3 years

CYBERFAME

Miss Malini Dot Who?

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She is India’s most popular celebrity blogger, has a full-time staff of 10, and reaches out to a quarter million followers every month

It is 10 pm on a hot night in Mumbai, and I am at Tote, one of the city’s swish spots. Officially, I haven’t been invited. But since I am tagging along with Malini Agarwal of MissMalini.com, it’s perfectly fine. She is the host for the evening. I get a glass of wine and stand in a corner, trying to maintain an air of nonchalance as she makes conversation with the Royal Challengers Bangalore team, all here to raise money for Magic Bus, an NGO that works for underprivileged kids. Oh, there she has Yuvraj Singh talking to her, and now Virat Kohli is shaking her hand, and, ahem, Siddharth Mallya just kissed her cheek. She is dressed in a black and white mini. Her bare shoulders are pulled back, and she offers the cricketers—including Daniel Vettori and the imposing Chris Gayle—directions on what to say and do for the cameras.

Miss Malini maintains a smile that never falters. As soon as the cameras are off, the cricketers disperse to get themselves drinks, but Malini is still at work. Her fingers never stop clicking her BlackBerry, and as she air kisses her way to the lounge where the party is in progress, it’s clear that she is thinking about getting home and uploading this post on her blog as soon as she can. “I can never switch off,” she says, “My blog is a living, breathing extension of me, so if I don’t turn off, neither does the blog.” Now and then people stop her, saying things like “You were wonderful”, “We just love your blog” or “Oh my God, it’s Malini”, and you know she is every bit the celebrity her blogger moniker says she is.

This January, Huffington Post, no less, called her the ‘most famous blogger in India’. The 34-year-old offers her readers her very own take on Mumbai’s party scene, along with posts on celebrity fashion and movies. Not just that, she is also a rare blogger who has turned her hobby into a successful business model. She has around 35,000 followers on Twitter and 17,000 or so on her site’s Facebook page, apart from 91,525 subscribers to her personal Facebook page and 261,004 followers on Google Plus.

“All together,” as Mike Melli, her personal business manager, says, “there are around 300,000 people following her on different forms of social media. On a monthly basis, we get around a quarter million unique visitors on our site. We have readers in over 40 countries, and a full-time staff of 10 people, along with many freelance writers. We are actually doubling our followers every six months. High-profile clients contact us for personal and ‘non-pressy’ coverage of their events. As Huffington Post said, Malini is the most popular blogger in India.”

That could be true. Malini often gets invitations to fashion/ lifestyle events that nobody else with an online-only public presence does. She has, for example, just returned from Sri Lanka, where she was the only Indian blogger invited for James Ferreira’s Cotton Collection showcase. “Malini’s USP (unique selling proposition) is  that she has unique content,” says Amit Agarwal, longtime blogger and founder of Digital Inspiration, who also maintains a directory of Indian bloggers, “She blogs about celebrities in a very different way, and hence if not the top, she is one of the top five for sure. Her following is unbelievable.”

When I meet her in her office in Khar, Mumbai, she is—but obviously—sitting at her Mac and blogging away. On the shelf next to her lie copies of books such as Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Teach Yourself Copywriting and The Art of the Short Story. “I need my blog to read right.” She looks relaxed, but as she tells me about her ordinary work day, I am exhausted just listening. “Some days, I’m at office blogging all day and then I go home and blog until midnight. On days that I have events, I’m blogging right up to the event, sometimes while sitting in a chair getting hair and make-up done at the same time. That’s usually if I’m hosting a show or shooting for UTV Bindass Style Police. A couple of times in a month, I’m recording Shoppers’ Stop radio at Blue Frog, running for a movie preview or an event, and managing a manicure in between. On weekends, I have a pretty hectic social life, so I’ll blog till around 8 pm and then head out to document the scene. I often come home and upload the pictures the same night. I usually don’t get to bed until 1 or 2 am. That’s why I say, ‘You really have to love what you do to do this’.” There are also no Sundays off.  It’s all day, every day.

