Watch CBS News

The World's Most Beautiful Woman?

Who is the most beautiful woman in the world? Half a century ago, Hollywood would have presented her to us. Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman or perhaps Elizabeth Taylor.

But today? Correspondent Bob Simon reports the woman who currently holds the title, at least according to thousands of Web sites, Internet polls and even Julia Roberts, is someone you've probably never heard of.

Her name is Aishwarya Rai, and she is an actress living and working in Bombay, India. The reigning queen of Indian cinema, and also a classically trained dancer, Rai has starred in 24 films over the last seven years.

That may seem like a lot of movies, but Bollywood, India's film capital, is famous for churning out more movies a year than Hollywood. Three new films are produced and distributed worldwide every day, attracting a global audience of 5 billion people. That's twice the reach of Hollywood.

The reason Bollywood films have such universal appeal is because they're squeaky-clean. There are no sex scenes, not even kissing. Every time you think someone's going to do it, they'll burst into song instead.

"I'd assume that's really a reflection of our society," Rai says, when asked to explain the films' modesty. "Of course people kiss and of course people have a very healthy love life. This is the land of the Kama Sutra. But nevertheless, in our society you don't really see people around the street corner kissing or being extremely, overtly, physically demonstrative publicly. They do it privately but not publicly."

Unlike some of her Hollywood counterparts, Rai's very much like the women she portrays: wholesome, dutiful and deeply religious. So much so, she insisted we visit her favorite temple for this interview. It's more than 200 years old and every week more than 100,000 people come from all over India to make offerings and pray to Lord Ganesh, the half-elephant/half-man Hindu god of happiness.

At the temple, Rai started attracting more worshippers than Lord Ganesh.

She says being treated as sort of a goddess in this way, "makes me feel guilty. I'll be very honest. When there's a distraction at the place of worship I kinda get a bit guilty. And I kind of say, 'Lord, forgive me. This isn't intended.'"

Despite the attention, Rai says she doesn't think much about the way she looks.

"I am really OK with the way I look, It's fine," she says. "All this is transient. I mean, it's really, you know, it changes with time, and that's the external."

Rai never dreamt of being an actress. She grew up in a strict middle-class home, the daughter of a merchant marine and a writer. She was an "A" student on track to becoming an architect, until the "Miss World" pageant came along. She entered because, she says, she wanted to change the way the world sees India.

Rai explains that, "for me, it went beyond being a beauty queen. For me, it was about being the 20-year-old girl from India on international platform and a lot of people actually would assume that I wasn't even educated in India because of the way I'd speak. And they'd be like, 'Have you studied in India? Do you actually speak English out there?' and, I was like, 'This is so interesting that so many people know so little about my country.' and this is exactly what I wanted to do when I set out on this little mission in my head."

At age 21, Rai became Miss World. It didn't take long after that for her to become the brightest star in Bollywood. Now 30, she's still a traditional Indian girl - which, by the way, means she still lives with her parents.

"By virtue of my job, I'm traveling," she explains. "You get to spend very little time with your family. We hardly get to meet each other except on the one odd day we really get to spend time, have dinner together. And that's rare, and we cherish it."

Still, Rai considers herself an independent woman, and she doesn't have anything to prove. She's an astute businesswoman who negotiates her own contracts, including endorsements for L'Oreal, Coca-Cola and DeBeers diamonds.

She is not only one of the wealthiest women in India, but Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. When she's seen in new clothes, it invariably sparks a new fashion trend. Choosing what to wear, she says, is not so much about caring as it is, "just about being open to life and trying different things out."

Right now for Rai, trying different things means going to Hollywood. She's already got several films lined up. Her first is from the director of "Bend it Like Beckham." It's called "Bride and Prejudice," and it's a very proper film. But eventually, in Hollywood, India's "good girl" is bound to run up against something of a cultural hurdle: kissing men on the big screen.

"We'll cross the bridge when we reach it," Rai says. "But yeah. We - let's see. We'll work on the story, work on the scene. I'll work on the part and, and let's see."

Would an onscreen kiss create a scandal for Rai back in India? "It would definitely be a topic of discussion," she says. "They're gonna enjoy it."

Sure, there are people in India who resent sharing their star with America. But, Rai notes, "then again there are so many Indians who have expressed so much of pride. They look at this as such a positive possibility. Because there really hasn't been that strong a representation of the Indian in Hollywood."

With Rai in the vanguard of an Indian invasion, that could change. Is Hollywood ready?

"Someone said to me this week that you are a Greek goddess with the soul of an Indian. What is the finest complement you have ever received? The one that touched you the most," Simon asks Rai.

"Well, when people call me real. I love it. And it has a lot of meaning," says Rai. "It means a lot to me and it's touching. People would see that and acknowledge it."

And one last question -- one that every man watching is going to want to know. Does she have a steady boyfriend?

"That's for the autobiography," says Rai, laughing.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.