Death of Ms Supermodel

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Nobody could fully explain why she was special, but she was. Once. It was clear she was more than just a pretty face. Alas, that was the last we saw of her. A report from her funeral

THOSE WHO have respects to pay, prepare to pay them now. For, the modernday Helen of Troy whose face launched a thousand products and a million aspirations has packed her vanity case. All you can see now, as the arclights dim, is her epitaph:

Her look was perfect
Her age somewhat hazy
But now Ms Supermodel
Is just pushing daisies

Close friends, colleagues, even critics—they mourn her loss. And a loss it surely is, most of all to the world of glamour. Who framed Roger Rabbit? On film sets, fashion ramps and gossip tongues, that’s not the question any more. Who killed the leggy lass? That’s what everyone wants to know.

She is remembered fondly as the lady who sashayed defiantly onto the fashion scene in the early ’80s, the first time ever that a theatre outside cinema halls gave rise to such mass recognition, such mass adulation and such mass…tuh, whatever else.

For many outside the charmed circles of the fashion elite, she was a veritable role model, a lady who let her catwalk do the talking, rather than let the snooty snickers about her accent get her down.

So, who was the real Ms Supermodel? Who was the girl under the bouffant, throwing you a look to go with a pose struck in a satin gown contoured (in part) by six-inch stilettos? She could’ve been someone who grew up in a small town or modest suburb. Someone who knew little about the lives of the rich and famous, except that their lifestyles could spin off enough money to give her a life of her own.

The money in fashion modelling was never very much, she slowly came to realise, with even the most famous model of them all barely able to afford airfare for a foreign holiday on her own, say.

Ms Supermodel had to live much of her life on an expense account, with every room-service cup of coffee subject to the scrutiny of bean-counters, and still look every bit as well turned out as an heiress to a fortune. Financial independence was always a dream, and one that had to be fulfilled double-quick in the short span that her career was on a roll—a dizzy period, with all sorts of male attention crammed in with back-to-back assignments.

No, her life was not easy. It was hasty, routish and short. So if it’s a tribute you bear, kindly pay it now.

The Super Construct

So, who was she? Fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani describes her as someone who walked the ramp like Naomi Campbell, had something irresistible like Linda Evangelista, and conveyed the attitude of Yasmin Ghauri. Sophistication with sex appeal. The cygnet who emerged a swan from a Svengaliesque cloud of hairspray and powder. Someone who carried off whatever she wore with ‘élan’, in the description of industry insider Anurag Verma, “even a transparent dress”. Someone with an individuality that impressed itself upon people.

It was the 1980s. “Fashion was just beginning to stretch its arms,” reminisces former model Mehr Jessia, “The actress was stuck with run-of-the-mill looks, while models were the style icons.” To Anna Bredmeyer, another former model, it was all about standing out. Self-assurance. Attitude. Individualism. The stuff of success.

The Supermodel’s gone now. And her stilettos won’t be easy to fill. Look at the models that come rolling off the conveyer belt these days, and you know why. It takes more than the affected articulations and standardised stances of modelling school wannabes to scorch the ramp.

Sushma Puri of Elite Model Management doesn’t agree. Superfame, she says, was all Ms Supermodel really had. Media fame. The lady was simply superlucky that the glamour-starved media had much less to lavish attention on, back then.

Is that why Ms Supermodel is dead? A media fizzle out. Did reality pop the illusion?

The Jealous Gloss

It was the throbbing fashion industry, not media, that pushed Ms Supermodel into the limelight. It was fashion that kept her going. And it was this very relationship that held firm through her years of tumult. Could fashion have forsaken her?

There was no mistaking the whispers at the memorial service. Fashion just did not have the generosity of spirit, hissed some. Suspicions of her dalliances grew over the late 90s and into the mid-zips, sighed others. It was natural for Ms Supermodel to look around, went the gossip. Advertising was an early post-fashion infatuation, and it was a remarkable affair as well. But it was the dalliance with TV shows that wore her out, demanding more than just a few seconds of studio time now and then.

The fashion designer, once an easygoing soulmate, was suddenly somebody else, a stickler for increasingly inflexible notions of the model’s look and conduct. Under all the gloss, something was amiss, and it began to show in the way things were going between them. Last-minute switches. Shabby rehearsals. Delayed cheques. Unanswered calls.

Then there was the small matter of remuneration. In the West, supermodels were signing million-dollar contracts, and charging the equivalent of about Rs 1 crore for a walk down the runway. In India, the fashion industry was portraying the honour of being selected to display such exquisite haute couture as first started modelling,” remembers Jessia, “I got paid Rs 1,500 for my first show. When I stopped in 1992-93, I was getting Rs 5,000. Models now are getting upwards of Rs 50,000.” That’s the sort of money Jesse Randhawa and Sheetal Mallar earn. Competition is highly intense now, and younger models like Diana Penty and Vipasha Aggarwal do shows for half that figure. “Indian fashion doesn’t pay too well,” says Verma, “and if Jesse gets a half-hour dance gig with Sandip [Soparkar], she prefers to do that and drops out of shows because that’s more money.”

As model after model turned to TV to host shows and play glamour props, fat modelling paycheques became more and more scarce. The fashion industry’s passion for Ms Supermodel was fizzling fast.

The Item Cut

At the end, sigh Ms Supermodel’s sympathisers, you can’t eat honour, not even the honour of walking the ramp in overpriced threads. The signs only grew clearer down the years. You could read her lips. You could feel the storm coming. Whether it was Bipasha Basu or Katrina Kaif, the lure of Hindi cinema was to prove too strong to resist.

And so it was. It was also, in many ways, the kindest cut of all. There was more money, more fame and a helluva lot more mass adulation to be had. Fashion’s loss was cinema’s gain, and the urbane audiences lining the ramp just had to gulp their indignation, rub their eyes and watch their leggy lass swivel her hips to raunchy tunes that would send millions into raptures across the country, millions who couldn’t care less about sartorial sophistication.

It had to happen. Soon enough, the very purpose of being a model was to get within striking range of cinematic glory. Modelling became a “stop-gap arrangement”, in Bredmeyer’s words. “Models aspire for Bollywood because it’s a longer profession and pays a lot more,” says Tahiliani, “While models make Rs 35,000, Bipasha makes Rs 35 lakh” (for the same ramp walk). Deepika Padukone is merely the latest to be seduced by stardom of the celluloid sort, and she won’t be the last.

This then is the story of how sensual subtlety got overshadowed by the overt oomph of the big screen. As with vampires, one bite, that very first exposure, was all it took. After that, there was no going back. As Ms Item Number, she was a creature transformed, free to revel in a new persona, a new set of fans, a new medium of engagement. And, best of all, with the fashion ramp to scorch anew if she so chose.

And what about the rest of the girls in the powder room? “I think models have gotten the short end of the stick... all the commercial work is [now] going to actors,” remarks Bredmeyer.

Sad has been the demise. Yet, not everyone misses Ms Supermodel. As male model Milind Soman saw her, she was a media creation all along. And while it could be a while before such a star streaks across our firmament again, we should be thankful that Indian Glamour remains ever so multi-splendoured.