The Model Business


The Model Business

New Delhi : Modelling is now a professional industry managed by experts. Don’t fall for the tales of drugs, alcohol, and parties

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Twenty-year-old Alisha*, who posted this note on the Net is a second-year student of history at Delhi University. She stands before a mirror in a PG she shares with four other girls. Smiley stickers clutter the mirror on one side and a jai mata di red and gold dupatta from Vaishno Devi dangles from the top. Alisha lives in her imagination, where she is the supermodel. She is rehearsing a Kangna Ranaut moment from Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion.

A borrowed indigo dress, shaky stilettos from Janpath, smoky eyes created by smudging kajal and eyeliner, and a red, messy pout. She chases an imaginary line of cocaine, curls her lips, twitches her nose and poses for the non-existent flashbulbs.

Her presumptions about a fashion model’s life are shared by lakhs of people who believe models chase glamour at any cost, snort coke, sleep with designers and photographers, have suicidal tendencies and party in skimpy clothes. Those like model Poonam Pandey, who recently “promised” to strip if the Indian cricket team lifted the World Cup, fuel popular perception about models as grasping bimbos. But the reality is otherwise. Modelling has walked away from the destabilising factors of the cottage industry that it was in the Eighties and the Nineties. Behind the glitz is a story of strategic direction and professional vigour. It is time to tell it.

An organised network of agents and publicists who handle contracts, manage monies and protect the working rights of models now controls modelling in India. With fashion weeks becoming biannual events in the last decade, modelling has come to be backed by grooming and image management companies, auditions and contracts. It has become a very well-paying option for women and is replete with local and international opportunities. The casting couch exists for those who wish to take shortcuts, and there is no dearth of young girls and boys on drugs, but they neither define nor rule the industry.

Ask Lakshmi Rana, who has been around for almost a decade. An army officer’s daughter and now also married to an army officer, she could have been an engineer in the Indian Air Force — a recruitment letter is still filed away as proof of the achievement and a fond memory. Instead, she participated in the Miss India contest 10 years ago and started modelling. The last decade has been fruitful, she says. Better work, better money and international opportunities. “I am my own boss,” she says. Being a freelancer, she examines the fine print on her contracts and works out her priorities as a married girl; she charges Rs 40,000 for each show. “I never sign a contract that makes partying imperative and I invest my money well,” she says. Does she feel powerful or beautiful? She replies, “Both”.

Not everyone is as smart. That’s why modelling agencies matter. “I insist that girls complete their formal education before they embark on a modelling career,” says Sushma Puri, CEO of Elite Model Management, who says that besides small-town aspirants, she now sees girls from well-to-do families with degrees wanting to make it as models. Modelling contracts are legal documents that ensure proper casting, protection of working rights and safety. Post-show partying is compulsory in some contracts, like it was for IPL fashion shows last year, but not in all. “We counsel models about the realities of the competitive market,” says Puri, who urges everyone to have a fall-back plan.

Modelling courses prepare newbies for the grind of long working hours. A three-month modelling course costs around

Rs 60,000. It trains an aspiring model in personality development, ramp walk, fitness, hair and make-up, dancing, posing for photographs, wardrobe management and social etiquette. A portfolio is made for each student at the course’s conclusion. While editorial, ramp and commercials (TV or print) are the primary job categories, there is plenty of work now for lingerie models, as well as hand-and-feet models who show beauty treatments and accessories for the hand and feet. Female débutantes make Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 for a day, while top models like Rana, Carol Gracias, Sapna Kumar, Noyonika Chatterjee, Bhavna, Lisa Hayden and Diana Penty among others earn up to Rs 40,000 for a show.

“The scene has dramatically changed for the better,” says Shyamolie Varma, former supermodel, the Lakme girl and the Garden Vareli model of the Eighties, who now lives in Pune. “We were performing artists then, had to dance, mime and act on the ramp, all for Rs 500 per show which went up to Rs 2,500 after many years of arguing,” she says. Advertisements would then fetch Rs 1,500. Varma, who was a Lakme girl for three years, got paid Rs 30,000 for the entire campaign and believed that she had “hit the jackpot”.

Now, even new girls get up to six shows a month on an average. Commercials fetch between Rs 1 and Rs 2 lakh per assignment. Puri says many girls can support families on their incomes. “There is a fashion event somewhere in the country every day. Money is cleaner and written contracts have put a system in place,” says veteran choreographer Harmeet Bajaj, who notices a seriousness of purpose in the industry.

Modelling is not as rosy a profession for men though. “Corporates want girls for any and every event — luxury cars, mixer-grinders or fashion,” says an FDCI insider who helped coordinate model auditions at the recent Wills India Fashion Week. The bikini babe is the item girl of fashion. Even pages of weekly news magazines include her, amidst the “bland” landscape of politics, arts, science and economy; whereas male models sit around as little gainful work is to be found. The industry has not produced a male supermodel after Arjun Rampal. India’s senior most model maker Prasad Bidapa agrees. “Boys make 50 per cent of the money compared to girls,” he says, though he believes that with persistence, they can get a foothold in Mumbai, and will still manage to buy a small flat in five years. “That’s no small feat. I have seen modelling change the face of young India,” says Bidapa. The Van Heusen Men’s Fashion Week, now in its third year, is the only event that brings an annual windfall for men. Thirty-two top male models of the country walked for it last year.

