Why are more and more international models taking centrestage in the Indian fashion industry?
Abhishek Mande Bhot/Rediff.com finds out.
Photographs, video: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com
The problem with most Indian travel bloggers, a senior editor at a travel magazine groaned, is that they blog because they want to travel.
"Shouldn't it be the other way around?" she asked.
Exhausted from a long day's journey, slightly tipsy and not entirely sure what to say, I replied with the Great Indian Headshake.
She did have a point though. There are merely a handful of travel blogs that stand out in my memory and fewer still that I admire. Almost none have blown my mind.
About a month after this conversation, I found myself as a fly on the wall during the Mumbai leg of the Lakme Fashion Week auditions.
There were close to a hundred young girls waiting for their number to be called out.
Almost all of them were in their late teens or early twenties; almost every single one I spoke to that day (and, in retrospect almost all the models I have spoken to so far) had something in common with the travel bloggers that the editor was complaining about: travelling was one of the biggest motivating factors for them to become models.
We get to travel, they'd say, see new places, meet new people... so we became models.
That's why they were here, auditioning for one of the biggest fashion weeks in the country, hoping to fulfill their dreams of travelling the world.
But, for now, they would walk down a mini ramp to be assessed by few well-known names from the business who sat at its head.
The male patrons of the five-star hotel where this exercise was being held couldn't help turning their heads in wonder at those endless legs and girls in tank tops (see video here).
Several of them requested, some even insisted, on a photograph with these little-known models whose names were probably known only to their agencies.
It was amusing to watch the men queuing up to be pictured alongside a hot girl.
I imagined them posting the picture on Facebook with some cheeky comment about 'only dating models' and chuckling to themselves.
It was silly perhaps, but who could resist being seen with a model in public?
The sheer number of the stunning beauties on the floor was, admittedly, overwhelming. But what stood out amidst these tall, incredibly toned bodies was the large, almost dominating presence of international faces.
It wasn't surprising that, at the end of the half-day-long exercise, only two of the 11 young models who made the cut were from India.
Sheela Tiruchi (pictured below) was one of them.
The 28-year-old model from Bengaluru has walked for the fashion weeks in Berlin and New York "and a few shows in Paris."
She has auditioned five times for Lakme Fashion Week and has been selected on two occasions.
"The competition," she says, "is getting tougher every year. The girls are getting taller, better looking, better toned and have better skin."
Tiruchi admits that international models have a natural edge over their Indian counterparts.
"They have better bodies," she says candidly. "Their eating habits are different and so they are leaner right from the beginning and are better-equipped to carry off certain garments than we are."
Choreographer Rashmi Virmani, who was among the panel that selected the 11 models, reasons that several collections at Lakme Fashion Week are pret lines.
"This isn't a bridal week," she says. "We also have international buyers who would like to see how a garment looks on a foreign model."
And the selection criteria at Lakme Fashion Week are fairly strict.
"We are looking for models who are at least 5'8", have a good bone structure, are striking and are able to justify the garment.
"Incidentally, we also attract a lot of international talent," she says.
Young international models have been finding employment in India for some years now.
Model Alesia Raut recollects looking at her colleagues during one of her fashion week assignments in 2007 and finding herself "a foreigner in my own country".
With permits not very difficult to come by and a work environment that isn't hostile to foreigners yet, these young women simply swing in and out of the country in a matter of months.
What also makes India a lucrative option for these young models is the fact that the economy has been booming and anyone with a few hundred thousand rupees to spare is willing to invest in anything that can be passed off as a fashion week.
Organisers of fashion weeks aren't the only ones attracting foreign models.
Ecommerce has been booming, which is another huge market for these young women... log on to the garments section of any e-commerce site and you will be surprised at the number of international faces that model anything from earrings to an anarkali.
There is a great deal of work available that helps them make a decent sum, enough to get by and probably finance the next leg of their journey around the world.
Most of them aren't looking to be the next Gisele Bundchen and, very often, the work they find in India is, as the popular parlance goes, 'just another good gig'.
"These aren't top of the line models," fashion choreographer Lubna Adams says.
"They will never make it in New York or Paris."
