What does unconventional mean to you?
The Cambridge Dictionary goes on to define it as, ‘Different from what is usual or from the way more people do things.’ In our country, the norm is dictated by giant billboards, flashing stereotypes left, right and center; by ads who sell products to prescribed gender roles that they define — and most importantly, by our society whose minds have been shaped to accept it all, no questions asked. Thankfully, the age of social media descended upon us, forcing open closed boxes, empowering those who wanted to go beyond the lines society drew.
When Anjali Lama, India’s first transgender model to walk the ramp at an Indian fashion show made headlines, it further proved that perhaps the industry was opening up to those beyond the status quo. In an interview earlier this year with Mid-Day, Anjali shed light on her struggles, “There were times I was better than the others but didn’t make it. My trainer at a modelling agency admitted it was my orientation that was coming in the way of success. Brands didn’t want to associate with me.”
Yet another instance, that made headlines was Harnaam Kaur — the youngest woman to have a full beard. Harnaam told The Guardian, that her self-esteem had already plummeted as she was teased for being ‘fat’ or a ‘Paki’. Once she was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries that led to thick facial hair, the teasing took a turn for the worse. However, she took the high road, found courage and confidence in herself, and is now a body confidence and anti-bullying advocate. She goes on to say, “One in five women have polycystic ovaries and lots of them approach me about how to counter the bullying and how to accept themselves. I want them to say, well, Harnaam is on the catwalk, why not me?’”
Our perception of what is ‘allowed’ and deemed normal, streamlines our thinking as well as our individuality — but here are a few Indian models who were entirely unapologetic about themselves, creating their own space and distinct brand.
[Disclaimer: This article has been crowd-sourced and the names are listed in alphabetical order. If you know of an unconventional model that we may have missed out on who would like to talk to us, please write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, yes, while Anjali Lama may be a transgender model and activist from Nepal, we have still included her due to her immense contribution to the Indian fashion industry.]
I. Alex Mathew
“Unconventional for me is something that is undefined by society.”
“Conventional thought is that a male model should be well built, fair and tall while a female model must be slim, fair, have an hourglass figure, but not an ounce of fat. Unconventional is out of that exact box. For me, unconventional is out of the box. I’ve performed as a woman on stage, which opened a lot of doors for me. To be honest, I was taken aback at first,” says Alex, one of India’s famed drag queens.
“It surprised me when I learned I could be a model, once I broke all these boundaries.”
II. Anjali Lama
“I think the acceptance hasn’t been full. It is just the beginning.”
When Anjali Lama first walked into the world of modeling, she had no real game plan. She just knew this was a career option she liked. Urged on by her friends who told her that her frame and killer cheekbones were ideal for any other model, Anjali decided to start auditions. When most brands refused to associate themselves with her because of her orientation, she decided to send in an application to walk the ramp at Lakme Fashion Week. She failed the first time round, but spent the next year simply working towards getting in again. She said to Mid-Day, “I decided to work out every day for 30 minutes, and managed to crack the auditions this year. I was in the top 5.” She went on to say that if she hadn’t made it then, she would’ve given up on modelling.
Today, she’s known as Nepal’s first transgender model to walk the ramp, and boy does she wear that crown with pride.
III. Harnaam Kaur
“Bearded ladies were once laughed at – I want to break the mould.”
As a child, Harnaam Kaur was bullied even before she was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries. Following that diagnosis, she was constantly harassed for her excessive facial hair. While at first she dealt with the constant facial waxing, threading and plucking — her raw skin said otherwise. At the age of 15, she was contemplating suicide, which is when she says was her real turning point, “If the bullies are allowed to live, why shouldn’t I?”
Today, Harnaam proudly showcases her facial hair and is a body confidence activist, anti-bullying activist, public speaker and life coach.
IV. Joan Dominique Rai
“Being unconventional is something that comes from within; from one’s belief and understandings.”
