Sometimes, the best of jobs can’t hold you back from the lure of the glamour world. Vasuki Sunkavalli quit a high profile job at the United Nations to win the I Am She pageant and participate in the Miss Universe contest. She tells Minal Khona why she gave it all up and her disappointment at the fiasco that followed. And that’s not all. She also talks about her NGO, her work as a lawyer and why she is still single.
When you stand at a crossroad and choose the road less travelled, destiny’s hand often guides the trajectory that life will take after you have walked down that path. Be it a career choice, a marriage or a course of study, no amount of planning can override fate.
Not everyone may agree, but it certainly seems to be the case with Vasuki Sunkavalli. She has to be one of the most confident young women I have met from the world of fashion. Completely detached from the glamour of it all, and not quite the stereotype of a model, she displays none of the usual signs of vanity that are part of being one. Vasuki has the looks, the comportment and the height to be a successful model. In fact, she could give some of the reigning beauties a run for their money. But she has chosen social work over the ramp and the arclights of Bollywood hold no attraction.
Vasuki had been receiving offers to model since she was 18. She kept refusing them. The daughter of S Suryaprabha who is the owner of Prabhaas, the silver store, and S Venkat, a businessman; Vasuki was “always well behaved and never said anything that didn’t make sense. She was always very confident and unafraid,” says Prabha. Vasuki has a brother — Abhiram — who works with a real estate firm in
Vasuki’s confidence surrounds her like a halo and it is the first thing I notice about her. Well read and passionate about bringing about a change in society, she has always taken up for the underdog. Her mother says, “She loves animals and kids. So she always had lots of pets — ducks, dogs, cats, injured birds. She got the maid’s kids admitted in school. She has already pledged to donate her organs, and has donated blood several times. Something even I haven’t done. By her actions, she sometimes makes us feel small, without meaning to,” says Prabha candidly.
A student of St Ann’s, Secunderabad, she was always a bright child who did well in her studies. Her interest in social work pushed her towards a degree in law. After her 12th, she went to the Symbiosis institute in Pune for a five-year degree in law followed by a Masters in Intellecutal Property Rights with specialisation in Patents, at the Global Institute of Intellectual Property, (IIT) in New Delhi. Vasuki reveals, “I did phenomenally well in school and while doing my internship in Delhi (I interned at two companies — AZB and Trilegal), I got offers to model. I had been getting them earlier too, but had rejected them. I was considerate enough to model after I got my degree so my parents wouldn’t have the trump card of giving up studies for glamour.
“So in a way yes, I did start late by average standards. My parents were naturally apprehensive, because of their conservative background, but I convinced them eventually. And they know well that I can look after myself and no one can make me do something I don’t want to.”
Two years of modelling followed. Fashion weeks and print campaigns for leading brands and designers were part of her portfolio. She made no attempt to venture into Bollywood. “Though I did get offers, I was always unsure,” says Vasuki.
A Masters at New York University — with a major in International Law and Human Rights and a minor in Political Affairs followed. After that, Vasuki got a job most people can only dream of. She worked at the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations as a political affairs researcher. “I mainly worked with human rights and Security Council affairs. I also assisted in the drafting of policies by international standards and related counter-terrorism work. I had always dreamt of wearing a suit and going to work — and loved what I was doing.”
Then, a call from Sathya Saran, ex-editor of Femina, changed the course of Vasuki’s career. “Sathya asked me to come and take part in the I Am She contest, and I was tempted. Earlier, I had passed on all offers to participate in beauty pageants because of my studies, but now I couldn’t procrastinate any more. This was in 2011 and I was 27. It was now or never as there is an age limit. And I didn’t want to look back in life and regret the fact that I gave up this chance,” Vasuki reveals.
She decided to quit her job to take part in the pageant. “When I told my boss I was quitting, he looked at me like I was the most ridiculous thing to happen to the UN.” When Vasuki left the job, her parents were, understandably, shocked. She says, “My dad went nuts. He was aghast that I could leave my job for a beauty pageant. My mum supported me though and my dad came around eventually. They understood that I wanted to do this.”
There’s that sense of detachment again, where the glamour of hobnobbing with Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford, Demi Moore and Calvin Klein as part of her job at the UN, (where she had to attend all the associated social events and high profile fund-raisers) left her untouched when she chose to walk away from it all. She says, “See, I will be a lawyer all my life. I can go back to a job like the one I had, but I wouldn’t have been able to participate in I Am She at 35.”
Vasuki entered the pageant firm in her belief that she wanted to win. “I wasn’t in it for the fun of it. If I didn’t want to win, I wouldn’t take part. Let me put it this way, I didn’t participate for the ‘experience’, I was very focussed and diligent about my training. I went the whole nine yards and I won the pageant.”
Soon after, she was on her way to Brazil for the Miss Universe pageant. But here is where destiny or sheer bad luck — call it what you will — played its part. Vasuki recalls with a trace of sadness in her voice, “It was 20 days after the I Am She contest and I was already in Brazil but my costumes hadn’t arrived. I had participated in two rounds and my evening gown and national costume still had to come. I kept checking with the I Am She team in India. Everyday, I was told that they had couriered it. But due to some reason beyond my comprehension, the costumes hadn’t reached me yet. We later got to know that they were stuck at Customs in Brazil. Hence, I was disqualified. To all those who might think I use this is an excuse, I just have one question, “How does one win the race without running, and guess what, you can’t even lose without running.”
