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"Character or cleavage"
An editorial from Toledo Blade on the values associated with beauty pageants.

The Update features

Sushmita Sen, Miss Universe

WHEN Miss India Sushmita Sen, an 18-year-old fashion model, was crowned Miss Universe 1994 in Manila on May 21 after besting 76 other participants from around the world, she became the first Indian to win the title since the beauty pageant began 43 years ago.

Even as women's rights activists, wearing sashes marked Miss Unemployment, Miss Landless and Miss Political Detainee, made a bid to storm the pageant venue to protest the staging of such "sex shows", the first-year English Honours student from New Delhi delineated her idea of the "essence of being a woman" to win $225,000 (about Rs.70 lakh) in cash and prizes -- and the use of a luxury apartment in California during her reign. Watched by mother Subra and brother Rajiv, who were in Manila, and by father, Wing Commander (Retd) Subir Sen, at home in Delhi, an overwhelmed Sushmita was sashed and crowned.

The event was telecast live in 60 countries, including India -- where it was done after much official time and energy was expended in debating the political correctness of beaming images of less-than- adequately-clad women at about the time when government officials would be taking an anti-terrorism pledge to mark Rajiv Gandhi's death anniversary. And Income Tax officials very helpfully detailed the prcise procedure for Sushmita to avail herself of tax exemptions on her entire prize earnings.

Sushmita's winning of international acclaim sent some Indian dailies into a fit of gushing as they vied with one another in dishing out Miss Universe minutiae in merciless detail. But Ganashakti, the official newspaper of the West Bengal unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), carried a part-satirical, part- perspective piece decrying beauty contests in general as unhealthy manifestations of "bourgeois culture" and pointing out that many Third World women were forced to live as "sex slaves" of developed nations (Frontline, June 3, 1994).

(Published in Frontline, June 17, 1994).

Sushmita's homecoming

A VARIANT of the "silly season" affliction that traditionally grips British newspapers about this time of the year and compels them to play up trivial happenings overran most Indian dailies last fortnight. The ailment in this case: an acute attack of "Miss Universe mania", coinciding with Sushmita Sen's first visit to India since she won the crown about four months ago.

During her high-on-hype homecoming, Sushmita called on President S.D. Sharma, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sonia Gandhi, and apprised them of the welfare programmes she is involved in globally as a "cultural ambassador". She then led a ceremonial cavalcade through the broad avenues of Delhi's diplomatic enclave, all the while acknowledging cheers from fans. She also announced plans to set up an orphanage in the capital with help from donors in the United States.

Addressing a press conference during her three-day stay, not in her parents' apartment but in a five-star hotel, Sushmita gave insights into her life as Miss Universe ("I have the lifestyle of a queen") and recounted her experience at the recently-concluded International Conference on Population and Development. She said she would be auditioning for a role in "an Indianised version" of "The Bold and the Beautiful", a soap opera being beamed on the STAR TV network, and would consider offers from some New York modelling agencies before working towards a degree in journalism.

In Bombay and in Delhi, effusive journalists quizzed Sushmita on every conceivable subject -- from religion to women's lib to economic liberalisation. And even her most perfunctory pronouncements (on the economy: "Well, I know the budget is doing well and the currency is gaining weight"; on the status of women: "It has a direct link with population, environmental problems and development"; on the entry of foreign newspapers into India: "It excites me") were treated like the profound divinations of a Delphian oracle. So much so, even Sushmita felt compelled to say, in reply to a question on how winnng the title had changed her life, "Earlier, nobody would have been interested in what I had to say. Now, everybody wants to know."

(Published in Frontline, October 7, 1994.)

On top of the world

TIED in the final of the Miss India beauty contest earlier this year, models Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen were each asked a clincher: if they could change one event in history, what would they choose?

"My birth," said Aishwarya, somewhat tamely. Sushmita's less self-centred reply -- she chose Indira Gandhi's assassination -- gave her the title and a chance at the Miss Universe crown, which too she won, in Manila in May (Frontline, June 17).

After last fortnight, however, Aishwarya will presumably have no more desire to change the circumstances of her birth. On November 19, the green-eyed brunette from Bombay bested 87 other women from across the globe to become Miss World at this year's pageant in Sun City, South Africa. Only one other Indian has won the title: Reita Faria, in 1966. Aishwarya, 21, who was also crowned Miss Photogenic, won $500,000 in cash and prizes.

Sailing through the early rounds of the pageant, in which contestants' ability to spout syrupy correct-speak at short notice is as much on test as their physical allure -- sometimes in skimpy swimwear -- is on parade, Aishwarya said that if she won the crown, she would be "an ambassador of peace, goodwill, harmony and compassion for the underprivileged." Thanking India for "this opportunity", Aishwarya, a Bharatanatyam dancer, said that over the next year, when she will be associated with humanitarian work, she would devote herself to "problems of hunger and malnutrition."

In Bombay, batchmates at the Academy of Architecture, from which the woman with the most expensive face in Indian fashion industry had dropped out to prepare for the contest, planned a big bash for her. Friends gave adjective-happy journalists their impressions of the "warm, down-to-earth girl."

Two beauty crowns in six months; more than three years of strenuous globalising have earned India not the promised place in the sun, but some temporary indulgence in the Sun Cities of the glamour world.

(Published in Frontline, December 16, 1994)

A true picture

A GOOD picture, it is said, is worth a thousand words. On that count, South African Kevin Carter's chilling photograph, of a lone, emaciated Sudanese girl faltering on her way to a feeding centre while a vulture hovers in the background, is a story in itself. It sums up more concisely than words can the plight of the people in the war-ravaged country, and has won Carter the 1994 pulitzer Prize for feature photography.

