photographer – vaishnav praveen
styling – sheefa gilani
jewellery – tritiksha jewels
hair & make-up – mehak oberoi
production – fsp production
wardrobe – falguni shane peacock



The former Miss World and up-and-coming actor takes The Peacock Magazine on a journey to revisit the memory lanes of her pageantry days to give us a glimpse of the multitude of efforts she undertook, opportunities she made the best of, and all the learnings and lessons she imbued and imbibed in herself to become the best version that she is now.

Q) From aiming to become a doctor to shifting that aim on becoming Miss World, what inspired you to participate in beauty pageants?

Manushi Chhillar (MC): Growing up, many people told me that I should try my hand at pageants and definitely participate in Miss India. Although I thought I would do it after finishing college, I ended up participating while I was still in college. This decision came about because I was at a college fest where Miss India scouts were present. Pageantry did interest me, and it was only after I watched the Miss World 2014 show on TV that I realized how different and empowering it could be. The experience and exposure you get at Miss World, even as a contestant, are great stepping stones for women to pursue their dreams. That realization clarified my aim – this was something I wanted to do alongside my studies. Apart from my personal interest, I had a lot of support from my family, especially my mother. She held my hand throughout the entire journey because I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how to prepare for it. I remember, about a week before the auditions and first round of interviews, she took me to ramp walk classes so I would feel more familiar and prepared for what I needed to do on stage. She was a significant contributor to my journey, always understanding my interests without me having to express them explicitly. After that, everything fell into place, and everything just happened.

Q) What was the preparatory phase like? What are the struggles and challenges that are lesser known to the public?

MC: While the world sees that one glamorous night on television, pageantry is a much longer journey. For me, my experiences at Miss India and Miss World were very different. At Miss India, I felt very underprepared, and I think that being a little naive may have worked for me. But at the same time, I had to learn a lot of things simply because I come from a very different background. It’s not like I grew up specifically preparing for Miss India, so I had a very short period of time—from the auditions until the interviews started. There were a few things that I tried to figure out, basics like the ramp walk or how to stand on the stage. Simple things like those because I knew I had to train myself. I only knew basic makeup that I would use for parties in college. I did not know proper stage makeup for a pageant; that’s something I learned later. Since I was competing with a lot of experienced girls—girls who had won pageants, or girls who had worked in the film industry, or girls who had come from pageant schools and had learned for years—I was picking up a little from each and every one of them while we were competing. I’d learn a little makeup trick here and there, a little hair trick here and there, and I’d just experiment more with my style. I remember we were in Mumbai for a month while we were preparing for a meeting at Miss India, so sometimes I would just go with the girls to pick up some clothes at the mall. I was picking up a little bit from the girls around me. And of course, internally, how you are and your life experience, the content that you have—that only comes with experience. I don’t think it’s something that you can prepare for, and that’s something I was very confident about. If they asked me to speak, I could speak about my life, what I think about other things, my opinions, and my point of view. I think that’s the thing I was confident about, and everything else I learned through the journey. After I won Miss India, I knew that at Miss World, I would be competing with winners from each country, so I knew I had to be as well prepared as possible. I took a break from college for 2.5 to 3 months and dedicated it completely to preparing. I learned a lot about how to present myself in the best possible manner. There was a lot of travelling to remote places in North India for my “beauty with a purpose” project. I remember we had to make an introduction video for Miss World, and I was not liking any of the scripts that the team was coming up with. So, someone suggested that since I was such a good speaker or writer, why didn’t I just write my own thing, since this is my own story? I remember calling my team and not sleeping the entire night. The next morning, I had to go to Jaipur to shoot this video. So, I came back from the event where I had some Miss India appearances, and I stayed up the entire night writing my script. After writing my script, I told my team that this is exactly what I want to say—this is what my life is, this is who I am, and this is what I want to say when I go to Miss World. Then, we shot it the next day.

I do remember going through a lot of sleepless nights and running around during the day, exhausting myself with a crazy schedule. But I think it all paid off in the end, and it was one fun journey!



Q) What did you think set you apart from other contestants in all the pageants you’ve been a part of?

