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Could A Beauty Queen Change The World?

Chris Le meets Miss Indonesia 2017 Achintya Nilsen – one of Bali’s own – and finds more than just a pretty face. Portraits by Saskia Koerner.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I was scheduled to interview Achintya Nilsen – the reigning Miss Indonesia. I had arranged the meeting through her father after clearing questions through her management agency so the lead up to our interview was shrouded in some mystery. We all have certain pre-conceived notions of what a pageant queen is like: huge plastic smile, make-up caked on in layers, big hair, sparkles, immaculate nails, and then there’s the ditzy-ness perpetuated by pretty much every viral pageant video. After meeting Nilsen, I’m convinced she’s the antithesis of what you would expect from a reigning pageant winner at a national level.

Three things really come at you when you meet her: she’s tall, quite young (she’s 18), and she’s way prettier than the photos provided by Google Images. She has this calm collected presence about her, kind of like that unassuming cool chick at school, totally approachable and brimming with the type of confidence that betrays the fact that she probably doesn’t really care what you think of her … and that’s pretty cool, considering my job at that moment was to essentially get a sense of who she was.

Full disclosure: I sent Achintya a bunch of interview questions by email to get vetted by her agency. Her answers were awesome … but the conversation I had with her really seemed to show what she was all about, not only as Miss Indonesia, but as a person who is particularly endearing in a lot of ways. So this interview is based on her written answers, and our conversation.

The first question I asked her was how did she ever get into the pageant game? Growing up in Bali, you can‘t be further removed from beauty pageant culture.

Actually sometimes I ask the same question myself. Some days I pause and think “wait a minute, how in the world did I get here?”

I’ve never grown up with much pageant knowledge (as you said, growing up in Bali has that effect) and I never thought I would be the type of person to join one. But I remember around November last year I was getting one recommendation to join, and then I was getting two other recommendations to join, so I thought why not try it out.

I came in with the thought that if I so happen to be chosen, then it’d be such a great opportunity to spread awareness on important causes, because I’d reach a much wider and broader audience, and that’s kind of what pushed me to join.

But I also came in with the thought, “I mean, who would choose me, I’m sure there are so many girls out there with so much more potential than me.”

So you can imagine the shock I was in when I got the call to join the competition, and the even bigger shock I got when I ended up winning.

I asked her what it was like to win and whether she had cried like just about every pageant winner does. She laughed and recalled that she didn’t expect to win, but if she had, she might have cried. Achintya said the whole experience was otherworldly and all she was trying to do was remember where she was supposed to stand to get crowned. It didn’t really hit her that she was now the reigning Miss Indonesia until the next day.

Then we started talking about all those cringe worthy viral pageant videos. Chiefly Miss South Carolina going through a total meltdown during the Miss USA pageant in 2000? And the one where Miss Philippines asks Miss Austria about Hitler. If you haven’t seen these, definitely check them out on Youtube. I asked her whether or not making a mistake like that ever gave her anxiety.

To a certain extent yes it does, but I received some advice during the quarantine session of Miss Indonesia from Maria Harfanti (Miss Indonesia 2015) that’s really helped me out with that anxiety and has kind of stuck with me ever since she said it. Everyone says don’t be nervous just take a breath you’ll be fine but that’s easier said than done. So what she said was something along the lines of: When you’re up there, you shouldn’t feel nervous, because this is your night, your time to shine and show them who you are and the only reason you should be nervous is if you’re faking it. But if you’re speaking from the heart, and the things you say are what you truly believe in, then you shouldn’t feel any sort of anxiety at all. And that really sunk deep for me.

Miss World differs from a lot of other beauty pageants, especially Miss Universe (which a certain American president was forced to divest shares in after being accused of sexual harassment). There is no bikini contest in Miss World. I asked Achintya what she felt the differences were.

Miss World and Miss Universe I think are pretty similar, but while Miss Universe mainly focuses on the pageantry of it all, Miss World also involves your beauty with a purpose. Basically what you are bringing that would help create a better change for the world, so they know you’re not just a pretty face but that you also actually care about humanitarian or environmental issues.

Julia Morley, Miss World’s chief executive, told The Washington Post that she was looking for contestants who are equally at ease doing a telethon in Iowa, charming donors at a cocktail party, and trekking to a mountaintop orphanage. How do you stack up in these areas?

I’ve always been passionate in helping people so that wasn’t something I needed to build on, it’s something that’s always been in me. Also spent a lot of my childhood trekking up mountains and if there was a mountaintop orphanage I think that would just be cause for more ambition to get there. The cocktail party business was however, not something I grew up with, but throughout my time in Miss Indonesia, I received a chance to learn how to do that, and I think I proved that I can do that. (I mean it must be part of the reason I won right?)

In place of the bikini contest, Miss World features physical challenges that seem pretty extreme for a beauty pageant. It’s no Ironman, but it’s also something a little surprising and makes the pageant seem that much more real. Like they’re truly looking for a well-rounded individual. I asked Achintya how she thought she’d handle the more physically demanding side of the competition.

Lucky for me, I’ve got a father who not only used to be an athlete, but also has some army training background. So it’s going to be tough but it’s always a good idea to build stamina and strength. Sports has always come naturally to me, so that’s not going to be the challenging part, I think what I need is to build drive. I mean in some ways I can be healthily ambitious, but when it comes to training I know I still need to strengthen my want to push my self and build that strength.

How has growing up in Bali helped you out?