Early in 1993, Carter, 33, then a photographer for the Johannesburg Weekly Mail, felt that developments in Sudan had not received much media attention though conditions there were perhaps worse than in Somalia or Ethiopia. He embarked on a trip there with financial assistance from the South Light Photo Agency. In southern Sudan, where two Christian guerilla groups are fighting each other and the Islamic fundamentalist national government (Frontline, February 11), he experienced the horrors of war and the suffering of the innocents. On many occasions, he was moved to tears. One day, he was leaving a feeding centre, where hundreds of children were dying of malnutrition when he came upon this child.

When the photograph was first published in the international media in April 1993, some readers found it of questionable taste, but others were stirred to donative action. Still others wondered what became of the little girl.

Carter was not sure. Said he: "This is the ghastly image of what is happening to thousands of children. Southern Sudan is hell on earty, and the experience was the most horrifying of my career."

Of the Pulitzer, he says: "I don't believe I deserve this prize. For me, the main thing is that people were made aware..."

(Published in Frontline, June 17, 1994)

Tory scandals

EVER since British Prime Minister John Major launched his "back to the basics" moral crusade late last year, skeletons have been tumbling out of ministerial cupboards with indecent regularity. The sex scandals -- and a bizarre death -- that have made a mockery of Major's alliterative slogan may individually seem at worst trivial transgressions; but seen together they show up a Conservative Party mired in sleaze.

Pilloried for sexual indiscretions, four Tory politicians have resigned from government posts in the last two months, while a fifth has, with his death in a mysterious and unedifying manner, necessitated a byelection.

Early in January, Minister of State for Aviation and Shipping Lord Caithness stepped down after his wife shot herself following his "friendship" with a former secretary of Princess Anne. The next day, David Ashby, a married Tory MP, confirmed reports that he shared a bed with a male friend during a vacation in a French hotel, but denied a homosexual liaison.

Barely had the Government emerged, red-faced but unscathed, from these scandals that it was rocked by the death of Stephen Milligan, one of the Tories' rising stars. His body, clad only in women's stockings and garter belt, was discovered sprawled on the kitchen table of his apartment. A plastic bag was tied over his head, a cord wound around the neck. After days of speculation about homosexual sex rings and murder, the police said the 45-year-old bachelor and former journalist may have asphyxiated himself when engaged in an "auto- erotic practice".

And within days, Tory MP Hartley Booth resigned a foreign affairs post after newspaper allegations of an extramarital affair with his parliamentary researcher, who is also a nude art model. The scandal raised another question: were the private lives of politicians being scrutinised too closely?

Liberal Democratic Party leader Paddy Ashdown, whose affair with a parliamentary secretary hit frontpages two years ago, decried the "extraordinary maelstorm of Westminster navel-gazing"; but they have ensured that Conservative morality will be the stuff of headlines even beyond the gutter tabloids in the run-up to local elections in May.

(Published in Frontline, March 11, 1994)

Ulster hopes

IT is no treaty in itself, nor is it a guarantee of amity. Yet, the joint declaration on the future of Northern Ireland, issued last fortnight by British Prime Minister John Major and his Irish counterpart Albert Reynolds, raised hopes of an end to the conflict over the province.

The December 15 "framework for peace" outlined proposals to end the violence in Ulster and settle the political fate of the Protestant-majority region, to which the Constitution of the Catholic-majority Republic of Ireland makes territorial claims. Both sides went that biblical extra mile in their quest for permanent peace. Major said that his Government would support whatever a majority there decided -- even a reunification with the south, an improbable eventuality. He also offered to open "exploratory" talks with the Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Catholic-backed Irish Republican Army, if the latter halted its campaign against British rule. In turn, Reynolds reassured northeners, particularly the nine lakh Protestants, they would be treated fairly in a united Ireland.

But ultimately, the success of the declaration depends on factors outside its signatories' control. One test was whether the IRA would renounce terrorism and give peace a chance. The group declared its customary Christmas ceasefire, but did not immediately respond to the package. Also crucial is whether the terms offered to the IRA will be acceptable to the Protestant Unionists in the province. Yet, hope lingers.

(Published in Frontline, January 14, 1994)

Ulster truce

WHEN Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, with his British counterpart John Major, issued a joint declaration on the future of Northern Ireland on December 15, 1993, he spoke somewhat optimistically of "peace by Christmas".

The festive season, however, did not see Reynold's pacifist prediction come true. The glad tidings he had hoped for came months later, though. On August 31, 1994, the Catholic-backed Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a "complete cessation" of the "military operations" it had been waging for 25 years to get British troops out of Protestant-majority Ulster province and unify Ireland by force.

The announcement capped a long and mostly secret process of negotiations between Catholic leaders, the British and Irish Governments and between Britain and the IREA (Frontline, March 11). An IRA statement said the group recognised "the potential of the current situation" and wished to "advance the democratic peace process".

Reaction to the news was predictably mixed. Protestant "Unionists", who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of Great Britain, were sceptical of the IRA's sudden commitment to the democratic process and wary of secret deals. Major said he was "greatly encouraged" by the IRA's statement but wondered if the ceasefire would be permanent. Reynolds said he believed it was.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, called it "a historic day" and urged Major and the Unionist leaders to "seize the moment".

Later, addressing supporters at his party's Belfast headquartersa, he said Britain should now withdraw troops from Catholic areas. But no such concession may be made immediately. Earlier IRA ceasefires did not last long.

It is with bated breath that Britons and the Irish await confirmation of the IRA's commitment to peace and an end to 25 years of violence which has claimed over 3,000 lives.

(Published in Frontline, September 23, 1994).