We are at the Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2017 (LFW). As backstages at fashion shows usually are, it’s chaotic. There are clothing rack trolleys lined with garments, cartons full of shoes and, in the green room, there’s an insane amount of cosmetics. Harried-looking people rush about (most in sensible flats).
We’re here to meet Anjali Lama — a 32-year-old Nepali transgender model — who recently made news for being the first transgender person to walk the LFW ramp. At the moment, she’s in rehearsals. She’s the first in the choreography, and the models who follow her on the runway are nowhere close to the typical model stereotype. Some are short, some plump, some dark-skinned. They are walking for the #TagFree show, which celebrates body diversity. Fitting, then, that Lama should be the first in the line to take the stage.
We catch hold of Lama between the rehearsal and the costume change. We tell her we want to talk to her about her journey. “She’s world-famous,” the stylist spraying product on Lama’s hair offers. Lama hugs her in return. But she can’t stay long and chat – she’s pressed for time. “I don’t want to upset anyone. I want to talk to you as well,” she assures us in fluent Hindi before being whisked away.
The early struggle
After the show, we find a quiet-ish place to sit down. Lama was born Nabin Waiba, the fifth of seven siblings in Nuwakot district in rural Nepal. School proved to be difficult for her as she struggled to understand why she felt and behaved like a girl. Her effeminate manner was mocked by her classmates and teachers, even her own father and brothers. Having finished school, she moved to Kathmandu. At age 18, she spotted a group of transgender women wearing make-up and heading to a club. She approached them. “When you ask most transgender people, they will immediately deny it and assert their cisgender identity (a person whose identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex). So, when I spoke to the group, they were like, ‘Look how brave this girl is!’,” Lama recollects.
They directed her to Blue Diamond Society, a Nepali group that advocates for sexual minorities, and soon, she began her sex reassignment surgery, and began to work at the outreach centre. In 2015, Nepal became one of the few countries to issue passports with a third gender category. Despite the progressive step, the ground reality is far from ideal. “Acceptance of transgenders is still not a hundred per cent,” Lama says.
“My friends nudged me towards modelling because of my height,” she says (she’s 5’9”). At 25, she gave it a shot. And although she got a few assignments in Nepal, most of the time, she was rejected for her gender. She auditioned for LFW in Mumbai twice last year, and was rejected both times. “I thought modelling wasn’t for me. But I couldn’t let go of it.” Then, she went through the YouTube audition clips put up by LFW and studied her own walk, as well as of those who had been selected, and identified her problem areas. “I had low self-confidence, and it showed,” she says. Lama focused on that and other nuances of modelling — costume and make-up — by researching online.
Eventually, it worked. And she was picked for the Summer/Resort 2017 show. Initially, not understanding English caused her considerable nervousness. “I felt a bit lost as all the instructions were given to us in English. Then I approached models Deepti Gujral and Alesia Raut, who helped me out.”
Being a part of LFW has changed her life. Apart from bringing her global fame and boosting her career, it has also led her brothers to come around and treat her well.
“I have never been this busy in my life,” she exclaims. Despite everything, she does worry a bit about being a little old for her field. “Most people stop modelling at 25, I started at that age. But in the West, you do have supermodels who are 35, even 40,” she says, and adds that she’s not thinking about the future right now. Soaking in all the adulation, press and the promise of a great career, besides being busy with a fashion show, is enough to keep anyone in the moment.
Lama now lives in Santacruz with a Nepali friend. And, though she likes Mumbai for the work it offers her, she misses the natural beauty of her home town. “I like nature, greenery and the hills… I wish we could have a place that’s a mix of Mumbai and Nepal.”