Manju Bangalore dreams of making it as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit rookie and astronaut.
Miss World California 2019, who is also a physicist, actress, writer and founder of two nonprofits, is a finalist in this year’s Swim Search. She was chosen among thousands of submissions to be photographed by acclaimed SI photographer Yu Tsai. The winner of the annual casting call will become a rookie in the 2023 issue.
While Bangalore is determined to make a splash on Earth, she also has her sights set on the great beyond. She is a scientist-astronaut candidate with Project PoSSUM. But when she’s not busy with her training, Bangalore runs Operation Period and Painting With Parkinson's.
Operation Period, which launched in 2015, has provided more than 200,000 menstrual products to those in need. Painting With Parkinson’s, founded in 2020, aims to offer free painting kits and art classes to those impacted by Parkinson’s. It was created in honor of her father, who has had the disease for over a decade.
Bangalore spoke to Fox News Digital about why she tried out for SI Swim Search, her goal of making it to space, and her impression of meeting Beyonce.
Fox News: What inspired you to try out for the SI Swim Search?
Manju Bangalore: I think the biggest motivator for me to try out is what the brand stands for. [Editor] MJ Day and the rest of the team have pushed for female empowerment and ensuring that every woman feels represented. It's something that resonated with me. When it came time to submit, I think I only had 15 minutes left *laughs*. So it’s just an honor to have made it this far in the competition. I just want to be part of a brand that helps represent women across the world.
Fox News: What was your experience like getting photographed for SI?
Bangalore: I’m still speechless if you want my honest opinion. There are very few words to describe that feeling of having your makeup done by a professional makeup artist, having your hair done by a stylist and getting to try on all these swimsuits. That was honestly the best part of my experience, getting to try on things I normally wouldn’t wear. I’m usually wearing high-waisted bikinis, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s usually what I prefer. They were never like, "You have to try this on." They were super encouraging. It was more, "Hey, this might look good on you. Why don’t you try it and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to wear it." That’s how I would describe the process.
I would have never tried on these types of swimsuits at a store, so it gave me a new, deep appreciation for my body. The brand does so much more than represent what’s on the outside. It’s also about feeling comfortable in your own skin. Getting to work with this team was truly a dream come true. I’ve never felt so supported in an environment like this one. I didn’t know what expectations I had coming into this shoot, but I left feeling so supported and cared for. I’ve never felt that comfortable in my skin.
Fox News: What does it mean for you to be part of a brand like SI?
Bangalore: I think it’s validating all the work I’ve done. It’s validating that I have been through my fair share of struggles. I think most of us have. And I talked about that during my callback. I talked about my mental health struggles. I’ve never been given a space where I’ve been able to talk about those things. When I was selected as a finalist, it was another way they were validating my work, my journey and what I’ve been through. It was another way to validate girls who have been through similar experiences. It has given me a platform to show that I am limitless.
Fox News: At any point, did you feel pressure to look a certain way for the magazine?
Bangalore: You know, I’ve done pageants before and those types of competitions where I’ve certainly felt more pressure. But this was one time when I felt like I was chosen for the body that I have and for the mind that I have. I didn’t have to stray from either. I didn’t have to change my diet, my exercise routine or anything. I could just be me. I stick to my usual fitness routine and I don’t really diet. I feel very secure and authentically me.
Fox News: What’s your fitness routine like?
Bangalore: I do strength training, like weightlifting. I have a trainer who’s a Marine, so he gets my butt in shape *laughs*. I enjoy weightlifting, and I’ll do some cardio occasionally.
Fox News: Women in STEM often get criticized for celebrating their bodies on social media. Why do you believe this is the case?
Bangalore: I think one major problem is that we’re not allowed to be multidimensional. We’re not allowed to be in a bikini and be a symbol of empowerment and aspire to go to space, do scientific research, do astrophysics research, or whatever it is. I think we need to have a better understanding that women are limitless, we’re multidimensional. We are capable of anything we set our minds to. I think the big thing that’s missing is empathy. We need to be empathetic to each other. The sooner we have that, the sooner we can understand it’s not out of the norm for someone to be in a bikini one day and be in a lab coat the next day.