She started her blog in 2009. As the daughter of an Indian Foreign Services official, she travelled the world before finding herself in Delhi. There, she was briefly a professional dancer for a troupe called Veronica and the Planets, before she became a content writer for a web portal in 1998. Next, she switched to ChaloMumbai.com, the website of Mumbai’s Mid-Day tabloid, and then in 2003 to MTV India’s website as head of its ‘romance’ section. Then it was off to be a DJ at 92.5 FM Radio One and gossip columnist for Mid-Day for many years, before moving to Channel [V] as digital content head. And then Miss Malini happened. “My friend Karan Wadhera told me about a blog called PerezHilton.com, and suggested I start my own desi version. Since I loved to write and was already on the circuit, I figured, ‘Why not?’ What started as a hobby soon took over my life, and in February 2011, I quit Channel [V] and started doing this full-time. Now there’s no looking back.”

Along with the celeb quotient on her blog, what attracts eyeballs is how much of herself she puts onto it. This is about her view of the world, straight from her keyboard, take it or leave it. Even though she just talks about celebrities and all things ‘frivolous’, she refuses to be fazed by any of the barbs I aim at her for this, responding with the cool confidence of someone who knows exactly what she’s doing. It might also help that she is beautiful and full of charm.

“I think it helps a great deal to be well spoken and charming, no matter what you do,” she says, with a laugh, “I think because my blog is about Bollywood, fashion, glamour and a chic new desi girl lifestyle, it speaks to a modern Indian audience that appreciates and represents those things. I mean, if Rajinikanth was writing my blog, it would be a whole other sort of blog, right? I feel like I have my own voice, which my readers seem to like. I try not to take myself too seriously. I mean, let’s be honest, I’m not out there saving lives, I’m creating entertaining content, so I have fun with it.”

To many, that amounts to a job well done. Says fashion designer Narendra Kumar, “Her biggest strength is that she combines information with marketing and brings celebrities in as well.” Actor Rahul Khanna, a regular on Malini’s site, is almost gushy in his appraisal of her online outpourings. “Malini’s blog has a fresh, bright and happy vibe,” he says, “She and her flip-camera-wielding team are ubiquitous and always seem genuinely excited by whatever they’re covering. Her greatest asset is that she never sounds jaded or cynical, and always manages to put a positive spin on her posts without pandering [to anyone] or becoming overly ‘twee’. I can’t recall ever having read anything mean-spirited or inappropriate on her blog. It probably explains why PR people, companies and celebrities are so happy to collaborate with her.”

But doesn’t being nice all the time get tiresome? Is it just a business ploy or does she really like “everything and anything”? Malini doesn’t seem taken aback at all by my questions. “I guess it’s a matter of perception. I definitely don’t like ‘anything and everything’, but the overall voice of my blog is positive and high-energy, so that’s what stands out most. I like to blog about and recommend things that my readers will enjoy, since I’m an entertainment curator. I try to focus on the things I like. I also don’t think it’s necessary for a ‘lifestyle/Bollywood/gossip blog’ to be mean spirited.”

What Malini likes, of course, is well known in the fashion blogosphere. “I like to talk about the things I really love,” she says, “For example, I love Red Bull [the energy drink], I drink lots of it and have no problem promoting it. On the other hand, I can’t stand fairness creams and their never-ending commercials and will never promote or support a fairness cream campaign for any amount of money. In fact, I have an anti-fairness campaign on my blog, but it [says] that ‘Brown in Beautiful’, so I guess people see this as ‘happy and shiny’ too...”

