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Trans-itional beauty

Published : Jan 22, 2016, 9:46 pm IST
Updated : Jan 22, 2016, 9:46 pm IST

Breaking into the modelling industry is tough for anyone. But it’s particularly hard when you don’t necessarily fit into “conventional” standards of beauty.

Rudrani Chhetri
 Rudrani Chhetri

Breaking into the modelling industry is tough for anyone. But it’s particularly hard when you don’t necessarily fit into “conventional” standards of beauty. In a breakthrough effort, Rudrani Chettri, a transgender woman who runs the Mitr Trust (an LGBT advocacy organisation), is on a mission to both help and understand hopeful transgender models and is crowd funding £5,000 to start India’s First Transgender Modelling Agency. As a revolution on the ramp, she’s joined by stylist Rishi Raj, filmmaker Ila Mehrotra, and a dozen models.

The timing seems quite right as well, as the world is witnessing more and more transgender talents appear in major fashion and beauty campaigns and on high-profile international magazine covers. There’s Brazilian model Lea T, who scored a campaign for the American haircare company Redken, Andreja Pejic and her contract with Make Up For Ever, teen activist Jazz Jennings fronting Clean & Clear and of course, Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox gracing the respective covers of Vanity Fair and Time magazines.

This year will bring more progress, hopes Rudrani. “We want to provide an alternative source of income for the trans-community aside from begging or sex work. Trans Models in New York and Apple Model Management in Thailand are proving to be living proofs of what all we as a community are capable of doing. Why should gender come between you and your profession If I want to be a model, why can’t I just be one and earn a livelihood out of it ” says Chettri in her poised and hopeful voice. About coming up with this idea in particular she asserts, “Why should there be a sad story behind a project I have a happy story instead. I love to travel and I love getting clicked and I happen to know so many beautiful trans people who can clearly make good models.”

She continues, “Close your eyes and think of hijras...what do you imagine: people who have beards and dark faces wearing weird brightly coloured clothes Well, I want to challenge hetero-normative ideals of female beauty. No more Fair and Lovely. Next fashion week, I will see my girls on the catwalk. I want to break free from the prejudice.”

However, her hopeful nature at times reflects a hint of reality when she talks about being aware (about the real status of her own community), “it is both blurry and complex, as capacious as it is marginalised,” she says. “Financially speaking my Trust is on its knees. Under this government, funding for HIV awareness and prevention has fallen by almost 25%. My team and I hope that the modelling agency will raise awareness for the community and that’s why we have launched a campaign to receive donations from supporters,” she adds.

Filmmaker Ila Mehrotra who has been a big part of Rudarni’s dream, shares her bit of the story, “I grew up in Delhi and had minimum contact with hijras. I grew up and then lived in Brighton, UK, which is also known as the gay and trans capital of the country. It made me wonder about transgenders in India and how little contact we have with them. As a filmmaker I use my camera to gain access and tell stories that we don’t always hear. I felt it was important that the world should know hijras better and know that they are not very different from you and me. Hence, I had teamed up with Emmy award-winning director Andrew Smith to follow their lives, aspirations and share that widely with an international audience. I met Rudrani in December of 2014 and I was truly fascinated by the lives she and her community lead. I was horrified at the constant discrimination that they faced. I found myself deeply intrigued. I was with her when she came up with the idea of a Transgender Model Agency, became deeply connected to the hopes and aspirations it represented and have followed its development very closely since then. This is a crowd-funded project and we really hope to see it become a reality.” She adds that they have also just got a photographer on board, Rahul Saharan who will be doing photos of all auditioning TGS for free!

Rishi Raj, celebrity stylist, who was approached by Ila for the campaign says, “Yes, it is morale boosting but I want to take a moment to emphasise that our country is far behind when it comes to accepting everyone. Do I think that this will be a regular mainstream feasible job opportunity for them The answer is no. Given how judgemental we are in fashion and otherwise I really don’t think it is feasible. It will be nice if we are able to make a big breakthrough as a huge majority of these girls are talented and deserving but I am a little on the realist side. If a person has the skills then they should be given an equal opportunity. Showcasing them in a fun, bright and self-embracing mode will be a nice way to show our support towards this community.”

Unlike Trans Models in the US, the promotional images for the Trust’s agency are unconventional, even transgressive. They feature trans-women with stubbles, bald spots and lipstick which bleeds over black liner, completely debunking the idea that you are only ‘successfully trans’ if you conform aesthetically, meaning that you ‘pass’ as a cisgender man or woman. And next up, Rudrani and her team are planning to hold a model audition come next month. “I am happy that I have at least paved the road and created a milestone. After this, I am leaving everything to God. Next month we are holding model auditions in south Delhi and are gathering influential people from the fashion industry to judge the models. We will have a celebrity if possible, fashion photographers and gurus, etc. Selected trans models will be groomed, trained, educated, polished and finally sent out to get modelling contracts,” she concludes.