Childhood & Early Life
Persis Khambatta was born on October 2, 1948, in Mumbai, India in a middle class Parsi family. Her father left the family when she was two. It was her mother who single-handedly raised her.
Her venture into films and television wasn’t a well thought of or a planned move. In fact, she was casually shot by a well-known photographer. However, the pictures came out brilliantly and were used for a successful campaign of a soap brand.
Soon after the soap brand campaign, she started getting calls from advertising and modelling agency. It seemed as if she was destined to take the road to glamour. Her pictures had done all the talking.
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Persis Khambatta’s modelling career started as early as when she was 13. She first appeared for the soap brand Rexona. The poster girl of the brand, Khambatta’s striking beauty and photogenic face set the stage for her modelling career s.
By the age of 17, she was already ruling the ramp and the advertisements. She won the coveted title of Femina Miss India and Miss Photogenic award.
In 1965, Persis Khambatta represented the country in the Miss Universe pageant. She was the second Femina Miss India and overall the third Indian woman to participate in the Miss Universe. She modelled for multinational companies such as Revlon, Garden Vareli, Air India and so on.
After her international exposure, Persis Khambatta modelled both in India and abroad. In 1967, she made her Bollywood debut in the avant-garde film ‘Bambai Raat Ki Bahon Mein’ or ‘Bombay By Night’ directed by K.A. Abbas. In it, she played a cabaret singer Lily
Bollywood’s lack of professionalism led her to move to London, where she pursued her modelling career on a full throttle. After modelling in London, she left for United States where her career as a Hollywood star kickstarted.
In 1975, Khambatta bagged her first international film ‘The Wilby Conspiracy’ starring Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier. Almost simultaneously, she found her second role in ‘Conduct Unbecoming’ with Richard Attenborough, Michael York and Trevor Howard.
In 1979, Khambatta bagged the most significant role of her career. She starred as a bald Deltan navigator, Lieutenant Ilia, in ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. She shaved her head completely for the film.
‘Star Trek’ brought her a wider audience and greater global recognition and fame. Though originally intended to create a television series, the project was converted into a film instead.
In 1980, Khambatta became the first Indian citizen to present an Academy Award. Same year, she was nominated for Saturn Award for Best Actress for her role in ‘Star Trek’.
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Following her big debut in ‘Star Trek’, Khambatta featured in a number of films including ‘Nighthawks’ in 1981 alongside Sylvester Stallone. The 1982 film ‘Megaforce’ and 1983 film ‘Warrior of the Lost World’ were both science fiction films. In 1988, she featured in ‘Phoenix the Warrior’ and also bagged a few guest roles in television series.
After gaining fame and recognition, Persis Khambatta used her status to promote ethnic minority actors in Hollywood. Despite having them on board, the film industry relied on white men who donned the roles in dark make-up. She urged the industry to give roles to actors of ethnic origin.
In 1985, she returned to Mumbai temporarily. During this time, she appeared in the Hindi television series, ‘Shingora’ opposite Aditya Pancholi and Marc Zuber. Later, Khambatta left for Hollywood where she received guest roles in various television series including ‘Mike Hammer’ and ‘MacGyver’.
In the early 1990s, Kshe moved back to Bombay. Modelling then wasn’t a respected profession and models were looked down upon not just by men but women as well. Hardcore feminist believed that modelling was basically a platform to flaunt women as sex objects. To oppose the view and show the country that models had much more than just figure, beauty and body, she laboriously worked on her only book ‘Pride of India’.
Published as a coffee table book, ‘Pride of India’ featured several former Miss India winners and other stunningly attractive Indian women who had participated in international beauty contests.
Her book also featured Mother Teresa. Though Mother Teresa wasn’t a model or a beauty pageant, Persis Khambatta believed that she was an epitome of beauty. Khambatta who was inspired by Mother Teresa dedicated the book to her and offered part of the royalties to the Missionaries of Charity.
Khambatta’s final performance on screen before she bid adieu to acting was for the pilot episode of the 1993 series, ‘Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’. She served as the Chair of the Congress of Nations.
Personal Life & Legacy
Persis Khambatta married Hollywood actor, Cliff Taylor, in June 1981. The two had met just weeks before their marriage. However, the marriage did not work for long and ended two months later as they filed for divorce. She then married Sandy Naren. They lived in Des Moines.
In the early 1980s, she was seriously injured in a car crash in Germany and had a heart bypass surgery.
In 1998, Persis Khambatta was taken to the Marine Hospital in Bombay, after she complained of chest pain. She died of a massive heart attack on August 18, 1998. She was only 49 then. Her funeral was held in Mumbai the following day.