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Supermodels in waiting
• Karishma Kotak
• Age: 23
• Major campaigns: Kingfisher calendar, French Connection (catalogue)

One is a dusky beauty, the other a fair and lovely looker. But both Mashoom Singha, the 21-year-old engineering graduate from Mumbai, and Karishma Kotak, the 23-year-old British Asian who has sashayed her way to India, could be poised to become the most splashed-about faces around town.

They’ve both just returned ' along with a bevy of other beauties ' from Australia where they were striking poses for the Kingfisher calendar. Since, that’s the Holy Grail for every young model dreaming of riches on the ramp, it’s fairly certain that they are about to become well-recognised celebrities. Says Karishma, “Doing the Kingfisher calendar is a dream for any model. All the hours in the gym and eating healthy are paying off.”

Mashoom and Karishma aren’t the only ones in the running for supermodel status. Out in front, there’s Deepika Padukone, who’s already almost there after a meteoric rise in the last two years. She’s also in the Kingfisher calendar and has bagged prestigious campaigns like Liril, Limca and Close Up. Earlier this year she also showed that she could walk the talk at the Lakm' India Fashion Week (LIFW).

• Neha Kapur
• Age: 22
• Major campaigns: Sunsilk Black Shine (TV), Tuscon Verve (print)

There are scores of others battling for the top spots in the beauty stakes. Those who’ve caught the eye of fashion designers, model co-ordinators and choreographers include budding stars like Monikangkana Dutta, Sonalika Sahay, Neha Kapur and Tanvi. They are reckoned to be the leading names who are strutting their stuff even though there are contenders coming up swiftly through the ranks like Shruti Agarwal, Sohini Jaitley, Pia Trivedi, Sanya Shaikh, Sucheta Sharma and Amanpreet, to name a few.

But models like Sonalika Monikangkana, Neha and Tanvi have already been marked out by the co-ordinators and choreographers who make the fashion business tick. On the ramp especially, while no big show is complete without established names like Nina Manuel or Jesse Randhawa, these girls have managed to show their paces. In fact, Sonalika, Neha and Monikangkana are a part of almost all the big shows today.

Take Neha, who, along with Sonalika, graduated from the first batch of Elite’s modelling school. The 5’10 tomboy-turned-model was 19 then and quit college to get into modelling full time. Her first major break came at LIFW 2004, after which, she went to Ecuador and New York on an exchange trip with the international agency, Karin Models. She’s done her share of editorial features, catalogues and print campaigns since then. “Last year, I was a new face so it was a bit difficult,” she says.

• Sonalika Sahay
• Age: 25
• Major campaigns: Lifestyle, Maruti Esteem (TV), Tanishq and Seagrams Fuel (print)

But she has had big breaks this year including a one-year contract for the Sunsilk Black Shine commercial, the Tuscan Verve campaign, and a brand endorsement for Odel Mall in Sri Lanka. Moreover, on the ramp, compared to four-five shows a month last year, this year, she is doing nearly 20 shows a month. “When I started out, people were sceptical. Now they ask for me,” she says.

It’s a similar story for Sonalika, who moved from Singapore, where she was modelling part-time, to join Elite two years ago. The girl who Sushma Puri, director and CEO of Elite Model Management India, describes as being “really regal on the ramp” is rushed off her feet doing almost a show every day now. What’s more, she’s starred in print and television campaigns this year for Tanishq, Seagrams Fuel, Lifestyle and Anokhi. “The good part is that I can choose my work now,” she says.

Or take 22-year-old Tanvi from Bhopal, who was about to head off to Australia for a course in marketing and international business when she was spotted by a TV crew and roped in to audition for the Elite Channel [V] Get Gorgeous model hunt 2004. She went on to win the contest that years and signed a two-year contract with Elite.

After walking for Delhi’s top designers last year, Tanvi took part in LIFW 2005. She’s currently booked for shows till December end, having ramped up to 10-15 shows a month this year compared to five shows a month last year. She’s also done print campaigns for Kimaya and Tangle clothing.