On the near absence of snide remarks on her blog, Malini says, “I am also generally not a negative person. At the end of the day, this is a business and I have to pay the bills and my writers, so if it’s an advertorial or ‘sponsored tweet’, I say so. And all my promotions always have some kind of benefit for my readers—through contest prizes, or access to things they would not normally have, like fashion week passes or designer freebies. I’m told that in this business, you’ve really arrived when you have haters. But hate is not the opposite of love. The opposite of love is indifference. So I’m okay with a little hate. What’s most important to me is what my readers want, and they want to hear about their celebs in a good way,” she says, pauses, and then adds, “The one lesson I’ve learnt is that unlike in the West, people [in India] don’t really like to see Indian celebrities stripped of their make-up or looking less than idol-worthy. I posted a picture of Rajinikanth once without make-up [and] his full head of hair, and people flipped out.”

Still, that doesn’t stop rumours from circulating on how much a good word from her can be bought for. Ever since she grew famous, go these whispers, she has been charging Rs 35,000 for a favourable tweet. Malini grins on being told of it. “The business bit, you need to ask my manager,” she says, “I’m in charge of content. I think it’s important to understand that I’ve created an online destination for the best of Bollywood fashion and lifestyle, and I did it because I love everything about this space and am also a major tech junkie. Just like magazines have ads or TV shows have commercials, there is obviously a financial aspect to this business, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.”

Her personal manager Mike elaborates. “We don’t sell tweets like this,” he avers, “We do publicity packages. When we do sometimes work with advertisers on Twitter, it’s generally in conjunction with other promotional activities. Therefore, it wouldn’t be fully accurate to attribute the price you quoted today solely to Twitter. We help brands reach their target audience. But we never suggest anything we don’t like on the blog.”

Her critics, however, accuse her of blurring the line between earnest content and advertising. “She is the web equivalent of Mumbai Times,” sneers a Mumbai writer of a popular city blog who doesn’t want to be named, “People have to distinguish between journalism and a commercial enterprise. Hers is the latter, and people need to know that.”

Other critics charge her with blurring the line between what’s of private and what’s of public interest. Did she really need to blog about her entire wedding and honeymoon? “Yes,” says Malini, unflappable as ever, “I blogged all about my wedding and honeymoon, because, as I said, this blog is an extension of me and I thought it was interesting. If some people didn’t like it, that’s their prerogative, but I’ve had a tonne of comments that said they related to me as the ‘domestically challenged bride’ and liked my ideas of a beach wedding, glass bottle invite and all the bits and pieces my planners help me put together. My wedding videographers were amazing and have done some friends’ weddings too since… so everybody wins, right? If you find a great service, what’s wrong with promoting it?”

Candice Pereira of Marry Me Weddings, who planned Malini’s wedding (with Nowshad Rizwanullah), is thankful for the publicity she got. “Firstly,” she says, “Malini has a huge network/friends circle, and as you know is an extremely social person. That itself was a huge help. We are already planning two weddings of her friends. Secondly, her blog has a huge following and has got us many enquiries.” Such ‘win-win’ thinking does not impress everyone, though. “I mean,” remarks a fellow blogger, “isn’t anything sacred anymore?” 

This reporter has bumped into Malini at many events in Mumbai, and it’s easy to see she works like an Energizer Bunny. Her life is her blog. “The only time I’ve spent away from it since I began is three days when I went rafting in Rishikesh and didn’t have electricity or internet access. I said a sad little silent prayer to my BlackBerry when its last bar of battery drained…”

Fellow bloggers can’t help but admire her attitude. “I think people like living vicariously through Malini,” says Kanika Parab, another successful blogger whose blog Brown Paper Bag is a go-to guide for Mumbaikars, “She has the pulse of the party and does it like no one else. She is everywhere. There will be video clips, pictures, a live Twitter feed, the works.”

As we leave her at the party in Tote, she is standing in a dark corner, punching her BlackBerry keys furiously. She looks as if she is alone, but we know that she is reaching out to thousands with every word she keys in, many of them in real time. Ask Malini for her philosophy in life, and she rolls it off without a hesitation. “It’s a quote by Kafka in my favourite Tom Robbins book, Still Life With Woodpecker, and I think it’s so true for bloggers around the world—‘You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet’.”