“The ad world is completely racist,” thunders, model Noyonika Chatterjee, (who ruled the Indian ramp especially in the 1990s), when asked whether she ever faced bias in the Indian advertising fraternity because of her dark-skinned complexion.
This isn’t just Chatterjee’s story; many dusky models in India who displayed oodles of talent, beauty and charisma while on the ramp, weren’t able to make it big in the ad space, and most feel that it’s because of the colour of their skin.
“I have been a model for so long and have done so many ramp shows, but in my career, I have hardly got any ads. When I started off as a model, sometimes, I would be told point blank that they don’t want me because of my dark skin and on other occasions, they would make inane excuses, only to cast a fair model later,” recalls Delhi-based Chatterjee.
Bias on the basis of colour is a dark secret in the glitzy sidewalks of the fashion world and while some call it the result of the colonial hangover that most Indians still possess, others feel it’s the matter of looking up to what is rare around you.
“I feel we are still hung up, thanks to our British rulers. We still have the complex of the fair skin and feel that fair skin is something to look up to. Colour bias is so ingrained in certain influential sections of our society that even my 10-year-old daughter is facing the brunt of it,” says Chatterjee adding that her daughter is slightly darker than her cousins and hence, is constantly reminded by people that she is less beautiful than fairer girls. He further informs that it has reached such a point that the little girl has already become under confident.
A not-so-fair obsession
Dipannita Sharma, another dusky model, seconds Chatterjee. She maintains that this bias is a reflection of our society and a large chunk of our country is obsessed with fairness. “The advent of fair skin in the fashion world began when fair-skinned girls from other countries (around 2003-04) were brought down by certain agencies and positioned in India as models; they would charge less than their well-established Indian counterparts. Clients in fairness-obsessed sections of our society (beauty and showbiz in particular) lapped this up in a flash because it suited their budgets as well. Slowly, this became a norm rather than an exception,” reveals Sharma. She speaks of how the unabashed glorifying of fair skin in advertising only added to this already-skewed scenario.
Advertising world’s big daddy, veteran adman KV Sridhar agrees to this disparity and explains this fixation as a result of aspirations that most fashion brands are selling today. He reveals that people “want to build an aspiration and in our country darker skin cannot build aspirations.”
He puts his finger on the core problem area: “What we don’t have, we find attractive, and what we have, we don’t value. In India, fair skin is rare, so it is always considered aspirational.” Based on his decades-long experience, he cites that in real life, people might find dusky women attractive, but when it comes to making ads that will appeal to the masses, most people don’t have the guts to go with darker models — “That’s why, most agencies push for fairer women.”
India has produced many dusky beauties including Anjali Mendes, Marie Lou Phillips, Madhu Sapre, Ujwala Raut and Lakshmi Menon, who made heads turn on the ramp and even created a niche for themselves internationally, but weren’t as prominent when it came to ad commercials for print and TV in India.
However, Indian designers quash all rumours of racism on the ramp. Most maintain that as long as girls and boys have the right attitude, colour is the least of concerns. One of India’s most outspoken and respected names, Wendell Rodricks, doesn’t mince words: “I love dusky models, and use them frequently. The obsession with fairness in India is stupid and out of touch with reality.”
“Personally, I find dusky models exotic. Skin colour shouldn’t matter for a designer. If a model has the right personality and confidence to carry off a designer’s outfit and do justice to it, it’s all that matters,” states young Mumbai-based designer Nishka Lulla.
On the other hand, designer Rocky S feels that while it is prevalent, the entire industry isn’t obsessed with fair skin. “We have great models in our industry currently, and have always had a mix of fair and dusky models. There are no biases in the industry but yes — everybody has their own opinion and choices.
In our industry, more than the colour, attitude, grace and charm matters more,” he shares.
Despite the mood and changing mentalities, model Sharma isn’t quite sure, if all is well. The buzz that emerged from Davuluri’s win is just another reminder of the obsession with fairness. She and most of the dark-complexioned models we spoke with believe that this is a deep rooted phenomenon, etched in certain influential parts of our country. Unless upcoming generations view it in unbiased light, things will not change. “Until such time, there is no point in blaming any industry,” she summarises. We’ll believe.
Since the recent past, the Mumbai Fashion Week has also been getting down fair-skinned models from other countries for their shows. Saket Dhankar, Head Fashion, IMG Reliance, who organises the event, explains the move: “Lakmé Fashion Week has always celebrated Indian beauty and we have a model pool consisting of models with varying skin tones. Season on season we contract close to 70 models, with no more than 20-25% of the total model pool consisting of international faces. It is important that we provide our participating designers and the media with the top talent available in India, as well as give them many options to showcase their garments. Our model pool needs to be reflective of both Indian and international woman who wear the showcased garments, which is why we work to ensure this mix.”
A step in the right direction
To tackle racism in the international fashion world, supermodel Naomi Campbell has joined hands with beauty icon, Iman and fashion activist, Bethann Hardison to form The Diversity Coalition — a group that calls attention to the lack of black models in the western fashion industries. For the same, the group recently wrote open letters to fashion week councils in London, New York, Paris and Milan.