It’s 8.30 am, and a crew of 15 has gathered to shoot Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu in a plush duplex home on the 42nd floor of the Four Seasons Private Residences that gives you a bird’s-eye view of Mumbai’s famous Haji Ali Dargah and the ambitious eighth-lane Coastal Road Project. If it weren’t for the sizeable entourage that walked in with her, I would not have believed that I am in the company of someone who was crowned Miss Universe in Israel a little over four months ago. Don’t get me wrong: even free of makeup and her signature bombshell blowout hair, Harnaaz, dressed in a metallic silver shirt artfully French tucked into her navy blue ‘mom-fit’ denim, is the textbook definition of beautiful; it is her simplicity and absolute disinterest in being treated as the most important person in the room that catches everyone off guard.
Outfit, Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna; jewellery, Outhouse Jewellery; shoes, Jimmy Choo
Harnaaz is also whip-smart, a fact adroitly transmitted multitudes of times through the screen to viewers in 172 countries, especially when host Steve Harvey put her in a spot by asking her to perform animal impressions on a world stage. It’s little wonder why she was chosen as the best among 80 contestants to mirror a woman of the world. But she’s also blessed with another quality that might be rare in women who become standards for others to measure themselves against – she has the power to walk into a room and put others at ease. And, as she gives me a lowdown of the busy day that she is going to have between sips of water – hydration is the key in her skin routine, she admits – I realise that kindness is the only type of beauty that’s truly transfixing.
When Lara Dutta was crowned Miss Universe in 2000, Harnaaz was only a couple of months old. In the years since, the closest we came to winning was when Adline Castelino, who represented the country in 2020, placed as the third runner-up. My mind immediately snags on the idea of the kind of pressure it puts on any contestant, let alone someone who is only 21 years old, and has grown up hearing Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Lara Dutta, and other crown winners casually name dropped into everyday conversations. “When I won Miss Diva, I knew I didn’t have the time to celebrate; I felt the urgency to go back to work and prep for Miss Universe,” says Harnaaz, who had just 45 days to train for the life-altering pageant, days that were also replete with Miss Diva duties. ‘Grounded’, ‘determined’ and ‘optimistic’ are just a handful of adjectives among several others that her trainers associate with Harnaaz; she was a sponge who absorbed everything.
At this point in the conversation, Harnaaz has settled comfortably into her plush wingback chair, ready to get dressed for the shoot. Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna’s collection for this cover is opulent with rich fabrics in a harmonious palette of wine, grey and sapphire, and embroideries that make Harnaaz look global yet traditional. She has the kind of serene self-assuredness that comes when things fall into place. Her innate optimism comes through when she says things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “When you are ready to bring change into your life, nobody can stop it.” She is referring, of course, to the time when she represented Punjab in Healthntrends Miss India and only made it to the top 12. “I remember crying a lot during that time; it took me a month to come back from that,” says Harnaaz. “In hindsight, though, I am glad I did not win then. When I came back for LIVA Miss Diva Universe 2021, I was more confident, better prepared; I knew what I wanted to do. And, here we are, we won.” This room we’re in is full of people who can vouch that Harnaaz’s faith was palpable. “I had dreamt of that exact moment,” she says. “I had envisioned standing in the same spot on the stage where I was. So, when Steve said, ‘India!’ it felt surreal. I was in tears.” To say she had manifested her win is a testament to the writer of The Secret.
Harnaaz tells me that people are “absolutely wrong” if they think that pageants are simply about walking the ramp wearing haute couture and looking beautiful. “We have a responsibility toward the crown,” she says. “A Miss Universe is a woman who is unafraid to speak her mind, who is beautiful inside and out, and who has the courage to bring changes to society.” Sure, there’s currency in bringing home a crown – Bollywood is filled to the brim with pageant winners-turned-actors – and, with a couple of Punjabi movies slated for release this year, she’s already acquainted with that special type of celebritydom. But Harnaaz is also a resident member of the woke generation who is constantly trying to transform her privilege into becoming a vehicle for social change. “I want to be the youth icon of India because I, too, represent the future.
Outfit, Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna; jewellery, Viange
“I know that people, especially young girls, are looking up to me. I am in the limelight right now, and I know that, whatever I do, people are going to take it forward.” And what she wants to do is bring more awareness toward women’s empowerment issues and menstrual equity – a cause that remains close to her heart after witnessing its shortcomings time and again at health drives and medical camps with her mother, who is a practising gynaecologist. “This is the time to talk about serious issues. It is difficult to change people’s mindsets toward what’s good for them, but I feel I am ready to do that. Through my journey and my efforts, I want to make sure that every woman around the world feels empowered and comfortable talking about her menstrual health,” she says.
