When Bhasha Mukherjee, 24, was crowned Miss England in August 2019, she only had a few hours left before starting her job as a junior doctor in a hospital in Boston, Lincolnshire. The beauty queen, who was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom with her family when she was nine years old, knew from a young age that she wanted to work in the medical field. While she never expected to win a pageant along the way, she used the Miss World platform to speak out on preventative healthcare and volunteer for humanitarian causes across the globe.
But that all changed when COVID-19 hit her hometown. With thousands of confirmed deaths from the novel coronavirus, the U.K. faced a lockdown in late March. Upon hearing from her colleagues of the devastating reality in hospitals, Mukherjee decided to return to the U.K. and swap her crown for scrubs. As she prepares to return to the frontline, she opened up to Refinery29 about this crucial decision. The following interview was told to Thatiana Diaz and edited for length and clarity.
Pageants weren't really my idea. When I was about 16 or 17, I accidentally landed in the modelling industry after being scouted. It worked as a side job while I was studying to become a doctor, because I was able to work modelling around my heavy medical school schedule.
Then, it was my mum's idea for me to take part in the Miss India pageant in 2015. She know that from when I was young, I was a chatterbox, and I loved being on the stage and in front of people. The pageantry industry is huge in India, and they've had many actresses and celebrities come from it. My mum wanted me to give it a go, and I actually qualified for the semifinals as an overseas Indian. But that would've meant having to leave my studies for a couple of months to compete there, and I wouldn't have been able to meet my attendance criteria. I didn't want to take that risk.
Then, Miss England 2019 came along, and one of the modelling agencies I was working with put me up for it. I didn't have any hope or expectations to win. I was actually going to quit modelling for good after Miss England, but I thought, I'm going to do this pageant as the one last thing that I’ll ever do in the modelling industry. I was supposed to start my job as a doctor the very next day after the finals of Miss England, so I had no expectation whatsoever of winning.
When I won in August of 2019, I carried on working at the hospital for two months. The Miss England organisation did not pressure me to quit my job, but a day job is very demanding — and this title is like a full-time job. Here I was getting ready for Miss World, which means preparing for a talent round, going to the gym for the fitness round... When you've done a long shift at work, you go home and you don't really feel like opening your emails, going to the gym, or dressing up. It’s almost impossible to keep up with both.
The way I saw it was that I was going to have this title for just one year. It's a question of having one year where you've got all these opportunities and experiences that you might not get again, whereas you can work for the rest of your life. I was going to return to work this August and carry on being a doctor.
As Miss England, I was called on for all different types of humanitarian work, and I wanted to dedicate the rest of this year up until August to that commitment. I travelled to Africa and Turkey, and while I was in India providing healthcare services through a charity, I heard from my colleagues in the U.K. about the level of pressure that they're under and the hours that they're having to put in because of COVID-19. Soon after that, it was all over the news that about 5,000 retired doctors had returned to work. The National Health Service was in need of any hands they could get ahold of, and I didn't have to think twice about it.
My family in India were reluctant of me returning and my mum tried convincing me to delay going back to work. But I made a deal with her that I would go back to work once she returns from India to the U.K., which is tomorrow when she finally gets repatriated. It’s been three weeks of us not being able to see each other, and I'm starting work next week. When she gets here, I don’t know when I’ll get to see her as I'll be living at the hospital.
I worry if I'll be competent enough to deal with the new pressures and new responsibilities — and be able to do a good enough job.
bhasha mukherjee, Miss England
I haven’t thought about the risks. The news didn't seem real — even until yesterday. I'm now in the process of sorting out my accommodation and training. It's only today that it hit me that next week is when I start working and my first shift is going to be 13 hours. I haven't done a shift like that since October. I'm somewhat anxious about restarting work at the deep end with all the challenges that we’re facing. I worry if I'll be competent enough to deal with the new pressures and new responsibilities — and be able to do a good enough job. But I know the doctors there now will be supportive, because all health-care workers are dealing with these new circumstances at the moment.
I received the support of the Miss England organisation to return to work while staying with the crown, and they actually sorted out my flight to get back home. If it were a different Miss England, who wasn’t a doctor, we would all still have an equal role in beating COVID-19 — even if that meant staying home. I’m not going to be doing the Miss England duties, but at a time like this, there's no better representation for your country than doing what your country needs you to do. It's not two different paths. The paths are very much merged.
The World Health Organisation says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.