Cover Story

The New Second Sex

Photographer
Rohit Chawla
Shefalee Vasudev is the author of The Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion. She is editor, Digital & Content, IMG-Reliance
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Exploited, underpaid, underemployed, and still dreaming. The agony of the Indian male model

Ethically confusing, exploitative and often toxic—these damning words are the untold story of many male models in India. Some would shrug off these dark insinuations and call it a career dipped in the glistening gel of glamour, with exciting fashion shows at five-star hotels and beach resorts, bare- dare parties high on booze and buzz, the chance to hobnob with top designers and wear their clothes. Besides, of course, a renewable licence to dream about a Bollywood break. If a guy is lucky, he also gets to climb city billboards with or without a shirt. That climb, though, is often steep and comes after numerous gut-wrenching crunches in an industry that is mostly unregulated and unstructured.

Let’s start again with the facts. Even as the outcry against the sexually exploitative ways of glamour moguls like Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, top actors like Kevin Spacey, A-list fashion photographers like Terry Richardson—known for his creepy obsession with sexually explicit imagery—is finally wrapping the West with scandal and shame, not a murmur has emerged in India. Scores of models in the US and UK have expressed solidarity with the #MeToo and #MyBodyShouldNotIncludeAbuse campaigns. American fashion model Cameron Russell’s Instagram page offers support to exploited models; it also elaborates how the very definition of sexual harassment has described her job over the years. There has also been a recent global movement towards empowerment of the fashion industry through ‘woke’ models who fight for diversity in race, colour, size and gender. Yet, not one Indian model, male or female, has stood up to confess a shaming incident or call out a predator.

Whether it is a conspiracy of silence, shifting the blame to the film industry where the casting couch finds a stronger echo, or the fact that professional boundaries get blurred because of consent amongst all, is hard to tell. Perhaps all these reasons are true to some extent.

What is not true, though, is the assumption that the world of Indian fashion rotates on an ethical axis and is fair to models. That’s an illusion. Girls and boys are exploited here like in every other profession. There is also the negative psychological build- up of backstage politics in big or small events, where, according to Ninja Singh, an Indian-American model, the former face of Maybelline New York who runs a modelling agency called Ninjas Model Management, “young talent is not given limelight in fashion weeks and there is no mentoring in the industry”. Singh feels that fashion, which has prospered in India over the last few years, remains ethically stunted; it celebrates men and women as showstoppers on the ramp, but has little regard for them once the show is over.

The dice are loaded against male models.

It all starts with inadequate work. “Only 5 per cent of the shows at Amazon India Fashion Week include menswear, so modelling assignments for boys are fewer and there is a disparity. We allow designers to choose their own models for their shows instead of holding centralised auditions, like for girls,” says Sunil Sethi, president of The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI).

Designer Tarun Tahiliani says the Indian designer market is more a women’s wear hub. “Men are essentially fond of casual wear, except when it comes to weddings, whereas corporate wear is hardly created by our designers,” he says.

Few menswear fashion events on one hand and a clear preference on the other for sports stars and film celebrities for ad campaigns and as showstoppers make male modelling a slippery pursuit. After all, Sachin Tendulkar sells Quaker Oats, Virat Kohli models wedding wear while romancing his girlfriend actor Anushka Sharma, Amitabh Bachchan sells everything from insurance to retirement schemes and mobile apps, and star couples like Akhshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna or Shah Rukh and Gauri Khan sell jewels and homes. Even a paan masala must be endorsed by a jarringly dressed-up Ajay Devgn. Male models play second fiddle.

“With great looks, great bodies and sex appeal, most models do become objects of desire. We are trophies, to be given away in the bedroom” - Arry Dabas, Manhunt International Mr India

It makes the playing field unscrupulous. Ask Amit Ranjan. Born and raised in Delhi, Ranjan relocated to Mumbai for better opportunities. Besides modelling contracts for brands like Monte Carlo, Fastrack watches and Maruti Swift, he walks for India’s most prestigious designers. “When ambitions become bigger than our moral values, it opens the door for all kinds of compromises,” he says admitting that the exchange of sexual favours is the worst-kept secret among male models, and since it is mostly consensual, nobody complains. Ranjan also talks about insufficient work for boys, marked-down job fees compared to girls, and subtler forms of harassment like disrespect of their time during show fittings where, after hours of waiting because the designer or the stylist is late, girls are given priority to try clothes and boys made to hang around endlessly.

The absence of HR or employee regulations without any concept of working hours in the fashion industry is not peculiar to India. Last year, in a story titled ‘The Hidden Dangers of Male Modelling’, Newsweek reported how the international fashion community struggled to safeguard its youngest employees. ‘Many have very little employment protection, are ill-informed of their rights and suffer from a culture of silence that protects the abusers within the industry who are considered too powerful to confront,’ says the report.

