Nandita Banna wears many hats as a double degree student, active volunteer and budding model. Now, she'll get to add a crown to the mix.
The 21-year-old business management and information systems major from Singapore Management University beat out seven other finalists to win the Miss Universe Singapore pageant on Sept 17.
Come December, she will fly the Singapore flag at the 70th annual Miss Universe competition in Eilat, Israel.
The victory comes as a shock for Nandita, she tells us over a Zoom call, revealing that she had signed up for the competition simply as a way to push herself out of her comfort zone.
"Initially I was a bit reluctant to join because I had this image that all pageant contestants are very beautiful, with silky smooth hair and a beautiful smile, and I didn't see myself as that kind of woman."
In fact, she only started practising for the competition after getting through the first round as she wasn't confident of getting selected at all.
Fortunately, Nandita's efforts paid off.
Valerie Lim, the national director of Miss Universe Singapore, said in a statement after the final that Nandita "stood out by showcasing what it means to be an empowered Singaporean woman in this modern day and age", lauding her as a "positive force for good".
Rubbishing the common misconception of catfights and fiery competitors in the pageant scene, Nandita also says that her fellow finalists were "really supportive" of her and adds that she was "so glad" to have them around when she was crowned in a live-streamed virtual event.
As for her friends and family, the messages of congratulations have been pouring in, Nandita says with a grin, adding that there are so many that she hasn't gotten around to replying to all of them yet.
Responding to xenophobia head-on
Despite the overwhelming support, it hasn't been all rainbows and sunshine - Nandita reveals that she's actually seen some threads online that "can get quite mean".
The threads surfaced after her victory, she says, and revolve around keyboard warriors questioning her nationality.
While her parents hail from India, the first-generation Singaporean was born and raised here.
"And because of that, there are some people in Singapore who think that I'm not Singaporean enough to represent Singapore, and that I'm still Indian in the sense."
However, she's choosing not to focus on the noise, she says.
"Because I know who I am. And I know that I've lived in Singapore my whole life, and I respect this country so much."
'Every action matters'
Besides standing up to xenophobic online trolls, Nandita, an active volunteer with Care Corner Singapore, is also set on leveraging her platform to raise awareness on other social issues during her reign, and beyond.
One of her top priorities is tackling racism, she says, explaining, "We've seen that over the past year, there's been a slight increase in racist cases. And as a brown woman, it's quite sad to see that people in my community are suffering.
"I think I want to make Singaporeans more aware that we're a multicultural and very diverse country. And we need to start treating everyone equally."
It starts from simple actions such as speaking up when we witness racism, she adds.
Another cause she's passionate about is sustainability.
Besides using her platform to spotlight sustainable businesses, as well as getting behind urban farming and the use of alternative energy sources such as solar panels, she also hopes to inspire more people to relook their lifestyles.
"I want to keep reminding people that every action matters and that even the smallest actions that they take in their daily life can really make a big impact on Singapore."