MC: As I mentioned, at Miss India, I felt that I came from a very different background. I was a medical student, so I had very different things to offer. I had different opinions and very different life experiences. At the same time, I wasn’t as prepared, so there was a certain rawness that I know a lot of people liked. It wasn’t like I knew what I was supposed to do or supposed to say. I spoke whatever came to my mind and whatever I truly believed in. I think that helped. Of course, at Miss World again, no matter how much you train—and this was while I was training at Miss World—a pageant coach told me that no matter how much I prepare for any answer or how much I think I’ll answer in a particular way, when you’re at a pageant, it is a combination of many things, and what truly, truly matters is what your experiences have been in life, and that really reflects, and that’s what the judges are able to see. So, that’s not something you can particularly prepare for. I feel that all my experiences in life—the 20 years of experience that I had back then—I think that’s what was the largest contributor to why I won. Because I’ve had my own journey, and I’ve tried to become as authentic and as honest as possible, and that’s what really worked. It’s so important to present who you are in the best possible manner than to be what they want you to be, because inauthenticity is something that they, or in fact, anyone, can see through very easily. So, I think it was 20 years of me living the life that I think I did, which I presented to them in the best possible manner.

Every contestant came with their own unique selling point, their own set of skills, but I feel that there were two major contributors, if I had to look back. One was the fact that what I had to offer, no one else did. My background was different. I came from a family of doctors, I had a very different experience in life, and I was actively studying. But at the same time, I also feel that I was simply focused because that’s the training I’ve had in my life—whether it was preparing for my medical entrance exams or while I was in college or school. I think I’ve always been someone who is very focused, and that’s a trait I’ve carried to the pageant. When I was preparing for Miss India, I was very focused, and so too for Miss World I was focused right from the day of the audition. I think I never thought about anything else. I was just thinking about what my goal is and how I’m supposed to achieve that. These two were the big factors that I felt helped me stand out and actually contributed to my victory.



Q) How has your life changed since winning the Miss World title?

MC: Miss World has changed everything in my life—from being a student in Haryana to working in the film industry today—all in a span of a few years. It’s all surreal. The experiences I had during Miss World and after, they’re not normal life experiences. I’ve learned so much, met so many wonderful people, like the leaders of different countries, and that teaches you a lot in life. I’ve met people from different segments of society, so that exposure has taught me a lot in my Miss World year. And I immediately started working on it. Today, I work in the film industry, and I can easily say my whole life has changed. My family lives in Mumbai with me and—not just for me, even for them—it has been a big change. So, Miss World was that one event that completely changed me, from my profession to how I saw life, even the experiences in life. The experiences I had earlier versus this—it was like a crash course in what there is to see in the world. So, a lot of growth and learning from that experience, and the biggest change is the fact that it did help me become independent in life. It taught me so much in terms of experience, and I grew a lot through my journey as Miss World because of the kind of exposure I got. Today, I am working in the film industry as an outsider. Miss World gave me that platform and popularity that filmmakers knew of me. Whatever I’m doing today, Miss World has majorly contributed to that. So, it definitely changed almost everything in life.

Q) How do you define ‘beauty’ and how has your definition evolved over the years?

MC: In my opinion, I always find people who are unapologetically themselves—and who are really confident in their own skin, not scared to show that to the world—to be beautiful. I’ve always found these people to be beautiful, and that’s a definition that has never changed in my mind. Even today, when I see people stand their ground, be true to themselves, and feel so easy, comfortable, and confident just the way they are, accepting themselves, I still find that beautiful.



Q) In what ways do you believe beauty pageants can positively impact society?

MC: Firstly, beauty pageants give a great platform to girls where they get to experience things that they would not normally experience in life—such as speaking at certain events, meeting certain people, or even just interacting with each other because everyone has some strength that you can learn from. At the same time, there is an environment when you’re competing at a pageant, or even when you win the pageant, the platform that you get teaches you a lot as an individual. At the same time, you’re a part of so many projects. With beauty pageants, you get a lot of opportunities to make a little difference in whatever manner you want. I remember a project from when I was in college, versus when I won Miss India, versus when I won Miss World—my access increased. I was getting so much media attention that I could divert to the project, which also created an opportunity for more people to collaborate with me. At the age of 20, having organizations collaborate with you and being able to raise that kind of funds that we did so that we could support certain projects, I think all of that happens because of the title and because of the media attention that the title gets and the fact that you come with a certain amount of credibility so people know that they’re working with credible people. So, the access that you have and all of that helps a lot in being able to execute whatever you want to. My project was on menstrual hygiene, and I still practise that. So it only got bigger and better, thanks to the pageants I was competing in. After winning Miss World, I was able to take that project to different parts of India and different parts of other countries too. So in that sense, beauty pageants have a lot of impact on society simply because each contestant has to come up with a project of their own. Each contestant is already doing something, and once they win, they get a lot more support to be able to make that project even bigger. So, I think beauty pageants not only impact the people for whom you’re working or whose lives you are trying to change, but they also change your life as a contestant as well as a pageant winner. Because those experiences, when you actually do the groundwork and when you interact with people and you try to solve problems and work with other people who try to solve those problems, that itself teaches you a lot in life.

