Miss Universe Harnaaz Sandhu on her Indian homecoming, acting hopes and 'dream' UAE visit

The Indian beauty queen is just getting started in her role as Miss Universe 2021, and she has big plans ahead

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For pageant hopefuls around the world, dreams don’t get much bigger than one day being crowned Miss Universe. But for Harnaaz Sandhu, that wasn’t always quite the case.

“I honestly had no idea about Miss Universe when I was young,” Sandhu tells The National from New York, a month after winning the coveted crown in Israel. “I never planned my life to be competing in beauty pageants."

In fact, Sandhu’s pageant journey did not begin until she was aged 17, when she won her first title of Miss Chandigarh 2017 in her home city.

“I went from representing my city, to representing Punjab state, then to representing India, my country, and now to representing the whole universe,” she says.

“I realised that I wanted to serve society. My mum as a gynaecologist has been doing that, and my grandfather was a lawyer, so he also used to serve the community and the state, so I also want to do something like that. I just didn’t know where to start.”

And as Sandhu’s pageantry journey excelled, so too did her passionate advocacy for women’s empowerment, a cause she feels privileged to have been able to take to the world’s stage at December’s Miss Universe pageant.

“It’s really very close to my heart, so I am excited to take that advocacy forward and to every country possible wherever I go, so that I talk about female empowerment and continue to learn from every individual I meet, learn from their experiences and to take them and spread them back to the world,” she says.

While being crowned Miss Universe may not have always been her dream, the moment turned out to be greater than any she could have imagined.

“When presenter Steve Harvey said ‘India’, I let go of my emotions. I was so confused like, ‘What has just happened?’ But at the same time, I knew that I was just so grateful to be standing in front of the audience and to speak. That was my ultimate goal, to say something I believe in,” Sandhu says. “It was so surreal, but when Steve said, ‘Take your first walk’, something which none of us had rehearsed, that was the time I realised ‘this is real’ and I was just trying to control my emotions. I was crying with happiness.”

But as amazing as that moment was for Sandhu, it wasn’t the most standout one. It was the moments she experienced in the build-up to the pageant’s grand finale that will really stay with her.

“I think the best thing about the Miss Universe pageant is that you are empowered by each one of the individuals you surround yourself with and to represent your country is a huge thing. It was an honour to represent 1.4 billion people,” she says.

“I could see a huge transformation in me from day one and how beautifully I got to make new friends from different countries and learn from their cultures, their strengths and their talents. That’s the beauty of Miss Universe, that we celebrate sisterhood, and every single day we were helping each other.”

Quote
Remember everything happens for a reason. I took that belief with me everywhere I've been so far and I think that is what has made me unstoppable
Harnaaz Sandhu, Miss Universe 2021

In being crowned Miss Universe 2021, Sandhu is the third woman to ever win the title for India, and the first to bring it home in 21 years, making it all the more special for her. Naturally, the support from her country has been overwhelming, and with a homecoming celebration on the cards in the near future, Sandhu can’t wait to celebrate her success in the place where it all began.

“India has not won for 21 years, so it’s going to be really grand,” she says. “I am excited to go to Punjab, my home town, and to eat local food, go to the Golden Temple, one of the holy sites of India, and to meet my team and as many people as possible.

“I haven’t been able to see my father and brother yet or had the chance to visit my home town, so I am just so excited to be there and have this big celebration, I can’t wait for that to happen.”

Miss Universe 2021 Harnaaz Sandhu on the observation level of the Empire State Building in New York City. Reuters

Before her success in beauty pageants, Sandhu starred in a series of television and small film productions in India. With her background in acting and her newfound global status, talk has naturally turned to a future in cinema, and in particular, Bollywood.

“I am an actress for sure, I have done TV for the last five years, and I would pursue acting – it could be globally. My vision for acting is really different. I want to be an actress who breaks stereotypes of women and what they can be if given the chance, by choosing strong characters. That is what I want to do, so fingers crossed,” she says.

“Life is unpredictable so you should plan less and just keep going with the flow. Dig deep, breathe, and remember everything happens for a reason. I took that belief with me everywhere I've been so far and I think that is what has made me unstoppable.”

For now, Sandhu is getting used to her new title as she works with the Miss Universe Organisation in New York, where she’s also enjoying her downtime by squeezing in visits to some of the city’s most famous landmarks.

“I'm in New York for the first time, so I am still exploring the city and exploring the organisation. I got to go out and visit Central Park,” she says. “It’s a very beautiful moment for me.”

And with the universe now, quite literally, her oyster, where is the next stop for Sandhu?

“You will be surprised to know that the UAE is one of my dream destinations and I have been waiting to go there,” she says. “Let’s hope that I get to visit this year. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, you have no idea – it’s like my dream destination.”

Updated: February 01, 2022, 8:46 AM
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