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Friday May 24, 2024
Cover Theme: South Asian Models
Looking For Opportunities
Vol: 1 Num: 3    Summer 2006
There is a growing, though limited, market for South Asian models. However, most of the budding models are still looking for opportunities.

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,, 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 clients.

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 Asian models.

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 upcoming movie.

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 pro.”

Chhavi Dublish is a freelance writer based in Edison, New Jersey.


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