Q) How do you stay grounded amidst all the fame and attention?

MC: I live with my family, and I’ve always lived with my family. It’s great because whatever I do outside is a certain role I play, but when I come back home, I’m back to being the girl I was before all of this. Simply because they bring me back to reality, and I think it’s important to stay connected to people who have known you from the very beginning because they’ve seen your growth, they’ve seen your journey, and they’ve seen who you were before you created an identity of your own in the world. So, I think that’s what my family and the friends I’ve had since childhood do; they keep me grounded and they keep me true to who I really am.



Q) Who has been your biggest influence or role model in life, and why?

MC: My mother has had the most influence on me, and she is someone that I’ve really looked up to while growing up. She’s been so good at her profession, and she’s done so well. But at the same time, she’s always been present, and she’s made sure that we as children have never felt that she is busy. She’s someone who has her career. She has maintained a great balance in life, which is really admirable, and she’s been a very good friend to me, apart from being a great parent. She’s been someone who I can confide in; I can tell her about anything and everything in the world. So growing up, I always wanted to be like her. She’s very beautiful, so I used to always think I want to look like her, I want to dress like her. So my mom has been a very, very big influence and a very big inspiration in my life. She has made a great impact on whatever decisions I have made because I really do look up to her.

Q) What do you believe is the biggest misconception people have about beauty queens?

MC: The biggest misconception about beauty queens is the idea that they’re chasing fame. Fame is a part of the pageant world. I would rather call fame a byproduct. It’s something you expect when you win. But it’s not something you chase because you can’t chase a byproduct and expect to win. I think the goal is very different, and I know for myself that the goal was to win Miss World because of the platform and the experiences that I would get. And I always understood that fame would be a byproduct of it all. If my goal had been fame, then I don’t think I would have won.



Q) What legacy do you hope to leave behind as a former Miss World?

MC: My life has been the biggest example of what they say, “life is what you make it”. And I feel very, very happy, very proud to accept the fact that I am self-made, and that’s the legacy that I want to leave behind in the world. Because I feel that whenever people look at my life and see my journey, they must realize that all these decisions that I made for myself, I have worked hard, and I am working hard, and I am trying to make a life and build a life of my own—on my own. So, that’s what I really want people to see and I want people to take away from this, that legacy that life is what you make it, and I have truly believed in that. I’ve always believed that. And I hope this gives confidence to people to really chase their dreams—not towards what is expected, but what they really, really want to do with their life. Because when you aim at something and you work towards it, maybe not in a few months, but in a few years, I know that at some point, life gives you results, and that there is no alternative to hard work and focus in life. So, I would say that’s the legacy I want to leave behind: that life is what you make it, and it’s so important to do something of your own, to be independent in life, have your own thought process, and make your decisions, and then follow through with them. So, I take a lot of pride in the fact that I am self-made, and that’s the legacy I would want to leave behind.

Q) What advice would you give to young women who struggle with societal pressures to conform to certain beauty standards?

MC: Like I said, beauty is in accepting yourself. I feel it’s very important to understand that everyone’s opinion on beauty is very different because beauty is subjective and societal standards will keep changing, so you cannot always cater to that. In fact, you can never cater to that. While there is nothing wrong with tweaking something about yourself, it’s important to realize that you are doing something because you want to, not because you are seeking approval from someone else. I think that’s very important. It’s also very important to understand the fact that these opinions will keep changing, and you have to live your life for yourself, not for others. So, I think: do what makes you feel happy and the way you want to, irrespective of what other people think.



Q) What inspires you to continue growing and evolving as a person?

