Sapna Magazine Archives

The Archives 2004-2020

Inside Desi Beauty Pageants

12 Desi girls wait backstage sizing each other up for competition, who has the best outfit? Who has the best talent? Who looks the best on stage? No it isn’t the night of your cultural show, enter the world of desi beauty pageants.

Every year hundreds of South Asian American women compete in the desi beauty pageant circuit. To date, there is one major pageant in the United States, the “Miss India U.S.A” pageant for women ages 17-25 of Indian decent. The organization holds regional pageants, of which the winner progresses to the national competition and then “Miss India Worldwide”.

[Photo Credit: Bharat Matrimonial, World Wide Pageants]

So what does it take to get involved in Miss India U.S.A? Though some contestants were recruited by pageant sponsors, most contact coordinators through the pageant website. The process consists of submitting an application, a head shot, and a $60.00 fee. Women usually apply on an individual basis, but some contestants get sponsorship from their community’s Indian Association to cover costs and fees.

Then the coordinators select 10-12 girls from the applications submitted to compete in the actual competition. We followed contestants from the regional D.C. pageant that took place last September 2003 to get the behind the scenes 411 on what the race for the crown is really like.

The day of the pageant is a whirlwind of hair, nails, and makeup. Contestants spend the day running around from appointment to appointment, as this preparation is not provided by the pageant and required on an individual basis.

After the girls assemble their final look, they are required to report to the location of the pageant three hours early for final rehearsals and last minute preparations.

The night of the show is a well-planned production of not only pageantry but also fashion and culture. The show begins with two introductory dances, after which all of the contestants come out for the formal Indian wear and the formal western wear sections.

After the first segment, there is a fashion show highlighting a local Indian designer. As the audience experiences a variety of fashions from the D.C. area, the contestants prepare for the talent segment backstage which comes on next. The talents range from translating Maya Angelou’s poetry in Hindi to of course dancing, the Indian pastime.

After the talent portion, the judges pick the Top 5 contestants out of the group of 12. The final five are called out and sent to a soundproof room to await the question and answer session. At this particular pageant, the question was the cliché pageant question, “If you could only keep one of your 5 senses, which one would it be and why?”

Finally the winner was called and all the girls crowded around her for support, in a fury of flowers, sashes, and camera flashes. The regional winner would try her hand at Miss India U.S.A and if she placed at nationals, Miss India Worldwide.

After the event, we spoke to one of the Top 5 contestants, Rina Shah. When we asked her what her impression of beauty pageants were now that she had participated in one. She responded, “ I never knew that beauty pageants were as competitive or superficial as people made them out to be, especially at the regional level. I learned that it is an opportunity that all contestants approach differently. Some come to experience a chance in a lifetime, some come to prove something to themselves and/or others, but many more come with one thing in mind, a title.”

Still underneath the heat of the competition, Shah explained that there were benefits that outweighed the costs, the greatest benefit she found was that participating in an activity that made them showcase the best in their appearance and personality, left the contestants walking away a little more confident about themselves and proud of their effort.

Desi pageants are growing every year in the United States, and new cities are popping up with regional competitions. What advice do we give women who are curious about or interested in participating in the Desi beauty pageant circuit?

  • Do your research! Find out the requirements (time, money, clothing) and talk to girls who have participated, and see if it is something you want to invest in.
  • Know what the judges are looking for. The judges are most often older Indian men and women, very set in traditional ideals of beauty, fashion, and talent, and the buzz among the contestants is that they look for girls who exude “Indian-ness”. So more traditional girls usually score higher then those that show their western upbringing.
  • Just try it. Regional competitions are small-scale functions and are good starting points for amateurs in the pageant industry. Unlike most beauty pageants, Desi beauty pageants are not a significant monetary investment, and trying new things is always a great learning experience.

If you would like further information on Miss India U.S.A, then please visit their website at World Wide Pageants. — NATASHA KHAN

Photos: credit