HT Brunch Cover Story: The woman who dared to dream
Meet Diipa Khosla: the first Indian influencer to make it big internationally. Here’s how she is using her clout to change lives too
“If anyone had been able to tell a pimpled little girl that she would be the first Indian influencer to walk the Cannes Film Festival or have her picture on a billboard in Piccadilly Circus as the face of Maybelline… If anyone had told that teenager afraid of speaking in public or in English, that one day she would address the British House of Commons on International Women’s Day, she would never have believed a word of it!”
This is not a monologue from a forthcoming film. These are the words of a young woman who dared to dream and now lives that dream every day. With more than a million followers on Instagram @diipakhosla, as many as seven international magazine covers, and the title of Influencer of the Year for three consecutive years by Vogue, Elle and Grazia, Diipa Büller-Khosla is definitely on a roll.
Though her chosen role in life has made her dreams come true, Diipa thinks that the word ‘influencer’ is somewhat misused at this time. “I would much rather be called a new-age digital celebrity,” the 29-year-old says. “You can be an influencer only if you have managed to influence people so much that it has led to some kind of a social change.”
But she’s being too self-deprecating, we think. Based in the Netherlands, Diipa was in India earlier this year in February as a TED speaker, and it’s obvious that she has actually brought about a social change in her own way because she uses her clout to work with the UN and other NGOs to champion female empowerment and the anti-racism cause.
The making of clout
Born in a traditional Punjabi family, Diipa spent the first six years of her life in Delhi before her parents decided to shift to Chennai first and afterwards to Ooty, where she went to a British boarding school. Keen to study law abroad, she won a full scholarship that took her to the Netherlands.
After finishing a bachelor’s degree in international human rights law, Diipa moved to London for her masters. In a four-month break between university and a job as a full-fledged lawyer, she got herself an internship at a fashion agency in London.
“To my utter surprise, it turned out to be Europe’s first influencer agency!” she says. “I knew nothing about this world, yet on my third day in the sales team, I was closing huge deals with fashion brands like Mango and Kiara.”
Diipa began to understand the kind of power an influencer wields, and how, if used wisely, it could be a great business module.
“At that time, almost all the influencers came from the US and Europe, and it struck me that there was no Indian representing us in the global beauty and fashion space,” she says. “I realised that if I could do this, I could totally change the whole influencer game.”
Colour of success
That was four years ago. She began as just any other brown girl, but in three years she had 1.1 million followers, has posed as a cover girl for several international magazines, walked at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals and has been ambassador for brands like Estée Lauder and Kérastase.
“It wasn’t easy,” says Diipa. “It was possible only with hard work and very clear goal setting. This is something I want to tell all young people. Have your goals crystal clear. Be as clear as to think: ‘I want to be in Times Square!’ How it will happen and when it will happen can be figured out, but just be clear.”
The biggest obstacles Diipa had to overcome on the global stage were the colour of her skin and her gender. “I have faced these issues my entire life,” she says and adds: “In 2016, I was rejected by a PR firm to attend a London Fashion Week show and another influencer, who was caucasian with less followers, was allowed. The only difference being our skintones!”
“But I used the negativity as fuel to push myself harder. Every time I faced a sexism issue, I would think: one day I will be your CEO and then men will know what sexism is.”
As a teenager, Diipa had bought into the fair skin syndrome. “But when I went to the West, I started to realise my uniqueness lay in being different and what makes me unique is my identity, my culture and my beautiful skin tone,” she says. “I started owning it and wearing my Indianness like a gold medal and that gave me confidence. For instance, I stopped wondering how I would ever be in the front row at the Milan Fashion Week, and just went for the challenge. Soon I was not only sitting in the front row but also playing muse to the same design brand that at one time had issues with my colour.”
Her parents initially were wary of what she planned to do, but when they saw her success, they were happy. “Besides being a fashion and beauty influencer, I also started focusing on women’s empowerment and started the Post For Change Foundation, which uses social media for social change,” explains Diipa. “When my parents saw I was doing things bigger than myself, they were proud. At the TED Talk in Amritsar, they were in the audience and smiled when I spoke. Later, after taking selfies with young girls, when I asked my mother why she’d been smiling so much she said, ‘You know the little girl who was taking selfies with you? You were like that 10 years ago.’ And that is so true.”
In 2019, Inflow, the world’s largest influencer platform, recognised Diipa as ‘The Changemaker Influencer of 2019.’ With her husband, Dutch diplomat Oleg Büller, Diipa had set up the Post for Change Foundation in May, 2019.
“I got the idea for the foundation during a massive international influencer trip with a huge brand,” says Diipa. “The brand managers told me they had become one of the biggest global fashion brands using influencer marketing as their main marketing channel. I realised I could use the same idea of influencers using their voices for causes around the world. Basically, use social media for social change.”
With the idea in place, Diipa dived into the project with 100 per cent conviction. “I had a five-year plan from the start,” she says. “It also tied in with the fact that there was not a single influencer representing India on a global scale. So, I decided it was about time I change that.”
Change has happened again with the Covid-19 pandemic. “Influencers for sure have to change their business model at least for the moment,” Diipa says. “Fashion and beauty brands will have big losses and hence smaller budgets for influencer marketing. So, influencers should focus on building their community instead.”
She is using this global lockdown to make more of herself. “I am busier than ever before,” she says over the phone from her Amsterdam home. “Everyone is online! And I am working hard to give them amazing content. At the same time, I am also learning the truly important things in life. I’m currently doing a psychology course online along with meditation, fitness and cooking courses.”
Diipa being Diipa, she has yet another goal: “A big, beautiful family!”
From HT Brunch, September 13, 2020
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