“I aspire to be the best version of myself and everyone I meet along the way inspires me to improve,” says Nina Kant Mandal, first runner up of Miss Universe Nepal 2021 and title holder of WOW Miss Free & Fearless Woman 2021.
What sets Nina apart from the contenders of the crown is her sheer tenacity. This is the second time that she has participated in the Miss Universe Nepal pageant. She was announced second runner-up in her first attempt; and she is already aiming for the title in 2022. Most people would think twice knowing the emotional and physical demands of the pageant but Nina is not a quitter and has the mindset of using this opportunity to refine her performance on stage.
“I have worked very hard to build myself up to look and feel this way. When I look back at my journey, I feel very proud of how I have overcome several insecurities,” she shares. Nina is an exotic mix of genes: Nepali, Indian and Russian. She comes across as cool, confident and intelligent, and you can see the determination in her shine through.
As we talk, the one facet that stands out for me throughout is how real Nina is. Not in the way one speaks of models who claim they also ate a bag of chips for dinner last night. Nina’s realness comes through in her beliefs about beauty and its standards; in her stories from childhood; and in how she will always be unafraid to speak up against society’s wrongs.
If you didn’t already think Nina was something else, I have a feeling this candid interview will change your mind.
Tell us about growing up? Did you always want to be a model?
Growing up I have been very reserved and shy. I always hesitated to speak up. Public speaking was something I absolutely dreaded. But as I grew, I wanted to get out of this shell. And when I first saw a Victoria’s Secret show I was so stunned by their beauty and confidence, I wanted to be like them. That’s when I first wanted to become a model – bold, confident and beautiful. Modelling definitely brought me out of my shell but also got me into the wrong thinking of what beauty truly meant.
Growing up, what was your definition of beauty?
Back then I strongly believed that beauty was directly tied to your appearance and especially being skinny. I remember in my school days there was a big trend on losing weight and having a thigh gap. At one point I was so obsessed with this idea of having a thigh gap that I would try various harsh diets and track changes in my body measurements including my thigh gap. It was all due to the image of a perfect beautiful woman we grew up with… skinny, tall, famous. So, I wanted to be one of those women. Little did I know that beauty comes from within, from how you perceive yourself and the world around you.
What was it like growing up in different cultures?
It has been incredible. I was born and raised in Moscow but from early years, I’ve been hearing my father speak so many different languages. Going to Nepal Embassy for festival celebrations, really brought a multicultural feel to our household. When I was around 13, I went to study in middle and high school in India, then I continued my Bachelors studies in London and now I am exploring Nepal. Throughout my life I have been moving around, soaking in different cultures, mindsets and values. And from this curiosity and hunger for new experiences and emotions comes my love for travelling. These experiences have really made me open-minded, receptive and resilient to an extent that now I feel like I can adapt very easily and find friends wherever I go.
How did you learn to love yourself?
Honestly it took me a very long time. I had many insecurities which didn’t allow me to see my capabilities. As cheesy as it may sound, it happened three and half years ago when I fell in love with my boyfriend. He was the person who showed me my true self through his eyes and made me love me for who I am. Since then I have never dieted, never counted calories, started listening to my body more, and wasn’t so focused on the numbers on the weighing scale. I finally dared to go after my dreams and he always supported me along the way. Now, I am not saying that in order to love yourself you need to find a boyfriend or a girlfriend but what I am saying is that you just have to take a look at yourself from outside of your insecurities and comfort zone and start seeing the beauty within you.
When you joined the fashion industry as a model, what were the pressures?
I faced many moments of insecurity. Unfortunately, in Russia modelling standards are still very prevalent and new trends on inclusivity are not fully there yet. So, I am considered borderline short and exotic due to my dark complexion. Many times, I’ve heard ‘no’ just because I stood out too much from the model lineup. A lot of times I felt like I wasn’t good enough, like I wasn’t made for this industry and maybe I should just quit. But then I let myself feel sad for a bit, picked myself up, and tried again and again. These experiences feel soul crushing but they also allow you to grow stronger.
When you look in the mirror now, what do you like the most about yourself?
Honestly, everything! I like seeing a young woman who went through many struggles as she was growing up but who overcame them and became someone she always wanted to be. I love the fact that I found courage within myself to get out of my shell. Instead of settling for something I didn’t enjoy, I quit my office job. Despite having stage fright, I went on stage in front of thousands of people and performed. Yes, I stumbled, but I learnt and went there again for the second time and did a lot better. I think this is what I am proud of the most, the courage despite being scared.
What makes you different from your contemporaries?
Oh, so many things! If we are talking about my fellow models and pageant queens in Nepal, then first of all is being a mix of cultures and coming from a different country. During both of my years in Miss Universe Nepal I was the only contestant who didn’t speak fluent Nepali. But I don’t see this as a negative thing, it just shows that I grew up under different circumstances than the rest of the girls and had the bravery to compete without letting this one thing stop me from achieving my dreams.
