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Interview with a SuperModel

Last updated on: September 6, 2010 18:36 IST

Image: Sheetal Mallar
Abhishek Mande
Supermodel Sheetal Mallar on being on top of her game, taking up a new profession and dealing with her stammering problem.

The double door of the apartment is yet to be polished.

On the adjacent wall, six tiles announce the name of its owner. 'Mallar' it says simply.

The door opens and the six-foot-something tall Sheetal Mallar flashes the smile that made you weak in the knees.

As she welcomes you into her home, a spacious pad in the upscale northwest Mumbai suburb of Bandra, you realise how little she has changed. She still looks as stunning as she did over a decade ago when you watched her on television or saw her photographs in magazines.

Mallar isn't wearing any make-up and there is a casual air in the apartment. At one end, a bookshelf displays works of Milan Kundera, Robin Sharma and everyone in between. Even more books are scattered in various parts of the house, that has an air of transit, a semi-bohemian feel to it.

The apartment also seems to be home to a man about who we don't talk about. Personal life, you're told, is beyond the scope of the interview. Mallar was once married to tennis player Mose Navarra. All Sheetal is willing to say is she isn't married.

Professionally, Mallar has been in a transition of sorts for a while now. The supermodel has been trying to get behind the camera.

She recently did a project for Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week where she shot a series of backstage photographs and is currently in the process of displaying her new body of work -- one that focuses on loneliness in urban spaces -- on her upcoming Web site and eventually in an art gallery.

In this interview with's Abhishek Mande, the 36-year-old beauty speaks about what has changedin her life.


'Dad was upset because I wanted to drop out of college'

Image: Sheetal Mallar
Did you always want to be a model?

I don't know actually. I've always been an introvert -- never comfortable with the idea of being in the spotlight and always shy.

When I was 16 and thoroughly bored, a friend of mine took me to (photographer) Gautam Rajadhyaksha's studio. At the time he was shooting a campaign for Danabhai Jewellers.

The concept was that of a child bride and I was innocent looking and young at the time (smiles). So I got the campaign. Things just happened from then on.

I started doing shows for a lot of designers -- Rohit Bal, the late Rohit Khosla and Hemant Trivedi who was doing all the big shows at the time. And once you're on the circuit you keep getting work.

You quit your studies to become a model. What did your parents have to say about it?

My father was really upset. He wasn't happy with the idea of me leaving college. He's a corporate lawyer and was hoping that I complete my education if nothing else. Had I been in arts, I may have enjoyed it a little. But I was a commerce student and I didn't like what I was studying.

Meanwhile I won the Elite Look of the Year. It was the first time they had come down to India. But when I won I knew I wanted to give modelling a shot. So I asked my parents for two years (the duration of the contract) and promised to get back to studies if things didn't work out in that time.

But it did. Through Elite, I went to New York, Milan and Paris and worked there for two years. When I came back, work simply started pouring in. There was no going back to studies.

You went overseas in 1994. What was it like working in the West at the time?

I was sick of hearing the word 'ethnic'. For the longest time they would approach me only when they needed an ethnic girl. They'd put a bindi on me and shoot. It was quite tiring actually.

New York wasn't ready for Indian models. Paris and Milan, on the other hand, were.


'It is difficult to survive as a model in today's times'

Image: Sheetal Mallar
How would you say the industry has changed in the last two decades since you began?

I think it was better earlier when I started out. There were fewer models and more work. The money was sufficient and you could actually make a living out of being a model.

These days, though the industry has grown in size, there are so many models that work doesn't necessarily come by very easily. Also with cricketers, film stars and even television actors turning to modelling there is very little work for models.

Male models for instance hardly have any work today and even the younger female models -- especially the ones who come from abroad -- are willing to work at very low rates. It is difficult to survive as a model in today's times.

Diandra Soares sounded very critical about the younger lot of models. Do you share the same opinion?

No, I don't really. I find some of these young girls very sweet actually. They remind me of how we were when we first started modelling. (Read Diandra's interview here)

You mentioned working with Hemant Trivedi. He just fell off the radar, didn't he? Not many people seem to remember the man. Is it the nature of this business -- cruel and cold?

I don't know if Hemant wanted to be on the radar actually. Maybe he is off it out of his own choice.

Also, I don't find the whole perception of the modelling industry being cruel very fair. The glamour business is fun to be in. You get more free time to yourself and get paid more in one day than many would get paid in a month!

Sure it has its flipside, but I guess all other professions have as many problems. It just so happens that we are in the media glare so things seem a lot more difficult than they actually are.

Would you say you have friends in the industry?

Of course I do. There's (model) Kiran Rao, Bhavna Sharma, Diandra Soares, Rohit Bal, Carol Gracias, Lakshmi Menon; among the photographers there's Farrokh Chothia, Bharat Sikka, Prabuddha Dasgupta... there are so many of them. You hang out with them so much you are bound to make friends with them.