Bidapa’s Bangalore-based agency, Prasad Bidapa Associates, doesn’t charge grooming fees. “I can fix anything except height,” says Bidapa, who gets them ready for the big life in Maximum City. The aspiration to turn into Bollywood stars that many models nurse is no longer a pipe dream; it is governed by agencies like Elite Model Management that have a Bollywood casting department. Or those like photographer Atul Kasbekar’s agency Bling! which only signs those who have potential star material.

For instance, Bollywood girls Deepika Padukone and Anushka Sharma, both originally Bangalore models, were minted by Bidapa. In Mumbai, Padukone signed up with Matrix, an agency then co-managed by Atul Kasbekar. “That X factor that Deepika and Katrina Kaif had is the only thing that I want to put time and effort into,” says Kasbekar, who is now the chief managing director of Bling! “We are a boutique space and our crack rate (the number of covers, assignments, Bollywood roles that models get with the backing of an agency) is the highest,” says Kasbekar. He cites the case of Angela Johnson, who won the Kingfisher Model Hunt this year and has already done two fashion covers and numerous other assignments; and Sonali Raut, the younger sister of supermodel Ujjwala Raut, who has signed up with M.A.C cosmetics.

Bollywood and models are co-dependent entities in what Bidapa terms “the second largest entertainment industry of India”. Rana feels that models are made to feel like second-class citizens in fashion events that favour film stars as showstoppers but Bidapa argues that fashion cannot live without models. “Every good designer needs at least 20 professional models for a good show,” he feels.

The influx of foreign models from Russia, Turkey and countries of East Europe has changed the glamour market in India. They are gypsy workers, they come, make money and leave, without insisting on copyrights over photographs and with no loyalty to particular brands or events. As a result, many cheap and poorly managed modelling agencies have jumped into the fray. Such agencies have sullied a market which must rely on professionalism to evolve.

But if the entry of easy-to-hire-and-fire foreign models has robbed some younger models of business, it has also made the current top Indian models work hard on themselves. Many of them are seen as lifeless mannequins with great bodies. International competition is forcing them to create an individual body language on the ramp, which former supermodels like Anna Bredemeyer, Mehr Jessia, Shyamolie Varma and Lubna Adams were once lauded for.

Lakshmi Menon, the Indian ramp’s Tall, Dark, Handsome model (as opposed to the fair, curvaceous ideal of the past), is candid about her terms and who she works with. She was chosen by Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy to become one of the five global faces of the brand in 2008-09, alongside international models Lara Stone, Natasha Poly and Kirsten Owen. She also became the face of Hermes. Reportedly India’s highest paid runway model, Menon turned down one of the biggest beauty brands in the world, a couple of months ago, because they wanted her to endorse a fairness cream.

Clear priorities have given confidence to many models. “I treat my work like any other job, I know what I do doesn’t save lives, yet like other professions, it takes discipline and commitment. I don’t feel powerful but I do feel purposeful,” says Carol Gracias.

This prioritisation could work as a security blanket, as insecurity in the glamour industry is like a dagger, waiting to wound. There is discrimination regarding colour and body size and the pressure to stay thin — if not anorexic — and to look pretty despite 18-hour-long shifts. The ramp welcomes dark and androgynous girls but for TV and print commercials, as Shyamolie Varma says, “the fair-and-lovely game still works in India. Sad, but true.”

The fashion industry’s dark side cannot be whitewashed. Stories of troubled models have continued to surface alongside the international achievements of others. Model Nafisa Joseph committed suicide in 2004 as did Viveka Babajee in 2010. Delhi model Gitanjali Nagpal was found disturbed and wandering on Delhi streets in 2007. “Models overlook a precipice of uncertainty, they know that their careers depend on their looks and their bodies and they do everything to hang on to it. At the same time, everyone knows that it will not last. That’s why it is very important not to live like a model in one’s head,” says Bajaj.

Most veterans agree that insecurity is the only label models wear everyday regardless of who they walk for and how much they earn. The temporariness of the profession is a matter of constant anxiety. Even a bout of ugly acne can lead to the suspension of a modelling contract. Anxious about their future, some models believe that visibility through partying or the casting-couch route will keep them gainfully employed for longer. It seldom works that way. Varma agrees. “Every model must have a Plan B. Education is non-negotiable. It’s a pity to see some young models today who are on drugs to keep themselves awake through the next show. Insecurity takes a physical toll,” says Varma, who worked in Paris in the Eighties and saw substance abuse there too.

Alisha stands before the mirror. But her arms seem to droop when she hears that the “Kangna Ranaut Act” is not the only way to survive in fashion. “You mean I don’t have to do drugs to be a model?” she asks, pulling in her bra strap. Senior stylist Gautam Kalra has an answer. “Raves are for the kids now; models have moved on. They are professionals, not wasters.”

(*Name changed to protect identity)