That’s one of the many things, so to be honest it’s hard to say what is that one thing that sets me apart as we all grew up and lived in completely different environments, had completely different experiences, and that’s what makes us all unique. I would say everything makes me different but what makes us similar is that we strive to reach the goal or the crown and learn along the way.
What do people tend to get wrong about you?
For this question I actually asked my audience on social media what their assumptions about me are and I got many responses which seemed to be very true about me. Like the fact that I am a positive and caring person, which I believe I am, that I love eating, travelling and partying which is also very true (with partying not always though). But one assumption in particular caught my eye which I’ve never encountered before. That if people recognised me on the streets they would get intimidated to approach me. It’s a very new concept as only recently I’ve become a public figure and people started recognising me on the streets but honestly, I do love it when people come up to me and ask for a photo, a hug or a little chat. I find it very sweet and it makes me incredibly happy. Having people support me online is one thing but when I see them in person it makes everything so real. So, if you recognise me and want to approach me then please go ahead.
You are often seen speaking your mind on social media about various issues, did you ever get backlashed for it?
There are as many opinions as there are people on this planet so obviously some people might not fully agree with what I say. I speak from my personal experiences which some might not understand because they never had this kind of experience in their life. Or, I might not know about certain things and people correct me, so I learn something new. I think it is a beautiful thing that we have this opportunity to discuss important topics all across the world. And as long as we keep it respectful, we can all learn from one another. But of course, there are some people who let their emotions out online and might take it a step too far, so I try to respond to hatred with kindness because I understand that nothing good will come with me adding fuel to the fire. Yes, it can be very frustrating, I can also get angry but I try to think it through before writing anything negative, I try to put myself into the shoes of others first and see why that person might be saying that. Psychology education has taught me this. Or option number two is I block those people because I don’t need any pointless negativity in my life.
You have participated in Miss Universe Nepal for two consecutive years. What changes do you see in yourself from this experience?
It takes a lot of courage. In fact, coming back again puts a lot more expectations on me since I am the ‘experienced’ one now. This is a totally different kind of pressure than what I had in my first year. Back then I was very new to international pageantry, especially of Miss Universe scale. I was scared, had many insecurities, and coming from a different country made me doubt I will make it through at all. But after getting the title of second runner up, I realised that nothing is impossible. I have come so far, so what I need to do now is to learn from my mistakes, keep practicing and try again. So that’s what I did and I came back feeling a lot more confident especially on stage, a lot more prepared mentally and physically, and this time I went one step further getting the title of the first runner up. As Nims dai said “Giving up is not in the blood, sir!”
If you could go back in time and talk to the younger Nina, what would you tell her?
There are so many things I’d want to tell her. That she is capable, beautiful, brave, that she will achieve great things in life that she might not even imagine would happen. But honestly all the struggles little Nina went through made her into the strong young woman she is today, so I would not want to change any of that with my advice. But the only thing I would actually tell her is “don’t let anyone’s judgements define your worth”.
This is something I feel would have been helpful for me to hear back then. I used to be – and still kind of am – a big overthinker and I used to let other people’s judgements of me take over my decisions and prevent me from taking chances in life. Now I’ve learnt to listen to my inner voice more than the voices of those around me.
What brings you joy?
I enjoy the smallest things in life. But spending time with my loved ones is definitely a big one. Time with family is always precious. Also, fun and creative projects. I love it when a great team comes together, shares the same energy, has a lot of fun on set and comes up with amazing results. These are the times I love my job the most. And of course travelling, creating, trying new things and sharing all of those experiences with my instagram family through my vlogs. I am also planning on starting my YouTube channel so stay tuned for that.
The most free and fearless thing that you have done lately?
For me living in Nepal by myself was a pretty free experience but definitely not fearless. I had many worries because it is not that easy to leave your loved ones behind and move to a different country all by yourself. In these two months in Nepal I have learnt a lot and it was an incredible experience for me coming out of my comfort zone.
Also, for the first time I took a motorcycle taxi. It was so strange for me to see that you can book a bike ride through an app like a taxi but then I got so into it and now I love those bike rides. They are so fun. I also want to try a lot of adventurous things in Nepal like trekking, paragliding and maybe even bungee jumping. I have big plans for Nepal.
On the cover: Nina Kant Mandal & Zander Lama
(Instagram: ninakmandal zanderlama_official)
Photographer: Supran Shrestha
Interview & coordination: Ankita Jain
HMUA: Shradha Maskey
Style Director: Puran Joshi
Wardrobe: Asha Retail
Jewellery: Himalayan beads cottage