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She wore a sari that night

December 12, 2006
Reita Faria Powell does not hesitate to tell you that she had no expectations of winning the Miss World crown. She says she was prepared to take home a consolation prize.

"At the contest, the secondary competition was for the best evening gown. It was to be judged by the press," she recalls that evening in London, 1966. "I was dressed in a sari, and never expected to win. I thought there was nothing unusual about the sari; the other contestants were dressed in designer clothing from brands like Christian Dior."

When she got the silver bowl as her prize, she thought she could go home and say she had won something. "I was very pleased on behalf of all Indians. That was before the main competition."

Then, all 66 contestants had to change into swimsuits. The original swimsuit she had brought from India was borrowed from Persis Khambatta the Miss India who went on to become an actress. The Miss World officials would not have it. Reita had no money to buy a new one. Her sister, who was an airhostess for an international airline, helped her out.

Her chaperone also told she could not wear flat shoes. "I was mortified that I was so tall," she says, laughing. "At school and college in India, I used to be taller than all the boys. I had bought a new swimsuit for 3 pounds, and had to pay another pound for the shoes. I still have them, but have never worn them after the competition."

She soon found herself among the 15 finalists. "I thought the sponsors would be happy I was at least among the final 15," she remembers. "Then, the eliminations began. I thought the best one was Miss Yugoslavia but, to my astonishment, I was announced as the winner. Suddenly, I had a crown, robe and sceptre. The press was all around, photographers clicking away."

Having watched a number of contests since then, I ask her what she thinks of the one in 1966. "Miss World in the sixties was a much bigger event -- there were fewer programmes, television was black-and-white, and everybody watched it," she recollects. "I wanted to convey the Indian image, so I wore a sari and continued to wear one throughout my winning year."

Under the contract, she had to travel to half a dozen countries, promoting the sponsors and attending goodwill events. She was very much in a sari when she appeared with Bob Hope in South Vietnam, entertaining American soldiers there. "Then, of course, the saris were put away when I went back to college. I still wear one for formal occasions. It is very elegant, but not practical as a lifestyle costume in Ireland."

I ask her what she thinks were the factors that got her the crown. "I was taller than the average Indian woman at the time," she says, "and possibly less nervous than other contestants, for whom the result would dictate a future career." Faria had her eyes set firmly on a professional life in medicine.

In interviews that followed her victory, she remembers saying she wanted to go back to studying medicine. "Of course, everyone laughed. No one expected me to go back." I ask about her parents' reactions to her winning. "They found out the next day," she says. "I had no opportunity to even make a phone call to them. There was great excitement, naturally, because all of this was new to them."

Her parents and friends had been praying for her and it is likely they went to the Don Bosco church in Matunga, north central Mumbai, for a holy mass. It was a close-knit family, says Faria. Her parents were the only children of their own parents. "So, we were a very small family; no aunts or uncles."

Some people at the contest must have been curious about how her name was spelt, I mention. "I changed it while in school," she says, chuckling. "There were too many Ritas around. There was Rita Butter, Rita sewing machines..."

Finally, I ask what advice she would give her daughters if they were to ever consider entering the Miss World contest. "As I came out of the competition unscathed, I think it would be fun for them," she says, candidly. What do you mean by unscathed, I ask. "Nothing bad happened to me," she replies. "You can be exploited. I was fortunate not to be."

Image: Reita and David Powell with their grandchildren

Photograph: Arthur J Pais
Also read: Miss World 1994

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