Alexia Toumikian is part of the under-cover operations of a magazine. Which means she will not be on it. Called in by Marie Claire India, she is a ‘fittings model’ trying on dresses, shoes and pearls meant for somebody else — the Bollywood covergirl. So this is just a drill meant to size up the clothes and see how they hang. After the trial, they will be packed in big boxes and the magazine’s fashion team will coax a Katrina Kaif or a Kareena Kapoor to wear them for the cover shoot. They may, they may not. Worse, they may not give them back.
It is end-December and the editorial team is re-doing its math. A future cover girl has just sent word that she would have loved to shoot with the magazine, but only with photographer Jatin Kampani. Her agency has proposed Amrita Rao and Sonam Kapoor instead as peace offerings. “In 2006, our first year, I would take all the tantrums, now I say ‘no thank you,’” says slim, ponytailed, red-heeled Shefalee Vasudev, editor, Marie Claire India. The magazine’s ‘chase team’ operates out of Mumbai. Latha Sunadh, its celebrity watcher whose day begins with an eye on the future, “usually chases the girls two months in advance”. She bats for all, is on constant text message with stars’ PR agents but has to be prepared for any eventuality.
Manage the damage
Next month when you pick up the New Year issue of your favourite lifestyle magazine treat it with respect. If Bollywood had had its way, it may not have hit the market, (see box —Rumour Has It). Those that do, certainly hiccup their way to the stands. “Who should be on the next cover is the most disturbing question in my working life,” says Vasudev, “and often the answer I get is nobody. ”
In May 2008, the MC cover with Shilpa Shetty showed a lightbox, a makeup man and the actress checking her readiness in the mirror. “I felt this is it! This is Bollywood, this is tamasha. Let’s do an interpretation of a celebrity,” recalls the MC editor. Shilpa felt the dummy had been printed by accident; photographer Atul Kasbekar felt he should have been told that his behind-the scenes shot would go as cover. Result: in the June issue, the editorial pages carried a centrespread explaining the aesthetics.
Drama, chase, ego hassles and then reconciliation — a cover shoot has too many actors. It’s almost a Bollywood production. “It is detailed enough to merit a ‘bookings editor’ and a producer… For six months before the launch, I was hardly doing any editing,” reveals Che Kurrien, editor GQ.
Was the recent cover with Aamir Khan a toughie? Aamir apparently was thrilled to be shot by photographer Prasad Naik in a gritty, reportage style. The success certainly shows on Arjun Bhasin, the fashion director, who styled the cover. “Once they respect you, they trust you… and then they give you enough leeway,” he says chomping on carrot.
All stitched up
The consumption of fashion and lifestyle magazines has most of all to do with our fascination for the ideal. We construct imaginary lives with the series of beautiful women on their cover and live with them. Trends, as French poet Stéphane Mallarmé said in his highly idiosyncratic project, La Derniére mode, a fashion magazine he edited in 19th century Paris, is not just a matter of dress-design but of gesture and manners. Makeup, too needs to be seen, he said, for what it is, “as a rebuke and challenge to Nature”.
Fashion tames the new even before producing it. ‘Voguified’, a coinage that’s come out of the Vogue office, is one such transforming device. “Every cover girl’s given the Vogue treatment — it is never random, it’s very au currant, right from the manicurist to the hair stylist,” says Anaita Shroff Adajania, fashion director. How does the star system that depends on stereotype lend itself to fashion theory?
“A Vogue shoot is not just a fashion shoot, but a personality shoot,’ says Timothy Rennie, art director. “Stars have their own likes and dislikes,” admits Anaita. “Sometimes they do give us blanket instructions, like.. ‘Please cover up my shoulders, they don’t photograph very well’ or ‘Don’t dress me in blue, whatever you do…’ But they always treat our shoots as special — no one gives us just half a day. Actresses are also willing to take their chances when they are in Vogue hands. Priyanka Chopra actually had her hair cut in a blunt for the cover…”
The truth lies in between the covers. Aekta, deputy editor, MC, says stars do not want to change their image. “They want their silly curls whether it’s the trend or not.” Mandira Bedi, she points out, was open to transformation but Ms Bedi is hardly A-list or actress. Stars want clear directions but they don’t follow them. “They think we don’t know styling and they do,” adds Aradhana Baruah, senior fashion stylist who has had one experience too many of starry attitude and bad fits. “The dress we got for Rani Mukherjee didn’t fit her. We had to run around opening up the stitches.”
Why doesn’t the glamour industry find new heroes and outgrow Bollywood? Twenty per cent of magazine sales is driven by who is on the cover says N Radhakrishnan, editorial director of Verve. “For Man’s World, a men’s magazine, putting a woman on the cover always works better. Putting a woman in a bikini might work even better. Putting a famous woman in a bikini might sell more copies, there’s no denying that.” GQ, traditionally, has also put entertainers on the cover, says its editor. “It’s a function of the market.”
But the winds of change (Bollywood take note) are blowing. “Taking a Bollywood star would crash it,” says Vasudev of a future issue on the theme of hope. “Having a Bollywood star doesn’t necessarily make it a success. Since July 2008, we haven’t done a Bollywood cover. Celebs are an illusion we chase. Such is their excessive exposure and the irrelevance of the business — cover stories get least feedback.”
But how far can they go? Why does a magazine that claims to be thinking and alternative tread the same path in its visual representation at least on the cover? Reader feedback, says Vasudev questions her on similar lines. “Why can’t we have meaningful people on the cover they ask,” she says. The answer is — change unsettles the market. It’s a cruel statement but readers don’t decide, advertisers do. Adds Vasudev, “We have to be careful of our international positioning. We can’t turn bread into muffin… Should I carry Arundhati Roy on the cover? Will she wear spring-summer? We’d love to have Priyanka Gandhi but I’m sure she will refuse. Barkha Dutt will not fit into Fall-Winter…” Bottomline: India is ready for radicalism but not via fashion magazines. So Bollywood rules even if they do not know the difference between box and knife pleats. After researching this article, we of course do.