6 Indian Queer Models Share Their Greatest Takeaway From Their Journey In The Fashion Industry

From rising stars to veterans, this listicle will explore some of the most influential queer Indian models making waves in the fashion industry, and what are some of their greatest takeaways from their time in the industry.

The fashion industry has long been dominated by heteronormative ideals, but that hasn’t stopped queer Indian models from making their mark. From the traditional catwalk to the digital sphere, these inspiring models have taken matters into their own hands and created a space for themselves in a competitive industry.

From rising stars to veterans, this listicle will explore some of the most influential queer Indian models making waves in the fashion industry, and what are some of their greatest takeaways from their time in the industry.

‘Learning to Express Oneself’

Chetana Salunkhe, dancer, actor and poet began her journey as a model with Miss. Gaurav pageant in 2019. “I have always been a dancer and an actor, and I simply participated in the pageant for the experience,” she says. The thrill of being on stage, and being able to express herself individually through her walk and the clothes she wore were some of the things that drew her to modelling. “It helped me learn about myself and come out of my shell. I used to be introverted, but being on the ramp or the camera made me feel free to express myself,” she shares.

Her struggles, she says, have been that of anyone trying to make it in the fashion or acting industries. “There is a struggle to prove yourself, but if you want to make it here, you have to keep going,” she shares. While the general narrative is that queer people don’t have a space in the industry, she disagrees. In fact, her experience has been a little different. “I think, there are a lot of queer people in the industry, but what I feel is that there is a lack of professional behaviour among a few, which resulted in some stereotypes. The behaviour of a few has been taken as the standard for what queer people would be like on set, but what people also need to realize is that there are unprofessional people, queer or otherwise,” she says.

This stigma needs to change, and the industry, she suggests, needs to look at queer models as individuals and not just as someone from the community. “Judge us for our own calibre and give us roles beyond our queerness. Let us audition and give us work beyond Pride month or Pride campaigns,” she says.

Despite these struggles, there are many things that keep Chetana going, including her passion for her work.

“When I am doing a modelling or acting job, there are different stories to follow, which allows me to do a lot of different things and explore different sides of me,” she shares. She also recognizes that her line of work has given her some standing in the community. “What I say and do matter. When I post on social media, members of the community look up to me. So, now I want to give back, and also be seen by the straight community,” she shares. 

‘It’s a Love-Hate Relationship’

Suruj Rajkhowa, who is popularly known by their alter ego, Glorious Luna is a drag performer, actor, and model. While Glorious Luna, in some version of a fantasy drawing has been a part of their life since childhood, it took a while for them to make their way to it as their career. “ I studied architecture, and I found it too rigid,” they share. So for a while, they did theatre, stayed in Auroville, and finally, moved to Mumbai to pursue acting. “I didn’t have a solid plan. Growing up I didn’t see queer people on TV have that dream. But, for years, I did small gigs or took the roles of extra in ads,” they share. It was post the pandemic that things began to pick up for them. “I started working as a drag queen so people saw me as having a certain number of skills. I do feel that for the most part, I am hired for those skills and not for how I look because I am vocal about my identity and put my ideas across on social media,” they share.

Over the past few years, Suruj has been able to work with some renowned international brands and some of the biggest designers in the country. One of their greatest source of frustration through all this has been being the token queer person on set. “I don’t I have found a way to deal with it, and I do get pissed off about it. I do hope to move towards something geared towards performance in the future,” they muse.

However, they acknowledge that there is a small, nascent space that is being created in the industry by platforms such as Dirty magazine and Vogue, where they are attempting to change the narrative.  “There are new fresh energies and better ideas coming in but it’s still run by men and men can be exploitative. So, all-in-all, my relationship with the industry is a love-hate one,” they share.

What they do love about being a model is being able to perform. “I am here, I love being in front of the camera or walking the ramp, wearing these gorgeous clothes and posing and of course, the attention. It does allow me to fulfill a lot of fantasies,” they share.

What they hope to see in the future of fashion is equality. They hope that as more queer people and women find their way in front of the camera on the ramp, they also find their way to being behind the camera. “That’s what will bring the change; having women and queer non-binary trans people directing the show,” they add.

‘Being My Most Authentic Self on the Inside and Outside’

Reena Barretto, who works in Social Media Marketing and Artist Management, is also a hair model. “I didn’t plan on becoming a model. One day, my best friend in college told me that I should cut my hair short and I thought it was an interesting idea. Soon after, another friend came up to me and asked me to be a hair model for a competition with Jean Claude Biguine. That was the turning point of my life. I stood 3rd and the rest is history,” she says.

She sees models as people who carry art on their bodies/souls and add their essence to the art blending creativity with energy. “I love how beautifully a model can just express so much without words, and how the camera is able to capture the depth, details, poise, essence of my true authentic aesthetic self,” she shares,

Reena’s journey as a model has been, thankfully, devoid of any major struggles. “The people around me were always supportive of my gender fluidity. There have been times when people have stared or passed comments at me, but it doesn’t bother me. I know what I am and what I choose to be. I show up as my innermost true authentic self on the outside every day,” she shares. Being true to herself, she says, has allowed her to be happy, and given her the courage to try new things and live with a true sense of freedom.

