The video shows 22-year-old Ashmita Maharjan, with waist-length dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses, sitting in front of six judges–three men and three women–trying to explain, very honestly, why she decided to show up the way she did.
A video of a judge chastising a Miss Nepal aspirant for not wearing makeup and showing up in glasses instead of contact lenses for the audition has outraged Nepalis, many of whom went online to comment on the hypocrisy of the pageant.
“Honestly, I don’t know how to do makeup,” Maharjan says with a smile as the background score turns dramatic and the camera pans to the judge, Rachana Gurung Sharma, who shoots back, “And you are ready to join Miss Nepal beauty pageant?”
“I will learn, I am learning…,” Maharjan responds. But before Maharjan is able to complete her sentence, Sharma, the pageant choreographer, berates her by saying how disrespectful it is to show up with a bare face.
“We at least expect you to wear makeup and come, this is disrespecting us,” Sharma says.
When she is questioned about her decision to wear glasses, and not contacts, at the audition, Maharjan points to Kathmandu’s air pollution. “I wear it sometimes but I had to come on a bike,” she says, “and I was worried about the pollution.”
Less than 12 hours after the video was put up on YouTube, Maharjan and Sharma’s back-and-forth was shared on multiple social media accounts with thousands of comments and shares. While the full video of the audition of Miss Nepal contestants has about 40,000 views, the minute-long clip of Maharjan’s audition has received nearly 200,000 views.
Since the clip went viral, criticism against Rachana Gurung Sharma and the pageant itself has also been accumulating.
One Facebook user wrote: “These judges need to learn how to speak like a civil individual. This is outrageous and disrespectful to the contestant sitting right there. Just because you’re a judge does not give you the right to look down on the contestants and treat them like shit.”
Maharjan defending herself resonated with some viewers, one of who said, “I love how she is comfortable in her own skin, definitely makeup is not mandatory.”
Then there were others calling Miss Nepal’s “beauty with brains” slogan a farce.
“So this is what the definition of being empowered looks like in the 21st century! And they claim this be a competition about ‘brain and not beauty’,” writer Sabitri Gautam said on a Facebook post.
But in an interview with the Post, Gurung Sharma says she isn’t fazed by what is being said about her online and that she stands by what she said.
“Everything has its time, place and manner. If you go to a corporate company for an interview, will you go with chappals?” Sharma said, trying to prove her point about going to an audition for a beauty pageant with no makeup and glasses. “Have you ever seen anyone wearing glasses at a beauty pageant? They wear contacts, the contestants should have that much knowledge.”
What Sharma wants for people is to understand her perspective as a beauty pageant judge and watch the entire audition video, where Maharajan eventually gets selected for the next round and everyone is seen smiling.
“She has so much potential. She is in for me,” Sharma told the Post.
The outrage on social media has also been directed towards platforms like Miss Nepal, which many say is just a marketing gimmick, and further perpetuates certain beauty standards.
“These so-called women empowering beauty pageants are nothing but marketing gimmick disguising as a tool to make young women confident…,” wrote Shyam Shahu Shrestha on Facebook. “The standards have set a negative example on youth on how to be successful and get fame based on such standards.”
Hours into the debate on social media, Shrinkhala Khatiwada, the current Miss Nepal,posted a photo in which she appeared without makeup with the hashtag #nomakeupandstillbeautiful.
The conversation and outrage about beauty standards, which pageants like Miss Nepal perpetuate, is something very personal to nikita chandak . She was crowned Miss Nepal in 2017, a few weeks after she had auditioned for the pageant. She also went into the audition with no makeup.
“I think I looked like I was there straight out of the gym and I didn’t have any makeup on,” Chandak told the Post.
She says letting the contestants know how they should come prepared to these auditions and whether or not one should wear makeup at the audition stage should also be spelt out in the criteria for candidates.
“Not everyone follows pageants forever,” she said. “I didn’t before being part of it and didn’t know what ‘look’ the judges were looking for.”
Chandak said she hasn’t seen the viral video yet but says it’s funny to hear about the reaction to the contestant who went with no makeup.
While she was able to get past the audition without anyone pointing out her bare face, being in the spotlight after winning the pageant was a different story altogether for Chandak. The online vitriol against her appearance, she said, was the lowest point in her life.
“They said I was ugly because I was thin and dark-skinned, something that I had never let affect me,” said Chandak. “My self-esteem was so low that I almost stopped looking at the mirror.”
It took Chandak a lot of time to get over what people thought or said about her, and she says she is in a much happier place now than when she won the contest.
“I have started accepting myself for who I am,” Chandak said. “It’s about who you are as a person, and the kindness within you that matters most.”