Due to his experimentation with fashion as art, John began to build his base as a fashion influencer — modelling simply came hand in hand. His Instagram consists of carefully curated lookbooks and fashion stories which led to several photographers and other curators reaching out to him for his aesthetic and perspective on style. Following his popularity on Instagram, he has even collaborated with The India Story, Bobo CALCUTTA, Curry Magazine and many more independent photographers, curators and designers. “My Instagram feed is much more than just a portfolio or a medium for popularity. It’s very personal to me. People are really appreciating my androgynous look, my fashion sense and my work,” he says.
You can follow Joan Rai on Instagram here.
V. Kean Alvares
“I don’t think you can really define the word ‘unconventional’, which is why people don’t understand it.”
While Kean doesn’t consider himself a model per se, his work speaks otherwise. “It all started when I was introduced to Vikram Bawa who photographed me nude, for a shoot. He sent in that photograph to an international festival and won the first prize! Following that, I ended up in Better Photography,” he explains. While he is labeled an androgynous/unconventional model, Kean says, “People think adding in an element or two to yourself makes you unconventional but it’s more than that. It is your body language, your personality, the way you dress — it’s a whole package.”
Kean is a makeup artist too, and worked at M.A.C, where he got noticed quite often. While he admits it is difficult for models like him in India, there is slowly a space opening up for them, “Even though people are open-minded, there will always be criticism. After all, if you think about it, in India a mother isn’t going to point out at a billboard of a guy wearing makeup to her son.” He has also worked with Pranav Mishra’s brand Huemn, which promotes the concept of gender neutral clothing.
You can follow Kean on Instagram here.
VI. Liza Golden
“The days of needing to be a size 2 to be considered beautiful are over. We are all perfectly imperfect and accepting that is the way forward.”
One of the biggest names in the industry today, used to be in a very different place when she was 17. Back then, she consumed a mere 500 calories daily to maintain her skeletal frame just so she could get herself booked for shows. It wasn’t until she fainted in her apartment one night that she realised she didn’t want to keep living her life that way. A few years down the line, Liza is now an advocate of body positivity and fully embraces her curvy figure.
What changed? In an interview with Vogue she said, “I took nearly two years off, putting my career on the back burner. As fate would have it, I met my now husband at this time and was swept off my feet. For the first time in my life I felt and understood what “true” happiness was. I started to enjoy life, indulging in things I wouldn’t dare to in the past, and yet felt no guilt. I was still an avid exerciser, so even though I was gaining weigh I still had a good shape. Slowly, as I was becoming curvier, a realisation began to dawn upon me—I felt sexier than ever. I felt good about myself, I felt like a woman instead of a hungry coat rack. I was happy with myself, with my life, and with the world again.”
Considering the labels she’s signed to today, as well as the amount of work and popularity she has garnered for herself over the years, it can be agreed — confidence is definitely the key to happiness, here.
You can follow Liza on Instagram here.
VII. Neha Parulkar
“People have tried to break me down through every opportunity they got. If they hadn’t though, how would I have known that I was unbreakable?”
Being a plus-size model in India isn’t the easiest, considering every other Indian auntie is out to advise you against being comfortable in your own skin. Unconventional to Neha is simply breaking the stereotype society sets for you. It all unfolded when she participated in a contest for an e-commerce campaign which she won. She followed that up with an audition for Lakme Fashion Week 2016, won that and then ended up walking the ramp for India’s first ever plus size fashion show! “For me, that was huge. Not just as a model, but for me — as a fat girl who lacked the confidence and was insecure her whole life. I’m honored to have the opportunity to shift the way people perceive beauty.”
While people do appreciate a plus-size model in words, the industry’s larger brands still refuse to treat them as equals — big brands have often refrained from casting them in lead roles, or at all. “Opportunities do come by once in a blue moon though. The Grazia shoot that I did was the highlight of my career so far. I was in a swimsuit feature representing the people of plus!”
You can follow Neha on Instagram here.
VIII. Payal Soni
“In the industry, conventional means a perfect person with flawless skin, body, height, etc. You need to realise that there are people with so much talent and are more than just a pretty face.”