Vasuki was devastated. She says, “I was shattered. I didn’t for a moment think that my costumes wouldn’t come as this pageant was a matter of huge importance. So I didn’t for once think something such as this could go wrong. It is something I will always regret — that I was in a pageant and was not able to give it my best shot. I will always wonder how my life would have changed had I participated. Had I still lost, at least I would have had the satisfaction that I was there, I tried and then I lost.”
Vasuki’s positive attitude gradually helped her overcome it. She says, “I would not call it a complete disaster. I got a chance to represent India. I had to get used to being called India because the judges and organisers refer to the girls by the name of their country. That was a matter of great pride for me. The judges used to refer to me as the lawyer who worked at the UN.”
Prabha adds, “We were 34 of us who had gone to support Vasuki at the contest. I felt very bad for her when she was disqualified. She really wanted to win and make the country proud. But she never cried, not once. She was livid and I told her that nothing can make you unhappy unless you want to feel that way. Maybe there is some other opportunity that will come along for you. Vasuki is not self-obsessed. She always says she doesn’t like anything that makes her feel she can’t live without it. So she has been able to move on from that setback.”
Given that Vasuki is 27, there must have been tremendous pressure for her to get married. Especially here in Hyderabad, where most girls get married before they turn 25. Her mother laughs and says, “Yes and we did get a lot of proposals earlier, but I know my daughter. Her confidence intimidates people and she can only marry someone who is equally confident and knowledgeable. She is not one to share her pain and she is not a jealous person. People don’t understand her and think she is arrogant or unconventional. She is conventional in her outlook on relationships and will not accept infidelity. We don’t pressurise her to get married. It will happen when it’s meant to.”
Vasuki too echoes the same sentiment saying she would only marry someone who was strong enough to be able to handle a relationship with a confident woman. “From the men I’ve met, very few have reached a point in their life where they are confident in their own skin. And these men are usually old and married. I am not an insecure person and I am not in a hurry.” Though she does admit she was seeing someone a few years ago but the relationship didn’t work out.
In the short time that Vasuki has been in the limelight, she has had her fair share of controversies follow her. The Miss Universe debacle had yet to happen when she was accused by the local media of plagiarism — or as the journalist Sadanand Dhume from Wall Street Journal jokingly referred to it — twagiarism. Vasuki laughs when I question her about it and clarifies, “I was new to Twitter and was following Sadanand Dhume as I am a reader of Wall Street Journal. I liked something he tweeted so I wanted to retweeet it. I am not very tech savvy with my phone. I didn’t know which was the retweet button and copy-pasted the tweet so it appeared as if it was my tweet. In fact, Sadanand brought it to my notice. But when he and the media realised, that I — like so many people new to twitterverse — had made this mistake, they made light of it. Melissa Bell from The Washington Post called me when I was in Brazil to clarify the matter. Sadanand brushed it off as he found it funny, and in fact even complimented me on how I handled the situation thereafter.”
The Indian media was not so kind though. “What was disappointing was the media here in the city accused me of plagiarism. Not a single reporter called me or Sadanand to clarify the matter and didn’t even investigate the incident thoroughly.”
Another controversy that Vasuki was dragged into by the media was one where she was accused of clapping after the national anthem had been sung at a school where she had gone to attend a function. She says, “One of the leading papers wrote that I clapped. The fact is I did not. Besides, even if I did, there would be nothing wrong because nowhere does any government website or any law or rules on national anthem etiquette say that clapping after the national anthem is not right. It is by all means not proper conduct to do so during the anthem, but after the anthem is sung, it is completely within protocol. The point is — if these reporters were well educated in these matters, they would know that this particular form of etiquette is just rubbish.”
For now though, Vasuki is happily single, and busy with the NGO —Open Your Eyes [OYE] she set up. She had a fund-raising event in November last year where the A-listers of Hyderabad walked the ramp for her. OYE has conducted medical camps with the help of LV Prasad Eye Hospital and she is funding the education for 50 underprivileged girls. Currently, 90 per cent of the funding for the organisation comes from Vasuki’s income, but she plans to raise awareness and funds in the near future through corporates and their CSR policies.
With her commitment to social change and running her NGO, and no man on the horizon in the near future, where does Vasuki see herself a decade from now? She admits she has political aspirations. “I would like to bring about change at a larger level. Ten years from now, I see myself actively involved in politics. It is too early to say how and why and where.”
Today however, Vasuki, is in fact, back to wearing a suit in her lawyer avatar. She says, “I work with an international lawyer called Michael Wood in the field of International Arbitrations. It is not really a desk job so it gives me the flexibility to live wherever I want and currently, I am in Mumbai. But my job requires extensive travelling on conferences and hearings as we only do government-to-government disputes.”
Perhaps here is where destiny will reveal its plan for Vasuki. Had she won the Miss Universe pageant, her life would have taken a different path altogether — at least in the short term. But not winning it gave her the chance to focus on her NGO and an understanding of what she could do. Maybe that is where her true vocation lies – representing India by being the harbinger of change – for the better.
Just like Robert Frost’s poem, maybe, for Vasuki, the road she was fated to take will make all the difference.