Miss Universe 2021 Harnaaz Sandhu will be the first to tell you she’s an ambitious young woman. The 22-year-old actress began competing in pageants as a teenager and, last December, struck gold when she became the third contestant ever to bring the Miss Universe crown home to India; it had been 20 years since the country had won in the pageant. “I have always looked up to being a Miss Universe because you get a platform to speak about something you truly care about,” she says. In her case, Sandhu has used her reign to champion menstrual equity, and last spring she launched a coalition back home with the goal of reducing stigma around periods and promoting widespread access to sanitary products. As a titleholder, Sandhu travels across the world to promote women’s empowerment. She tells us about the one book she always carries with her, the challenges of living in the public eye, and why she thinks art and entertainment have the power to break down taboos. Sandhu lives in New York City. Here, how she gets it done.
On her morning routine:
Sometimes I’m waking up around 4 a.m. to get in the chair for makeup; sometimes I have early call times to catch my flights or meetings. On a normal day, I try to wake up around 6:30 or seven in the morning. Whenever I wake up, I pray for a couple of seconds and just thank myself, my body, the people who’d always have faith in me, and the Almighty for giving me this opportunity to break barriers for so many women out there. I then drink lukewarm water with lemon and honey. After that, I work out whenever it’s possible, in hotel gyms or wherever I go. I have some equipment that I carry. It starts with some cardio and abs. When I’m too tired or when I’m on my menstrual days, I try to do yoga. I have been doing yoga for the last five years, and it really helps me to mentally and physically relax.
On what her days look like:
It keeps on changing! It’s such a beautiful feeling to work in and travel to different countries and learn from them. Often, I have to catch an early-morning flight, and I do my study of my activities and schedule during those couple of hours. After reaching my destination, I have meetings, media talks, and brand shoots happening. That’s something that I personally enjoy a lot: being in front of the camera. Some of the time, I don’t get enough sleep, but that’s okay because I know this time will not come back again.
On staying grounded:
I love reading, so I always carry a book with me. It’s called The Power of your Subconscious Mind, by Joseph Murphy. I might have read that book, I don’t know, more than four or five times now. I randomly open any page, read one of the quotes written in it, and that is something that I try to apply on that particular day. It relaxes my mind. I also started reading one new book — it’s called Healing Is the New High: A Guide to Overcoming Emotional Turmoil and Finding Freedom — by Vex King. It’s really nice to read more about life and the things that mentally trigger us. Food also makes me happy as well as spending some time with my team and talking with my mom.
On unwinding after a long day:
Apart from reading, I also like to write down something that I learned that day. Then I shower and take care of my skin. My mom always taught me to take care of my skin naturally and to love myself the way I am. The last few years, I started studying about my skin, and I realized that I have sensitive, dry skin and that the more I use products, the more difficult it gets for me to take care of it. So I try to stay natural, use one solution, one eye cream, one moisturizer, and just let it breathe. Sometimes I even do some icing that really, really helps my skin. I then drink some water and watch a Bollywood or Hollywood movie.
On making the most of her title:
I have always looked up to being a Miss Universe because you get a platform to speak about something you truly care about. You meet incredible people, and you get the opportunity to speak up. People come specially to listen to you, and you get to change so many stigmas around society. One I’m truly concerned about is menstrual equity because my mom, being a gynecologist, has always made me understand the importance of women’s health.
Highlights from her travels:
I got this opportunity to work in and travel to the Philippines, and it was amazing to be there, to meet the fans and meet the former Miss Universes all together. In Indonesia, I got to try some incredible food, and I found my new favorite: It’s a gado-gado salad, made with some lettuce, kale, roasted fruits, and some vegetables mixed with the fresh peanut sauce. It’s so good — trust me. I came back from Vietnam last night, and I really enjoyed the way they represent their culture and the human spirit that they have. But my homecoming was the most precious moment for me. That was a beautiful feeling for me to meet my family after four or five months.
On the challenges most Miss Universe titleholders face:
People sometimes forget the fact that you are still a human being if you’re a Miss Universe. Sometimes people don’t give you enough space. There are some fans who try to make you feel bad about something — how you look or something that you do. It gets overwhelming with their comments. I think we need to respect that, at the end of the day, we all are different. We all have different bodies. We all have different shapes. And that’s what beauty is. Miss Universe doesn’t mean that you need to be perfect. All former Miss Universes whom I’ve talked to also say it gets difficult to take care of your health physically because you don’t get enough time to work out or eat the right food.
On what she still wants to accomplish:
I believe life’s too short to plan, but there are some things I hope to eventually do. I’m an ambitious young woman! One is to be a global citizen and a global artist. In today’s world, it’s easier to get into someone’s mind through entertainment; you can break so many stigmas about the things that you see almost every single day around you, whether it’s about domestic violence, women’s empowerment — anything. Like, there’s one movie from Bollywood called Pad Man. It’s about menstrual health and menstrual equity, and it personally changed my mind-set and that of so many individuals who have watched it.
On the advice she wishes she’d been given:
When I started my journey, I was all raw energy, somebody who had a raw talent and no idea what exactly was happening. I started learning from scratch. The only advice that I want to give to everyone is to be open to learn, unlearn, and relearn.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.