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Miss Universe 2021 Harnaaz Sandhu has gained weight since winning the crown in December – and online bullies have relentlessly targeted the star.
"Physically I have kind of grown, got more pounds, and increased my weight, which I am totally comfortable about right now," the 22-year-old told People magazine on Thursday.
The real problem, she said, has been the constant criticism on social media.
"I was bullied for gaining weight," said the Indian-born beauty queen. "It was kind of uncomfortable and really surprising for me to see how people started having opinions, which should not really matter. It’s not about how you look, it’s about who you are from inside and how you treat people and what you believe in."
Sandhu said that leading up to the competition, she had a no-nonsense approach to diet and exercise in hopes of winning. After achieving her goal, she was able to relax for nearly a month.
"During that time, I actually didn’t work out, and I was just eating and just enjoying that time with my family," Sandhu explained. "I never realized that it would start showing on my body."
Sandhu told the outlet that some comments were so cruel that she would just cry.
"I definitely broke down so many times," she admitted. "Sometimes in the most unexpected times. I’m just about to go on stage or something and then the whole thing comes [to] my mind. It’s really sad."
Sandhu also was not feeling well. A doctor diagnosed her with allergies that were impacting her health.
"I can’t have wheat or anything which contains wheat," she said about her gluten allergy. "Apart from that, I also have some soy allergy [and] coconut allergies. I’m allergic to eggs and I kind of realized that when I came to New York… It took me time to realize that the things which I was allergic to, I was still having. I didn’t know."
The 70th Miss Universe titleholder said she now has a different mindset about her body, noting, "it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to feel sad."
The Bollywood actress also hopes that her story will inspire others struggling with their body image to embrace themselves, no matter their size.
"We are all imperfect," said Sandhu. "We need to realize that there’s a point where we understand that we need to embrace our flaws and when you do that, you can conquer anything in this world."
At the time of her win, Sandhu said she was feeling "overwhelmed because it’s been 21 years since India got the Miss Universe crown, and it’s happening right now."
Last year's competition stirred headlines for different reasons.
A grassroots Palestinian-led boycott had urged contestants to skip the event to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In the end, only Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country with close ties to the Palestinians, did not send a representative, citing the global COVID-19 situation. The South African government, which also strongly supports the Palestinian cause, withdrew support for the country’s representative over her participation.
Sara Salansky, an official with the Israeli Tourism Ministry, said the country was selected to host the contest because of Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination program.
The contest then suffered a last-minute hiccup with the arrival of the omicron variant, which forced Israel to close its borders to foreign tourists in late November 2021. Most of the Miss Universe contestants were already in the country before the new regulations came into effect. However, those who came afterward were given special permission to enter, albeit with a mandatory 72-hour quarantine period.
Throughout the run-up to Sunday’s contest, all contestants were tested for the coronavirus every 48 hours and required to obey strict mask requirements.
Amid all the safeguards, France’s contestant, Clemence Botino, tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arriving in Israel. After 10 days in quarantine, she was declared virus-free last week and allowed to rejoin the competition.