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Not a model life
In the popular imagination, models lead opulent and edgy lives: fawned over by rich and successful men, partying all night, jetting around the world. But, what are the shadows behind the glitter? And, are they the real thing or just a poseur knock-off?
Stilettos are an apt metaphor. They give the illusion of heights reached. Their name derives from the stealthy, deadly knife favoured by the Mafia. They are associated with those who can walk the talk, and talk their way through even when they have no walk. But they are also precarious. Very. It takes a brave woman to slip into them. And a braver one to kick them off - not for a night of being bad, but for good. Stilettos are never put away voluntarily, only with a reluctant sigh. This is the nature of these sexy shoes. And of the profession that struts the ramp in them.
Viveka Babajee's short life and sad end is chilling testimony to the fact that stilettos flatter to deceive. She's not the first victim. She won't be the last. Ugliness is built into the beauty trap.
Why shouldn't the media have gone to town on this story? It is couturier-made for the Velcroeffect on eye-balls. With its lowdown on high life, the shadows behind the spotlight, the tarnish after the glitter, it packed a double whammy of a punch, pandering to both our salivating voyeurism and our prim sanctimoniousness. Clearly, a model's life and a model life are two very different entities. We lap up one while paying lip service to the other.
It has taken yet another suicide to reveal the dark, tortured, hateful world behind that insouciant sashay down the ramp lit by a million megawatts of adoration - and envy. And it has forced its besotted followers to face up to the cruel question: should the glamorous model believe she is a genuine high-end product entitled to all its aura, or is she just a knock-off ? 'Between the idea and the reality. . . falls the Shadow. ' Which is why T S Eliot's next line does not follow. There is little 'Shanti, Shanti, Shanti', only an unsettling disillusionment. And, as in the case of Viveka Babajee, a fatal disintegration.
Liberalization's laissez faire has unleashed a revolution quite unknown in the 70s when Jeannie Naoroji's swish of models, led by the ethereal Shai, glided smilingly and barefoot down the ramps barefoot instead of today's arrogant stomp. True, the profession was always sequined by glamour, but in its early days it only flirted timorously with entertainment, and it certainly wasn't souped up by celebrity. More significant, the bigbucking broncos of global brands, lassoing the market and upping the ante for the cowboys of Indian industry, hadn't yet arrived to make this into the high-stakes game it is today. Nor had the Big Bad Wolf of Bollywood gate-crashed into everybody's party. Modelling was always about dog-eats-dog-and-everybody-bitches, but as Brand India got into stride by the turn of the millennium, a nuclear-grade mutation seems to have hit this world of canines in corsets.
India-with-a-designer-label has opened up undreamt-of opportunities for every young girl to turn her face into her fortune, and her body into her wealth manager. But it has also sharpened the competition into a killing machine. It has savaged an industry notorious for its disposable culture. Reduce? You must. Recycle and Re-use? Nevver! Careers increasingly have a shorter life-span than mascara wands, and there is no fairy godmother to stop their return to rags. A godfather would be better, but he's chasing the taller girl in the shorter skirt who is thinner and younger.
The former model and Page Three habituê, Queenie, recalls, "Back in the 1980s and early 90s, we were a small, loyal, close-knit fraternity, more like a family. Today, it's all about fierce competition and back-biting. You get sucked and drawn deeper into it, like quicksand. Not just models, today's entire younger generation is under terrible pressure to be part of the glam crowd, they are exposed to booze, drugs and competitiveness earlier and in greater degree than ever before."
The Queenie Bee astutely puts her bejeweled finger on the latest Culprit No 1: Bollywood, which seems to be responsible for more damage than we feared. "Today, the concept of a supermodel doesn't exist. Modeling has become an open-ended industry with Bollywood on one end and a sea of faces on the other. There is no longer any sense of professional identity."
The society columnist, Simi Chandoke, endorses this concern. "Modeling in itself is no longer enough;there is the additional pressure to make it big in Bollywood too. Because B Town is now the object of worship, and the fashion frat has been elbowed out of that niche. This wasn't the case a decade and a half ago. Back then, models were more respected. But today the tables have turned and everything from brand endorsements to shows falls in the lap of film stars."
Chandoke goes on to the hazardous fall-out. "Once ousted from the scene, the girls have no education or job to fall back on, and when they don't find an anchor in a financially stable man, they break and turn to drugs and drinking. Short-lived romances and flings and keeping the wrong company are also part of the culture. It's a vicious circle. Bollywood, on the other hand, is more grounded and surrounded by family and a strong circle of friends. There is less scope for loneliness."
The event coordinator and fashion choreographer, Sharmilla Khanna, who brought Viveka Babajee to Mumbai from Mauritius, speaks from a 20-year experience to repeat the worry. "Most of the time, the problem is that they don't have a back-up plan. I advise them to complete their basic education before succumbing to the allure, and to start their future careers while they are still going strong."
To which another industry-watcher adds, "Future careers or future husbands. The ex-models (or film stars) who are happy today are the ones who were smart enough to bag a rich husband while they were at the top of the pile. They knew that this was their ultimate goal even if they'd never admit it, and they didn't push their luck. They didn't hope to catch someone better and they suffered from no delusions that their marketability of either kind would last forever, or even for another five years. They gave up the transient glamour for something duller but more permanent. It's no big sacrifice. Let's face it, soon they would not have had the choice."
