focused more on politics, essays, television and print interviews, and the like, than ever before, and it was a tough ordeal. But I’m grateful for that learning process. My reign was utterly and totally unaffected because Sonia Ahmed, president of the Miss Pakistan World organization, and I have worked hard to promote a lighter image of Pakistan. In the grander scheme of things, no one even remembers that happened. Hopefully, I’ve set the bar high for the next contestants and the next winner. Luckily, no such ban exists for interviews. I look forward to interviewing on CNN and other mainstream outlets to show how progressive and intelligent Pakistani women are.
Pageants are known for their insider beauty tricks, such as Vaseline on the teeth to keep you smiling. As a beauty expert, you are already a wealth of beauty & style tips. Did being a part of the pageant circuit teach you anything new? If so, dish!
Did it ever! Ten days full of rehearsals, pop quizzes, essay writing, photo shoots, TV and other media appearances, interviews, fashion shows, no sleep, stress pimples, under-eye bags and anxiety-induced palpitations later, I was ready for international pageants. It was just the tip of the iceberg. I am bursting at the seams with new insider tips and tricks I picked up from the industry that eats, sleeps and breathes beauty. Needless to say, I
have had the absolute pleasure of forming everlasting friendships with magnificently beautiful women (inside and out) from all over the world, and their professional stylists. Murphy’s law runs rampant in beauty pageants, I tell you! Due to the spontaneous nature of being in new countries under unsure circumstances while always being photographed, blogged about and criticized from all angles, we all often found ourselves emulating McGyver in some pretty testing scenarios. Be careful not to underestimate a beauty queen. I may look lightweight, but I can fashion an Audrey Hepburn-esque updo armed with only a mascara wand and sweat socks in two minutes flat, which moonlight as nunchuks in the event you need a little extra convincing.
I’m working on some new beauty blogs, one of my passions, as Sapna magazine knows very well. So I can’t dish too much just yet. I can share a quick easy tip. Big hair is huge in pageants. I don’t mean “Jersey girl” big (although I am originally from Jersey), rather, Brigitte Bardot sex kitten style. There’s an easy way to attain this style. First, grab a medium barrel curling iron, take 1” sections of hair, wrap the entire length, or as much as possible, under the iron clasp. This will give you the most defined curl, which gives it more lasting power. Now, after releasing each curl, roll it back into a pin curl, and bobby pin it to your head. The front sections are especially important. Part your hair to one side, and curl the pieces in the larger portion with the most hair backwards, for maximum volume and a sexy windblown look. Curl the pieces on the smaller portion with less hair just straight to the side, for that sexy 50s look. That little trick is a favorite of Miss Universe Sweden, Renate, a good friend of mine, who taught it to me. (If parting hair in the middle, curl all pieces by the hairline backwards.) When all pieces are curled and pinned, spray with a firm hold hairspray. I love Big Sexy Hair Hairspray (Firm Volumizing), Bed Head Tigi Catwalk Work It Hairspray, and the celebrity favorite, L’Oreal Elnett Hairspray.
Bonus tip: For instant volume at the crown that doesn’t disappear after an hour despite torrential teasing/backcombing, take either a foam donut-shaped insert available at all hair supply stores and fold it, or a hair extension piece (experiment with different widths and lengths for your hair length, thickness and desired height), place at the crown and cover with your own hair. Pin hair at the crown into a bouffant for extra lasting power, and leave pieces out around the face to frame your beautiful moneymaker. Photos explaining each step will be posted in an upcoming blog, as will more insider tips and tricks.
When it’s finally time to pass over the crown, what are the next steps for Ms. Ayesha Gilani? You’ve talked about modeling, acting, growing as a beauty expert, do you plan on pursuing one passionately or will you continue to dabble in all three?
I have embraced many opportunities that came in my direction, thanks to the title of Miss Pakistan World, and now my new title of Beauty of Asia. I welcome new ones, as well. One day, I do hope to break into acting and helping rebuild the Pakistani movie industry, Lollywood, with quality, intelligent scripts, just like our dramas (soap operas) that the people of India love to watch as much as we love to watch Indian movies (huge fan here). There is so much talent in Pakistan that the world needs to see. I continue to model, my passion, and work to bring further recognition of Pakistani talent in the mainstream Western fashion industry that I am involved in as a beauty columnist, wardrobe designer, and owner and head artist of Limelight Beauty Artistes, a company employing professional fashion and bridal makeup artists. I volunteer as a teacher for underprivileged children, so I’m quite busy. Art is a passion of mine, as is making our mark in the entertainment industry as Pakistanis, but, in the upcoming years, I also want to begin to devote more of my time helping the less fortunate in larger ways than I have been doing. I have some ideas in this arena, but I will let my actions speak for themselves when I finally make them happen. All I can say is that I want to always remain conscious of what God has blessed me with, however small or large, and give my share to those who are less fortunate than I. Islam teaches two very important life lessons: sabr, or patience, and shukr, or gratitude.
Interview conducted by Natasha Khan.