Skin deep

Nov 6, 2002 at 12:00 am

It’s a chilly October evening in 1983 at Ferndale High School. Students crowd into the auditorium. Some are curious. Others don’t have anything better to do. At the front of the stage in floor-length gowns stand five nervous seniors, each hoping to be crowned homecoming queen. The first three runners-up are announced. It’s down to two contestants. One of them is me, and I get the crown.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had yearned to reign. I am reminded of this when I attend the Miss India Michigan Pageant. I watch contestants strut down a runway in silk and satin saris, and I have more sympathy for any young woman who competes in what amounts to a beauty competition.

When I suggest writing about the pageant, female co-workers are appalled. They seethe with questions, the same ones nagging me: Why do women subject themselves to this? How will they be judged? And what does it mean to be Miss India Michigan?

I pose them to Atarajita Jeedigunta, an enthusiastic Indian-American woman who goes by A.J. and is a senior at the University of Michigan. A.J. is also the spokesperson for the pageant organizer, Hype Productions, which promotes South Asian entertainment throughout the Midwest. A.J. explains that the contest is designed to promote Indian culture and provide the winner a platform to raise awareness about a social issue of their choice. Past winners chose eating disorders and child prostitution, says A.J. The winner also receives a $500 scholarship and competes in the Miss India America pageant. All admission proceeds — tickets cost $25 each — are donated to Apna Ghar, a shelter for battered Asian women in Chicago, and to Michigan Asian Indian Family Services.

The 10 contestants — who must be of Indian heritage, 17-25 years old and childless — are chosen from a pool of 30 or so applicants who submit an essay on how they would promote South Asian culture if they win. They also send in a photo.

A.J. assures me that the women would not be herded onstage in bathing suits or judged solely on their looks. I am skeptical, considering that two of the four judges are hair stylists, one is a former beauty queen and the other owns a modeling agency. A.J. insists that intelligence, poise and posture are also key criteria.

I reserve judgment until I see for myself.

Blue and white lights dart around a mammoth ballroom at the University of Michigan student union on Oct. 25. Proud parents, siblings and friends pack the place. Indian music mixed with techno-pop pumps from large speakers. The crowd screams and applauds as the chosen 10 promenade in purple saris. They lull the audience with a traditional Indian dance.

To give the contestants time to change into sparkly gowns, the U-M Dearborn Girls, a hip-hop dance troupe, takes the stage. They’re part fly girls, part Supremes. It’s a jolt after the soothing Indian dance. The dancers are whisked offstage, and Nisha Mehta, a U-M sophomore, leads the parade of contestants down the runway. No surprises here. They are stunning.

As each contestant takes a solo stroll, the MC announces her age, height, interests, educational background and social agenda. Several, like Jasmine Kaur, are earning degrees in computer-related fields. She attends Western Michigan University. If crowned Miss India Michigan, Kaur will work to provide shelters for homeless children worldwide.

Ruby Sandu, a junior high teacher in Garden City, will promote equal education if she wins. Other candidates want to promote awareness of Hindu and Muslim conflicts and counsel new immigrants to the United States.

They don’t say how they intend to achieve their lofty goals.

But if anyone has me convinced that she will accomplish her aim, it’s Manisha Naran of Grand Blanc. She has a bachelor’s of science in cellular and molecular biology from Southwest Missouri State University and is in her third year of medical school at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri. If she wins, she plans to help establish better health care programs for underprivileged women in India.

Naran is among the five finalists.

But the crown goes to Shiny Mathew of Canton. Mathew, 22, is earning her bachelor’s in management information systems at Wayne State. I suspect she won the judges’ hearts during the Q&A, in which contestants are asked such questions as “What is your greatest fault?” Or “If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be?” Mathew is asked to divulge her greatest fear.

“Letting my mom down,” she says, explaining that her father died 10 years ago and that her mother has worked hard to raise her and her siblings. Her social platform: to encourage Michigan’s youth to realize their potential. It occurs to me that Mathew could do this without being Miss India Michigan.

So why bother with the pageant?

For one, it showcases India’s rich culture through dance, music, poetry and language. Sure, there are other ways to do this and attract a crowd. But beauty sells. Nothing will change that. Furthermore, young women are seduced by beauty competitions — they are conditioned, in part, to believe that their appearance equates to their value as a person.

It was no different 20 years ago when I was homecoming queen. I didn’t campaign for the crown, as did Mathew and her opponents. Yet I didn’t reject a title that surely made others feel that they didn’t measure up. If I had had such wisdom then, my social platform might have been to abolish beauty pageants. But I was 17 and, like Mathew, I wanted to win.

However, Mathew and the other participants have the satisfaction of knowing that the Miss India Michigan pageant gave 10 women the chance to win a scholarship, celebrate their culture and raise money for a worthy cause. The beauty in that is undeniable.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. Send e-mail to [email protected]