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Monsoon Sylphs

Indian industry, if not the Indian psyche, has shed its bias towards fair skin

Monsoon Sylphs
Laurent Elie Badessi/ Taj Calendar
Monsoon Sylphs
Flick on the TV or flip through the pages of leading glossies, and you’ll likely see the first, hopeful signs: our advertising and entertainment industry seems to have finally forsaken that hidebound code of Indian beauty which insisted, ‘fair is best’. One look at the dusky women peddling persuasive messages for mainstream cosmetic brands like Lakme and Garnier, and you are forced to ask yourself why you don't see more of these gorgeous women. Much more representative of the beige, mocha and chocolatey skin tones that make up India's billion-odd people, they represent a marked deviation for an industry that has for long remained glued to its fetish for alabaster tones.

India's colour complex, embedded deep in our cultural psyche, is a legacy born of many factors—be it colonial conditioning, caste stereotypes and a Hollywood culture that aggressively exports its white-skinned, blonde-haired ideal. So what's changing now? "The advertising world has become much more discerning," says Sushma Puri, CEO, Elite Model Management, India, which recruits and trains scores of modelling hopefuls from across the country. "They're looking for attractive girls who can sell aspirational brands, yet whom ordinary women can identify with, and these aren't necessarily the fairest girls."

Bipasha holds her own in Bollywood

It's no surprise then that Elite's brightest stars, its two highest-paid models—Vipasha Agarwal and Lisa Haydon—both have a darker complexion than the light-eyed, ivory-skinned Aishwarya wannabes that ad campaigns have traditionally favoured. Vipasha, who comes from Varanasi, has a crammed portfolio that includes one Bollywood film (I See You, starring Arjun Rampal), has been voted the New Face of Lakme in 2007, and is endorsing megabrands like Garnier and—ironically—Hindustan Lever's Fair & Lovely. Lisa's chart is full too. The Mumbai-based model made her debut at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week 2007 as one of the ten 'New Faces Going Places', and currently hosts her own TV show—Babelicious on Zee Trends—besides lending her face to Seagram's and Elle. "It's about time fashion and advertising woke up to real life," says Lisa. "I hate this constant classification of 'dusky' and 'fair'. I don't think it's an issue anymore. These days, it's more about how much personality you exude, your ability to inspire, your allure."

The language of advertising too has changed, with the emphasis in skincare brands shifting from 'white' and 'fair' to more acceptable terms like 'clear radiance' and 'glow'. "The idea is to talk about healthy-looking skin, irrespective of dark or light, without stoking women's insecurities," says Malvika Mehra, creative head, O&M, Bangalore.

But the ad industry wasn't alone in its pursuit of fairness all these years. In Bollywood, despite the fact that pale-skinned leading ladies like Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor are still placed higher on the totem pole, a few headline acts like Bipasha Basu, Deepika Padukone and Konkona Sen Sharma are helping the tide turn.

Dark luminiscence: Lakshmi Menon (top), Monikangana Dutta (above) are the current ramp-scorchers

Luckily, when it comes to the catwalk, Indian fashion hasn't experienced a complete whiteout. "It's partly because the West has always held a fascination for the exotic look," explains designer Ashish Soni. "And also because designers realise that in a sun-drenched country like ours, it's impossible for pale women to show off their clothes to maximum benefit." By happy coincidence, the season's most talked-about ramp-scorchers—Monikangana Dutta and Lakshmi Menon—are both several shades darker than the models we're used to seeing on our runways. This year, Assam-born Monikangana was handpicked by scouts from international model coordinating powerhouse IMG as one of two Indian models it wanted to project globally. (Vipasha was the other.) The ravishing Lakshmi Menon has turned into something of a fashion deity abroad after endorsing the French luxury brand Hermes for their Spring-Summer 2008 collection and walking the ramp for Jean Paul Gaultier, Stella McCartney and Issey Miyake.

It helps the Indian models' cause that western fashion houses, buoyed by what is being labelled the 'Obama effect', are seeking African-American and Asian models to lend more diversity and colour to their cast. The glam circuit this month is abuzz with talk centred on global style bible Vogue Italia's bold 'All Black' issue that bemoans the lack of black models on global catwalks, even going so far as to label it discriminatory.

Is this to say that the outlook, not skin, has turned fair? Not quite. Skin lighteners are still the largest-growing segment within cosmetic companies in India, and their robust annual growth forecast of 10-15 per cent suggests that it will take several decades to rid small-town (and metro) India of its deep-seated colour bias. Yet industry insiders like Puri hope that the acceptance of darker-skinned women will percolate down to the masses. "We're already seeing a distinct change in attitude in urban centres; so it's only a matter of time before smaller towns follow suit. What's also important is that the male mentality is changing. Men are beginning to realise that beauty and fairness aren't interchangeable."

In the end, whether it's films, fashion or advertising—each of these industries is market-driven. It's only when consumers give the thumbs up to products and movies featuring dusky models and stars that 'dark' will be a fair deal.


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