Even without Big Bad Bollywood, it's no cake walk. A model may be the fantasy of every man - and woman, but her way of life extracts a huge toll - physically to maintain it, and emotionally when she finds age and gravity defying her increasingly desperate efforts. Size zero begins to describe her frame of mind rather than her body, and her nerves get tauter than her butt. This was always the case, but it's now on speed. So, alas is the model. Every day, yet another pre-pubescent girl barely out of her braces is ready to pout her out.
Ramneek Pantal, a former Delhi-based model, says, "I entered the fashion industry when I was barely 17. At that time there weren't so many models around so there was a lot less bitching and backstabbing. But today, models come a dime a dozen. The industry is bursting at its seams with pretty faces and perfect bodies. The level of competition is unreal. And yes, it can get to you."
Seventeen was also the age when Shivani Kapur became the face of Lakme. With her child-woman appeal, mesmerizing green eyes and a pale olive complexion, she swiftly became the toast of the Ferrari and farmhouse set. But the pressure got to her, as it does to them all. Deceit destroyed what drugs had overlooked, and all her popularity and paychecks crumbled. After a jab at rehab in London, she did return to modeling in 2005, but wasn't able to last. "As a model you get a lot of attention - getting invited to parties, being showered with gifts and being mollycoddled 24x7. It's very easy to let the adulation get to your head and become reckless in your ways to such an extent that you botch up your career," warns Ramneek.
The short shelf life creates stresses even while the girl is still at her peak. She must grab all she can while she can, and the competition allows for no slacking. Madhur Bhandarkar's semi-fictionalized film, Fashion, captured the industry's dark underbelly as it traced how the character of Priyanka Chopra arrives on the scene and pushes out one-time successful model Kangna Ranaut. He says, "There's too much happening too fast; some of them do three to four shows back-to-back. Another factor we fail to realize is that the glamour world is about one per cent success and 99 per cent failure. Not every girl who aspires to become a supermodel reaches her goal."
Loneliness doesn't sidle only out of the shadows of the downward slide. As those in many other professions have found, one is a lonely number. And it's more so here in this precarious world. Psychiatrist Anjali Chhabria says, "The more successful one is, the less trusting one becomes of friends and family. This leads to alcohol and substance abuse or the use of sleeping pills and anti-depressants. The difficulties arise in maintaining one's lifestyle, money and inner circle."
The fashion choreographer Aparna Behl, who has honed many gawky adolescents into sleek, poised go-getters, adds, "The industry is based on the premise of body and looks. There is bound to be stress associated with constantly being in the public eye. It can lead one to exist in a world that is far removed from reality, which, in turn, causes a sense of disconnect and loneliness."
Designer Rina Dhaka, who knew Viveka up close and personally, agrees, "You need to have a strong support network of friends and family. To some extent, I feel responsible that I couldn't help Viveka pull through her rough patch."
And here's one more of the same from a girl still in the snake-pit, model Alecia Raut. "We all enter the profession knowing its limited time span and failure rate. It's essential to have a Plan B, in case Plan A fails. But when Plan B doesn't work out either, even the strongest of us can break. It takes more than good looks to be a model; courage, patience and determination are just as essential, and not everyone has these. The strong support system of family and friends plays a crucial role when the going gets tough." So there you have it, models have been chasing the wrong F word on their way to the top.
Coming to that. Much has been said about the sexploitation of these vulnerable ingênues, much of it bull. True, the whiteknuckled competition has increased the predator's scope, but the 21st century industry is bristling with sharp young cookies who can play the game with as much ruthlessness as finesse. They have entered the profession with their eyes wide open, and if their thighs follow suit it's because they themselves have chosen that route. They give with the full measure of what they intend to take. They may make a pretence of injured innocence, but they know right down to their thongs that if they want to be in the arc lights, they bloody well learn to take the heat. It's a welcome blow for gender equality, and more power to them. But the sexist double standards of the general world will take a long time dismantling, and the problem arises when there are fewer takers for what they willingly give.
The image consultant and style guru, Prasad Bidapa, dismisses the blame overdose triggered by Babajee's suicide with his customary cool. "It had nothing to do with her modeling. It was a failed business and a failed relationship that killed Viveka. To top it all, she chose to be in a relationship with a man (Gautam Vora) who wasn't ready to understand her or her world. " Model coordinator Pujan Kapur Sharma says, "Indian men often have double standards. While they love to flaunt stunning models as arm candy at social dos, when it comes to commitment they steer clear, and treat the same woman badly."
So what's new? And do these worldly wise women have any business naively to think otherwise? Which brings us to a brutal question: Should their real-life expectations follow their make-believe worlds? The point raised at the start remains: Should the knock-off have designer delusions? In all the razzle-dazzle, the lights, music, and front-row snobberies, it is easy to forget that modeling is only the accomplice and abettor of an illusory world. But if you start believing in the illusion, and the entitlements of it in perpetuity, you're in trouble. Big trouble.
That's what makes for the fractious, tormented after-life of a model. Some are lucky enough to find a love blinded by their ersatz glitz, and the besotted guy will bankroll and legitimize her acquired high-maintenance lifestyle. Most are not. And that's the tipping-over point, because it's impossible to return from borrowedplumes celebrity to the original nonentity. They'd rather die than descend from Manolo Blahnik to Bata. Sadly, some of them do. And more of them will as the field gets more crowded, and the life style grows flashier.
The firecracker carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.
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