We are nothing like the Kardashians," says Vaishali Keswani, 44, mom and manager of the new family that’s wooing American audiences. "The Kardashians started off with a scandal. We are just a modern family, trying to live our lives in the public eye." The Keswanis are stars of their own web series on People.com, Meet the Keswanis. Dad Anil, 46, is a physician; the eldest child, Nikhil aka Big Nik, 17, is a popular Vine star (he has around 2.7 million followers). Sarina, 15, is a beauty pageant contestant and model, and Devina, 6, (formerly known as Dev), is a transgender child, transitioning every day.
The Keswanis: Sarina, Devina, Vaishali, Nikhil aka Big Nik and Anil
While Anil is a second generation American born into a Sindhi family in New York, Vaishali is a Gujarati from Uganda, who moved to America in the ’90s. After they were married in 1995, they settled down in Illinois, Chicago. A few years later, they decided to move to California since their first born Nikhil, suffered from Dwarfism, and the cold weather wasn’t good for his bones. "Thank God we did that, as the Chicago Indian community we lived in was very conservative. But, California is different; everyone is liberal and accepting. Little did we know we would need that kind of an atmosphere for Devina to grow up in as well," says Vaishali.
Their web show, which is only three episodes old, shows a family that seems almost shy to be in front of the camera, except Nik and Devina that is. They dance, laugh, and cry in front of millions of people. They come across as likeable and relatively normal for a family on TV, especially Devina, who endearingly tells a friend that she wants to give a speech on why being transgender is alright. "I had a friend who liked me and now he doesn’t. He teases me. But it’s okay," she says. In one of the episodes, Vaishali reveals that when Dev started talking, it was feminine; when he started walking, it was feminine. Then they knew this was the way it was going to be. "And we told her, you never have to be Dev again," she says. It’s because of Nik that the family is dealing with fame and all its trappings. When his funny Vine videos, about him behaving like a fool around the house, started gathering followers three years ago, Hollywood production houses came calling. "It was supposed to be a show just on him, but then two years ago, Devina’s transition came to light, and the whole family came into the limelight," says Vaishali. Filming started two years ago.
Unlike the Kardashians, whose existence relies on being famous and outrageous, the Keswanis genuinely seem to be struggling with their unique family situation. Anil has a troubled expression on his face as he sees his teenaged daughter wear a bikini for a pageant. Vaishali is heartbroken when she talks of her son Dev, now transitioning into Devina. "The show is essentially about accepting your children the way they are. It’s not the ideal situation but we are going to make this work," says Anil, adding, "The main aim is to protect them, and we try not to sensationalise or dramatise anything. There are rules in this that have to be followed." Vaishali has a found a unique way of keeping the kids grounded. She has introduced them to the Chinmaya International Foundation (Sarina is also a Buddhist). "They know where to draw the line," she says. "Our relatives were shocked, but they have also realised, there is no other way to be."
As for the kids, they are now experiencing a kind of fan following that’s just adding to their confidence. Nik, who says he was often targeted on the Net for being a "midget", now feels that haters don’t matter at all. "The point is to say that one shouldn’t be shamed for being different. And though it’s hard being short, and always having joint pains, being famous and well known has made it all easier. Now, I am in control of my life." For Sarina, who has become adept at not making the "wrong friends", the attention that comes from the show is an opportunity to do something with her life. "I want to be a singer! Everyone wants to hang out with me, but I know who my real friends are — the kind who will be around even when the fame isn’t."
At the end of the day, the Keswanis are just a modern family, dealing with a very different set of problems. It’s as Nik puts it, "We don’t have a normal life, actually a pretty abnormal one. We have been through some crazy stuff and it’s just going to get crazier. We have a lot of spice in our lives and that’s the way we like it."
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