Whoever said that beauty had anything to do with knowing whether Mother Teresa was alive or not? Or Princess Diana for that matter. Because when she was asked to name the living woman she admires most, Priyanka Chopra turned towards the audience with a well-rehearsed "good-evening" and launched into standard praise about her compassion and what not. It won her the Miss World 2000 title.
But the question was about a living woman. "Was it?" she asked Outlook minutes after she was crowned. Only to swiftly regain her composure. "I didn't think there was a problem. I was toying between Mother Teresa and Diana," she said. Neither is particularly living but Diana is still known for her "elegance, etiquette and compassion". A few minutes into her year-long reign as Miss World, a journalist asked her: "Where were you born?" "Jamshedpur," she replied, wide smile and all. "Which part of India is that?" "I don't know, west, I think." East, somebody suggested.
Facts don't matter. What does is that Priyanka Chopra did it for the Indian conquest of this dubious crown, she did it for the Indian dream and the bookie's bets. This even as a group of 100 protestors outside the Millennium Dome were demanding an end to the competition, which returned to England to a lukewarm reception after 11 years and which was aired on the kitschy Channel 5.
Last year's Miss World, Yukta Mookhey, transferred her crown to Priyanka Chopra with the emotion of some abdicating monarch. "In India we take this very seriously," Priyanka intoned, beautifully.
Judges, judges in the Hall, is the Indian woman the fairest of 'em all?
Beautiful, yes. But more than that, perfectly groomed, not only in dress but also in manner and speech. Never mind what she said, as long as she had her act rehearsed, and her lines came pat. Was she under pressure because India won the crown last year? "There's always pressure and I work best under it," she said. "Without pressure there won't be any expectations." A flash of brilliance? And if she won? Of course, she'll do what she can "to help people understand the best they can be".
And did she want to conquer the title? "I've conquered the world already, I just want everything now." Priyanka dropped hints that she's looking for a future in Bollywood. "I've done theatre before. And I can dance. And you never know what that can lead to." Not confident but cocky, not graceful but brattish, not winning in her ways but a winner all the same.
And she got away with it. For it's the sort of stuff beauty contest judges like, not silly facts about who's living and who's not. You either look at the competition, or listen to it. As when Miss Belarus says: "I would like to open some new areas of mathematical theory." Or when others want to become doctors and psychologists. Or to bring cheer to the poor.
The 17-year-old Miss Ukraine was asked what she would like to be 10 years from now. "I'd like to be 27," she replied, simply and sweetly, brooking no argument. Miss Lebanon said she liked Lebanon "because you can go from the beach to the top of the hill in one hour". Miss Finland wanted to be nothing more than a circus artist. And for these gems the beauties were cheered by fans from their countries who had even brought flags to wave around. Miss India-turned-Miss World too dutifully waved the Indian flag after she won.
The intelligence questions fired at the top 10 and then the last five were not too complex by any standard. Miss Italy was asked: "Is pizza better or pasta, or does Italy have anything better?" Reply: "Pizza." The tone was set if anything by the song being played in the Skydome next to the Millennium Dome before the show began: "Shakin' her arse", the refrain went again and again. Okay, so let's say swingin' their hips. That's how it began with the 95 beauties parading down to a tacky half-pink, half-purple set.
And before you knew it, 85 of the also-beautifuls had retreated en masse through a one-way exit. Defeated in one of the biggest TV shows on the planet before a claimed two-billion audience because they didn't walk, wear or look right. No questions asked here. They were not unbeautiful perhaps, just untrained. At least they had free holidays in the Maldives and London.
For Yukta Mookhey, it didn't matter if the new Miss World had her facts wrong. "She said it with conviction, and that's what matters," she said. "As long as you really believe in it, it's all right." At least Priyanka had held her own against compere Jerry Springer, who can be more than a little intimidating. He couldn't fault her ignorance and he couldn't beat her confidence.
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