“I would just close my eyes and imagine standing in front of thousands of flashlights,” said a contestant, almost spontaneously, when one of the judges asked about her first memory of wanting to win a beauty pageant.

The answer seemed to strike a chord with the other contestants, many of whom enthusiastically nodded their heads. The city may have taken its time to warm up to the beauty industry, but it does have hundreds of girls not only dreaming of making it big in the modelling world but also working hard to get there. The excitement and anxiety were very much evident in the regional rounds of a beauty pageant this weekend.

“Poise, confidence, looks and intelligence, the whole packaging is needed to win the crown,” began a mentor, addressing a group of stylishly attired girls, all aged between 18 years and 23 years, in the lounge of a luxury hotel. Though most of them seemed confident, one could hear the odd hurried whisper or hushed query.

“Stilettos are compulsory here, even in the auditions,” the mentor continued, much to the horror of Indrani Misra who had come in a pair of flats. A medical student at Sri Ramachandra University, Indrani said, “It is almost a sin to think of going out often given that medical studies are extremely rigorous. All these preparations are last minute.”

However, there was nothing last-minute in her answers as she coolly handled the query of a judge who was curious to know what she do if asked to choose between medicine and the crown. “Well, one is an ambition, the other, passion. I will choose to balance them out,” she said.

Now with cities like Lucknow and Pune producing beauty pageant winners, organisers said that Army or Navy bases were no longer the only places they go looking for “well-exposed, confident, interested” women.

“We get entries from places like Madurai and Coimbatore too. But not many girls want to travel to Mumbai or Delhi for further rounds.”

It is not about the distance alone; even during the auditions, Chennai chose to hold on to its conservative values. “Today, for instance, many girls did not turn up when they came to know there would be a bikini round as part of the selection process. Also, there is much stress on studies, here. Most people ask their children to pursue modelling alongside studies, never as a serious career,” said a trainer.

The ramp walk and introduction rounds were followed by a spree of questions which saw some rattle off rehearsed lines while others exercised restraint. The results were declared and four contestants were chosen to participate in another set of qualifying rounds in Bangalore.

Even as the girls rejoiced over their selection, a group of trainers guided them to a session on talking to the media. A mentor then sat with each of them to discuss future preparations. “This won’t do,” a mentor said, pinching the negligible flab on one of the contestant’s arms. “You have to work on your body.”

There is a stereotype common in the circuit, said Rochelle Maria Rao, Miss India International 2012, who is from Chennai. “Girls from Delhi are tall, those from Mumbai, well groomed, the ones from Bangalore speak better English while those from Chennai have all the brains. It is no longer true, because you have people from all over participating from these cities,” she said.

One of those who qualified was engineering student Monica Satyeni of Sathyabhama University which is known for its strict dress code on campus. She admits to borrowing clothes from friends when she needs them for pageants. “Modelling is no longer meant for just the rich. It is about a certain lifestyle and mindset that you need to develop and your family must support it. My father does not like me modelling but my mother is encouraging,” she said.

Outside the room, a very tense Nirmala Venkat, mother of one of the participants waited for her daughter. “There is a lot of preparation involved and she is ready to put in all the effort. From dieting to wearing properly-styled clothes, she is doing everything possible. She never misses a single fashion show in the city,” she said of her daughter, a student of fashion technology.

“It took us time to understand she was serious about fashion. Now her grandparents too want her to become a star.” Nirmala is not the only one. Sitting alongside her were many such parents.

“My daughter is into singing, dancing and acting. And this is just to give her the confidence to perform better. No matter how much we support children and help nurture their dreams, the fear and stigma about some fields remain. That is why I accompany her wherever she goes,” said Sudha Muralitharan, mother of a contestant from Qatar.

More In: Chennai | Arts