From her humble roots in India to her worldwide fame, the story of Persis Khambatta is both exhilarating and incredibly sad. Thanks to her role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Khambatta is remembered as a science fiction icon and a trailblazer to many.
She was born in Mumbai, India, in October of 1948 and caught the eye of a professional photographer when she was just 13 years old, according to The Better India. Soon after, at only 17, she won the Femina Miss India competition in 1965. She appeared in the film Bombay by Night in 1969 and modeled for Air India, Revlon, and clothier Garden Vareli.
With her star on the rise, Khambatta left India to pursue her modeling career. She found work in London but continued to act. She appeared in the films The Wilby Conspiracy with Michael Caine and Conduct Unbecoming with Richard Attenborough.
Those small roles set her up for parts in the United States, including 1977’s The Man with the Power, with John de Lancie, who Trek fans know as Q from The Next Generation. These parts led to her trying out for a reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s show from the 1960s. This show was going to be called Star Trek: Phase II.
Fans know her look well. She was the mysterious and beautiful bald alien who joined the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. She was a Deltan, whose race was essentially the opposite of Vulcans.
According to the book “Star Trek: A History In Pictures,” for members of the Deltan race, “almost everything in life was sex-oriented.” This is vastly different from Spock, whose pon farr mating ritual caused him to go nearly insane — every seven years.
“Star Trek was a wonderful experience for any actress,” Khambatta told interviewer Skip E. Lowe. The rumor that she bought a rubber skull cap for just a few dollars to audition for the navigator IIia’s role is confirmed.
“My investment was $1.99,” said Khambatta. “I walked into Gene Roddenberry’s office for the interview. I did some screen tests against 600 others … and that’s how I got the job.” After she got the role, she did shave her head. And yes, that indeed is Mr. Roddenberry kissing Khambatta’s bald dome at the end of the video:
StarTrek.com writer Jordan Hoffman would comment that for 1980, having a bald actress as part of an advertising campaign for a major film was “quite a shocker.” The Independent wrote that she was Hollywood’s first “bald heroine.”
The project behind Star Trek: Phase II eventually became the film, The Motion Picture, and IIia was the only non-TOS character who made the transition. But, as some may know, the basic idea of her personality and Commander Will Decker (Stephen Collins) did live on through Troi and Riker on The Next Generation.
“I do not hide my feelings,” Khambatta told People Magazine in 1980. “I can’t remember what humiliation I had suffered at the hands of one of my boyfriends, but one day I was sitting weeping. [Star Trek: The Motion Picture] Director Robert Wise patted my shoulder and said, ‘Come on, Persis, this is costing about $10,000 a minute.’ He was joking, but I got the point in a hurry.”
For some, Khambatta became the main character and iconic image that represented The Motion Picture. For the 1980 Academy Awards broadcast, she and fellow TMP alumnus William Shatner presented together. This was notable because Khambatta became the first citizen of India to present an Academy Award.
She eventually moved back to India, where she lived out her last days. One of her final projects was working on a fundraiser book project, which she dedicated to Mother Theresa. The royalties of Khambatta’s book went to the Missionaries of Charity.
Persis Khambatta died at the unbelievably young age of 49 after suffering a heart attack.