Born in Kolkata and raised in Derby, England, she is a true-blue Bengali at heart who indulges in everything sweet and later hates herself for it. A compulsive hoarder, she is a sucker for Bollywood films, loves Ranveer Singh and can watch Shah Rukh Khan's Main Hoon Na over and over again. Her most cherished childhood memories of India include regular visits to the ISKCON temple in Kolkata. And, in her next life, she wants to be born as a reincarnation of Swami Vivekananda. That's Bhasha Mukherjee for you—the 23-year-old who was crowned Miss England on the night of August 2 and who will go on to be the first British Asian to represent England at the Miss World in December. That night, Bhasha changed the perception of beauty pageants forever.
Bhasha is the perfect antidote to a competition that has hitherto placed high stakes on female sexuality and outward appearance. She holds dual degrees in medicine, has an IQ of 146 and is fluent in five different languages—English, Hindi, Bengali, German and French. Barely a few hours after her crowning glory and driving home the message that pageant girls are not all airheads or “Instagram models with lip filler”, Bhasha was all set to begin her practice as a junior doctor at Pilgrim Hospital, Boston, Lincolnshire. That's two new titles in the space of 24 hours. A picture of her dressed in fuchsia scrubs and grinning at the camera, clutching a stethoscope in one hand and her crown and sash in the other, soon began circulating on the internet. “Through the beauty pageant, we are trying to showcase to the world that just because we are pretty, it does not end there—we are actually trying to use our reach and influence to do something good,” she told The Sun soon after winning the Miss England title. “It has been really nerve-wracking. I could not tell if I was more nervous about the competition or about starting my job as a junior doctor.”
For someone who got bullied for her looks growing up, the title has given her a sense of validation and pride. “I got called Ugly Betty in school,” Bhasha told THE WEEK. “I decided to focus on grooming, and therefore experimented with makeup and got creative. I had my own share of makeup mistakes—Sharpie brows was one of them. I went on a diet and exercised. However, I realised that exterior appearance is something that can be easily altered and eventually I stopped beating myself up over my looks.”
The Mukherjees moved to the United Kingdom in 2004 when Bhasha was nine. In school, she was a total nerd, she said. An early memory that still cracks her up is of her stepping on a running treadmill at the school gym and falling flat on her face in front of her mates. “It is a shame it never got filmed,” she quipped. Her parents—Durgadas and Madhumita—encouraged curiosity and creativity and instilled self-confidence in her brother, Arya, and her. “As a child, I had a vivid imagination and was full of questions, whether it be asking existential questions to my grandparents or educational ones in the classroom,” recalled Bhasha. “I would never shut up.”
On her tenth birthday, Durgadas gifted her an alarm clock and told her that it would act as a reminder to be always mindful of time. “It was one of my dearest presents at the time,” said Bhasha. “That shaped me as a person, as I am constantly aware of how little time there is in life.” Her upbringing and development in early childhood and adolescence have contributed immensely towards shaping her personality. “My mum was a firm believer in extracurricular activities and finding every opportunity to learn,” said Bhasha. “Every day, after work, she would expect my brother and me to recount how we had spent the day after coming back from school. We got into the habit of being productive early on. And, every evening, it would be a recount of maths sums, creative writing, artwork or reading when mum would return from work.”
Bhasha, however, brushes off any mention of genetics being responsible for her having an above average IQ. “Nurture brings out the best in nature,” she said. “I am fortunate that both my parents were educated and clever in their own ways. However, more than genetics, the way this cleverness of theirs helped me was by how they guided me through my own education.” She cites the example of her mother helping her prepare for medical school. “Even through medical school, my mum, despite being a complete novice on medical terminology or knowledge, would always help me revise and be a pretend patient, mostly to let me practise my skills on her,” she recounted.
Despite the optimism surrounding her, there are times when negativity creeps in, making her feel vulnerable and lost. “I feel vulnerable every day. I think if I could go back in time, I would add an older sibling before me to my mum's womb,” said Bhasha. Her medical school years were especially quite tough. “There have been several low points in my life as I struggled my way through medical school and battled depression,” she said. “I suffered on and off all the way through medical school. I still suffer with high functioning anxiety.”
Bhasha did not always want to be a doctor though. Her first choice was to be an astronaut. Thereafter, she dreamt of being a zillion other things, before settling down to a world dedicated to care and cure. “I realised that medicine is an art and a science and was a perfect mishmash of everything I had to offer—I am a good listener, very much a science geek and I love people,” she said. And then, there was no stopping her—she got a bachelor's degree in medical sciences, followed by another one in medicine and surgery, thereby fulfilling her dream of becoming a surgeon. This, despite someone advising her against it by saying, “Medicine will make you lose all your hair.” Clearly, she didn't give a toss about that.
To balance out the monotony and pressure associated with her studies, she continued with performing arts and started her own dance company at 17. That propelled her into the modelling industry. “I carried on modelling all the way through medical school for extra cash,” said Bhasha. “The modelling industry and the pageant industry have much crossover, so I took part in small pageants locally, which unfortunately were rather disastrous. They were scams and I gave up completely on pageantry until 2017.”
Bhasha was then scouted by one of the leading Asian bridal magazines to take part in Miss Asian Face of Miss England. But it took them one and a half years to convince her to take part in the pageant. “I finally took part and I won it,” she said. That qualified her for the Miss England pageant and she set her mind to it. “I think pageants certainly do get you places if you are willing to put in the work,” she said. “The numerous success stories from beauty pageants were proof of this and that was part of the reason I wanted to take part. There are far worse things that are overrated in today's day and age, and Miss World or any beauty pageant is not so high on my list of overrated things.” For someone who likes to have something that excites her and keeps her going, she said, “Right now, my job gives me regularity while Miss England gives me the excitement of becoming someone totally different.”
