South Asian fashion has never been more visible in the American society. The
malls are flooded with dresses of Indian designs like kurtis. Paisleys,
bead-work and sequins can be seen on all sorts of clothing and accessories.
America’s romance with ethnic fashion continues as finally the mainstream media,
having acknowledged the multi-culture nature of the society, is giving global
faces recognition, which was quite rare a few years ago.
Of these global faces, in a class of her own, is Aishwarya Rai, who with
her L’Oreal campaign has become one of the most talked about Indian faces in
America these days. Saira Mohan is another one. Mohan, a Canadian based model
with Indian background has been featured on the cover of Newsweek as the new
global face and has graced the cover of many other magazines.
“Demand for brown skin models is on the rise, tan colored skin is in vogue
and now with trendy ethnic colored accessories, many designers would like to
showcase their products with an ethnic looking face”, says professional model
Nikhat Afza, based in California.
Ayesha Hakki of Bibi Magazine, who has hosted almost 20 fashion shows in
the last six years, says, “a couple of years ago, the market for desi models was
very limited. Today the demand has increased and Bibi Magazine now has a lot of
professional models who are constantly in demand for print ads, television
campaigns and as fashion models.”
Experts acknowledge that there is a growing, though limited, market for
South Asian models. Even if there is lot of demand for ethnic goods, most of the
models peeking out of magazines, looking up from posters or walking on ramps are
generally Americans or Europeans. Brown faces are well known in certain types of
careers and are visible in hospitals, software companies, sciences and sometimes
in service industry but rarely in fashion industry as models.
The reasons are two folds, not only are consumer focused product makers
uncomfortable or skeptical using a global face in launching a mainstream product
but also the South Asian models themselves are not ready to take the plunge and
do what it takes to become a successful model. Considering it a risky career
choice, many South Asian women opt for safe and well paying careers and limit
there modeling activities to sidelines or as a hobby.
Afza, who did her Masters in Computer Science and holds a full time career
with Cisco, always considered going full-time into modeling to be a risky
proposition. “I think it is better the way I do it, as the market for South
Asian models is not that good, opportunities are forthcoming but good ones are
few and far in between.” Besides, Afza always believed in finishing her
education first before launching a career in modeling.
Priscilla Solanki, also based in California, comes from Fiji Islands and
has a Gujarati mother and a South Indian father, says, “My dad considers my
modeling activities as wasting my brains. I hold a full time career as a
scientific recruiter and limit my modeling to weekends and evenings.” Although
Solanki added, her dad changed his attitude when her pictures appeared in Fiji
publications and he realized that his daughter was making a name for herself.
Education is a must in the South Asian community and many parents want
their wards to complete it before even thinking of modeling possibilities. Given
this family requirement, many girls begin building their portfolios in early
20’s, a late start in a field where most girls start as early as 16.
Conservatism is also an inhibiting factor. “We have our own sets of
parameters, we cannot do nudity, kissing scenes etc, I worry about my
reputation, it does not matter to me what the world thinks, but my parents’, my
community’s attitudes matter to me”, says Solanki.
Afza adds that she has got requests to do fine art photography another
term for nudity and porn assignments, to which she said no, “I am ok with
swimsuit, bikini modeling but not beyond that”.
Hakki further explains that it is not easy being in modeling business,
where a model’s body and appearance are considered assets or commodities that
could be accepted or rejected. “You have to be prepared for people rejecting you
for reasons like not being busty enough or not possessing the right kind of
legs”, she adds. Professionalism is a must and many amateur models are not able
to take their rejections in a professional manner. Most South Asian girls take
assignments on part time basis and simply are not adept to it.
Qualified models are few, says Sarina Jain, a media personality based in
New York and well known for her masala bhangra workouts, “in my
opinion most of the girls in Indian fashion shows are very pretty, but lack the
international standard of a runway model.”
The South Asian fashion models can be 5’ 6” tall whereas the international
standards of runway models are generally 5’ 9”. The best chances are for those
girls who do not look like they have a certain ethnic background but can fit the
general role of being “different”. They can fit a Hispanic mold, a Middle
Eastern mold and of course, a desi look, says Hakki.
The attitudes, however, are changing and now there are lot more choices
for those wanting a different look. Jef Harris, creative director with Desi
Wear, based in Toronto says that five years ago if he wanted a different looking
model or a brown face then he had very few choices but now many agencies carry
professional South Asian models.
Of late, few agencies have created databases of models with ethnic
background. Madhav Reddy runs one such agency, NRIModels.com, a non-profit
online database of South Asian models. Reddy says his website gives
opportunities to new faces and acts as an intermediary between models and
Though the mainstream market for South Asian models is still emerging, the
biggest demand is coming from Indian American designers, North American desi
markets, filmmakers like Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha with global South Asian
audience, NRI television programming and many print magazines published in the
US and Canada. This market was practically non-existent a few years ago but has
become significant because more print magazines are published and more
businesses are offering fusion, Indo-Western clothing, jewelry and other
accessories. They mainly cater to South Asian Americans so naturally use South
Designer Payal Singhal, based in New York, opened her showroom, Indomix,
three months ago but has been showcasing her outfits in the US for the past 8
years. She uses many local desi talents in her fashion shows. Her line is bridal
trousseau, which she believes looks better on brown skin and hence she prefers
using desi models. She also uses models from other backgrounds like Hispanic,
Middle Eastern and Caucasians to ensure that her message comes across as global
and that her clothes are not branded as only for desis.
“Now that we are known in the desi fashion circuit, many girls keep
sending us their resumes which we keep on file and use quite a few of them. I
prefer using size 6 models, since a sari or a lehanga looks better
on them rather than on an internationally sized model”, said Singhal.
Another area of opportunity for these models is presented by Indie movie
makers of desi genre. In the last few years the number of desi movies produced
by independent film makers in the West has increased from an occasional movie in
years to almost three or four a year. These include high budget, high profile
movies like Bend it Like Beckham by Gurinder Chadha, Mitr –My Friend
by Revathi and low budget movies like American Desi. Of theses movies,
the low budget ones present the best opportunities to budding South Asian
models, since the high end movies are usually able to get Bollywood stars for
their major roles. However, many girls have been able to use bit-roles in these
movies as launch-pads to go on to more promising careers. Most notable of these
are Parminder Nagra in the UK and Kal Penn in the US, who have eventually made
it big in Hollywood.
Solanki, too, has got a major role in a Tollywood movie, a Tamil movie
being filmed in Silicon Valley. She says, “You cannot survive on modeling alone.
Being realistic, I would say diversity is the key and this got me a movie role.”
There is a lot of competition in the main stream market, she says. Keeping her
goals in sight and working well within her community, she has been able to carve
a niche career for herself and is busy learning Tamil these days for her
Reddy also says that he has been approached by a number of directors from
Bollywood and Tollywood in India and desi American Indie directors who want
South Asian actresses.
Even though many desi girls like Ruby Bhatia, who won US –India Beauty
Pageant, have managed to find fame in India and some have made it big in the
small but emerging market, to see our very own Kate Moss, may take some time. As
Harris says, “I give it five years, within this period the South Asian models
will become more professional and they would fit the mainstream molds better, as
it is not about black, white or brown but fitting certain parameters and being a