Mumbai | Actor Poonam Pandey, who hit the headlines in 2011 with her declaration that she would strip if India won the cricket World Cup, died of cervical cancer at the age of 32, her publicist said on Friday but didn't have details of exactly where and when.
Till the end of a day spent trawling websites and contacting people who may have known her, there was no confirmation of the death of the model, influencer and sometime actor known for her bold statements and appearances. As messages poured in, some shocked and others sceptical, #Poonam Pandey trended on X and Instagram.
Was it indeed true? How could a woman die so young? Was the news fake? Wasn't she seen on the red carpet of an event just three days ago? The questions swirled with both Pandey and cervical cancer the centre of furious discussion across social media platforms, offices and drawing room conversations.
News of Pandey's death came a day after Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government's plans to focus on vaccination against cervical cancer for girls aged 9 to 14 as part of her interim Budget 2024. "She passed away last night of cervical cancer at her hometown in UP. She was 32," her publicist Parul Chawla told PTI, adding that she learnt about the death after Pandey's sister phoned her.
However, she was unsure of which town in Uttar Pradesh or the details of Pandey's family.
It all started in the morning with a post on Pandey's Instagram page.
"This morning is a tough one for us. Deeply saddened to inform you that we have lost our beloved Poonam to cervical cancer. Every living form that ever came in contact with her was met with pure love and kindness.
"In this time of grief, we would request for privacy while we remember her fondly for all that we shared," the statement read.
The doubts began soon after with several Instagram followers saying the news could well be fake because she was last seen only three days ago in Goa and frequently before that as well.
She was active on social media right through January with posts on the Ram temple, the Lakshadweep-Maldives controversy and her identity as a "Bharat citizen". There were videos of her swimming, riding a bike, speaking about "Bigg Boss" winner and her former co-contestant from the reality show "Lock Upp" Munawwar Faruqui and several appearances at events.
According to a statement from Picture N Kraft, a PR agency, "This is to place on record that we have received a call from her family member this morning regarding her sudden demise (as posted on her official Insta id). We are waiting for further information." An email purportedly from Pandey's manager Nikita Sharma went to several media houses confirming that the actor had died of cervical cancer. However, the phone number with that email turned out to be wrong.
A security guard in Mumbai told PTI that he was with Pandey till just two days ago. "We'll know everything by evening," he said.
She was married to a Sam Bombay and there were some reports of domestic violence. No other details are available about her family.
While speculation continued through the day and Pandey dominated the news cycle, her "Lock Upp" co-contestant Faruqui and host Kangana Ranaut condoled her death.
"This is so sad, losing a young woman to cancer is a catastrophe. Om Shanti," Ranaut wrote on Instagram.
"Shocking! can't process the news. Poonam was great human being. Sad. RIP," Faruqui wrote on X.
TV star Karan Kundra also expressed shock.
"Can't believe that we have lost Poonam! I was in shock and disbelief for the longest time.. gone too soon. Om Shanti. I hope her family and loved ones are going to be ok," he wrote on X. Many others were disbelieving.
"I'm praying this is fake news. I think this is fake news. Maybe someone hacked her phone or Instagram. It is difficult to believe. I met her just two-three months ago and you get to know if a person is sick. There are symptoms," TV actor Vinit Kakar, who was in "Lock Upp" with her, told PTI Videos.
"Cervical cancer patients don't die suddenly, out of nowhere. Just checked Poonam Pandey's Instagram. Until four days ago, she was fine, posting glamorous media. If she is indeed dead, it needs to be investigated. There were reports of a troubled relationship with her husband in the past that involved the police," said the handle The Skin Doctor.
Another doctor 'Jaison Philip. M.S., MCh' said on X that cervical cancer is one of the top three cancers in Indian females. "HPV Vaccines prevent 97% of cervical cancers. Such a preventable loss of life. Condolences to the bereaved," he said.
Pandey, who made her Bollywood debut in 2013 with "Nasha", also featured in little known films such as "Love Poison", "Malini & Co" and "Aa Gaya Hero". She also participated in two popular reality shows, "Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi 4" in 2011 and "Lock Upp" in 2022.
Always controversial, Pandey did not strip as she had declared in 2011. The next year, however, she posted a nude photograph on her social media handles when Kolkata Knight Riders won the IPL.
In November 2020, she and her husband were arrested for shooting an objectionable video and allegedly trespassing on government property in Goa.
Before that, in May 2020, she was booked for violating Covid norms in Mumbai.
Cervical cancer is the second most common in women in India and makes up for close to 18 per cent of the new cancer cases, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), WHO's cancer agency.