Two nights before her wedding, after a long day of preliminary ceremonies, the last thing Aruna Mukherji remembers to do before she turns in for the night is check the blog Highheelconfidential.com. “Haaaah,” she grins, pointing to a photograph of an uncharacteristically well-dressed Lady Gaga. “She’s actually looking chic, no?” she asks, sounding like herself for the first time in quite a while.
A lawyer in her late twenties and an out-and-out Bombay girl, Mukherji is a confirmed fashion aficionado. She owns several Louis Vuitton bags and Burberry purses. Copies of the latest editions of Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar can reliably be found on her bedside table. But these, she says, can get a little boring at times. “They are all so glossy and good looking, after a while I stop noticing the photos. It’s all one haze of beautifulness. On High Heel, I can check out each photo separately. And what I love about them is that they have daily updates. The writing is snappy and crisp. Just enough to know what works, what sucks. And I don’t have to wait a whole month to find out.”
About 25,000 people log on to the blog every day for pretty much the same reason: a daily fix of celebrity style with mostly good-natured sizing up. This includes Bollywood actors and designers and cosmetic houses like Lakme. It’s clear that High Heel Confidential’s opinions hit home.
“I check out the blog like many of my colleagues in the industry,” says actress Neha Dhupia, “Because you don’t want to wear the same thing that someone else has worn. Plus, it’s quite a lot of fun, it’s interactive, it’s like a gang of girls sitting around with coffee and chatting about what people are wearing.”
In an interview to The Telegraph in 2010, Rani Mukherjee admitted checking out the blog: “...even if I see High Heel Confidential or something, it is just for fun. It’s timepass.” Designer Namrata Joshipura takes a thumbs-up from the blog seriously enough to tweet the mention and put it up on her official Facebook page. One prominent Mumbai socialite has threatened the website with a possible lawsuit if it posted her images.
The blog’s formula is simple: photographs of mostly Indian celebs, occasionally international celebs wearing Indian designers, accompanied by captions that identify the labels—from the hat to the pumps. High Heel Confidential sticks to women. The tone is chatty but never catty. When someone looks like she’s walked out of the kids’ channel Pogo, the blog keeps it civil--‘don’t like’ or ‘doesn’t work’. But its writers do have opinions of their own. At Cannes 2012, Aishwarya Rai did an unfortunate photo shoot in a Roberto Cavalli kaftan where she looked like a warrior princess at a kids’ fancy dress party. Pretty much everybody gave her a thumbs-up, but her kaftan left the blogwriters unimpressed. ‘Neither did we like the print nor the hair styling,’ went their put-down.
While they come off as good humoured, rarely are they witty. But they recently made an exception for Rani Mukherjee, noting that ‘she looked great neck up’ at Karan Johar’s birthday party. It has to be said though that Rani’s get up brought out the best in caption writers across the media; Delhi Times had this to say: ‘Rani, your mother called. She wants her favourite nightie back’.
Online, High Heel Confidential draws roughly triple the traffic that the Indian website of Vogue manages to pull in. These figures are provided by the web analytics specialist Alexa.com, which ranks 30 million websites across the internet. By its numbers, the traffic on other Indian fashion magsites is far lower.
Of course, it stands to reason that a blog that offers daily updates will generate more daily interest than a magazine that is a monthly affair. Also, it is a fair point that a print magazine’s main readers will buy it and read it the good old fashioned way, with a copy in their hands. But here’s the thing: Vogue, or any such glossy for that matter, has a roster of staff, production budgets, editors, designers.
This blog is run by two young women, both of whom live in America and have careers beyond their blog. Moreover, neither did Priyanka Prasad and Payal Parijia studied fashion, nor do they work in any related industry. Priyanka went to business school and worked full time in advertising till very recently. She quit to work freelance. Payal had an infotech education, but she refuses to divulge what exactly her day job is. ‘Suffice to say, it has nothing to do with fashion and is as far removed as it can be,’ writes Payal over email, smiley attached.
The two met through Priyanka’s husband, and one fine evening after a couple of drinks, they decided to set up a blog together. ‘Initially we’d just write about anything that caught our eye with respect to fashion… bags, shoes, even style in films,’ in Payal’s words, ‘But we were quick to notice a pattern: every time we posted a celebrity, the hits spiked. Some quick research also showed there were no websites then solely dedicated to critiquing Indian celebrities’ sartorial choices. We picked a niche and called it home.’