"But they are presentable, have the right attitude and are willing to work at lower rates.
"They are versatile, have better bodies, don't have hang-ups about wearing any garments and are easy to work with."
It also helps that there is a seemingly endless supply of them.
"Every few months we have fresh faces that show up," she says.
Most of them arrive from tiny East European nations you may find difficult to locate on the map and, of course, from South American countries such as Brazil.
South Africa is another nation that seems to be at the source of this growing trend, though several models arriving from there tend to be of Indian origins.
She has been chipping away at Bollywood and has even made a special appearance in a couple of movies.
On the other hand, 23-year-old Priyanka Mudli confesses that modelling is just one of the things she'd like to try her hand at.
Like several aspiring models I've met, Mudli is giving modelling a shot so she can travel and see the world.
If it doesn't work, she says she'll probably take up a career in management or accounting for which she's qualified.
What is common to these young models from diverse countries around the world is that they 'look Indian', which is to say that they have a fair complexion but dark hair.
Not unlike several of the women in this picture below:
"It helps if people think you're an Indian," Brazilian model Rafaelly Santos says. So when she was asked at her gym if she was Punjabi, Santos was happy. "You tend to get more work that way," she says.
Unsurprisingly, she was among the 11 girls who were selected to walk at Lakme Fashion Week.
Eighteen-year-old Lithuanian national Rasita Stanislovaityte (pictured below) tells me she couldn't be happier in India.
"There are more opportunities for international models here," she says. "In India, you can be whatever you want to!"
By all accounts, the clients seem to favour 'Indian-looking' international models too.
While some of it may well be attributed to our fixation with the fair complexion, much of it is just pure economics.
As Lubna Adams points out, "It is all about the bucks!"
"Budgets are getting tighter every single day; clients aren't always forthcoming with the payments so why would someone want to pay, let's say Rs 35,000 to an Indian model when an international model comes at Rs 10,000?"
Where, then, does this leave the Indian model?
For some time now there has been talk about the death of the Indian supermodel.
With Bollywood stars taking over every empty space on hoardings, endorsing anything and everything from luxury apartments to gutka, Indian models have found themselves being pushed into the margins.
Earlier a make-up brand that would hire a model to be its face now prefers to opt for movie stars.
Several of the people I spoke to pointed out that the media was to be blamed for this.
Over the years, I have witnessed the chatter in the media centre at fashion weeks shifting from the designs to who the celebrity showstopper was.
A young and upcoming designer once told me of the tremendous pressures she was under to get a celebrity to close her show.
"I don't want to have some random, well-known face for the sake of it," she said. "But everyone seems to want one!"
After resisting for the longest time, she finally gave in some seasons ago.
When we met after the show, she smiled and said: "It seems to be the only way to get the media to talk about my show in the next day's papers."
It is one thing if you see modelling as just a stepping stone to Bollywood. But if you want to be a career model, the task just got a little more difficult.
Alesia Raut says models like her insist on having "only a basic level of comfort. But several of these young international models don't mind working at lower rates or working under circumstances some of us wouldn't."
This isn't a new complaint.
In a 2010 interview with Rediff.com, Diandra Soares bemoaned the rampant under-cutting in the business and suggested that the popularity of international models might have had something to do with India's fixation for the fairer complexion.
Lubna Adams, though, feels there will always be jobs for Indian models.
"Some garments simply cannot be put on an international model. You will need an Indian model to carry them off," she says.
Yet, she remains critical of the Indian lot.
"More often than not, I have found that they (Indian models) treat their assignments as just another job. They are often interested in only making a quick buck.
"You haven't had a supermodel since after Madhu Sapre.
"You can't reach that stage if you can't be consistent and have a bad attitude. You need to be able to sustain to reach the top.
"Today, Indian models have just priced themselves out of the market."
With movie stars taking away their jobs and international models charging a third of what they typically would, Indian models seem to be stuck in a vicious circle.
"We are feeling overpowered by them (international models)," Alesia Raut says. "It is terrible."
Meanwhile, the people who are changing the game here are no older than 23 and merely seem interested in travelling the world and meeting new people. And India just happens to be one of the stops on their globe-trotting itinerary. A very lucrative stop.