While India’s plus-size model industry has a long way to go in terms of representation in commercial brands, LFW (Lakme Fashion Week) has been boosting their confidence immensely. Payal began her career here as well in 2016. After Fashion Week, she began blogging on Instagram and has modeled for several brands including Luluandsky, Lastinch, Amydus and Calae. “I’ve been bullied in school, but I decided to own my style in college. From there on, I became popular as a style icon.” She too claims that several designers in India aren’t ready for plus-size models — but there’s still some hope.
You can follow Payal on Instagram here.
IX. Rahul Krishna
“Being unapologetic is unconventional.”
Androgyny is what Rahul Krishna is known for; and he proudly claims it as his own. “I’m constantly stepping into different roles, at different times. If a campaign dictates I need to be a woman, that’s what I am. I really don’t have predetermined notions.” While he was at a Fashion Week in Delhi, he was spotted by a fashion blogger who wanted to cover him in his book on India. After that, he did a campaign for Ashish Sahu, an Indian photographer. “A lot of people tell me I live in the wrong country, from the commercial aspect. If you think about it, there really isn’t a lot of androgyny in Indian wear. What’s worse is when people see the art in you, but don’t want to acknowledge it by paying you for your services.”
You can follow Rahul on Facebook here.
X. Syed Ali Arif
“Some really like my looks and some ask me to change my appearance a bit, which I politely refuse unless, of course, it is a great platform/visibility or good money.”
When you hear 40-year-old model, there’s bound to be questions; more so when the model sports a salt-n-pepper beard and is bald. Yet, Syed Ali Arif makes it work. “In the world of fashion or even films, where good looks are associated with flawless skin, great features, sexy voice, sculpted make-up and an equally well-sculpted body, one automatically becomes ‘unconventional’ the moment he/she is not “blessed” in any one or more of these criteria,” he states simply. “Having said that, I am extremely happy to be different as people remember me easily and think that I literally stand-out in the crowd.”
His partner was the pioneering force behind Arif’s modeling career, when he began experimenting with photography. After compiling his portfolio, a friend of his saw the pictures, and recommended Arif to a stylist. From there on, he’s been in a film, has modeled for independent labels, done an unconventional jewellery campaign, and walked the ramp at LFW (Lakme Fashion Week) in Mumbai. “Walking for not one, but two biggies in the fashion industry for LFW, within a span of a few months was something that I’ll cherish forever.”
You can follow Syed Ali Arif on Instagram here.
XI. Toshada Uma
“People deem the way I carry myself non conforming, for me that is conforming to who I am. If the word unconventional comes with me being myself, I embrace it and I love it.”
Being diagnosed with alopecia while you’re a teenager isn’t the most heartening situation for anyone but Toshada Uma made it work. In an Instagram post, she talks about her alopecia and also states how her decision to go bald wasn’t to make a statement or gain attention — she just needed to accept herself, truly and completely. “Ever since I was a kid, I was passionate about fashion and loved being in front of the camera. Modelling would’ve been an obvious career choice if I were any height above 5’7’’ but I am not; I’m 4’8’’ and as a young girl who had only ever seen tall models, I never thought I’d be one. A few years into my teens, photographers started noticing my pictures online and approaching me for test shoots. I took a while to think about it, I realised this was truly what I wanted to do all along and I thought I’d give it a try. There’s still a long way to go but I’m glad to be moving in the direction I always wanted to. I really hope agencies open up to petite models soon, so more talent is encouraged to find a platform,” she says. While petite modelling is still a very new concept in India, Toshada is indeed carving herself a niche in this space.
Now, this 18-year-old petite model has gone on to become a famed blogger and social media expert in the area of fashion and beauty even as she makes waves in the modelling industry. While she continues to experiment with her clothing style, her hair is no stranger to this experimentation too. “You can spot me sporting new hair every few weeks, I’m simply not the one for hairdo monogamy,” she says.
You can follow Toshada on Instagram here.
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