I think it’s made me more of a well-rounded person for sure. In my opinion living in big cities makes it easier to turn away from issues that can make you uncomfortable, because you’re living this privileged life, in this nice apartment, with your own fancy car and everything basically handed to you. But in Bali I think problems hit you in the face much more and you don’t necessarily get to turn away sometimes.

It’s also got such an interesting diversity and sense of open mindedness to it. We get so many people coming here each year and everyone brings a little something from their country. Yet the Balinese have been able to stay strong in their faith and their culture and I think that’s something that I look up to.

Being able to stand your ground and stay strong in your beliefs but allowing yourself to be open to other people’s opinions and continue to grow as a person from that shared knowledge you’re receiving.

Miss World being hugely focused on making the world a better place and that makes sense considering the potential awareness pageant winners can receive, especially in Asia. While you might envision local pageant winners opening a strip mall, on the world stage, you could bring a lot of attention to a lot of issues. So what is Nilsen championing for Miss World?

My cause is poverty. Since I was around 14 my family and I have been helping build up this poor village in Kintamani, and for Miss World I hope we can expand on that and try to reach other villages that are very much left behind by society. I think by solving poverty it could easily solve problems like equality too, as we would bridge the gap between economic status. And when people are not constantly hungry, or searching for money, we tend to be more open to accepting others, ideas, etc.

How has your experience at the Green School shaped the way you think about environmental concerns.

I like to joke that I’ve been at that school “too long”  (since 5th grade!) and to say that it’s shaped the way I think about environmental problems would kind of be an understatement. It basically built my care for the environment, exposed me to how the issue effects the world, and us personally, and encouraged me to take action. I think that those three steps are something the school does very well. To talk about an issue you have to first care about it, then know about it, and then obviously you’d want to be a part of the solution as well. I think besides the environmental aspect of things Green School has also raised me with a more open minded perspective on things. We also take concern in social justice issues regarding racial inequality, gender inequality, sexuality, etc. We’re very accepting of so many things and it builds this passion in you to go out into the world and share that with other people.

Nilsen’s background is half Norwegian, half Balinese, which gives her a weirdly outsider perspective on a lot of different issues. Miss Indonesia/World is essentially a beauty contest and so I was curious about what she thought about whitening culture in Indonesia.

I think it’s one of those cases of you know “you always want what you can’t have” and it’s not just Indonesia, you see a lot of Westerners coming here to tan (but instead get red ha ha). People see differences as a beauty and we try to achieve that beauty when we should just be proud of who we are and love the way we were born. Yes maybe some people want darker skin, and some want lighter skin, but that’s just the way it is. Some will love your skin colour, and some won’t and it’s all a matter of opinion, but what’s important is that we love ourselves the way we are. And I think through that confidence (or loving yourself) our real beauty shines.

How have you prepared for Miss World and how does that differ from your Miss Indonesia competition?

Well the biggest difference is that I actually have time to prepare now. I got the call about Miss Indonesia about 2-3 weeks before the actual competition. And even with that I had tickets to go to India for religious purposes. So in reality I had less than two weeks to prepare everything. Now I have a few months, so that’s a relief. There’s definitely a lot more preparation on the fast track side of things, and etiquette and all that. During Miss Indonesia you get to learn all that while you’re being judged but for Miss World this is the stuff you must already know. My dad is helping a lot with the athletic side of things, and the Star Media Nusantara is helping with the public speaking aspect, getting coaches to train my catwalk more, and learning how to carry myself in that world. There’s also more mental preparation on the personal side of things. It is a worldwide pageant, and when it comes to things like this there is going to be some intense people out there who have so much love and support for the countries that they are from. So I’ve been told to kind of prepare myself for some passionate comments on my social media haha but I’ve always been told to keep a positive mindset on things … so that’s definitely going to be a strength. I don’t like to let negativity bring me down, but instead look to the brighter side and let that lift me up.

They say this is the million dollar question: why do you want to be Miss World?

Well as always, coming into this it’s not really about getting that title, to me it’s more getting to a place where I’ll have a huge platform and audience to raise awareness on important causes, and benefit people and places in need on a larger scale. To be a role model that encourages positive outlooks and lifestyles. So that’s really my main motivation to keep going and keep fighting. I’m not doing this for myself, I’m doing this for the people around me and the people who are in a less privileged place than I am.

Besides all this, I really want to get it for my country. I feel that each year Indonesia works harder and harder and our achievements have only been going up. It would be such an honour to be able to finally get that crown for my country, you know? We’ve won 2nd Runner Up two years in a row so if I win that Blue Crown this year it would be such a “finally” moment for Indonesia, and that in turn would make me feel super happy.

What are you looking for in Mr Indonesia?

Well currently I’m not looking for a Mr Indonesia because I feel like from this point on there’s going to be a lot of changes and travelling in my life (I assume) so it wouldn’t be really smart to look for someone. But if I were, probably someone who would laugh at my jokes. I’ve been told they’re terrible.

What do you think is the single greatest threat to humanity?

This one is easy, Climate Change. Obviously.

Perhaps the most telling thing about Achintya and why I think she has a pretty real chance at winning Miss World was when she was telling me about her final school project. At the Green School, you need to complete a sort of thesis at the end of the year and she decided to let her project be about belonging. She’s a child of divorce and with her father being Norwegian and her mom being Balinese, she decided to explore what it meant to belong  to a people or culture. I asked her what her conclusion on that was and she said that it didn’t really matter what culture or people you felt that you identify with, it’s really all about identifying with yourself. In a world of beauty pageants with caked on make-up and huge fake smiles, being that genuine has to shine through.

Achintya on Facebook