She hopes, however, that more people learn and educate themselves on the various concepts and facets associated with LGBTQIA+ and start welcoming more people from the community. “Accept people for what they are, and what they want to truly be,” she adds.

Bring Indian Queer Models to the Mainstream

An artist, writer, blogger and model, Anwesh Sahoo is a man who wears many hats and wears them well. His claim to fame was when he was awarded the crown of Mr Gay India in 2016, at the age of 20, making him the youngest recipient of the crown. “I started modelling in 2014 or 2015. My first gig was for a friend. We used to shoot on the streets of Delhi. We would carry our clothes, change at a nearby Starbucks and then, take pictures,” he shares. At the time, queer representation in the modelling industry was next to nil, save for a few names such as Sushant Divgikar. “I tried to get signed by a few agencies that I wanted to work with. I knew exactly what kind of work I wanted to do, and which brands and designers I wanted to work with, and working with agencies gives you a lot more opportunities. But, that didn’t work out,” he shares.

His growth in the industry has largely been driven by word of mouth. “Independent photographers started reaching out to me and over time, I managed to make a space for myself,” he shares. The industry, he says, is still far behind in terms of knowing how to use queer models the right way because they are unable to envision them in various contexts. “I am queer man from Orissa. People who look like me are rare to find on magazine spreads or on TV. So, I started creating these digital art pieces of me, which are essentially pictures where I have adorned different outfits, in varying settings, so I am able to give people a vision in terms of how I can look in front of the camera,” he shares.

Homophobia, he says, is still very much a driving factor in the industry. “It is not necessary that the brands or designers are, but sometimes it is even the viewers,” he says, sharing an incident where an ad campaign was cut short and redone to only feature images where he didn’t seem to be perceivably gay after the investors noticed some homophobic comments from the audience. But, he believes that there will be a change, and the work that he is doing indicates and will bring about that change. “I want to bring to the mainstream what it means to be an Indian queer model, and I want the queer vocabulary to find space in the industry through my work”, he adds.

Empowering Others to Express Themselves

Tattooist and graphic designer, Letitia Mendes were approached by brands, photographers and casting directors at a time when she was on a journey of exploring themselves and breaking through the shackles she felt had for the longest time through childhood with regard to being themselves. “When I started to truly become myself, I began being approached for modelling gigs. Receiving feedback from an audience about how empowered and inspired they felt is what made me explore modelling even more,” she shares.

One of the biggest challenges she has faced in the industry has been related to the lack of knowledge about a non-binary masculine presenting person. “I have been asked constantly to give auditions for hetero, cis-gender roles which resulted in extreme dysphoria,” she shares. Additionally, representation for a queer non-binary model in the industry is extremely low as compared to cis-gender and heterosexual models, and the number of projects she receives in a year is few. 

While these challenges persist, what she loves about modelling is that it gives them an opportunity to express and showcase their identity in a way that is not possible in other industries, especially in a society that has been traditionally binary. “I didn’t realize that showing up as my authentic self, inspired others to do the same. Being able to help and empower others by just showing up as myself made me love modelling even more,” she shares.

But, there are many things that need to change in the industry, including having queer representation throughout the year and not just for Pride month. “We also need to create a space for Non Binary queer models where we are understood better and have room to increase the kind of knowledge and information people have about non-binary models in the industry,” she adds.

Making Unconventionality a Superpower

Tejeshwar Sandhoo started off his journey as a blogger. “It started in 2014. There was a lack of male influencers in the country and especially in Delhi. I felt that there was a unique perspective I could bring to the table as a gay man,” he shares. Since influencers model brands in a way that is different from catalogues and lookbooks showcase them, brands approach influencers, which fueled his journey as well. “I don’t really call myself a model, maybe a digital model,” he explains.

Now, he models for brands and walks on the runway. While there are no challenges per se, he does feel that people see you as not the norm. “People see you as having an unconventional body type, hair type or height, but you end up finding your own space. Most queer, positive models are so fierce that bring our own unique voice to the table and that unconventionality becomes our superpower,” he muses.

There is a lot of inclusion, and change is happening, according to Tejeshwar. “I was just backstage for a Manish Malhotra show and seeing people like Roshni and Toshada Uma also on the backstage, between a cis-het audience, for me, is an example of the community being accepted,” he says.

Some of the best things that have come out of being a model for Tejeshwar have been the confidence, the ability to put himself out there and the visibility he has been able to achieve not just for himself but the community as a whole.

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Armed with a B.A in English Literature from St. Xavier's college, Mumbai she set out to become a writer about a year ago. When not binge eating and watching reruns of any show she can get her hands on you will find her talking animatedly/ day dreaming/ glued to a book.
Krupa Joseph

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