“With good looks, great bodies and sex appeal, most models do become objects of desire. We are trophies, to be given away in the bedroom, a benchmark of attainment for power brokers,” says Arry Dabas who, after winning the Manhunt International Mr India title in 2012, went on to win the Mr Photogenic title in Bangkok the same year. “When I moved to Mumbai, the hub for modelling and films, I expected a high level of professionalism and work ethics. I was sadly disappointed,” says Dabas. He hails from Hisar in Haryana, and during hotel management studies in Bengaluru, he had been spotted, trained and groomed into a model by well-known fashion guru Prasad Bidappa. “Male models were the lowest in the pecking order in Mumbai and it was impossible to get any work if you were new and struggling. A lot of low-level coordinators made it clear that in this city you needed to sleep your way to the top. Other models who had fallen prey advised me against this, as it was nothing but sheer exploitation, and would get you nowhere in the end,” says Dabas. He later cleared the auditions at Lakme Fashion Week.

For the record, no allegations of unfair behaviour have ever surged against top fashion week events like the Amazon India Fashion Week held in Delhi or Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai, which follow structured model auditions by a carefully picked jury comprising multiple male and female members and all in the presence of the media. Sethi emphasises that they pay two to three times more than ordinary events and it would be wrong to underestimate the Indian (female) fashion model.

Few menswear fashion events on one hand and a clear preference on the other for sports stars and film celebrities for ad campaigns and as showstoppers make male modelling a slippery pursuit

Yet, established fashion weeks are not the only work sites for models. In smaller towns, dubious deals are more the rule than the exception. Sexual favours demanded by unregistered model coordinators who double up as event managers, the bullying of young aspirants to work without fees and without any contracts or sending them to hang out at client ‘parties’ with open-ended possibilities, are some instances. Jeet Brar who has run a modelling agency in Chandigarh for the last 27 years and is a grooming guru, says, “Forget delayed money or underpaid work; here models are asked to pay for the work given to them, sometimes a huge sum if it is for a Punjabi music video or as registration fees for smaller modelling jobs.”

If a payment pyramid is made of the Indian modelling scenario— top female models like Lakshmi Menon (she rarely walks the Indian ramp), Lakshmi Rana, Noyonika Chatterjee, Sapna Kumar and Sonalika Sahay, among others, would be placed on the top, thin slice of the cone. These girls are their own agents, they choose the designers and events they want to engage with, and get up to Rs 50,000 per show. Advertising campaigns pay much more. At the bottom of this pyramid are aspiring male models, mostly from the small towns of Punjab and Haryana, who add to the supply surplus, find little or no work, have no full-time job or Plan B to fall back upon, and often agree to work for free in the hope that someone will spot them and mint them into the next Arjun Rampal.

“When ambition becomes bigger than our moral values, it opens the door for all kinds of compromises” - Amit Ranjan, Mumbai-based model

Between these two extremes stretches a vast network of small and big models, male and female, some suited to campaigns, others to the ramp, some who only model their hands and feet for specific products, others happy to pose in lingerie, underwear, for beauty and hair advertisements. Most of them are Indian, but many established agencies also supply international models. From Rs 3,000 to Rs 25,000, you can find male models of any personality. In small towns, models work for anything between Rs 2,000 to Rs 6,000 per assignment, which could stretch to more than a day or two. Boys get 25 per cent of what is paid to girls—if they get paid at all. In cities at established fashion weeks, men get Rs 10,000 to 25,000 per show. “Small town modelling agencies take 70-80 per of the total remuneration as their cut and offer no legally binding modelling contract,” says Brar. In contrast, such agencies in cities take 30 per cent as their commission and offer a legitimate work scenario.

By and large, the industry is unregulated and pays no heed to the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976, which requires Indian employers to pay equal remuneration to workers for the same work—or work of a similar nature—without any discrimination on the basis of gender.

THERE ARE OTHER laterals to this story. The body shop mould of Arjun Rampal and Milind Soman—India’s only male supermodels—still influences the notion of the perfect male body in fashion. Rampal, who hailed from the small town of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, became the muse of famous designer Rohit Bal, who promoted and mentored him regardless of industry and media gossip about the nature of their relationship. Rampal chiselled both his body and his enthusiasm and successfully crossed over to Hindi cinema. John Abraham, Dino Morea, Marc Robinson, Jas Arora were also in the race, but were placed slightly lower in stud value than Soman and Rampal. Then arrived Randeep Hooda and Siddharth Malhotra, among others.

A lean body, shirtlessness and a stubble— that’s the currently saleable formula. Every ‘body’ is photographed in a certain way

Soman’s face and body got stamped in memory when he discarded traditional prudery in 1994. For a Tuff shoes campaign, he wrapped himself with nothing but a python and the sizzling chemistry he shared with his then girlfriend Madhu Sapre.

“To trace the footsteps of Rampal, Soman or Malhotra, boys leave homes and education, even jobs and other steady incomes to join modelling,” says senior choreographer and fashion communications expert Harmeet Bajaj. The industry doesn’t have much to offer boys, she adds, but there is no reality check despite the obvious fact that while so many Indian female models have found work and name in the West, not one male model from India has made it to international fashion.

