|HOME | NEWS | ACHIEVERS|
July 1, 2000
Beauty who didn't play by the rules
The odds were against her. So when Ritu Upadhyay was crowned Miss India USA 2000 earlier this month, it took everyone by surprise.
In the immaculate, glitzy world of beauty pageants, grooming for a show can take months. The moves are studied, and the smiles, choreographed. By the end of it, even strands of hair have their painstakingly designated place. Top designers are almost always commissioned for the outfits.
Upadhyay, though, entered the contest with three weeks to spare. For the show, she wore outfits from her own wardrobe. And to top it all, this was her first pageant.
She filled in as Miss Illinois at the last minute, because there was no one else to represent the state at the pageant. Coaxed by family friends, she eventually agreed to participate. A native of Chicago, Illinois, she currently lives and works in New York City, where the pageant was staged. It would be convenient for her to attend, they persuaded, over phone calls.
So on the evening of June 3, Upadhyay found herself on the catwalk in the Grand Ballroom of the LaGuardia Marriott hotel. She wore a blue, shimmering, strapless Jessica McClintock gown for the Evening Gown sequence. And a lehenga with zariwork for the Indian Formal evening wear category.
Among the 27 contestants, she made it to the top ten. Dressed in a red sari with a gold border, Upadhyay recited poems for the Talent round that followed. She was the only one to do so; most others danced.
"I don't sing and I don't dance," explained Upadhyay. "Since I'm a writer and I read a lot, I thought poetry reading is something that would really showcase our culture in a different way. It felt natural to me," she added.
To My Grandmother, a poem about a girl who cannot communicate with her grandmother because they don't speak the same language, appealed to her. "I, myself, speak Hindi fluently, so it wasn't necessarily my situation. But I thought it was something that a lot of people, growing up in my generation and raised in the United States, could relate to," says Upadhyay. Her next poem was a shairi, a love poem in Hindi.
To her amazement, she was selected in the top five.
"If you woke up tomorrow and were a boy, how would your life be different?" she was asked, in this final Question & Answer round. "I don't really think it would be very different, because I think I live in a society where I've been given a lot of advantages. As a woman, I don't feel as if I've been held back; I feel just as empowered as my male peers," was her response.
"I was sure that they would not pick me now," says Upadhyay, reliving the moment. "They called the 2nd runners up, the 1st runners up, and then they called out my name -- and I was like, 'what?!' I was really shocked!" she says now in a rush.
Coincidentally, the symbol for Miss India USA is a woman wearing a red sari, says Upadhyay. She found that out only after the show, when people went up to her and commented about it.
Along with the crown, which is hers to keep, she has won a round trip ticket to India, gold jewellery, cosmetics and cash. She will be going to India this October.
Since her parents are from Uttar Pradesh, she has frequented Nainital, Lucknow, Delhi and the surrounding areas, on previous trips to India. This time, she will also visit Bombay as part of her official duties.
As Miss India USA, Upadhyay has to attend official functions around the United States. Besides fundraising, she may be invited as a speaker for social events, or to welcome dignitaries from India, or maybe to emcee a show.
"I'm very interested in doing work with various charities and raising money for people in India... Kind of put the word out, and get media attention for them. I think my background in journalism is helping me out a lot in this," she says.
The 23-year-old Upadhyay works as a journalist with Time, in its Special Projects division. She writes for Time for Kids, a newsmagazine targeting a younger audience, as well as on environmental and medical issues.
Born and raised in Chicago, Upadhyay is a graduate from Northwestern University, holding a degree in journalism and political science.
"I feel like I've been really lucky with my career, so I'm not willing to give it up for all the fame and fortune. A lot of people ask me, 'Are you going to Bollywood?' No, I don't think that's gonna happen," she says, wisely but firmly.
This isn't the only question that she's been asked since she won. Marriage proposals have come along too!
"Since the minute people saw my picture in the paper, they've been calling. But I guess it's typical Indian mentality -- setting everyone up," she observes aloud.
Upadhyay will now participate in the Miss India Worldwide Pageant in Tampa, Florida this November, for which entrants will fly in from over 25 countries. Both pageants are organized by the India Festival Committee, a voluntary, non-profit organization based in New York City.
In spite of all the excitement, Upadhyay thinks little has really changed.
"At the end of the day, my older brother still teases me the same way... He always has. And I'm still his kid sister. So it's not all that different," she says, more softly now.
Next: Congressmen want Vajpayee to address House
SINGLES | NEWSLINKS | BOOK SHOP | MUSIC SHOP | GIFT SHOP | HOTEL BOOKINGS
AIR/RAIL | WEATHER | MILLENNIUM | BROADBAND | E-CARDS | EDUCATION
HOMEPAGES | FREE EMAIL | CONTESTS | FEEDBACK