Fox News: You became an astronaut candidate in 2021. Can you tell us more about that?
Bangalore: So I’m not quite at the astronaut candidate level. I am part of a scientist-astronaut candidate program. I know it sounds a bit similar, but basically, I’m part of this program that may lead to me getting selected to go to space one day. We are going through training that’s quite similar to where we are doing aerobatic flight.
We are doing high-altitude training, all those types of things to help you mentally and physically prepare for such a journey. One astronaut has already been selected. … It’s an opportunity to go to space and conduct experiments on behalf of the program and further scientific research. That’s my goal in furthering our human exploration. I also hope to represent women in STEM, reminding people that we are capable of anything we set our minds to.
Fox News: Do you see yourself heading to space?
Bangalore: I hope so. That’s my goal. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut since I was four years old. Since I first learned about Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space. I’ve dreamt of this for so long. Things don’t happen just because you dreamed them. You also have to put the work and effort behind those dreams. But I hope so. At the end of the day, my goal is that the best and most qualified candidates are going to space. Whether that takes me a little longer to get to space or not, I just want science to be furthered. I want human exploration to be furthered.
Fox News: Some folks may feel that we have enough issues here on Earth. We don’t need to prioritize space travel. What would you tell those people?
Bangalore: Why not both? I’m doing both in addressing issues here on Earth while I also aspire to go to space one day. I have a nonprofit that works with Parkinson’s patients. I’m working to get menstrual products to those in need. I’m doing both. I think we can be addressing issues here on Earth while also aspiring to dream big and as far as possible.
Fox News: Menstrual health and Parkinson’s are two very different causes. How empowered have you been in speaking out about these two subjects?
Bangalore: It’s been very validating and gratifying to have had the opportunity to speak on these issues. A lot of people don’t want to talk about menstruation because they see it as taboo or disgusting. But the only way we can address those stigmas is to have these conversations. As for Parkinson’s, it’s an invisible illness in a lot of ways. People don’t necessarily want to talk about it. But the more we have these conversations, the less stigmatized they become and the more we can take part in addressing them.
When people see me and learn about my studies, my nonprofits, my modeling and my goals, they usually want me to pick a lane. For me, my motivating factor has been to tie everything together and show that I’m capable of doing it all. I want to make the world a better place than I found it. That drives me.
Fox News: Why was it important for you, especially now, to give back to your community?
Bangalore: I am nothing without my community. I think it’s so important that we don’t leave people behind when we do this type of work. We have to bring our communities with us because they’re the reasons we’re here today. I have been giving back to my community since I was a teenager. Anything I can do to provide for my community, I want to do it.
Fox News: What advice would you give to someone who wants to help their community, but may not know where to begin? Perhaps they may not have the resources to launch a nonprofit. How can they get involved?
Bangalore: The first thing I did was look for other nonprofits in my community based on a topic I was working on. In my case, it was menstrual health education. At that time, there weren’t many nonprofits, so I needed to launch my own. But it’s 2022 and a lot of good people are doing a lot of good work. If you want to get involved, my first recommendation is to take time and study the field that speaks to you. Learn about what organizations already exist. There are organizations out there doing incredible work in almost any space you want to work in. And they could always use the help. All you have to do is reach out and ask.
Fox News: You appeared in "Black Is King" with Beyonce. What was that like?
Bangalore: Beyonce is incredible *laughs*. I didn’t know why I was going to the set. I was just told by my manager that I needed to show up in a couple of hours. That’s the life of an actor. Sometimes you don’t necessarily know what you’re walking into. You just go in and do your best. I walked over to the waiting room with one of the producers. I asked, and they said, "Oh, this is for Beyonce." And then her music started playing. It all clicked and I was just stunned. I got to wear this beautiful gown with a few other girls.
As for Beyonce, she’s just so kind. She’s very meticulous about her work. I’m speaking based on a very quick impression. But she came up to me and asked how I was doing. She had no reason whatsoever to do that. But she genuinely cares about her team. She makes you feel welcomed and valued. Between Beyonce and SI, nothing can top this *laughs*.