HT Brunch Cover Story: India’s top models 2020
From By-lanes to Billboards: Mansi, 23
As a five-year-old who chanced upon a fashion-based channel on television, Mansi vividly recalls the visuals of people walking in fashionable clothes.
“They’re models,” her mother told Mansi when she asked who they were. This was the first time she had heard the word.
A few years later, she was a model herself, walking ramps all over the capitals of the fashion world.
Originally from Haryana, Mansi was raised in Delhi. She did what most children her age did: went to school and then to college. But she kept a keen eye on her passion. “I was intrigued by fashion. I’d look for the entertainment section in the newspaper or watch my mother and aunts dress up,” she says. Observation was all she had. “I would watch videos of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell to learn how to walk. I would watch all their interviews because I also wanted to learn how models are as people.”
At 19, Mansi took part in Elite Model Look, started auditioning and began working. “I learnt important life lessons that I probably would have learnt much later had I not been in this industry. More than just age, it takes nerves of steel to ride this roller coaster,” she says.
How does a young mind deal with the struggles that come with a job? “The main struggle is to find a firm footing when you’re an outsider,” says Mansi. “But I knew fashion matched my personality and that’s what I wanted to do. Once I finished school I felt I had to open doors for myself.”
Her father, now retired, was a businessman at the time and her mother was a secondary school teacher. “My family was not from fashion and wouldn’t be able to help or guide,” says Mansi. “So, from the time I entered college, I wanted to be independent. I knew I had to save enough if I wanted to model internationally. While my parents were very supportive, like all parents they wanted me to have a secure future. So, I didn’t want them to feel burdened and made it a point to save for myself.”
Since she had no connections in the industry, she’d go to open castings on her own. “In the beginning, I was frequently told that my ‘features are too sharp’ for the Indian market, or that I ‘don’t look typically Indian’ – in other words, I didn’t fit a prescribed box,” she recalls.
However, she felt ‘seen’ at New York Fashion Week. “Seen for my identity, my unconventionality, and, encouragingly. I wasn’t the token diverse girl; I had the opportunity to work with people who truly stood for diversity. People would often mistake me for a South American, but when I’d tell them I was Indian they would start asking all kinds of questions about our culture, our food, the geo-political status, which gave me a sense that they still look at India from an old-world perspective and I was a ‘cultural shock’ to them,” says Mansi.
The outside view of fashion spells glamour, but as a model, the industry is, of course, a bit more concrete. “It’s much more complex. There’s always a story and we’re silent actors who are caught living this alternate life. Beauty has always been hard to define, and for young women, acceptance is a huge struggle,” she says.
“Having struggled with my body image, feeling I was never skinny enough (even though I was), I saw different body structures completely different from mine,” says Mansi. “It made me realise I am perfect the way I’m made and there is nothing I want to change about it. There are times when you fit in and times when you don’t. You just have to take it as a professional call, not a personal one.”
She adds: “Diversity is natural, and more so in fashion. As models, we’re representatives of the world.”
Mansi’s giant leap to the international runways took place in a flash. When did it really sink in? “Waiting for the cue for my entry to the runway and reading my name on the floor tapes, it was that moment that I experienced a rush of emotion: this is really happening, I’m really walking at New York Fashion Week!” she says.
This was the moment when a little girl, watching fashion television starry-eyed, asked her mother, ‘Who are they?’ and was able to answer her own question. ‘They are me.’
Her advice to aspiring models is to never let someone else tell you your worth. “Always be aware of your right to say no. Actively build yourself in the direction you want to take in this industry, and while you’re at it – enjoy!” she says.
Chancing Upon Fate: Neeraj Saini, 18
How did the youngest child in a traditional Rajasthani family become the youngest Indian male model to walk for Dolce & Gabbana? A chance encounter at a hospital got 17-year-old Neeraj Saini an audition at Ninjas Model management.
Neeraj was at a hospital treating a basketball injury, when an unknown gentleman came up to him. “He told me I should try to model. My birthday was a few days away and I discussed it with my family. The plan then had been to complete school and take the IAS examination. Though my family preferred I focus on a more stable career, they said the decision was for me to make. And I had already booked my first job,” says Neeraj.
“I had no idea what modelling was. Honestly, I was more excited to see the response from my school friends than anything else! But it feels good when you know something that others your age don’t know. You try to find a medium to tell them and in the longer run, help them,” he says.
One thing led to another and Neeraj soon found himself placed with modelling agencies abroad.
“I had never travelled outside India and as a model I had to go alone. I was also worried about managing finances. When you travel to an agency abroad for the first time, they don’t invest in you. They expect you to manage your travel and expenses on your own. My first international agency placement was in London and my flight and other expenses amounted to almost a lakh. But my father, when he was my age, had also travelled abroad alone. So he had faith and arranged for my travel. My whole family was very proud,” shares Neeraj.
When a teenager arrives on foreign land, it can be all too overwhelming. “I went to London first. Taking public transport, understanding currency conversion, it was all very hard but I learnt.” At the age of 18, along with Ninjas Model Management as his mother agency, he is represented by The Face in Paris, Premier Model Management in London, Crew Model Management in Milan and Soul Artist Management in New York.
Beauty is perceived differently around the world. With the markets opening up to Indian faces, what has been the key factor? “Fashion always looks for something new and for them, the Indian look is new. They love real beauty, our versatility, our brown skin,” says Neeraj.
Whether in India or abroad, he sees a strong sense of professionalism in modelling. But there is one key difference: they only “look for versatility in representation” during castings abroad.
“When Indian models go international, they try to fit in. They try to become people they’re not and lose themselves. But that is not me, I’m desi and I like it. I like wearing shawls. That is fashion for me,” he says.
His Instagram handle, @somehowneeraj, shows how, no matter what, he fights to somehow stay Neeraj, somehow be true to himself. It’s a good sign. Neeraj is flying, but he is grounded.
Bharat Gupta is a fashion commentator, consultant and stylist
From HT Brunch, October 25, 2020
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