MC: In life, we are constantly growing, constantly evolving, simply because of the experiences we have every single day. I love interacting with people, I love having new experiences because I really enjoy learning from the people I meet. I always want to better myself, better my skills in life. So, it’s really important to go out there, go out of your comfort zone, meet people, and try to gain more experience in different things. People teach you a lot. Everyone you meet, whether it’s at work, at an event, or socially, there is so much to learn from them, and that’s what I really do. I feel very happy about the fact that at a very young age, I was exposed to a lot of people, so I could learn a lot. Even as an actor, when I go to work every day, there are so many people on set. When I go to an event, there are so many people attending that event, so I get to interact with so many people, and I’m constantly learning and understanding more about life, constantly evolving because of that.

Q) Three films down, you’ve found a strong foothold in the film industry. How did the shift from being a Miss World to becoming an actor happen?

MC: There was no shift from being Miss World to being an actor, because being Miss World is a role that you play for one year, so obviously you have to do something after that. The major shift happened from wanting to become a doctor and studying to become a doctor, to acting. I think that was the major shift. That happened, of course, because before Miss World, acting wasn’t an option, and that opened up as an option only after I won Miss World. In fact, after I won Miss India, it opened up as an option, but I only took it seriously after Miss World. And this decision was made a few months after winning Miss World. I wanted to, of course, finish my year as Miss World before actually taking up an acting project, but with Miss World, I did get a platform, I did get a certain amount of interest from filmmakers, so things changed there. And of course, I knew that going back to college was not an option because I wasn’t a normal student anymore. And at the same time, as an outsider getting the kind of opportunities that I was getting at that time, I definitely decided that I wanted to pursue a career here. So, I think that’s the major shift that happened here.



Q) Many think that it’s easy for pageant titleholders to make it into the Hindi film industry. But what were some of the challenges you have faced in your film career, and how have you overcome them?

MC: Well, not really because we are very much outsiders only in the film industry. While pageantry gives you exposure, popularity, and at the same time, filmmakers know of you, there was a lot of interest from filmmakers after I won Miss World. But at the same time, I did have to audition at Yashraj to get my first film. They did want to launch me, but for me to get a role in Samrat Prithviraj, I had to audition for it. Somewhere, I had to convince them that I could carry this big project. So, of course, the other things that you do are pretty much like an outsider. But yes, it does give you a push into getting noticed, it gives you a push into being able to reach certain rooms, which would be very difficult for you to reach as an outsider. So, I think those were a few things that worked great, thanks to Miss World and thanks to the platform that I got after winning Miss World. But I think after that, you are very much an outsider, learning a completely new skill set. It’s a different industry, and it’s a different world altogether. It’s not like I had friends here. It’s not like I knew a lot of people. I’m still getting to know more people, and you know that you do not have the comfort of not really doing well because you want the next opportunity, you do want a better and good opportunity after all. So, I think those struggles will always be there—getting another project, trying to work on yourself to be able to perform better and to create a footing in the industry. All of that is pretty much the same for any outsider. But yes, for your first opportunity, for that initial start, there is a very good platform that is supporting you, and there is so much visibility and exposure that comes with pageantry that adds value. And I feel that when you come from pageantry, there is also a certain level of confidence and a certain level of self-esteem that you have, which I have always carried, and I feel that it also helps when you are in a room full of people who make films or who are making films or working in films. While there are some advantages when you come from pageantry, when you start acting and when you are in the profession, you are pretty much an outsider and pretty much figuring a lot on your own.

Another thing I feel is that–and this is something that one of my friends told me–that everyone starts from the bottom and they have small victories to go up there. You started from the top; you had one big victory and now your struggle is more because you have to maintain that and you have to grow from there. So, someone said this to me and I said that is so true. So, I feel that the pageant girls and the beauty queens have their own amount of pressure and their own comparisons that we have to deal with and their own benchmark. So, when you already come from such a big victory, then you want an even bigger victory later in life. Those victories take time; I mean, they do take effort, but they do take some time as well. So, beauty queens have their own different set of pressures when they come into the film industry.



Q) What are your future goals and aspirations?

MC: Right now, I am very much committed to acting and want to do good work. I want to improve my skills and keep growing. I also want to work with directors who help me grow. So, that is pretty much my goal in life right now.

Q) What movie projects do you have in the pipeline?

MC: I have two projects that I can talk about. Bade Miyan Chote Miyan is releasing on 10th April, which is a masala action entertainer. After that, I have another release, a film called Tehraan, which is again an action film but in a very different zone. So, these are the two releases that I’m really looking forward to.



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