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Aishwarya Rai was all of 21 when she won the Miss World title for India, but she was already making waves years before her crowning glory. I first heard of her at a fashion shoot that I was orchestrating for Femina. The make-up man, Pravin Banker, suddenly turned to me in the middle of outlining the eyes of the girl who was being shot for a fashion spread. One hand resting on the helpless model’s head, the other holding his liner brush aloft, he announced, “You must get this new girl into the Femina Miss India contest! She is 17 and has just won the Gladrags Contest. When you see her, you will know she is a Miss India.” Her name, he told me, was Aishwarya.
I finally met her—briefly albeit—at a shoot and asked her to take part in the contest. I remember that she had given me a half-shy smile and said, “Really, you think so? Let me think it over.” My first impression of her then was of a pretty girl with remarkable eyes. Some mannerisms that could be called coy or affected made me wonder if she was indeed as good as reports made her out to be. But when the camera flashed to life, I watched with amazement the instant transformation that came over her. The shy girl with the high-pitched, almost nervous laugh had morphed near-instantly into a siren, who flirted, seduced and entranced the lens with the confidence of a trained professional. But Aishwarya did not enter the contest that year. It was only in 1994 that the architecture student-turned-model finally persuaded her parents to allow her to join the Femina Miss India contest. By then, she was already a star. Her victory almost a certainty, even as she filled in her contest form.
But a dark horse named Sushmita Sen created history, coming out of left field to steal the coveted right to compete for the Miss Universe crown from the poor girl who had won almost all the preliminary contests. Just before she left for the Miss World contest, Aishwarya sat in my room, voicing her fears. Subhash Ghai had been calling her to star in his next film, her face was being splashed across advertisements, but Aishwarya was scarred by what had happened in the final round of the contest. “How can India win another crown?” she asked. “They won’t let the same country win two international crowns.” I told her that the Miss Universe and Miss World contests were not linked; that the judges had no time to think of other contests, other winners and responded spontaneously to the contestants in marking them, so all she had to do was to turn on her star power and know that the entire country was rooting for her. She left for the Miss World contest soon after her birthday (November 1), and came back a star in January 1995.
Sathya Saran was editor, Femina