That was 2007 and fortuitous timing, as the red carpet culture had just rolled out in India. The Indian edition of Vogue had made its debut just the year before, and public appearances were fast becoming opportunities to make style statements, not least business opportunities to endorse brands.
“They caught on to the red carpet culture before anyone else,” says Bandana Tewari, fashion features director at Vogue India. “Fashion writing in India was limited to Bollywood, and that too focused typically on the very occasional outing like a film awards night or Cannes. These girls made it about celebrities: a Gauri Khan or Kalyani Chawla or Parmeshwar Godrej’s clothes are now discussed as much as an Aishwarya or Priyanka Chopra’s. The blog benefited from that first mover’s advantage; they created an audience which has remained with them. And what’s remarkable to me is how hardworking these girls are. Every party, product launch, premiere—they have it. If you missed last night’s party and want to know who wore what first thing in the morning, it’s up on the blog. I’m not sure I would be able to do as much with all the resources we have here,” says Tewari, laughing.
The blog’s superquick updates are due in large part to the fact that Priyanka and Payal live in the US; they optimise the time difference with India. “I send them photos as I click them at parties,” says Viral Bhayani, a Mumbai-based freelance photographer who shoots for Payal and Priyanka apart from a bunch of Indian newspapers. “They work on the blog during what is night for us. That’s why the content looks so fresh.”
Bhayani is the blog’s sole photographer, which means that it operates on the efforts of just three people in all. An old hand in Mumbai’s glam scene, Bhayani is a smart choice. Having been in the business for a good 15 years, his access to Mumbai parties is formidable. More crucially, he clearly enjoys his gig at High Heel Confidential.
“I’ve been getting so many offers to work from women who want to start similar blogs. They all want to copy High Heel. My work is being noticed a lot more now. All the celebs—I won’t take names—say, ‘Please make sure I look good on High Heel.’ And Payal and Priyanka are cool. They don’t tell me what to do. They leave me free to decide what to cover. I like that. If I ask them to pay me a bit more for an assignment, they’ve never refused. It’s much more fulfilling than working for small outfits.”
Bhayani’s fame as High Heel’s lensman also gets him special access to a number of ultra-exclusive dos. When fashion glossy Grazia threw a party in honour of designers Angela Missoni and Christian Louboutin at Mumbai’s Four Seasons hotel recently, Bhayani was one of the few photographers invited. Dior, Louis Vuitton and international luxury houses now typically send him press invitations to their events, a privilege that his work for newspapers and magazines has not earned him yet.
The most exclusive of these bashes is the Bombay Times anniversary bash, to which naturally only the Times Group’s photographers get access. Bhayani didn’t get an invitation, but last year, the BT team sent images taken at the celebs-only party to High Heel Confidential, the only media outlet given that privilege.
“To be honest, everyone who follows fashion talks about them,” says Anjana Sharma, spokesperson of the Lakme India Fashion Week (LIFW). In 2010, Priyanka and Payal were invited to cover the event, where they were given quite the special treatment. Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee took them backstage before his show and did a walk-through of the line-up. Later, at a party, he introduced them to his team as the ‘High Heel girls’. ‘Made our week, that did,’ says Payal, ‘Designers such as Nachiket Barve, Kallol Datta and Rimzim Dadu were also very warm.’
It was around the same time that banner ads started appearing on the blog site. Most of these are from Indian online shopping outfits, but the blog has managed to snag an advertisement from the classy high-end New York clothing store, Saks Fifth Avenue. A query about revenue figures elicits smileys, but the girls admit that the money has been enough to fund the blog for the past two years. Now, in fact, Payal and Priyanka are planning to hire a freelance photographer in south India because of the growing interest in southern cinema stars.
Given all the positive buzz and good press, what’s surprising is how media-shy Priyanka and Payal are. They like to do their interviews over email. The only time they agreed to a photo shoot was for Vogue India in 2011. After the warm welcome they got from the fashion fraternity in 2010, they have decided to keep away from launches and ‘blog in absentia’. They refuse to say where they work. They were reluctant to do even a phone interview for this story. Their own answer to this is a standard, rehearsed one they have given to many publications: ‘We aren’t the celebs, we just cover them.’