'I was made to feel inferior, unattractive and unwanted'
How Karuna Chani, an Indian-American make-up artist and consultant in New York was constantly made to feel unwanted in New York and looked down upon in India, overcame her pain and found solace in her culture.
I was born in New York to an Indian father and Iranian mother. Though my life seemingly had all the trappings of the ‘new world’, I lived in a home that was embroiled in the ‘old world order.’
From the food I ate, to the pressure to achieve academically, the tight-knit relationships with Indian Americans outside my home and my life within my cocoon was a world apart from my regular life. A dichotomy I both hated and loved for the same reasons.
Despite my lighter skin tone because of my ‘exotic mix’ -- as my fellow Indian peers would say with a tinge of jealously -- I was never light enough for the white, overwhelmingly Jewish middle school and high school I attended.
You would think being two shades darker than my classmates would allow me to ‘slide by’, especially with their constant desire to get a ‘tan’, but I was unable to escape their bullying and harsh words.
Constantly made to feel inferior, unattractive and unwanted, I had to find solace in the pedestal my Indian world put me on. A pedestal that I knew was undeserved, but I cherished, as in my young mind I pretended the compliments I received from one world, cancelled the insults from the other.
This back and forth of feeling cherished in one community and an outcast in another, continued on until I graduated from high school and attended the Parsons School of Design. There I learned that what makes you an individual and different from everyone else, is what makes you beautiful. With so many artistic classmates who embraced their individuality; it was hard for those sentiments not to catch on.
Initially pursuing a fashion degree, I switched to beauty while interning at the Carmen Marc Valvo show during New York Fashion Week. When an artist didn’t show up, I was asked to do the make-up of a well-known super model.
Making her look beautiful and runway ready, I felt a sense of empowerment and joy I had not experienced before. And the pain I carried with me for being bullied in school and the false pedestal that I previously found refuge in, left my body. I had found my calling.
Allowing myself to truly settle into my calling was not easy though. When I first set up my business, I would fly back to India frequently to build relationships with top salons, magazines, other beauty professionals, and celebrities there.
I soon recognised that I was not taken seriously, as people in the art industry were looked down upon. Being a make-up artist in India was considered to be a low income/low class career.
And with strong opinions from my father, whose sentiments mirrored that of many South Asians, he hoped that I would pursue a more ‘acceptable profession,’ like a doctor or lawyer.
So it took a lot of convincing to show how serious I was about my work and to get past my cultures’ general feeling towards the beauty industry.
Once I realised the only way I was going to be successful, was to build my career in New York -- where beauty is seen as a tool for empowerment, and there is a real need for talented make-up artists -- I began working non-stop to build relationships, get new clients and focus on my career here.
Here in New York I am treated with respect and recognised as a knowledgeable expert in my field. And though being in this city is trying at times -- having to work like a dog all day and night -- I love it because it truly is the city that never sleeps and where all dreams are possible if you work hard.
I know that I would not be where I am in my career today if I had not made the decision early on to stop focusing on India, and build my career in New York first.
To be honest though, it is only within the last five years of my 15-year career that my skill and talent is being recognised in India.
So for women who still don’t see the value in learning how to do their make-up, I always say, ‘If you want to be the part you have to look it!’ And to those that need help in learning the techniques and products for their face, I say to them, ‘That’s where I come in.’
Being a make-up artist who specialises in South Asian skin, I have made it my mission to help brown and olive skin women look beautiful but most importantly, feel beautiful.
As skin tone is seemingly an issue in all cultures, the history of colour in the Indian community, both in India and for Indian Americans, still persists.
With lighter skin tones being the most desirable, and darker skin ones being least favoured, I had to learn that my real value had nothing to do with what people saw.
Though on an inter-personal level we all know our value is within, we still judge others based on how they present themselves before us.
So in coming to understand that basic human truth, I have spent the last 15 years of my life helping women bring their inner beauty forward, using make-up and skin care products.
Because I know at the end of the day, within the superficial world in which we live, they will be taken more seriously for the knowledge in their head when it comes from a pretty face.
Now having worked on celebrities like Bollywood actors Priyanka Chopra, Shahana Goswami and Amrita Singh, and Grammy-nominee Chandrika Tandon, I have fully embraced the aspects of my culture and unique beauty that were once made fun of and caused me pain.
In continuing to expand my brand in New York and abroad, and focus on the empowerment of women through beauty, the worlds that once were so separate in my youth, have now come together.
Image: Karuna Chani, left, works on a model.
Photographs: Courtesy: Facebook