This year's model: How Lakshmi Menon put India in Vogue

Lakshmi Menon only took up modelling to earn some pocket money. Now she has entered the fashion stratosphere with her first solo editorial shoot in American'Vogue'. But her success raises one, deeply unsettling question: why is she the only South Asian model regularly strutting down the international catwalks?

Rhiannon Harries
Sunday 17 May 2009 00:00 BST

When US Vogue booked Lakshmi Menon for a lavish 12-page shoot in this month's issue of the magazine, the 26-year-old model had, by her own admission, only a vague understanding of the significance of the decision. Photographed on location near her home in Goa, southern India, Menon confesses that what most excited her about the job was the thought that, for once, her commute would not involve a transcontinental flight.

"Everyone around me was pretty thrilled about the whole thing," says Menon wryly. "But I didn't realise until a few weeks ago when my agent said to me, 'Do you know how big this is?' Your first solo editorial in US Vogue has huge prestige, I believe."

Menon's appealingly relaxed attitude belies the magnitude of her professional achievement. Her prominent place in the fashion bible's "The Real Lives of Models" issue, alongside industry icons such as Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell, is all but a guarantee of an eventual spot in the firmament of females known the world over by their first name alone.

Outside the US, ultra-cool London stylist Nicola Formichetti, who picked Menon for the cover of last month's Dazed & Confused magazine, thinks she is the "girl of the season... personifying the powerful modern woman". Anaita Shroff Adajania, fashion director of Vogue India – the latest addition to the Vogue family – has put her on the cover twice already, describing her look as "unique and arresting".

Sarah Doukas, head of UK model agency Storm and the woman who discovered Kate Moss, confesses to being "amazed" by the combination of her "beauty, charisma and presence". Not bad for a girl who began modelling to earn a bit of "good pocket money" while studying for a degree in sociology at the University of Bangalore.

As a tale of personal success, Menon's skyward trajectory is in itself remarkable. But it's what it might represent in a larger context that makes her ascent to fashion royalty truly exceptional: Menon also happens to be the only Indian model regularly seen on the runways of New York and Paris, in international fashion publications and advertising campaigns. For the first time, it looks as though India may have a bona fide international supermodel on its hands. One can't help but ask, what took so long?

Of course, the notoriously skewed version of the female race presented to us by the fashion business has always been riddled with lacunae. While the styles that designers unveil each season can and often do reflect the real world, the elite band of girls chosen to model them have never seemed to have much in common with the millions of women who study them for cues on the ever-changing constituent elements of beauty and elegance.

Impossibly thin, impossibly young, impossibly tall – the psychological dynamic that keeps us buying the latest clothes and cosmetics is founded on an unbridgeable gap between reality and fantasy. Very few of us expect, or maybe even (dare one say it?) want, to look at pictures of women who share our flaws. But skin colour and ethnicity are a different matter and, in the past decade, public demands for a greater number of black models have made it clear that there is no excuse for the fashion world's failure to embrace non-Caucasian women. Strangely, however, little mention has been ever made of the absence of Indian and South Asian girls on the runways.

It is a situation that Menon was only too aware of when she began her international career in 2006, after several years of modelling in India: "When I first signed with agencies in Europe and the US I barely did anything; it was one show here, another there. At that time it was completely dominated by Caucasian girls, particularly Russians. There were a few black girls, of course, such as Liya Kebede – and someone like Naomi Campbell would do the odd show- stopper – but there weren't many girls of colour at all."

Menon's own big break came when Jean Paul Gaultier cast her for a show for his own label, which led to a job on the Hermès catwalk (also designed by Gaultier) and finally the Hermès advertising campaign. Starring roles in major campaigns for Max Mara and Givenchy followed and Menon's status as a face to watch was secured.

It has been only in the past six months, however, that the floodgates have really opened, says Menon, who dates the sudden spike in American interest in non-Caucasian girls to Barack Obama's election. The launch of Vogue India in 2007 has also been a factor, she thinks: "Being Condé Nast, all the Vogue magazines are circulated within the company so US Vogue sees what's going on in India and vice versa."

Shroff Adajania agrees that the "Vogue effect" is a known phenomenon. "Without sounding too pompous, I think Vogue India opened people's eyes to the fact that Indian girls can be amazing," she explains. "Immediately after Vogue Russia launched there were suddenly lots of Russian girls on the runway, so I believe there's a direct connection."

With characteristic detachment, Menon is quick to point out that it may be nothing more than a passing fad: "Fashion goes through its own phases and trends, of course. It's one look for a few years and then people get bored with it and start looking for something new."

However long it may last, in the eyes of the world right now, India and everything associated with it are anything but boring. The subcontinent is in the middle of its own cultural "moment", as the fairy-tale Oscar success of Danny Boyle's Mumbai-based flick Slumdog Millionaire demonstrated.

