Pukaar Magazine’s Bethany McLean speaks to cover star Nehal Bhogaita on chasing her dreams in a world of silence and why she is so much more than just a pretty face.
Meeting Nehal Bhogaita it is impossible not to be struck by her beauty – with thick glossy hair, gorgeous brown eyes and a petite physique she is undeniably stunning.
But there is more than meets the eye – profoundly deaf Nehal broke down barriers to become the first deaf winner of the prestigious Miss India Worldwide title in 2013. Using lip-reading and sign language to communicate with the world around her, Nehal has proved that nothing is impossible, and she has given a voice to deaf and disabled people across the globe.
By the time we go to press her time as Miss India Worldwide will have come to an end, and she will have handed her crown onto the next winner at this year’s competition in Dubai, but the 25 year- old has had a whirlwind of a year. Her life changed overnight when she went from living in Leicester with her parents and sister to travelling around the world, visiting exotic continents such as South America and Africa, attending glamorous parties and meeting important people.
This kind of lifestyle could inflate some people’s egos, but Nehal maintains a humble dignity and an endearing sweetness that proves her deservedness of the accolade.
Having never modelled before, she confesses that winning the international competition came as something of a surprise. “It was one of the best moments of my life I honestly could not believe it. I didn’t know how to react and whether to cry, scream or jump for joy! I really didn’t expect to win as the competition was tough so I was ecstatic but completely shocked at the same time.
“I felt like I had won not just for myself but for every deaf and disabled person. Since winning I have had a lot of messages from deaf people around the world to congratulate me.”
This kind of feedback indicates what a role model Nehal is, a position she takes very seriously. “I want all deaf and disabled people to have more confidence. I feel like if they are inspired by what I have accomplished, they will know that they can achieve their dreams too.
The contest, which was held in Malaysia in April of last year, consisted of numerous rounds to test the 39 young ladies’ poise, elegance and glamour. The contestants had some time to explore the country, but most of the week was spent in rehearsals and doing photo shoots, as well as the catwalk shows and interviews that formed part of the judges’ decisions. On the fifth day of the competition there was a talent contest where the girls had the opportunity to showcase their skills, and Nehal did a Bollywood dance, a performance that earned her a standing ovation and undoubtedly contributed to her being crowned the winner.
Some might be surprised that she is able to dance without hearing the music, but Nehal explains that: “I feel the vibrations through my feet. It is my passion and from a very young age I used to sit in front of the television and watch Bollywood films; I would just watch the dancers and wish I could be like them. One day my mum saw me practising in front of the mirror and decided to send me to classes at the age of 11.”
Unfortunately, despite her talent, not everyone has wanted Nehal to reach her potential along the way: “I was once stopped from doing a dance exam because I was deaf. This really knocked my confidence and I was devastated. I refused to give up though, so I took the exam somewhere else and passed!”
This resilience is part of what makes Nehal so likeable; she may have experienced setbacks but she refuses to be defeated, a positive attitude that got her to where she is today. “I have never wanted my deafness to be an obstacle for what I want to do in life; I have seen it more as a challenge. This is one of the reasons behind my motivation and confidence. I want to prove that we are just as capable as those that can hear and that we can do everything they can.
“All I have ever wanted to do is show the world that having a disability cannot and should not stop you from getting where you want to be. ‘Simply Dream, Believe, Achieve’ is my motto for life.”
Despite this optimistic outlook, things haven’t been easy. Nehal went through the mainstream education system; something that she admits was difficult: “At primary school I struggled a lot with learning, but luckily when I got to secondary school and college I had much more help and support. I was bullied about my deafness throughout my life but I learnt to ignore it and became stronger; when I look back I realise that these experiences have made me who I am today.”
As well as childhood tormentors, there are sceptics who argue that beauty pageants objectify women, but Nehal is adamant that Miss India Worldwide is about so much more than looks. The judges monitored the girls throughout the week-long process, studying their attitudes and the way that they interacted with the other competitors. Nehal claims that “They looked at the whole package including personality, intelligence, talent and grace.”
However, she does agree that there is a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way. While most would think she must have no problems, clearly fitting into the gorgeous girl-next-door category, the five foot tall star gets frustrated by the doors that have been closed to her: “Some beauty pageants require a certain height, weight and figure but this is not something we can necessarily control. God has created us the way we are, how can we possibly change our height?!”
Despite this annoyance, Nehal is hardly the type of person to sit around being bitter, and she chooses to focus on the things she can change, like helping to improve the lives of people like her.
“Being Miss India Worldwide has given me the incredible opportunity to travel the world and I have been able to visit several deaf and disabled schools throughout my duties. I hope I have inspired these children.”
And if this wasn’t enough to keep her occupied over the past twelve months, she also works as a Community Support Worker for the charity Action Deafness. Her role involves offering support to deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind individuals, assisting them as they try to adapt to wider society. It really helps that she knows what they are going through: “As I have been where they are I can relate to them and help them as much as possible. Seeing my clients grow in confidence gives me such pride and makes me feel like I have succeeded.”
Giving up her crown brings bittersweet emotions: “I feel sad to pass the crown on but I am proud of everything I have done this year. My future plans are to travel to more third world countries to help people in need because I want to support as many deaf and disabled people as I possibly can. Another dream is to act or dance in Bollywood!”
With her fierce determination and kind heart I think it’s safe to say that Nehal Bhogaita will do great things. Winning Miss India Worldwide was definitely just the beginning.