When you look at Harnaaz today, it’s hard to imagine her as the reticent and under-confident 17-year-old whose life changed when she participated in the Times Fresh Face contest. It’s equally difficult to remember that she is still only 22, even if on her way to complete world domination. On the one hand, she’s the spokesperson for the Miss Universe Organisation where her duties involve working with initiatives like Global Citizen, God’s Love We Deliver, and Smile Train, among many others – in fact, she spent the last two months in New York at the Miss Universe HQ; on the other, she’s remotely studying for her Masters. But what makes her reign significantly more challenging than the Indian Miss Universes from at least 20 years ago is dealing with the stress of constantly being in the public eye because of social media. “This attention comes with a lot of pros and cons,” admits Harnaaz, letting an ever-so-slight frown crease her game face. “People want to know a lot about you, but, at the same time, they come with a lot of expectations. I respect that, but it is my life. Miss Universe is also an individual – in fact, she’s only 22! I’m not an expert at anything. I’m only human. And I am just learning.”
So much of Harnaaz’s last four years has been spent in hustling that she now wants to slow down for a while. “COVID has taught us to be pragmatic, to live in the present and make the most of it,” she says. “You really don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Why do you want to plan your life?” That doesn’t mean we will see any less of Harnaaz in the coming time, though. “I can’t predict the future, but my vision is something that I will work for,” says Harnaaz, who has on various occasions talked about becoming an actor. “Currently I’m focused on being the spokesperson of the Miss Universe Organisation and making the most out of this opportunity. But, if it’s about entertainment, I would definitely like to be a part of it globally,” she says. Does that mean an international project is on the cards? Her training comes handy in such situations because she manages to give nothing away, while looking absolutely lovely.
Outfit, Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna; rings, Outhouse Jewellery; earrings, Viange
It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re tracing the magical journey of someone as inspiring as Harnaaz. The fact that we’re having this conversation against the backdrop of Mumbai, the City of Dreams, makes it that much more enchanting. Which is why we’re both jolted into reality when someone comes to escort her to the “glam room” so she can get ready. As she gets out of her chair by the window, I ask if she can tell me about the one pivotal change the Miss Universe journey has brought to her life. “You know, the biggest change is that I have become more confident of myself now. I am unafraid to be my authentic self.”
An hour later, when I peer into the tiny screen mirroring photographs of Harnaaz sprawled in a chair in an embellished white pantsuit, I see what she means. Here is a 22-year-old whose upward trajectory has barely started, and we’re already in awe of her.
Photograph: TRACY NGUYEN
Skin Care Expert: Dr Jamuna Pai
Smile Care Expert: Dr Sandesh Mayekar
Ramp Walk Trainer: Deepti Gujral
Pilates Expert: Samir Purohit and Namrata Purohit
Gym Partner: Reset
Hair Coach: Kromakay
Makeup Expert: Ayesha Seth
Salon Partner: Savio John Pereira
Voice Crafting Trainer: Monaz Ranina
Communication Expert: Supreet Bedi
Hair Extension Partner: Kaiser Hair
Luggage Partner: Nasher Miles
Official Footwear Partner: Oceedee
Sash by: Fhaze London
Luxury Car Partner: Broker Dalal Premium
Special thanks to:
Fashion Director: Bharat Gupta
Finale Gown Designer: Saisha Shinde
National Costume Outfit Courtesy: Abhinav Mishra
Custom prop by: REZA
Pankaj and Nidhi, Sawan Gandhi, Pocky S, Mandira Wirk, Nidhi Yasha, Bloni, Shivan & Narresh, Shahin Mannan, Vidhi Vadhwani, Abhishek Sharma, Varun Nidhika, AAxA, Rudraksh Dwivedi, Rohit Kamra, RSR by Riti Rahul Shah, RARStudio, Ayra, Mannat Gupta, D.L. Maya, Lavanya Coodly, Swaatee Singh, Chaitanya Rao, Kapardara, Sakshi Khetterpal, Nikhita Tandon, Label Prerna Mehra, Deme, Bhawna Rao, The World of Gaya, EyeCandy by Pinky and Sheshank, Myriad Activewear, Manish Malhotra, JJ Valaya, Rahul Mishra, Shantnu & Nikhil, Anamika Khanna, Falguni Shane Peacock, Rimple & Harpreet Narula, Gaurav Gupta, Nikita Mhaisalkar, Bodice, Genes Lecoanet Hemant, Linetribe, Deme x Kalki Fashion, Thread n Button, Aartivijay Gupta
Accessories, bags and footwear:
Christian Louboutin, Puro Cosa, Oceana Clutches, Aneri’s, Karishma Joolry, Limelight diamonds, Prism, Meraki by HarshiniVjayJethani, Antarez Jewels, Sataara, Curio Cottage, Ansh Gems, Mozaati, Put Style, The Jewel Gallery, Sataara, Embellished Stories
Photographer: Akula Madhu
Stylist: Krishna Mukhi
Art Director: Bendi Vishan
Hair and Makeup: Pooja Rohira
Fashion Intern: Ritvi Mehta
Photography assistant: Ankit Raj
Location courtesy: Four Seasons Private Residences Mumbai
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