'I thought I'd be past my expiry date many years ago'

Image: Sheetal Mallar
Would you say you're past your expiry date (as a model)?

I would have imagined that I'd be past my expiry date many years ago. But I'd say one reaches one's expiry date when the calls stop coming. They haven't so far in my case.

So it's safe to say you've bowed out. Or is it?

Well, I don't do as many shows as I used to nor as many ads. I only do things that fascinate me. So yes, I think you can say that.

How do you stay in shape?

I've never really done anything specific to keep fit.

Over the years I've fluctuated a few sizes and have hit the gym for the first time in years. There too I just cycle a lot. I do a little yoga and that is pretty much my workout regimen.

A few years ago I had an acidity problem so I was on food therapy, which meant I was eating eight spoons of homemade ghee every day.

That, I believe, has helped me a lot. It has given my skin a glow that no skincare regimen would give.

Yes, I did put on some weight but I've always been someone who has fluctuated a couple of sizes all the time.

The only thing I do is to maintain an active lifestyle. So even though I eat whatever I want, I don't tend to put on a lot of weight.


'I find the process of taking pictures intimate and enjoyable'

Image: Sheetal Mallar
After over two decades of modelling you are exploring a new profession. Why photography?

I guess I was always into art and painting and almost always carried a camera. When I was modelling, I travelled a lot and took a lot of travel pictures. And then I had a lot of photographer friends and always visited these beautiful places (for shoots and ad campaigns).

So I don't really know when and where I picked up this passion, but at some point I thought it made sense for me to pick up a camera. I'm hoping this will be my new career. (She currently owns a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera).

Eventually when I started spending more time in Mumbai, I turned to my friends and made them subjects of my photographs. I would visit their homes and shoot them in their spaces.

The theme of this body of work is loneliness in cities.

Why did you choose to take pictures of people?

Once, on an impulse I had shot a series of photographs of my grandmother. She's been someone who's always been full of life -- she wears make-up, is updated with things happening around her and has an opinion on everything.

Even when I was taking her pictures, she had all kinds of suggestions about how I should be shooting her photos!

I realised how beautifully we'd bonded over a photo session. I found the entire process very intimate and enjoyable.

So when I wanted to start on a project, I thought of putting people I meet in my daily life in focus. I visited their homes, spent the day with them; took pictures, bonded with them in a way we could've never bonded outside.

Something changed the moment they let me inside their house.


'I am hoping that photography will be my next career'

Image: Sheetal Mallar
How long have you been working on this?

About a year-and-a-half on and off.

Where did you learn photography?

Well, mostly I learnt it along the way because I always worked with some of the best photographers so it must've rubbed off (giggles). But I also hired a private tutor to teach me the basics.

What about commercial photography? Have you done any recently?

I'm hoping to get a few commercial assignments. But I've already done some editorial shoots with a fashion magazine and am working on a few more projects. It's a little too early to speak about it but yes work is coming along.

Recently Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week hired me to do a behind-the-scenes photo shoot, which has turned out quite well. It was also great fun because it was familiar turf.

Modelling comes with an expiry date so I always knew that I would have to do something else after my modelling days.

And I am hoping that photography will be my next career.


'Growing up with a stammer was hard'

Image: Sheetal Mallar
I couldn't help noticing that you stammer. Did you always stammer?

Actually I used to stammer a lot more as a child. It was very difficult growing up, being ragged mercilessly in a convent school.

You mentioned earlier that you were shy and an introvert. Did stammering have something to do with it?

I'm not very sure. It might've been. But yes, I avoided situations where I was needed to speak out in public.

For instance, I never answered questions in class in the fear of being teased.

How did you deal with it?

The stammering never came in the way of my work really. But when I was 25 I visited a speech therapist. She taught me exercises that I was supposed to practice.

The thing with stammering is it cannot be cured, but you can reduce it.

Could you demonstrate an exercise for us?

Breathing and stammering have a lot to do with each other. The exercise that I was given was pretty simple. You are supposed to breathe in and speak while breathing out. The moment you run out of breath, you stop.

You just have to repeat this exercise over and over again.

Also as a practice you must just go out and do something that you wouldn't do otherwise to overcome your fear. I did a television show for instance on travelling in India.

We visited five places -- Agra, Delhi, Goa, Jaipur and Kerala -- and for a month we shot. It was torturous but I wanted to do it once in my life.


'I haven't been married for a while now'

Image: Sheetal Mallar
Tell us about what it was like growing up.

I've always been a Mumbai girl. But we changed a lot of homes.

My dad worked as a corporate lawyer with Johnson & Johnson for the longest time before he quit and started his own practice.

Mom on the other hand was an entrepreneur of sorts -- she did everything from teaching yoga to running an enterprise of her own.

I bonded most with my brother who is just a year younger to me. Our grandmother came to live with us after our grandfather died.

We were like any other family -- we had a lot of family vacations and lunches. It was fun.

Are you married?

I was married once, but I haven't been married for a while now.