'Welcome to the club': the three women from India who have won Miss Universe

Harnaaz Sandhu became the third Indian to win the world's top beauty pageant on behalf of India

Harnaaz Sandhu, Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta are the only women to have won Miss Universe for India. AFP, AP Photo
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It's an exclusive club and Harnaaz Sandhu is the newest member. After being crowned Miss Universe 2021 on Monday, she joins only two other women from India to win the coveted beauty pageant title. The first to win it was Sushmita Sen in 1994, followed by Lara Dutta in 2000.

While Sen and Dutta both went on to star in Bollywood films, it remains to far too early to see what path Sandhu may follow. In the meantime, we take a look at India's past winners and see what they've done after their Miss Universe reigns and what they're up to now.

Sushmita Sen, Miss Universe 1994

Bollywood actress Sushmita Sen.

The daughter of an Indian Air Force officer father and a jewellery designer mother, Sen made history in 1994, when she was only 18 as the first winner from India to win Miss Universe.

Her journey to the crown began after she won Femina Miss India the same year, beating out the favourite Aishwarya Rai.

At the Miss Universe contest in Manila, she ranked third overall in the preliminaries behind Miss Colombia and Miss Venezuela.

In the final interview round, she was asked, “What for you is the essence of being a woman?”

"Just being a woman is a gift of God that all of us must appreciate. The origin of a child is a mother, who is a woman. She shows a man what caring, sharing and loving is all about. That’s the essence of being a woman,” she replied. Soon after, she was crowned Miss Universe.

After the competition, she ventured into films, making her Bollywood debut in 1996’s Dastak. One of her biggest roles was opposite Salman Khan in 1999’s Biwi No 1. The role earned her a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress. Although she never made it as a top Bollywood star, she appeared in other successful films including Aankhen (2002), Main Hoon Na (2004), and Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya? (2005).

She hasn’t appeared in any new films in the past few years, but has played the lead in the Disney+ Hotstar crime-thriller Aarya since 2020. In 2017, she was a judge for the competition as the Miss Universe pageant returned to Manila, 23 years after winning the title. A successful businesswoman, she owns a production company and other interests. Sen is also the mother of two adopted daughters, Renee and Alisah.

Lara Dutta, Miss Universe 2000

Dutta, 43, also has connections to the military, as her father was a Wing Commander for the British Royal Air Force and her sisters served in the Indian Air Force. However, she took a different path, focusing on beauty pageants instead.

In the lead-up to Miss Universe, Dutta won a number of competitions including Gladrags Megamodel India 1995, Miss Intercontinental 1997, and Femina Miss India 2000.

At Miss Universe 2000 in Cyprus, Dutta, then aged 22, scored the highest score in the swimsuit round and her finalist interview score was also the highest individual score in any category in the history of the competition.

The final question asked was: “Right now, there is a protest that has been staged outside the stadium posing pageants as an affront to women. Convince them that they are wrong."

She responded, “Pageants like Miss Universe gives us young women a platform to foray into the fields that we want to and forge ahead, be it entrepreneurship, be it the armed forces, be it politics. It gives us a platform to voice our choices and opinions, and makes us strong and independent that we are today.”

After winning, she was appointed a United Nations Population Fund Goodwill Ambassador in 2001.

A couple of years later, she followed in the footsteps of other Indian beauty queens and made her Bollywood debut in 2003’s Andaaz, which won her a Filmfare Award for Best Female Debut. She went on to appear in several films that were successful including 2004's Masti, 2006’s Bhagam Bhag, 2010’s Housefull and 2015’s Singh is Bliing. More recently, she received critical acclaim for her role as Indira Gandhi in Bell Bottom.

Married to Indian tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi and mother to daughter Saira, she still has ties to pageantry as she mentors contestants at Miss Diva, the organisation that sends India’s representatives to the Miss Universe pageant. In April, she launched her online masterclass on becoming a model and beauty queen.

“At Miss Diva, I only get the chance to work with the 20 women who are selected. But there are so many other women not just across India but around the world who could really benefit. I wish I had someone to tell me all the things I’ve learnt in the past 21 years when I started. So that’s why I’m grateful for the opportunity to do the masterclass,” she told The National.

Harnaaz Sandhu, Miss Universe 2021

Sandhu, 21, is from Chandigarh, India where she grew up and attended university. Before winning Miss Universe 2021, she was studying for her master’s degree in public administration. She is a model but has also starred in Punjabi films Yaara Diyan Poo Baran and Bai Ji Kuttange.

“It has been an incredible experience to be a part of the acting industry as I got to showcase my hidden talents. I love acting as I enjoy being on the screen and it has been a great learning experience as well,” she told The Indian Express.

Her journey into pageantry began when she won Times Fresh Face in 2017, representing Chandigarh at age 17. Since then, she’s gone on to win Miss Max Emerging Star India 2018, Femina Miss India Punjab 2019 and Miss Diva 2021, which led her to represent India at the Miss Universe pageant.

She has said she began to advocate body positivity after being bullied in her teenage years for being skinny.

"But this made me stronger, as I realised that I can’t give into the opinions of others," she told the website Healthshots. "The only person I need to impress should be myself. In an attempt to impress the world, we can sometimes lose sight of who we are. But if you believe in yourself, you can conquer anything in this world."

One of Sandhu's biggest inspirations is former Miss World and actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and, in her spare time, the newly crowned beauty queen enjoys yoga, dancing, cooking, horse riding and playing chess, according to the Miss Universe website.

As the winner, she will now move to New York City where she will spend a year working with the Miss Universe Organisation, working towards her goals and wider aims.

Updated: February 01, 2022, 8:49 AM
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