Lakshmi Menon is poised to become the first Indian supermodel. At 26, she just landed her first solo spread in American Vogue — twelve pages all to herself. She has also jump-started a dialogue about why there are so few Indian and South Asian models on runways and in fashion magazines. The ongoing conversation about the underrepresentation of black models has made way for more work for those models, yet the conversation is just beginning for their Indian and South Asian peers.
When Lakshmi started modeling in 2006, work was scarce. She tells the Independent:
"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."
Lakshmi thinks the election of Barack Obama created greater interest among Americans in non-white models. She also thinks the launch of Indian Vogue in 2007 (she appeared on the first cover) has something to do with increased diversity in the industry, since the issue circulates to Vogue editors worldwide within Condé Nast. But why has it taken this long for an Indian model to rise to the top?
"If there aren't many South Asian girls modelling, that's because the agencies haven't looked," [Lakshmi] 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?"
Storm modeling agency founder Sarah Doukas, who discovered Kate Moss, credits the glut of Indian and South Asian models to cultural differences.
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."
London stylist Nicola Formichetti, who cast Lakshmi for the cover of last month's Dazed & Confused, thinks it's a simple case of a fear of being different:
"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."
It's ironic — aren't great innovators in the fashion industry supposed to take risks and be different and not do what everyone else is doing? As Indian models rise in prominence they may have to fight ethnic stereotyping. Lakshmi's shoot for this month's Vogue depicts her at a Goan carnival while her shoot for Dazed was inspired by "ancient civilisations." And check out her Hermès ad, one of her first major campaigns:
Lakshmi started modeling to earn extra money while in college. "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," she says. In the meantime, only time will tell if she's finally forged a place in the fashion industry for the beautiful Indian women of this world.
This year's model: How Lakshmi Menon put India in Vogue [Independent]
Model Profile: Lakshmi Menon