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July 27, 2000

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The Canadian Indian infatuation with beauty

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Eugene Correia in Toronto

Two beauty pageants are behind us and two more lie ahead. Canada has suddenly been seized by the beauty mania. Toronto leads the way with three pageants now while Vancouver has just one. The oldest, the Miss India-Canada beauty contest, is on Saturday.

Just recently, the first-ever Canada-India Beauty Princess contest handed Shivani Kumar the title, $ 5,000 in cash and gifts worth another $ 5,000.

While this isn't too bad for a little work, it's a different story for the organisers who, according to sources, are likely to be swimming in red ink. But they are determined to do it again next year.

Many people feel it wasn't worth $ 100 per head. It couldn't hold a candle to the Miss India-Canada pageant, now in its tenth year. Of course, the Miss India-Canada pageant too wasn't a big hit when it kicked off, but now it marks an important date on the cultural calendar of Indo-Canadians in Toronto.

Also do note how the two names, Canada and India, are interchanged in the names to make the two contests sound different. To add to the confusion, the Miss India-Canada pageant is organised by one Canada-India Beauty Quest Inc.

The success of the Miss India-Canada pageant has spawned other beauty shows. Last year, Vancouver-based businessman Sunny Dhillon held his Miss India-Canada North America show.

This riled Kush Agnihotri who runs the Miss India-Canada pageant. He sought legal advice because he thought he had squatter's rights on the 'Miss India-Canada' label. Agnihotri felt Dhillon was infringing on the trademark while Dhillon believed the label was generic. The lawyers for both parties have exchanged nasty notices, but nothing much has happened thereafter.

Sources say Dhillon will again hold the pageant at the same venue, Pacific Coliseum, a huge convention centre in Vancouver, in August. It's learnt that though Dhillon lost money in his maiden venture, he is organising another show this year too.

Another beauty contest held last year, Model 9T9, also reportedly lost money. There's no sign that organiser Neelam Sethi, a TV producer, will have another go. Meanwhile, the South Asian Modelling Agency has successfully held its King and Queen beauty pageant for the third year running.

The craze for beauty contests could have something to with the celebrity status some winners of the Miss India-Canada pageant have acquired. Ruby Bhatia, for example, commands a large TV following in India, though her hopes of making it big on the big screen came down with a crash.

But it was the very first winner Kamal Sidhu in 1991 who led the way, snatching a job as VJ on MTV and bagging a role opposite Jackie Shroff in Aar Ya Paar.

Kamal and Ruby are still very much part of the Bombay television scene, unlike Rishma Malik, the 1996 winner, who returned to Canada after a brief stint with MTV.

Rishma said she had discovered Buddhism, but it was also reported that MTV was getting rid of old faces. Back again in Toronto, Rishma is again being seen on the small screen, but now as an entertainment reporter for a local TV station.

The 1997 winner Poonam Chibber, from Vancouver, gave Canada the first Miss India Worldwide crown and Melissa Bhagat, from Brampton, Ontario, retained it the next year. The current Miss India-Canada title-holder, Komila Jagtiani, failed to keep it in Canada for the third year at the contest held in New Jersey.

Poonam and the 1994 winner Geeta Bali have gained a foothold in Bollywood. Incidentally, Geeta resembles a late movie actress of the same first name. But whether the Montreal-born girl of mixed parentage has the same histrionic talent as the former darling of the silver screen is still to be seen.

Bollywood didn't appeal to Melissa very much; she preferred Hollywood. She has done some auditioning and the results are guarded, at least for the time being. But she has also got herself involved in charitable causes, especially World Vision, which does work among the poor children around the world.

None of the winners has been a hit in the advertising world in Canada. Some did bits-and-pieces work, like Agnihotri himself. Agnihotri has taken the idea from the American trendsetters who started the Miss India-USA pageant and moulded it into a Canadian showpiece for the Indo-Canadian community.

Agnihotri's USP for his show is that he gives away a Lifetime Achievement Award to a Bollywood icon. Else, he gets a film star to be the chief guest for the function. Last year, it was Hema Malini who got the award; this year it's Moon Moon Sen who is the chief guest. In 1998, it was Rajshree, who came from Los Angeles to grace the occasion and receive a lifetime award.

The beauty contests have created an ancillary industry -- modelling and dancing schools. In the Miss India-Canada Beauty Princess pageant, eight of the 14 girls were from SAMA. Melissa Bhagat too was partly groomed for the big night by SAMA, run by Mala and Ray Singh. In all likelihood, many SAMA models will also walk the ramp at the Miss India-Canada Beauty pageant.

Some SAMA models have broken away to form their own group, Aina (Mirror). Then there's Ambika Kapoor's School of Dancing besides the workshops run by Abhishek Mathur under the banner of Shiamak Davar's Institute for the Performing Arts.

On the periphery are the old warriors of the dancing scene, Menaka Thakkar, Lata Pada and Chitralekha. They teach the subtleties of Bharatnatyam, Kathakali and Odissi to many youngsters and teenagers who sometimes use these dance forms to score points in the talent section of the beauty pageants.

Critics and the feminists may call it a "cattle-show" but Toronto has found something to engage the Indian community. Clearly, beauty pageants will continue to be part of the staple cultural diet for Indo-Canadians in Toronto.

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