In a March interview, model Bhumika Arora told the Wall Street Journal she used to think she was "really ugly."
That's odd coming from someone who has walked the runways at the Paris, New York, London and Milan Fashion Weeks. Someone, who has landed some big gigs including assignments for Roberto Cavalli, Alexander Wang, Vera Wang and Stella McCartney.
In March, Style.com listed Arora as one of the "Top 10 New Models of the Season" and Vogue.com listed her third in its "7 Things We Loved Today" feature, writing: "Our hearts were stolen by a fresh face on the Vera Wang runway: the moody-eyed, sultry-lipped, and enviously angular Bhumika."
But 27-year-old Arora tells us over an email interview that her looks weren't the stuff of admiration back home. Her 5'11'' height and tiny 22-inch waist caused her much humiliation at school in Karnal, Haryana. "People made fun of me because my kind of height is not very common." she says. She also told the Wall Street Journal she was teased for looking "like a guy."
Today, Arora is an established international model, one of the very few Indian models to make it big in the West.
At school, like many young women with her height, it did strike Arora her that she could perhaps model. But her family and she were convinced it wasn't a safe field to venture into. And so, after school, she moved to Chandigarh for a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration.
It is in college, that her friends sent Arora's selfies to a local publication - without telling her. And she was flattered to find her photo in its model-watch section. This convinced her parents that she could be a model, after all. But they told her to focus on her studies until the right time and opportunities arrived.
The BBA was to become an MBA when she was spotted by a photographer who offered to take her first professional shots. Armed with those, she landed her first job in Delhi, as a hostess at an auto expo. For a fresh-out-of-college young woman, Rs 50,000 for seven days' work sounded like a huge deal.
And then, the deals got bigger. Arora studied the moves of her role model Adriana Lima, the Brazilian supermodel and Victoria's Secret Angel since 2000 and Brazilian model and actress Alessandra Ambrosio - and emulated them on the ramp. It led to ramp gigs for leading Indian designers for three years ranging from Varun Bahl to Manish Arora.
But that wasn't enough. "I always wanted to be on international catwalks, so I gave it a try. I didn't want to regret not having tried," she tells us. She sent her pictures to the big global agencies. Eventually, Elite Paris, a leading modelling agency, took notice and signed her on and she also joined its networked agencies such as The Society Management in NYC.
In February 2014, Arora walked her first runway show in the Paris Fashion Week for Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten. In February 2015, Alexander Wang gave her the opportunity to debut in the New York Fashion Week with his show.
And she closed New York for Marc Jacobs, one of the most sought-after shows for a model. "It's like living a fantasy, getting to work with people I never even imagined meeting," says Arora.
Since then it's been the London and Milan fashion weeks for DAKS, Emilio Pucci, Gareth Pugh, Roberto Cavalli, Fendi and more. What more can Arora expect?
Quite a lot, says Ujjwala Raut, one of the first Indian models to make it big on the global runway. "I watched her at the Fendi show. And oh my God! She looked like a goddess!" exclaims Raut.
"She is stunning, with a versatile face. It's not easy to land a Fendi show. She is right on track or she would not have made it this far."
Looks are not Arora's only advantage, says Malini Banerjee, fashion editor at
, who worked with Arora when she was on the cover of their 2014 December anniversary issue.
"She is great on the ramp, has a great height and body and fabulous hair. But the best thing about her is the way she blends in beautifully."
Internationally-known fashion designer Manish Arora calls her the next big thing. "She is already one of the top 10 supermodels, and charging ahead fearlessly to greater heights," says Manish, who has worked with her both in India and abroad. She opened and closed the Paris Fashion Week for him in February 2015.
What makes Bhumika unique, according to Manish, is the manner in which she fits effortlessly into any mood or outfit. "She is determined, enthusiastic to accept, learn and move ahead. That makes working with her a delight," he says.
Colour me desi
International modelling has a very white ceiling. "I don't know why there are so few Indian models in the West," says Arora. "But being Indian definitely helped me. If I attended castings, I was usually the only Indian girl there, and it helped me stand out."
Raut believes it's not that simple though. "Internationally they are still quite racist," she says. "It's not unusual to hear them looking for a blue-eyed American girl with blonde hair."
But if Arora's exotic looks work to her advantage, her age does not, says Raut. At 27, she's rather old to be an international beginner in a market where women begin modelling at 14.
"Soon Bhumika might want to marry, she will want a kid. And then the motivation is gone," says Raut. "And then you don't want to try anymore, you don't want to go back to meeting the casting directors, and the photographers, it takes a toll."
Arora herself doesn't think she's lost out though. "I am glad I got to live a fabulous student life to the fullest," she says. "And at this age, my mind is more focused and balanced - and I understand what my goals are more than ever."
Those goals include working with both famous fashion houses and up-and-coming designers. "I want to work with anyone who is talented and passionate about their craft," she says. "I'm really excited to work with everyone, but in the end it might be more about them picking me, and not vice versa."
Her 'Indian' sensibilities might get in the way, for instance. Told once that her look for a Balmain show would be transparent, she was nervous about informing Olivier Rousteing, Balmain's creative director that she was uncomfortable with it.
"I feared that I would be replaced," she says. Fortunately, Rousteing was gracious and respectful - though he need not have been. "He chose another look for me and made sure I was happy with it. It was such a kind gesture and I am forever grateful to him for his understanding."
The world is not enough
The girl who once thought herself to be "really ugly" is now considered the next big thing in the modelling world. "Overall, personality and presence count as much as your face or walk," she says.
Arora has learned a lot since she began working abroad. For instance, she is able to tell us with authority that models don't have to be skinny. They just have to fit the various visions of the designers.
"The models I know neither stop eating nor resort to extremes to stay skinny. They don't starve themselves. Rather, they eat healthy foods and work out regularly to maintain their figures." She herself prefers simple Indian food. "I love to go on long walks and also work out in the gym," she says.
Raut explains how it works. "Once a collection is made, it's made. A model has to fit the collection and not the other way round," she says. "So there are occasions when a model might be dropped. When I modelled for Gucci and YSL, Czech model Karolína Kurková, a former Victoria's Secret Angel, would be dropped from the shows because she had very long legs and the trousers would not fit her."
After all this success, Bhumika Arora has only one regret: Her parents have only watched her in videos: they are yet to see her walk the ramp in person.
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From HT Brunch, May 10
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