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Looking Back: Media Coverage of 1996 Miss World pageant in India

Looking Back: Media Coverage of 1996 Miss World pageant in India

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As India played host to Miss World this month, NWMI members Ammu Joseph and Gita Aravamudan look back at the controversy created during the beauty pageant and media coverage of it, when it was held in India for the first time in 1996.


While I was working in the women’s magazine, Eve’s Weekly, in the late 1970s and early ’80s in Bombay, the magazine organised beauty contests. In fact, by some accounts, it was responsible for introducing beauty pageants to India way back in 1959! In our time, some of us younger journalists on the staff just ignored that aspect of the magazine’s activities. Mercifully we were not expected to do anything beyond including winners’ portraits on subsequent covers (which anyway generally featured pretty faces, although we did manage to break that pattern once in a while) and publishing other relevant photographs on what was then known as the “People & Events” (social diary) pages. We certainly didn’t (get to) attend the glamorous events; nor were we expected to have anything to do with anyone connected with them – other  than our then editor, Gulshan Ewing.

In 1994, when  Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai were crowned Miss Universe and Miss World respectively, one after another, India was seen to have “arrived” in the world of beauty pageants. I remember writing a couple of articles at the time about what was being ignored in all the excitement over the global discovery of Indian beauty. Then came 1996 and the decision that India – and Bangalore – would host an international beauty pageant for the first time. A relatively recent illustrated recap of the brouhaha that ensued is available here. In the article reproduced below, written for Vidura (the journal of the Press Institute of India), I focused mainly on media coverage of the event and the controversy that surrounded it.

Ammu Joseph’s article published in Vidura, Journal of the Press Institute of India, Vol 34, Issue No.1, 1997:

By the time the 1996 Miss World Beauty pageant came to Bangalore, a lot of hostility had built up in this normally peaceful city.
It was not as if this was the first ever beauty contest to be held here. In fact when I worked as a newbie reporter in The Indian Express in 1969, one of my first assignments was to cover a beauty contest because it was a “woman appropriate” assignment!But this time, it was different. It was not just the girl next door parading bashfully on the stage. This was a high profile event on which much money had been invested in the grooming and training of the finalists. Big business houses had got involved and the Big B himself was coming to conduct the event. This was a big commercialised event. There was even going to be a swimsuit round.
Soon everyone was up in arms, from the neighbourhood aunties to the many local activists and feminists, and of course, the omni present Vatal Nagaraj, the maverick politician and social activist!

Like many others, I was conflicted. As a feminist, I was against judging a woman’s worth by her looks. Yet when activists took to the streets saying beauty contests exploited women or traditionalists said girls should not be parading “half-naked” in front of ogling males, I picked up the baton for the grown women to do whatever they wished and not be judged.

The battle came and went, leaving in its wake the usual battle scars.
And now in 2024, almost 30 years later, the same beauty contest came to India once more, but this time without even a ripple!

Gita Aravamudan’s article published in The Hindu on 20 October 1996:

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