How does it feel to win the Miss Universe title for India after 21 years?
My heart fills with pride, respect and privilege to be called Miss India and now Miss Universe. I’m grateful to have got the opportunity to represent so many people from around the world, women of colour and to be able to bring a difference to society and to be the spokesperson of the Miss Universe organization.
You have made the ‘Chak de fatte’ line quite famous. It’s become viral. The moment you said it everyone started using it on Twitter and social media. You’ve managed to put the spotlight on an Indian language on an international platform.
I just said it because it all started from ‘Chak de fatte’. Our national director Natasha Grover of Miss Diva organization, she was the one who started and she said it to me to make me feel empowered and since then I made sure that whenever I’m overwhelmed or I just feel that it’s too much to take in, I just say, ‘Chak de fatte. Go girl, get it’. So the time I won, it was so spontaneous, they asked me, ‘What do you want to say?’ and I was like, ‘Chak de fatte India’. People feel it when you say something from your heart. It’s relatable and I think that made it go viral.
Your choice to do the meows for the animal impressions question at the Miss Universe stage impressed some but others got offended, too. You were so spontaneous and a thorough sport. What was going on in your mind at the time?
I was happy to be asked that question because not everybody gets the chance to showcase their great talents on such a big platform. I was definitely not expecting the host Steve Harvey to ask me that question, but I had somebody beside me who was spontaneous, funny and fabulous, I wanted to make sure that I bring the same charm too. I also wanted to make sure that I break the stigma around beauty and fashion. Beauty is not just about being perfect, and having that poised attitude, it’s also about being you and I was just being myself and showing my talent.
Over the years, do you think that the focus of pageants has changed from just beauty to a combination of beauty, personality and emotional intelligence? Also, it must not be easy to be on a platform where you have to deal with a lot of things.
You’re right. It’s about so much more than just beauty, it’s beyond beauty. It’s about being beautifully confident about yourself and that comes when you know what you want to do, when you have a vision, you have the voice, you have the courage and you’re there to celebrate womanhood and empower other women of colour all around the world. It’s also about representing yourself, even before you represent your country and I think that takes a lot of courage. Giving voice to yourself and to be the voice of voiceless and to bring a difference to society, that is what we were all doing. It’s about appreciating each other, each other’s struggles, strengths and just enjoying the best, too.
Surely, you must have gone through a lot before getting to the stage of pageants and having the journey to winning the Miss India and Miss Universe crowns. How do you look back at this journey and your struggles?
I always make sure that I take some time for my mental health and whenever I feel overwhelmed, I just take a break for a minute or even half an hour, that’s important so that I can focus and process things correctly. So during the entire pageant experience, I have failed many times. I started this journey when I was just 17 years old, and I never won at first. I failed, I made sure that I came back again rather than sit back. And I was determined to come back stronger for my own self and to prove to my inner self that I am better than before. With that fire, I emerged like a phoenix and I came to represent myself, to prove myself and I never compared myself to others. I have had a steadfast and headstrong attitude towards achieving my goal. I think that makes you unstoppable. So whenever I fell down, I never gave up irrespective of what would happen ahead. That attitude helped me rise up from whenever I was falling down.
Who helped you in boosting your confidence?
There are so many people who have inspired me and boosted my confidence but I think my dad was the most crucial. He called me Sherni, the lioness. So he empowered me in a different way. When I used to talk to him, he would say, “You’re the sherni of Punjab, you’re the sherni of India. Just be yourself and nail it, kill it. Tell everyone that Harnaaz was there and she killed it”. His support made me feel that it was my time to shine and I wanted to make the most out of it.
What is the next step in your career? Will you move towards Bollywood like a lot of Miss Universe and Miss World winners have done?
To be honest, I’m the kind of person who never plans their life. But at the same time, I’m currently focussing on making sure that I’m taking care of all the responsibilities given to me as Miss Universe. I have to help create awareness about my advocacy and bring about a difference to society, break the stigmas. I am an actress and after my reign as Miss Universe I will be looking forward to working globally as an actor.
You are a big fan of Priyanka Chopra. Do you feel you can emulate the same kind of international success that she’s had?
She has worked so hard for years and it’s her dedication, passion and an unstoppable attitude that helped her earn the position and she created her own seat. I’m definitely making sure that I learn from her, but I can never expect myself to be at her position because I have my own life, my own struggles, my own strengths. This is my life and I want to make sure that it’s Harnaaz’s legacy. I will make my own legacy.
How much content do you watch on OTT? Can we expect to see you making a mark with OTT content?
We live in the 21st century and Covid has changed the whole entertainment system. As far as my career on OTT goes, I think we need to stay tuned for that, you never know. Today, OTT plays as important a part as movie theatres. It’s a very convenient medium of for us and at the end of the day, when producers and directors get to showcase their content on OTT platforms, people like that as much as the traditional avenues of exhibition.
Despite the fact that society has progressed so much, women still get trolled and criticized for wearing bikinis and bold clothing. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s the 21st century and we still have such stigmas around women. I have a question, why are women still being targeted about what they wear and why are they being judged on what kind of fashion they want to follow? I think women are leading and when they lead, they can change everything and anything in this world. They just need to stop bothering, be unstoppable and just focus on their goals. Women need to speak more about it because the more you listen and keep the hurt within yourself the more people will treat you like that. So you need to be confident, you need to be so strong that when you enter the room, you project yourself with such confidence that people get cautious about saying anything bad to you or commenting on your personality. It’s your life and you have the full right to live the way you want.
Will you be open to playing a role in a film based on a controversial subject or character?
I believe it’s important to have the courage to bring change to society and I would always like to read the entire script and weigh the pros and cons. And at the same time, one needs to have a vision to figure out the question of ‘If I tell this story and what if this happens?’. So I think movies with strong messages are the most difficult to do, but once the message is sent out right, it can change the whole world.