Freida Pinto, star of the film, is reportedly now in talks to join Elizabeth Hurley and Gwyneth Paltrow as a "face" of Estée Lauder, and the Pussycat Dolls' sexed-up version of the Bollywood anthem "Jai Ho" from the film's soundtrack recently hit number three in the UK charts. Beyond the mainstream, trendy London magazine Tank has dedicated its latest issue to all things Indian, putting Menon's lesser-known fellow model Monikangana Dutta on the cover.

From a modelling perspective, Menon thinks that India's spot in the limelight has been a long time coming. "You see groups of girls from certain countries who dominate the business for a period of time – the Brazilians, the Russians – it would be great to see something like that for Indian girls," she enthuses. "And it's about time, I guess, given the way in which India is opening up as a new market. It would be only fair to have representation."

The lack of models from India and other South Asian countries is difficult to attribute to any one factor. Storm's Doukas thinks that if a barrier exists, it is a cultural one – modelling is simply not viewed as the glamorous, aspirational career that it is in the West: "Girls from Pakistan, ' Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India tend to come from religious backgrounds where traditions and sometimes old-fashioned ideals are upheld," she explains. "This is changing, slowly, as fashion and modelling gain a higher prominence in countries such as India, where the fashion industry is becoming more respected."

Menon's family, however, have always been unequivocal in their support of her career, and she thinks that values and traditions are changing more quickly than those outside South Asia, particularly India, perhaps imagine: "Anything to do with the body was once considered taboo, but people here are getting freer and there are new avenues all the time. My parents have never given me any trouble over it. As I was growing up they always told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, as long as I did it well.

"If there aren't many South Asian girls modelling, that's because the agencies haven't looked," she adds. "I don't think anyone has really come to India to scout for girls, or at least not in the same way they go to South America or Eastern Europe. In a country of more than 1.2 billion, there are bound to be beautiful women – I mean, come on, who are we kidding?"

Formichetti concedes that the fashion industry has been apathetic in seeking out Asian models. "It's a shame; there are even fewer Asian girls than black girls, which is why it's so exciting when you find a girl like Lakshmi," she says. "I think people are just scared of taking risks. They won't start doing it until everyone else does."

Talking to young British-Asian women, it becomes clear just how unsettling this void may be. Bhavni, a 26-year-old doctor, feels that the dominance of Caucasian female models in mainstream editorial and advertising has, for a long time, made it difficult to connect with her own culture.

"Depending on the community you come from, it has a big impact on the way you perceive things," she says. "The school that I went to was predominantly white, the people on the TV I watched were white and the girls I saw in magazines were white or – very occasionally – black. It wasn't until I moved to London and experienced a really multicultural society that it hit me that I'd never had any influence or role models from Asian culture; I grew up looking at pictures of Kate Moss. Even from a very basic point of view, things such as make-up tips for Asian skin, there was nothing that was relevant to me"

Media management consultant Seema, 28, admits to similar experiences: "I didn't feel hugely aware of it at the time, but the girls I always aspired to be were white or black. The Asian look just didn't seem to exist in fashion pages. Looking back, I think that was part of the reason why I was never very loud and proud about my culture. I didn't reject it, but the looks I gravitated towards were all Western concepts of fashion and beauty. Subconsciously, I think the Asian part of my identity was repressed because it didn't seem cool."

Logically, then, one would imagine that a new wave of Asian models would be a wholly good thing for Asian women everywhere, but psychotherapist and author Susie Orbach isn't so sure. In her recent book, Bodies, Orbach describes the acute and pervasive body anxiety that exists in modern society, fuelled by images of a single, globalised version of physical beauty (manipulated by both the scalpel and the airbrush).

Orbach sees the absence of Asian women in fashion imagery as a double-edged situation: "We live in such a visual culture, I think it has serious problems for everyone – a South Asian girl might have felt protected from all that on the one hand, or even more excluded on the other.

"What this subject raises is the demand there is for us to see different kinds of bodies, so that girls will grow up without those voids and with multiple bodies to identify with. I wouldn't want to see Asian women represented in the same narrow way that Western women are either."

A case of "out of the frying pan and into the fire", perhaps, as more Asian models make it into mainstream fashion? Orbach's concerns are brought into sharper focus when one considers some of Menon's work so far – the US Vogue shoot was a riot of Goan carnival colour, the theme of the Dazed shoot drew on "ancient civilisations" and the Hermès campaign was unashamed in its use of Orientalist iconography (somewhat ironically, Menon confides that the shoot was the first time she had been near an elephant in her life).

Refreshingly, her advertising work for Givenchy and Max Mara is resolutely free of "ethnic" references, and on the catwalks Menon is a model like any other, regardless of skin tone. Talking to her, however, you can't help but get the impression that for her there is a lot more to life than being a model. "As long as I can still live in India and work in the West, I'll carry on," she says firmly. "But the day I feel it drains me or wreaks havoc on my life, that's the day I walk away gracefully. I don't want to be 60 and find I've spent my life doing nothing but modelling. There are so many other things to do."

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