How Miss Universe Harnaaz Sandhu reigned supreme, inspired change and beat the bullies

The Indian pageant champion's positive legacy will be her crowning glory as she prepares to hand the title to her successor

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She brought home the Miss Universe crown after 21 years, becoming only the third Indian contestant to win the title in 2021. Now, as Harnaaz Sandhu prepares to crown her successor at a glitzy event in New Orleans on Saturday, she can proudly look back at a memorable tenure.

“I went from representing my city, to representing Punjab state, then to representing India, my country and now to representing the whole universe,” Sandhu, who is from Chandigarh, previously told The National. She was crowned the 70th Miss Universe in December 2021 in Israel.

One of the longest-running and most-watched beauty competitions in the world, Miss Universe is broadcast in 165 countries and seen by more than half a billion people annually.

Like past winners, Sandhu relocated to New York, where the Miss Universe Organisation is headquartered, soon after her win.

Passionate advocacy

Inspired by her gynaecologist mother, Sandhu has been vocal about women's empowerment right from her early pageant days winning Miss Chandigarh 2017. She has been specifically working towards menstrual equity helping to reduce stigma, influence policy and promote access to sanitary products.

For this, she's visited 25 cities in nine countries to help spread awareness. She has given more than 50 speeches at events across the world, from India to the Philippines and South Africa.

While on a trip to India in December, Sandhu launched a coalition for menstrual equity comprising of 11 non-profit organisations, which aims to reach five million women in 200 locations by 2025.

Dealing with trolls

In April last year, Sandhu became a target of online trolls after she walked the runway at the Lakme Fashion Week, with some people calling her "fat".

Sandhu responded later, while also revealing that she has celiac disease, which affects the sufferer's diet meaning they must avoid foods containing gluten, such as bread.

"I'm one of those individuals who was first bullied that 'she's too skinny' and now they bully me saying 'she's fat'," she said a few days later, adding: "I am one of the courageous and confident girls who believes even if I'm fat, even if I'm thin, it's my body, I love myself."

The online bullying also prompted former Miss Universe Catriona Gray to speak up in support of Sandhu.

"Imagine being a 21-year-old girl who reached her dream of being a Miss Universe, and experiencing that,” Gray, who is from the Philippines and who won the crown in 2018, said. “If I were 21 years old and in that position, I can just imagine how it would affect me."

"We should continue to talk against body shaming. Weight is not even a fraction of who we are," she said. "I really want to send the message that that sort of negativity does not deserve a space."

Glitzy appearances

Being Miss Universe also gave Sandhu access to glamorous events around the world, as well as high-profile appearances.

In August, she stole the show at the Miss South Africa pageant where Ndavi Nokeri won the crown, and will represent her country at the Miss Universe pageant on Saturday. Two weeks later, Sandhu was in India to crown her successor, Divita Rai, at a swanky event in Mumbai.

Sandhu has also been spotted at New York Fashion Week in September and at the Gotham Awards in November where she rubbed shoulders with Hollywood's elite.

Also in August, she stopped by The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to teach the host some Bollywood dance moves and speak about her Miss Universe journey.

"For me, Miss Universe was never about looking beautiful and wearing glitz and glam," Sandhu told Noah, who hosted his final show on the long-running show in December.

"For me, it's a platform where you can talk about things you want to do. And I also wanted to leave a legacy and tell women around the world that 'If I can do it, you can do it too'."

The Bollywood dream is alive

Sandhu has always wanted to be an actress, having appeared in several Punjabi films and TV shows, but has dreams of becoming a Bollywood star.

"My dream has always been to be in a Bollywood movie," she told Noah during her appearance.

In her interview with The National after her win, she revealed her hopes of becoming a global star.

“I am an actress for sure, I have done TV for the last five years, and I would pursue acting — it could be globally," she said.

"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."

However, she added she prefers to "go with the flow".

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

Updated: January 10, 2023, 3:59 PM