Many others agree. “They come in hordes from villages and smaller towns, charmed by the chamak-dhamak of glamour. They want to believe they have a chance in films, get to visit grand destinations and make good-looking girlfriends,” says Brar, adding that every year 1,000-odd aspirant male models enroll in modelling agencies in cities like Chandigarh. “It is all about body cuttings. Without cuttings, boys have no chance as there is so much competition,” says Brar, referring to muscle ‘cuts’ on the body acquired through punishing gym workouts, self-prescribed proteins and steroids. “In my heyday, I spent four years in the gym to get a model’s body, but could not get what these boys achieve in less than a year,” says Brar, admitting that he started out as a model himself but lack of consistent work diverted him towards choreography and grooming.

A lean body, shirtlessness and a stubble—that’s the currently saleable formula. Just a look at some pictures confirms that every ‘body’ is photographed in a certain way. Consider the bodacious Neelaksh Apte listed in Anima Model Management’s site under the ‘Male in Town’ (which means currently available for assignments). Or even the photographs of Flavio, Josef, Diego and Bruno at Purple Management’s website, bare-torso men from other countries with two-day stubbles vying for work with local models.

The body shop mould of Arjun Rampal and Milind Soman—India’s only male supermodels—still influences the notion of the perfect male body in fashion

That’s why stylist Gautam Kalra, who has directed many a campaign for established brands and works as a behind-the- scenes maverick for designers at fashion weeks, makes this point: “A good body does not make a good model as scores of boys from small towns seem to believe. This cliché, ‘You should be a model because you are good looking’, needs to be examined.” He adds, “What boys need for success in modelling is good manners, personality, grooming and educational background to make the right decisions between their primary career and secondary hobbies, the right professional etiquette to work with modelling agencies that charge them 30 per cent commission, as it is in most cases. It is worth it. The work is legitimate, the casting is professional.” Kalra says it sad to see 90 per cent of male models ready to work free or throw themselves at designers or stylists. “It comes across as very cheesy and I frequently discourage the notion that looks are a passport to socialite evenings and parties,” he says.

Often, the desperate aspirant, pumped on iron and steroids and turned restless by unemployment, chases a powerful figure in the fashion industry to befriend. “Some assume that gay designers and stylists are easy prey as there is a profusion of them in the fashion industry. But that’s sometimes unfair, as those who tend to exploit are of any sexual persuasion,” says a stylist who does not wish to be named.

No wonder, Bajaj and FDCI chief Sethi stress the need of a strong Plan B, a day job to support boys in their ambitions in the business of glamour. Kalra offers another tip. “Since 80 per cent of ramp shows are female oriented, men need to look beyond catwalk shows. They could tap advertising [opportunities] through professional modelling agencies, where if successful, they can earn from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh a day,” he says.

By and large, the industry pays no heed to the law that requires employers to pay equal remuneration for the same work regardless of gender

However, an anecdote of Dabas throws up a potent dilemma for everyone engaged with fashion. “I remember a colleague of mine, a girl who’s done very well in the industry, telling me once that the trick was to sleep with the one person who mattered and who could do something for you. I was pretty shocked at her frankness, but later realised that she made an important point,” he says. Must we then ask who makes it big in modelling—someone good looking, smart and suited to the profession of a clothes horse or someone who is all this besides being strategic and not conflicted about what the industry repeatedly terms a ‘compromise’?

The more compelling question to ask and answer is where the buck stops in a profession that turns a person into a product. Can modelling agencies just function as supply chains regardless of the other issues? Should designers take responsibility for the safety and dignity of models who walk for their shows? Should fashion week bodies initiate industry-regulation mechanisms? Would brands and individuals who host glitzy evenings rethink what they mean when they breezily call up agencies to ‘send models to the late night party’?

Earlier this month, British model Edie Campbell wrote an open letter to fashion publication WWD urging the industry that it was time to ‘reassess what exactly it meant to be uncool’ as fashion hates ‘boring and uncool people’. Abuse, she pointed out, was pervasive for male models, like for ‘young female victims’. Campbell also listed the belittling of assistants, asking models to change in front of everyone, diva-like tantrums by the powerful and other liberties taken by genius-artists as part of harassment. After all, an assault on one’s dignity need not just be sexual.

Designer Anupamaa Dayal calls the fashion industry’s collective complacence the “fallout of a chalta hai culture” that nobody seems keen to challenge. “We all need to take responsibility. Let’s begin to talk about it and see what we can individually and collectively change and protect those who show our creations,” she says. Ninja Singh agrees. “I take responsibility for myself and for the models registered with my agency. They cannot be exploited on my watch,” she says.

High time. Else, unspoken resentment will fester like a wound. Like with top English model Kate Moss, who, 20 years after the topless Calvin Klein ad that shot her to fame, finally admitted that it led her to a nervous breakdown.

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