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American desi’s new avatar

A lesbian chef, models, dancers... thanks to reality TV for the young, 20-something South Asian now has a sign of hope - hope that things are changing, and Indian Americans can be successful at less mainstream careers as well. See graphics: On the top

world Updated: Sep 20, 2009 09:20 IST
Riddhi Shah

On the topLike most ‘desi’ families, her parents wanted her to be a financial planner. Instead, all Preeti Mistry wanted to do was cook up a storm.

When Mistry (33), the executive chef at Google, decided to participate in top-rated cooking reality show Top Chef this year, she showed America — and the world — that she could do just that.

“People think that we can only be doctors or bankers,” said Mistry, whose androgynous style on the show and faux-hawk (mini Mohawk) garnered much attention. “But that's changing now: we're getting to know the 'American' part of our identity as well. And shows like (Top Chef) demonstrate that we can do other things too.”

It all started with enfant terrible Sanjaya Malakar on American Idol two years ago. Since then, the drip-drip of brown faces on reality shows has become a steady patter.

There was Radhika Desai on the last season of Top Chef (she lost, but has since managed to start her own catering business), Anoop 'Dogg' Desai on last year's American Idol (he's gotten himself a record deal and is currently touring the country) and Anchal Joseph on America's Next Top Model.

This year, we've already had Mistry on Top Chef — she was eliminated in the third episode — and models Tania and Anju on a new reality show called My Antonio, in which 15 girls compete for the attention of television actor Antonio Sabato Jr.

In a country where 33 per cent of all Silicon Valley engineers and five per cent of all doctors are Indians, these shows, then, are helping break long-held stereotypes of the traditional number-crunching, nerdy Indian.

But they are bringing awareness in other arenas as well.

Mistry wanted to use Top Chef to show off her uniquely 'Modern Indian' cooking style. "People in the US only know North Indian food. I want to show them that we can do amazing things with Indian food - like putting tuna tartare in pani puri," she said.

For model and aspiring actress Tania Mehra, being on a reality show was a way of breaking into the notoriously 'All American' modeling industry. “People still fear the Indian or exotic look,” said the 25-year-old whose mother is a former Miss India. Her stint on My Antonio, she said, has made her a much more recognizable face.

On the first day of the show's shooting schedule, Mehra was pleasantly surprised to see another desi - party planner and dancer Anju McIntyre.

“One Indian on the show is great, but two Indian girls in a cast of 15 is just amazing," said the 5'10" Mehra, whose legs "have a tendency to stop traffic". “When I first started modeling, I'd be the only Indian at auditions,” agreed McIntyre (32). “But that's changing now.”

Predictably, the response from the South Asian community hasn't been entirely positive. “Many Indians on the internet aren't saying the nicest things about me because I'm a model and that's not what we're raised to do, but I'm happier doing this than I was studying Biology," said Mehra.

Her father, Tarun Mehra, a retired businessman, has reservations too.

“Not a day goes by without him calling me and mentioning my returning to studying and a different career,” she said. “Well, she just had six credits left to graduate and she decided to do this instead. As a first generation Indian, I have insecurities. I'd prefer something more stable,” said the older Mehra.

While Mehra and McIntyre were busying showing audiences that Indians can be more Tyra Banks than Asok (the geek on Dilbert), Mistry openly admitted to her homosexuality on Top Chef.

“I saw this is as a platform to say that there are a lot of gay Indians in the United States," she said. "And I wanted to tell the more close-minded Indians that it's okay to be gay.”

For the young, 20-something South Asian, though, this is a sign of hope - hope that things are changing, and Indian Americans can be successful at less mainstream careers as well.

"It's unifying to see ourselves on TV. It adds an element of importance to your existence," said popular Indian-American blogger Anna John. "After so many years of living here, we're still not used to seeing a brown face on the television."