It’s 10:14 am as I enter the studio, and I’m greeted by strangers with friendly faces. Before I can catch my breath, I have already been introduced to everyone and invited to join them for breakfast. Contrary to the popular belief that models (or thin women in general) eat nearly nothing, we tuck into a lot – croissants, granola, even cookies. I know this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but it does. We have a long day ahead and the team really needs to fuel up.
We’re all here to celebrate womanhood, in all shapes, sizes, skin tones and backgrounds. Take Pallavi, for instance. At 5′ 10” this fashion designer-turned-model is unusually tall for an Indian woman, but wears her uniqueness well. There’s also her candour, which makes me rethink all my perceptions about people from the fashion industry. Here’s a seasoned model, a face instantly recognisable to anyone who has flipped through the glossies… and she’s offering me half her croissant. This is when I blame my teenage self for watching too much Sex And The City. You were wrong, Carrie Bradshaw. Models are mortals who eat breakfast. And they want to share it with me.
“People need to realise that [models] are real people too,” she says as we settle down to chat in the lounge. So isn’t it time we stopped congratulating a model every time she ate carbs? Real people eat. Period.
In walks Krithika Iyer. This lawyer-turned-model is all smiles as she makes her way over to us. “This is my first lingerie shoot,” she says, “I’m so glad Taras (Taraporvala, the photographer) kept telling me to look strong instead of the sexy.” She settles down on the sofa and joins in the conversation. “The stylist decided to give me a pair of trousers to wear, which is great because I always feel powerful when I’m in trousers.”
The conversation then shifts to the one topic that affects us all – self-acceptance. Whether the issue is body positivity or ageing, coming to terms with our looks and embracing our flaws is easier said than done. I’m curious about these girls’ views. “I learnt to accept myself for who I am early on in life,” Krithika says. She confesses to have gone through a phase of buying into the fairness cream hype as an early teen. “I’d sneak in tubes of Fair & Lovely and apply them in the school bathroom,” she says, “I knew my mum would not approve of them but I was really insecure about my skin tone.” Then one day, when she was all of 14, things changed. “I overheard the most popular girl in my high school tell the others that I had a face only my mother could love,” she tells us, “I locked myself up in the bathroom and wept, but at some point, I stopped crying. There was nothing I could do about it, this is who I am.” And today, this dusky toned Tamillian beauty is a model and an actor.
The first thing I notice about Laila is her fiery red hair, and I’m in awe. Turns out, she feels the same way about it. “I like to express my personality though my hair,” she says. It’s the only explanation one needs, to know why she has been working as a hairstylist for 11 years. We start talking about how we appear to people versus how we see ourselves in the mirror. “When I look at my reflection in the mirror, I will only notice and focus on my problem areas,” she says, “which is funny, because it is never the first thing other people notice about you.”
Laila’s mild-mannered, quiet ways make her approachable and friendly, but there is no way she is ever going to apologise for who she is and what she wears. “I love wearing black,” she says, “I don’t care if it is something I should or should not be wearing, it is what I am comfortable in.” She also makes it very clear that she is done with women policing women. “I wish we could all just stop asking each other to pull and tug our clothes because our bra strap is visible or a bit of bulge is showing,” she says exasperatedly, “If it’s there, it will show.”
Rachel is getting her hair and make-up done when I go over to chat with her. Her friendly demeanor and warm smile are just the ice-breaker for the conversation. Yes, she is genetically blessed – she is tall, bright-eyed and her bronze skin encapsulates an idea of unconventional beauty. But above and beyond that, she’s one to follow her dreams. “I worked in sales with one of the biggest corporate groups in the country, following in my father’s footsteps,” she tells me, “But two years into it, I knew it wasn’t for me.” She gave up the comforts of a desk job and salary for what she knew to be her earliest and only calling – her music. But this wasn’t an easy task, “I wanted to dedicate myself to music but that meant I needed training first,” says Rachel, as she goes on to explain how she moved to Chennai and spent three months just understanding, learning and practicing this vocation. Today, she has lent her voice to many commercials and even forayed into Bollywood, while making music with her band members under the name Rachel and the Plutonians.
When Paloma walks into the studio, the mood instantly shifts. A model, DJ, anchor, and surfer, she’s a powerhouse of energy and confidence. Often this is something that’s learnt than inherent. Half Tibetan, half Coorgi, Paloma doesn’t have the tall, willowy figure of a model. She is 5’5’’ and petite. But she knows how to make the most of her looks and her body and her confidence shines through. “It’s usually the girls that are constantly being judged on their appearance who battle with constantly trying to please others by looking a certain way,” she says, “Women need to learn how to love themselves and be self-confident, only then will they gain respect from others.”
Here is a group of women who are all different and distinct in their own way. They are presented to you unvarnished and un-Photoshopped – as they are.
Photographs by Taras Taraporvala; Stylist: Anushka Mulchandani; Models: Pallavi Singh, Krithika Iyer/ Inega Model Management, Laila Dalal, Paloma Monnappa, Rachel Varghese; Hair & Makeup: Sandhya Shekar; Production: Apoorva Singh
*This article has been edited throughout.