Long gone are the days when beauty pageant holders were all about being the most desirable face featuring on billboards, commercials and the big screen. 2021 has been a watershed year, marking a shift from the physical to the digital.

The 21-year-old Harnaaz Kaur Sandhu bringing home the Miss Universe crown comes at an epochal moment. Not only is she the first beauty pageant holder post the Covid-19 pandemic, she is also the first among her peers to be propelled into worldwide fame in a burgeoning digital economy in 2021, succinctly put by “metaverse”, where life as we knew it is moving on the internet. The moment word got out of Harnaaz bringing home the crown, Indians went berserk on the internet, with a deluge of congratulatory messages on social media, and the slices of Harnaaz welled up in tears moments after she was declared the winner, trended on social media. She now has a 3.1-million fanbase on Instagram, and her crowning moment garnering 7.8-million views on YouTube.

Beauty pageants, in recent years, have been a gateway to a career in Bollywood, the crown jewel of mainstream Indian cinema. Many beauty pageant winners, especially the ones winning the “big four”, have been ushered into a career on the silver screen. The careers of Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra lay testament to this fact.

“I have always looked up to them (Sen and Dutta), with the way they handled their personal and professional lives; how they have tackled every difficult circumstance in their lives,” Sandhu tells Fortune India.

Manushi Chillar, who was crowned the Miss World pageant, will make her debut alongside Akshay Kumar in Prithviraj, which is slated for a theatrical release in January 2022.

For the uninitiated, the Chandigarh-based Harnaaz is a starlet who has featured in two Punjabi films, Yaara Diyan Poo Baran and Bai Ji Kuttange. However, the aforementioned trajectory could pan out differently for the newly crowned Miss Universe, and for future pageant holders. The Covid-19 pandemic has completely overhauled the entertainment industry.

The India edition of the media and entertainment outlook, by consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reads, “technology and internet access will continue to influence the way Indians consume content. Our outlook shows that the demand for great, localised content, increased internet penetration and the creation of new business models will drive the industry’s growth for the next decade.” With multiplexes shut because of pandemic-related restrictions, the revenue decimated by 75% year-on-year, to a paltry ₹2,653 crore in 2020, according to PwC.

The local producers tapped OTT platforms to make up for it. The pandemic has catalysed the OTT industry in India, with OTT behemoths Amazon and Hotstar (which occupied the lion’s share of 20% in the market), and Netflix, which comes a close second at 15%. The OTT industry in India is expected to rally towards a market with a volume of ₹33,699 crore by 2026, according to estimates by Statista. However, strictly in terms of penetration, the estimates suggest that OTT platforms which let users stream content for free, and are supported by advertisements (MX Player, for instance), will have the largest share of the pile.

The technological revolution, catapulted by cheap smartphones, and even cheaper data plans, have enabled those dwelling from the hills to the hinterlands to keep abreast of the latest developments across the globe. The advent of social media has made the beauty pageant holders and their ilk influencers, and their social media handles have become sought-after spaces for brands to advertise their products and services.

According to a study by the Digital Marketing Institute, 70% of teenagers trust influencers more than the proverbial traditional celebrities, and 86% of women use social media to make a purchase. This trend is all the more palpable in India, which, according to PwC, is the fastest-growing internet advertising market in the world.

“Influencers are now satiating the increased creative consumption by the target audience. People no longer want to be just informed about a new product,” avers Gautam Madhavan, CEO of Mad Influence, an influencer marketing company.

Madhavan further elucidates that people vying for beauty pageants, for instance, have to create content on social media which aligns with the causes they champion for. Sandhu, for instance, has said that she would like to use her influence on social media (which grew manifold from 100k followers on Instagram close to a month ago), to advocate for women empowerment. “With the Miss Universe pageant, I want to talk about women empowerment, menstrual hygiene; the right to education,” she says.

As luring as the prospect of an influential vicenarian like Sandhu creating content around a brand, an important caveat is that it should not conflict with the reason why people choose to follow an influencer — especially when they vociferously champion for social causes.

“An organisation essentially is a person, who unites with a team, to bring an idea to life,” says Sandhu, who is looking forward to working with organisations whose goals align with the causes she is championing for.

However, Madhavan believes that such prudence can only come with experience. “Influencers with newfound fame often find it overwhelming at the outset; they will agree to endorse a slew of brands, it is only after a backlash by the followers when they exercise caution,” he says.

With the burgeoning OTT market, and the nascent influencer economy at the cusp of a boom (which is already a ₹900 crore industry), as revenue from mobile internet advertising in India is slated to rise to ₹22,350 crore in 2025, legacy beauty pageants will carve their own niche in business in the digi-verse.

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