She was all of 6 when she first dressed up as a beauty queen, in the hope of wearing the crown for real one day. In between the two decades that passed since, Indian-American Shree Saini not just underwent a heart surgery for a permanent pacemaker when she was 12, but also overcame a horrific accident that left her face scarred and bruised. Today, the Ludhiana-born girl realized her dream by being crowned the first runner-up at the Miss World 2021 pageant.
With determination on her mind and the desire to “serve with a loving heart”, Shree Saini competed against 39 other semi-finalists, including Indian representative Manasi Varanasi, at the 70th Miss World 2021 pageant in Puerto Rico on March 17. While Karolina Biewleska from Poland was crowned Miss World 2021, Olivia Yace from Côte d’Ivoire was adjudged the second runner-up.
The event was due to happen in December 2021, but it had to be pushed due to a surge in Covid-19 cases. Shree Saini had marked a spot in the pageant’s semi-finals when she was declared one of the six winners of the Beauty With a Purpose segment itself.
Before the final show, Shree Saini took to her social media and shared that special childhood memory of being dressed as Miss World. She wrote, “I saw Miss World as a superhero. A woman who serves with her loving heart. This has been my deepest desire since I was young.”
For the 26-year-old, having a purpose to serve gave her the strength to tide over difficult times. And the times that she has seen through her life, make her all the more grateful for all that she has – and simply for being alive.
In an email interview before the pageant, Shree Saini told HealthShots, “Being alive is a privilege… it’s a gift. As long as we are alive, we should joyfully and wholeheartedly find solutions to our problems rather than creating more stress for people around us. An endlessly loving and forgiving heart is God’s prayer in itself.”
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Born in Punjab and raised in Washington, Shree Saini quite literally broke the bias, as the first Indian to represent the US in Miss World Pageant. She shifted to the US with her family when she was all of 5 years old. She faced bias and bullying for her looks as a teenager, but it is something handled with kindness.
“When I came to America, terms like a person of colour and information about how others should treat people from the minorities, wasn’t readily available. I never thought there should be a reason to bully anyone. It was perhaps instilled in us to respond with kindness even to unkind treatment. It often softens their hearts.
She recounted how some people who had bullied her once, apologised to her. Her mantra to break the bias? “Honestly, it was challenging and tough, but you have to persevere and remain strong, and continue to be kind,” she added.
It is this positive spirit which helped Shree Saini remain undaunted and resilient even in the face of tragedy. At the age of 12, Shree Saini was diagnosed with a rare heart disease, and had a pacemaker implanted. While she was advised not to indulge in physically strenuous activities, she was undeterred in her desire to learn different dance styles.
“The pacemaker never became a hindrance in my childhood. Of course I had to be extra cautious and had to go for my regular checkups. But these health problems didn’t affect my dance practices or my study schedules either,” she said, adding that she immersed herself in reading books.
In the first year of her college life, Shree Saini faced another blow. She was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left her face burned. Time healed the external wounds, and internally, she became stronger than ever. It is that evolution as a person that made her grow into a beauty activist and mental health advocate who harnesses her social media to increase awareness on social issues.
For someone who has gone through such ups and downs, how does she look back at her journey?
“Difficult times helped me to have a bigger perspective,” said the young lady, who proudly calls herself a “100 percent world citizen”.
Her aim is to “encourage people to see the light and be the light”, and hopes her story of overcoming facial burns and heart defect can encourage people to overcome their daily challenges.