But it wasn't a cakewalk to the crown for Bhasha, and initially she had her fears. “I could not sleep for days before the Miss England finals, even though I had no idea or control over its outcome,” she shared on Instagram. “Moreover, I was fearful of both outcomes—the embarrassment of loss and the responsibility of a win. Not to mention the added fear of a new job, moving cities and all that in one week!” But she did overcome her fears. Recounting an incident from the pageant on social media, she said, “The very first round was the 'Bare Face Top Model' round. It was a daunting feat to face a panel among drop-dead gorgeous girls, and that too bare-faced. On top of that, just minutes before I went on stage, I spilt almost half a bottle of water on my jeans. My mind told me to flee but I chose to stay and fight, to walk that stage like it was mine and mine alone. Choose fight over flight.” The very first week after she won the crown and joined the hospital, she was “thrown in the deep end, in the busiest hospital ward during the week followed by three back-to-back 13-hour on-call shifts over the weekend. I was petrified seeing patients by myself, writing drug charts, making decisions autonomously—all so soon into the new job.”
Things are now getting hectic for Bhasha, who must juggle her time judiciously between her full-time duty as a doctor, her commitments as Miss England and her preparation for the upcoming Miss World contest. But Bhasha is unfazed. “It is amazing how productive humans can be when under pressure,” she said. “We waste a lot of time on social media and being lazy. If you set yourself deadlines, it is possible. The weeks leading up to Miss World are particularly busy. I have already visited my dress sponsor, who has kindly donated a full wardrobe of 10 dresses to wear at Miss World. I have taken some time off [from the hospital] to prepare for the physical aspects of Miss World with my trainer at Torpex Sports, the gym group in Derby. While I was still working [at the hospital], I tried to schedule Miss England commitments on weekends and off days.”
While each day brings in a set of different commitments, a typically busy day in Bhasha's life could begin at 6am, starting with getting hair and makeup done, travelling to another city, event appearances in the morning, a shoot in the afternoon and another event in the evening. “I also now have to fit in fitness training with the gym group for the Miss World sports round,” she said. And seeing how she has sashayed her way to the crown and through medical school, Bhasha has no qualms about walking that extra mile. “All I have had to do is step up my game, get even more efficient and not waste time,” she said. Amid all this, she also finds time for her organisation—The Generation Bridge Project—which connects the younger generation with the older one by visiting care homes for the elderly. But she is also responsible, which is why she took a month off before the Miss World pageant. “It is always important to recognise what is and isn't within your capacity to achieve, and go at a sustainable pace,” she said.
But balancing acts come with sacrifices, and Bhasha has had to give up on her social life. “I see my friends almost never for just socialising. Even our meet-ups revolve around working out together or planning charity events. I also don't go clubbing, nor do I drink or smoke. So socialising isn't much fun if I am around,” she said, laughing. But she does indulge in some 'me time', either reading, writing poems, dancing or boxing.
Though her schedule went for a toss after winning the Miss England title, she has found a routine and is sticking to it. “I am not particularly picky about food but focus on portion control and calorie restriction by intermittent fasting,” she said. “In terms of fitness, my aim is gaining strength rather than weight loss.”
Bhasha isn't quite attuned to sports. In the Miss England sports round, her performance was “pretty low”. In an Instagram post, she wrote how “it shook her confidence and turned her into an emotional wreck. My anxiety was so bad I was struggling to fall asleep for almost a month, my limbs felt weightless and numb and I felt a constant sickness in my stomach.” And, then she found boxing. “I actually saw a growth in myself, where my punches got stronger and stronger,” she said. “So, I may be horrendous at bikes, but won in the area I enjoyed.”
Bhasha is essentially a desi at heart. For the talent round at Miss England, she swayed gracefully to the 'Ghoomar' song from Padmaavat. She calls herself a filmi keeda who loves all Indian films and music. Her love for Hindi films comes from her parents. “So I am well versed in Indian classical and Bollywood music, starting from the 1930s, and even regional music and films,” she said, but cautioned: “Don't test me though.” Her last visit to India was in 2016 and she absolutely loves the masaledar Indian dal. She felt super proud to be an Indian in the UK when Slumdog Millionaire released. “We watched it in school, where A.R. Rahman's music blared through the speakers. I felt super proud then,” she said. She, however, regrets not watching Baahubali. Her greatest regret though is not demanding the respect she deserved for the work she did for years as a model.
Today, she is more forthright, and no longer reluctant to voice her opinions. Brexit, she says, is a “gangrenous leg”. “We have been anticipating this for so long, we may as well go ahead and chop the damn thing off,” she said. “Let's just move forward. It is no fun being in limbo.” She thinks the #MeToo movement has been phenomenal but is sad that the wave is dying down. “We need to keep the fire burning in all of us and fight such social injustices,” she said.
As the performer, poet and protagonist of her own story, Bhasha's state of mind is “a strange one”. She is engaged in the process and preparation of Miss World, “but at the same time I feel a sense of detachment. I fleet between feelings of caring too much and not caring at all about the outcome.” And what if she doesn't succeed? “My faith and spirituality have aided a lot in giving me that inner strength,” she said. “I don't believe in winning. I believe in surviving failures and getting back up on my feet every time.”