Have you asked your mother?: Agencies are looking for Britain's first Asian supermodel. Amanda Waind explains how tradition and prejudice are getting in the way

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SHREENA rushed home joyfully and burst through the door. 'Mum] Mum] I've been accepted as a model]' Her mother closed the door quietly and glared at Shreena, who is 5ft 9in, with large eyes and a cloud of black hair.

'There was a stony silence, then she fetched my father who sent me up to my room and locked me in. I was locked in for two days and various uncles came to tell me I had disgraced the family and would be sent to India.'

Now Shreena only goes out with a chaperone. 'The ticket to India never appeared, but I've accepted that I'll never be a model.'

Shreena, who is taller than average, had great potential. A major problem for the agencies is finding Asian girls of a good height. Since the success of Yasmeen Ghauri, an American, a leading London agency, Models One, has become so desperate to find a British equivalent that it has taken the unprecedented step of advertising - 30-odd hopefuls apply every day, but they had never included an Asian girl.

'It feels like we're searching for the impossible, because strict Asian families look down on modelling,' says Jose Fonseca, director of the agency. 'Finally I went to India and found a fabulous girl in Delhi, where many people are westernised.' She believes the time is right for an Asian to make it big. 'Britains's 1.6 million Asian population should be represented.'

Anupma Jaidka agrees. She has set up what she believes is Britain's first serious Asian model agency, Leicester Model Team Asian Division. Anupma is a model, a classical Indian kathak dancer. One of the rungs on her career ladder was winning the title Miss Asia UK 1991 - her portfolio includes a letter from Keith Vaz, a Leicester MP, congratulating her on her win. Even that route to modelling success has now been cut off, however. This year's competition has been called off following protests from Sikh community leaders and others.

'I'm looking for 50 models - girls, men, children. My parents support me and I want to give others the chances I've had. There's a need for an agency because there are so many cowboys. When I won my title there were all these people giving me cards and when I went round the guy said: 'You have to sleep with each of us before you get work'.'

Agencies with names that suggest worldwide connections advertise in the Indian press, but the come-on can lead to disappointment, says Anupma. The agencies all say they want to see the girls, but when they turn up for appointments there is often no one there. 'Or they charge pounds 800 for a few photographs. Girls come to me heartbroken.'

Anupma, who is wearing a suede jacket and houndstooth leggings, sends one of the waiting hopefuls up and down her short catwalk. 'Head up, shoulders back, more confident. How tall are you? Can you come into the office for a moment?' Pairs of girls and lone men watch from grey banquettes beneath blow-ups of Jeff Banks visiting the agency and Anupma's partner, Angie Chapman, in her modelling days.

'I asked Anu to set up the Asian division because we have a lot of Asian businessmen asking for models for advertising,' she explained. There was enormous demand from local fashion houses, clothes manufacturers and importers, which they could not meet.

But finding the right girls brings its own problems. 'My mum would kill me if she knew I was here,' says 16-year-old Rekha, waiting with her sister, Tina. 'She thinks I'm at school.' If accepted, she will model secretly. 'Until someone sees my picture. Then I'll worry.'

Mindy, 17, who has joined the agency and done catwalk shows while studying for A-levels in Birmingham, faces fewer problems. 'My parents are fine, though there are certain restrictions. They wouldn't let me do glamour modelling, I can't do swimsuits. I'm half Sikh, half Muslim but I can wear skirts. A lot of our relatives don't know because they would disapprove.'

Mindy says she is breaking down barriers. 'We're moving away from the stereotype of 'Asian girls shouldn't do this or that . . . Asian girls never do anything'. I heard a phone-in about Miss Asia UK and the comments from Asian guys were shocking: 'Oh, girls can't do this, it's a disgrace, the culture is dying'.'

Male models suffer prejudice, too. Navtej Notay, a Sikh who is modelling while studying industrial business systems at De Montfort University, Leicester, is the subject of disapproval from his temple.

'My parents support me all the way, but we have some very religious relatives. The temple is a den of gossip and if one person knows they all do, and you're an outcast. Our family has suffered so much hassle we're no longer speaking to a lot of them.'

His sister has model potential but risks being ostracised if she exploits it. 'People are already outraged because she danced at a family birthday and because they think she perms her hair. In fact it's naturally curly.'

'People say the same about my daughter, Shireen,' says Ivylin, mother of a child model.

When Anupma won Miss Asia UK, the best prize - better than the pounds 20,000- worth of jewellery, clothes, trips to the Far East and the States, or even the pounds 1,000 Hindu wedding dress - was the bottle of Salvador perfume her mum gave her. 'Her support is vital. My brother Ajay models, too, and now we've proven the relatives wrong they don't know how to react. You've got to be a strong person to model or you get depressed. I do.'

Manzoor Moghal, executive member of the Federation of Muslim Organisations and chairman of Leicester City Council race relations committee, says a large majority of Asians will always shun models.

'Modelling is seen as dubious, leading to immorality and ruining marriage prospects. For Muslims it's anathema. Muslims are not supposed to expose their legs to public view. You shouldn't even be able to detect the body contours. Of course, some of the girls are moving away from these concepts quite deliberately.

'Hindus are a little more relaxed about the female form. Dancing is considered an accomplishment for girls, even before marriage, and dancing in the temple pleases the gods. Still, most Hindus disapprove of models, and Sikhs dislike seeing girls dance publicly.'

Mr Moghal says there is a double standard: 'Men who don't condone modelling within their own community are quite happy to look at other girls. The female body is very beautiful.' Male models don't pose such a problem. 'People do not have such a fear that men will go astray.'

Some people do. Suresh, 6ft 2in with long wavy hair, modelled with a Birmingham agency while running catering businesses. 'My parents' reaction was to fly to India. I'm 23 and they punished me by staying away until I gave up modelling.' He stopped, his businesses failed and they returned. 'Being a bankrupt is OK, but modelling they can't take.'

Anupma is good at letting people down lightly. 'A big problem is height. I'm looking for 5ft 8in for girls, 5ft 10in for men, but I've accepted some shorter girls for hand and face work. People lie about their height, especially the girls. The other problem is exposure. Many girls are brought up to wear salwar (loose trousers) . . . I'm not sure I would do a swimsuit.'

Today she interviews 19 and sees one 'potential'. The search has its comic side as the hopefuls sidle in turn through the door.

'Is this the model agency?' asks a squat, bearded Sikh.

'Yes. Er . . . is it you?' asks Anupma. No, it's his photogenic children, waiting in the car.

'You'd be amazed,' she says, while he goes to fetch them, 'at the ugly people who expect me to sign them on.'

She hopes to use the contacts she made during her title year to take a Western fashion show to India. 'I want to take Asian modelling beyond saris and Indian jeans.'

One new recruit, 16-year-old Sonia Gosai, is the face of the future. 'I have a lot of support from my family and I've done some modelling for a photographer who's a family friend. I don't mind modelling anything that isn't tacky. Disapproval doesn't bother me. There's nothing wrong in it - and I think I might change people's minds.'

(Photographs omitted)

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