How India Fell In — and Out — of Love with Beauty Pageants

A 1992 Miss Universe loss would lead to over a decade of Indian domination at global beauty contests.

Miss Universe 1992
Miss Universe 1992 with Madhu Sapre representing India in the middle

Poulomi Das


December 1, 2021


11 min

Madhu Sapre, the 1992 Miss India, remains best known as the woman who almost became Miss Universe. Former Miss India Persis Khambatta describes Sapre as the girl “with the funny English and the faultless feline body” in Pride of India: A Tribute to Miss India (1997). At 5’ 8”, Sapre was tall for an Indian beauty queen, a fact that bolstered her chance overseas. The supermodel scored a 9.9/10 in the swimsuit round and was leading the scoreboard in the evening gown round. With just one round left, the crown looked within Sapre’s reach. But it wasn’t meant to be. Her widely debated answer in the final round ended up costing her the title. (The question posed to her: “What would you do if you were the prime minister of India?” Sapre replied that she would build a sports complex.) She ended up second runner up. 

That night marked a crucial turning point for India’s legacy at beauty pageants. Even though Sapre lost, she demonstrated through much of the competition that India could win a crown at the Big Four: Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss Earth. Besides, Sapre was the closest India had come to snatching the Miss Universe crown (Yasmin Daji came fourth in 1966). Indeed, this bittersweet loss would lead to decades of Indian domination at international beauty pageants. It resulted in six Miss World wins, the most of any country (a feat that India shares with Venezuela), two Miss Universe wins, and one Miss Earth crown. And beauty pageants would introduce the world to some of the biggest names in Bollywood (and beyond): Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai, Zeenat Aman, Sushmita Sen, Juhi Chawla, Sobhita Dhulipala, Namrata Shirodkar, Gul Panag, Meenakshi Seshadri, Nafisa Ali, Dia Mirza.

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