'Shooting with Saif and Kareena was very professional'
It's a calm, rather clammy evening at the Park Hotel Chennai -- conversations are subdued pool-side, while ABBA blasts on the speakers. It's all pretty common-place and jaded -- until Miss India 2007 Sarah-Jane Dias swishes into the restaurant, sparkling with a freshly made-up face, a floor-length summer dress and a size zero figure that taunts everyone else. Her most recent stint in the public eye is an Airtel advertisement shot with Bollywood heavyweights Saif and Kareena and the model-actress is now making movies. In fact, she has just arrived from the sets, but judging by how perfect she looks, that's hard to believe. Excerpts from the interview:
When did this fascination for the model world begin?
When I was very, very young (quirks her eyebrows). Around three or four? I've done all the things girls do when they're young, fantasise about the future, and this is what I wanted to be. I was in all the competitions and contests -- elocution, drama, dancing, singing MJ's songs -- so there was no stage fear at all.
You really like MJ, don't you?
Who doesn't? There's no one here who isn't a fan of Michael Jackson. Everyone was affected when he passed away. I mean, the man was an icon. People who weren't acquainted with his music were aware of his appeal. There was this time when I was in Rajasthan, shooting for an ad, and there was a guy with a camel -- called Michael Jackson! That shows you the level of popularity he achieved.
'My Dad wasn't too pleased I got into modelling'
How influential were your parents when it came to your career?
My mother was very supportive, very encouraging. My dad wasn't too pleased -- he wanted me to "just finish my 12th and then do what you pretty much please." We moved to the Middle East when I was young -- we weren't too posh, we shopped in 1-Riyal stores and my mother made sure we weren't too picky about our food. In fact, that's how I learned to eat everything on my plate. I'm never choosy. And I can't bear food to be wasted. Even on sets when I'm shooting, I always make sure leftovers are given away to, you know, whoever needs it. That's what my parents taught me.
And you won the Miss India Oman title when you were 14.
God, that was such a stressful time. I studied in a CBSE school and it was just two weeks before the exam (laughs). Like I said, Dad wasn't very keen, but later, he was okay with it.
'Did Priyanka Chopra really just say my name out loud or had I imagined the whole thing?'
But you were working on quite a few other projects along with modelling, weren't you?
I was working with Channel V, yes. I was such a green kid -- I'd majored in sociology and I was in these new surroundings, but things were going great. I stayed there for four years and that's when I considered entering the Miss India 2007 pageant.
And you wanted to go ahead with it.
Well, the cut-off age was 25 and I knew, I just knew that I had to do this and do it fast; there wasn't a whole lot of time left. My clothes, my training regimen, everything was put together so fast, so efficiently.
What are your memories and thoughts of the Miss India 2007 pageant? How did it feel when you won?
I still get teary-eyed when I think about those moments. I don't really understand the mechanics of it, but it was fantastic. And I don't cry easily; I kept telling myself, 'Whatever happens, don't cry.' And I wasn't really expecting my name to be said but when they did -- I couldn't stop crying. My mum was sitting in the audience and I just looked at her...and I saw her crying. There was this sensation of tremendous disbelief. Did Priyanka Chopra really just say my name out loud or had I imagined the whole thing? Then, when she saw me, she just, you know, crooked her finger and I went. It was all just unbelievable.
'The director was pretty taken up with me'
You were part of (TV channel) Zee Cafe's Cafe Mic Testing too, right?
Yes, it was a hunt for Zee Cafe's next voice-over artiste, with a twist. I enjoyed working with a group that was so young, and they had great talent, great enthusiasm. It's a different world for voice-over artists and we got the contestants we were looking for, trained them with voice coaches. It was a fulfilling experience. It gave me a lot of insight into their world. We spoke only English at home -- we didn't conform to the Goan Christian stereotype, speak Konkani, something like that -- so I think in English. And this contest was another side to what I normally see.
What about the Airtel ad with Saif and Kareena? You've been making a lot of waves with that one? What was the experience like?
It started out the usual way -- I attended auditions, and the director was pretty taken up with me (grins). That said, I found the whole shooting process very professional. I spent only a little time with Saif and Kareena, of course, but I really learnt a lot. It happened in Chennai by the way -- blistering heat, but I have good memories.
'I've done some theatre, so acting isn't new to me'
What about movies? Any plans to enter Bollywood?
Certainly, at some point. Doing ad projects is helping me get familiarised with the film-world. I've done some theatre, so acting isn't new to me. Right now I'm doing a Tamil movie with Vishal, Theeradha Vilayattu Pillai (grins while fumbling over the name) and I'm acting alongside Neetu Chandra and Tanushree Datta. South India has great film-makers and technicians -- look at Mani Ratnam or Ravi K Chandran. And I've been getting to know the people here, learning about the movie-world. In fact, I might even do theatre again.
'I hate the word 'wannabe''
Tell us about your style mantra.
Wear whatever is comfortable for you. There are all sorts of people in this world: tall, short, naturally slim, voluptuous -- and beauty is not in conforming to certain ideals.
What about your dietary and fitness regime?
I've pretty much always eaten what I want. What I do advocate is a trip to the gym everyday. Twenty minutes spent working out and your body is prepared for anything. It's certainly a relief to me, and it will definitely help everyone.
Any advice for wannabe models?
(Laughs) Oh, I hate the word 'wannabe'. All I can says is, be true to who you are. People react to you positively that way. Find what it is that you really want to do and throw yourself fully into it, because then you will really achieve what you set out to do.