I ask for directions to MissMalini’s Santacruz office, and am promptly told, “We’re on Google Maps.”
So I climb three storeys of an old apartment building, wondering if I am in the right place. A small door opens into what must have been planned as a dining area, but now has a large wooden table down the middle, supporting laptops, stationery and whatnot, with office chairs around it. A man — a stylist, I learn later — puts a finger on his lips, signalling me to be quiet. Over a dozen young people — dressed in a way young people dress to hip workplaces — move around busily, but quietly. A rack of clothes in one corner reminds me of a fashion studio. A meeting is taking place in one brightly wallpapered (sporting social media icons, fittingly) glass room. In another, at an angle from where I’ve been gestured by the stylist to quietly sit down, I can see the hem of a dress, and legs dangling off a table. A camera is pointing at the face the legs belong to.
Ten minutes pass. The shoot (for her new show, Miss Malini’s World) breaks and the office snaps out of mute. Out walks Malini Agarwal — off the table, and into the washroom. The stylist follows her in. Ten more minutes pass. She emerges, now in a white shirt and a powder blue skirt, hair perfectly blow-dried, smile in place, arm extended in greeting.
We’re going to squeeze in our interaction between two shoot schedules for her TV show — the second will require a Bollywood actor — Neil Nitin Mukesh — to also walk up the three flights of stairs. Evidently, blogs can be quite the leveller.
Agarwal is hailed as the original Indian lifestyle blogger. What started in 2007 as a casual project (missmalini.wordpress.com) had, by 2009, gone professional with its own portal, a small team, and enough traffic and social media following (a staggering 564k on Twitter and 548k on Facebook now) to make established entertainment portals sit up and take notice. “I always enjoyed writing, so a friend suggested I start a blog. ‘What’s a blog?’ I’d asked,” she says with a little laugh, like reiterating a well-rehearsed anecdote. She speaks rapidly and excitedly, with a hint of an American accent, the little smile from her animated avatar on the site perennially on her face.
To her advantage, Agarwal already knew how the online space worked. She’d been the digital content editor for Channel V. She also had a foot in the Bollywood door. She’d been an RJ with Radio One and hosted actors in the studio, and attended their parties.
Malini with actor Neil Nitin Mukesh in her office. (Satish Bate/HT photo)
Writing on entertainment proved an organic choice. An international model already existed, in the form of the Hollywood gossip blog, Perez Hilton (also eponymous). Like Agarwal now, Hilton has also gone on to do television. She acknowledges the similarity: “It was a huge inspiration,” she says, but adds a disclaimer: “I realised early that Perez Hilton was catty. When I wrote something catty or bitchy, I felt bad about it, so I thought maybe I shouldn’t do that.” True enough, for after an initial phase of juicy gossip — which was partly responsible for the eyeballs — Agarwal quickly changed tack. She realised that equations and access are important in Bollywood. And that the trademark selfies with stars (which appear often on her blog and her Twitter timeline) don’t come about if you’re being nasty about them.
“We moved on to being nicer,” she admits, and mentions sites like Pop Sugar and Huffington Post among her other inspirations. She even professes solidarity with Bollywood: “People idolise stars, and their fashion and personal lives are an extension of that magic; so why write terrible things about them? Besides, everyone was doing that, and I wanted to do something different.” This is more than a casual blogger talking about what they ‘like’ doing; this is someone who had already recognised the potential of the blog as a business idea.
But to understand how a gossip blog turned into a business, you need to know the other side of the coin — Nowshad Rizwanullah, the Harvard grad who’s the CEO of MissMalini Publishing, and married to Agarwal. Rizwanullah wanted to launch a startup and, after moving to Mumbai, saw the opportunity of doing it with his then-girlfriend’s blog. “Nowshad told me that blogs are big business in the west. He was working in finance, and decided to support me for a year. So I quit my job (at Channel V) and started doing this full-time.” This was around 2010.
As Agarwal got more active on the blog, Rizwanullah went about looking for angel funding, and figuring out how to turn it into a business. “I was working in investment banking by day, and making business plans by night,” he says. There were challenges, of course, with funding and getting advertisers. Some of them still exist, he concedes: “There was no blogging industry, and people had a lot of reservations: ‘How will you make money?’, ‘We’re not sure if we want to be associated with a Bollywood blog’.” In seven years, the duo has, indeed, spawned an industry out of blogs: “Things have changed so much. There was a time when everyone wanted to be an RJ; now, everyone wants to be a blogger. It feels crazy to have carved a new path that never existed,” Agarwal says.
But even amid more blogs, and competition, MissMalini enjoys the first mover advantage, and it has invested enough to turn a one-person blog into a smallish army. It is a 22-member team, mostly comprising youngsters who write, tweet incessantly, post to Facebook, style, and shoot photos and videos, among other things. Part of this, though, is a three-member sales team, and a CRO (Chief Revenue Officer).
Agarwal’s trademark selfie with actors Varun Dhawan and Shraddha Kapoor, and choreographer Remo D’Souza. (Aloise Tiers/HT file photo)
Agarwal, the face of the blog, barely writes anymore. “I don’t write as much as I used to, or monitor the posts before they go up,” she admits. She still does most of the video interviews, and travels around the world to attend events, from brand launches to fashion shows. “I barely get time for holidays,” she says.
The flood of activity on her Twitter timeline — we counted over 50 tweets the day we met her — is also largely handled by her team-members; except the selfies, we assume. She does monitor traffic — “3.5 million unique visitors a month” — but not revenue. “That, Nowshad and my CRO monitor, though I know we’re cash positive,” she says.
You might question if this is how a blog should function. For even though the posts have bylines (so there’s no pretence that Miss Malini’s doing all the writing on MissMalini), isn’t a blog meant to connect at a personal level? Isn’t personal opinion or advice what sets it apart from regular news sources?
Right now, though, Bollywood actors are keen to take selfies with her, and trek up three floors to be on her TV show. Right now, Nitin Mukesh sits on a couch with ‘Miss Malini’ cushions, sipping on coffee, patiently waiting for her to get make-up retouches. Right now, in this room, and on the blog post that will eventually go up, she’s as much the star as the Bollywood actor.
5 rules of blogging: Malini Agarwal’s advice on creating a hit blog
1. “Find something unique, that no one is writing about.”
2. “Only write on something you’re passionate about.”
3. “Pick something you’d happily do all your life, even if no one paid you to do it.”
4. “Don’t start a blog to get famous, or to make money.”
5. “When you do make money, you’ve got to bootstrap. Invest what you make.”
CEO Nowshad Rizwanullah (second from left) and Agarwal with other team members. (Satish Bate/HT photo)
(The writer tweets as @saritray2001 )