Supermodel Ujjwala Raut opens up about her bitter divorce and custody battle for her daughter Ksha, says it was her work that kept her “sane” through that traumatic time.
You fought a bitter battle for the custody of your daughter Ksha with ex-husband, Maxwell Sterry, whose charges against you ranged from violence and abuse to kidnapping and political intimidation.
(Laughs) Yeah, I read all that and I was like, “Wow, I didn’t know I was that powerful!” I guess in an effort to project himself as an angel, Maxwell tried to turn me into a devil. Many people had many things to say on the subject. The case was written about in almost every country and every blog and that is why I chose to remain silent at the time. I’m not a game player but having been raised by a father, who was a cop and brought up five daughters with the right values. I had to protect my child who was only three at the time. Today, I have full custody of Ksha, and that’s only right because Maxwell was never involved in her life. He never performed his duties as a father. All he wanted was to be able to stay back in India. As her father he will get visitation rights but we still have to work out the details.
It can’t be easy being a single mother and a supermodel?
It’s not. I’m travelling all over the world. Paris today, London tomorrow and New York the day after. Ksha comes with me mostly and gets to see so much. (Smiles) Today, I sit with other supermodel mummys and we exchange notes on how to bring up our children. We are from different countries with different upbringings yet we have much more in common today than we did five years ago. When we go out for lunch dates, there’s so much to talk about with our kids playing around us. I’m a workaholic but in between shoots, I take a day or two off to enjoy myself. There are no complaints because others work far harder and get paid far less. But today, I’d say being a mother is my biggest accomplishment. When I come back home from shoots and see Ksha asleep in bed, my daughter who is a Xerox copy of me, brings a happy smile to my face.
Do you see Ksha growing up to be another supermodel?
Well, she’s done a few shows with me but I wouldn’t mind if she grew up to be a lawyer. She is only five and, right now, the focus is on giving her a good education. Growing up in New York she’s exposed to a lot more than I was as a shy, quiet, Maharashtrian girl living a regular, sheltered life in Mumbai. She’s fluent in Hindi and Marathi… And English and French too.(Smiles) She swims, dances the ballet, loves to dress up and gives me tips when I’m going out.
Would you ever go out on a blind date again and end up marrying the man?
I’ve never gone out on a blind date, not even with Maxwell. I don’t like surprises. He was chasing me for a while and I was fending him off. Finally, I relented and eventually, we married. But I guess we were not meant to be together.
What do you think went wrong between Maxwell and you?
It’s hard to say. Marriage is about caring, sharing and loving every minute that you are together. When you stop making each other happy, it’s over!
Has the bitter divorce put you off marriage?
No way, everyone needs a partner who understands you because when this face, body, fame and high life is gone, it’s that person you turn to. My parents are happily married and I still believe in the institution. I want to come home to someone I can talk to, who makes laugh and loves me for who I am without criticising my profession, family, culture or country. He should understand where I come from and accept the shy girl behind the supermodel. Hopefully, I will find him and get married again. (Chuckles) Now that Elizabeth Taylor is gone, someone has to live up to her legacy. Hey, just kidding!
You made heads turn at the Lakme Fashion Week recently and at 33, you’re still a supermodel. What’s your secret?
(Laughs) I know how to take care of my daughter and myself. I have a whole regime… Yoga, skin care, no beef and pork... I was the first Indian to make it big internationally as the face of Yves Saint Laurent. It was my ‘Indianness’ that helped me stand out from the crowd. It’s still my biggest USP and I continue to ride the high. But some of the kids I saw on the ramp are also stunning.
But we haven’t had too many supermodels lately. Why not?
The Indian fashion scene is burgeoning. I think India has the most fashion weeks in a calendar year. But personally, I believe it would be better if we could collaborate on one mega fashion week instead of each city having its own and trying to outdo each other. There’s a flood of talented designers, a proliferation of fashion magazines and reality TV shows and an increasing number of brands to promote. All this has brought plenty of models on the scene. Now we just need to brainstorm on a gala that will catch the world’s attention and turn out models into supermodels.
Any plans of launching an Ujjwala Raut fashion line or a model training academy in India?
I have plenty of plans but I’m in no rush. Whatever I do, I need to give it my 100 per cent. And right now, being a supermodel and a hands-on mother is enough to keep me on my toes 24 x 7. I’m grateful for the fact that despite all the mud-slinging in the media over the divorce, my career was not affected. When my personal life was going through hell, I was walking at the Paris Fashion Week and doing a My Mumbai show with Naomi Campbell. My work was the one thing that kept me sane!
Marriage from hell
Ujjwala, 26, married British model-turned-entrepreneur Craig Maxwell Sterry, 40, on June 19, 2004. The ceremony was hosted by supermodel Iman and her husband David Bowie, in their Manhattan apartment. Their daughter Ksha was born 18 months later.
In 2006, the couple bought a bungalow in Goa. While Maxwell stayed in India, Ujjwala jetted between Mumbai and New York as she continued with her career. The first cracks started appearing in 2008 and came into the open following a confrontation in December, with both accusing the other of an “unprovoked attack”.
However, in January 2009, Ujjwala filed for divorce in Mumbai, alleging that she was afraid for her three-year-old daughter’s life and her own. She accused Maxwell of “living off her hard-earned money, cruelty and emotional suffering” and upon her return to India in March, allegedly closed all his bank accounts, locked him out of their home and took Ksha to Mumbai.
Maxwell, director of a mining company, accused Ujjwala of abuse, violence, political intimidation, kidnapping Ksha and trying to get him deported from the country. He counter-sued, arguing that as their marriage was registered in New York and Ksha is a US citizen, the divorce cannot be settled in India. Today, they are divorced and Ujjwala has complete custody of Ksha.
Who’s that girl?
The five-feet-10-inches Maharashtrian commerce student grew up in Dahisar, a middle-class suburb in Mumbai. Ujjwala Raut was one of the five daughters of a senior policeman, who surprised everyone by conquering the Indian fashion world when still in her teens before decamping to Paris in 2000. Reed thin, willowy, and dusky, Ujjwala ranked amongst the Top 15 in Elite Model Look of the Year at Nice.
She is one of India’s most successful supermodels who’s walked the ramp at Yves Saint-Laurent, Robert Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Valentino fashion shows. She’s endorsed high-end brands like D & G, Gap, YSL, H & M. Pionegonda and Cavalli and graced the covers of fashion glossies like Vogue and L’Official. Ujjwala also appeared on the Wendy Pepper fashion show at Bryant Park for Project Runway and was the first Indian to appear as the face of Yves Saint Laurent. She is known to have commanded $15,000 a day for shoots.