• Sonali Raut
• Age: 20
• Major campaigns: Chennai Silk House, Roopali dress material (catalogue)

To be sure, it’s boom time for many models partly because of the sheer growth in the business, fuelled by the ever-increasing tribe of designers and the growing number of brands. Model-turned-choreographer Lubna Adams points out that five years ago, 24-25 fashion shows a year were a big deal. Today, there are more than 20 fashion shows a month in the peak season.

If the shows have increased so have the aspiring models waiting in the wings for their moment of glory. “Earlier, select people got into modelling. Now every third girl wants to be a model,” says Neha. But, she believes this is an advantage. “We have a lot more options today in terms of style. Some models are good with Indian clothes while some are good with Western.”

The business is also being boosted by the arrival of international agencies like Elite. In the two-and-a-half years since it entered India, Elite has signed up 170 models ' up from 70 a year ago. Now, other international agencies like Eskimo are entering India.

The chances of making it to the big time are also soaring with shows like the Get Gorgeous model hunt and events like LIFW, which will take place twice a year from 2006. LIFW naturally is a favourite ground for launching new faces.

Or take Monikangkana, who got a break when she took part in the French agency, Metropolitan’s Top Model Contest in 2003. As one of the top five contestants that year, the lean and dusky Dutta won a one-year contract with the agency that took her to Paris in January 2004. But she got homesick and returned in three-and-a-half months. “When I came back I felt I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. Paris was like a dream come true. Everyone wants to go abroad and model, but it happened to me so early that I actually couldn’t digest it,” she says.

• Tanvi
• Age: 22
• Major campaigns: Kimaya and Tangle clothing (print)

After casting her stamp on the Indian ramp ' choreographers from Allison Kanuga to Rashmi Virmani to Adams rave about her attitude and unconventional looks ' Monikangkana is determined to make it back to fashion centres like Paris or New York. Meanwhile, she’s also building up an impressive portfolio of campaigns. For instance, she did the Garden print campaign recently and was splashed on Be:’s hoardings and catalogue. Another coup was the Wills Sports campaign. After working independently for two years, Dutta has just signed up with Matrix. The agency which is owned by ace photographer Atul Kasbekar, who shot the Kingfisher calendar this year. Besides Deepika, Mashoom and Karishma, three other Matrix girls will feature in the 2006 calendar.

So what does it take to be a model in India' For the ramp, the obvious ingredients are height, a great body and the right attitude. Unlike abroad, India doesn’t follow fashion when it comes to looks. “India doesn’t follow any look as a trend on the ramp,” says Reshma Shetty, one of the co-founders of Matrix. In print, the emphasis is on being photogenic. For television ads, the look varies from the girl next door to the diva.

Elite’s Puri believes that the look can vary but it has to be interesting. She says, “The exotic look always works. What also works is if someone looks a little anonymous in that they could well be from Brazil, Argentina or Spain.” It’s a trait that she found in Tanvi, for instance. Agrees Tanvi, “You need to be very unconventional looking because the girl next door doesn’t work on the ramp.”

The talent scouts in India haven’t yet started hitting the schools and playgrounds as they do abroad, where agencies scout for girls as young as 14. In India, agencies like Elite say they are looking for “anyone upwards of 16”. But age is still not as much as a barrier in India as it is overseas.

• Monikangkana Dutta
• Age: 23
• Major campaigns: Garden, Wills Sport, Be: (print)

Mashoom, for instance, might’ve been writing software codes after her engineering finals this July. Besides editorial features, she’s walked for designers like Vikram Phadnis, and done shows like the L’Or'al Spring Hair Collection. She’s also done catalogues and hoardings for Sheetal Design Studio and Zack & Zula boxers, London. But she is expected to break into the big league after the Kingfisher calendar.

Karishma too is breaking into the Indian modelling scene at 23 though she began modelling in London at 18, where she did shows and catalogue work for brands like Tony & Guy and French Connection. In India, she’s in the new Sonu Nigam-Saapna Mukherjee music video, besides doing editorial assignments. As she has an “excellent complexion”, Matrix hopes she’ll be in skin and beauty product ads.

Beauty and face products, especially being a Lakm' face or Liril girl, in fact, are the most coveted assignments. Big spenders like Be: who provide a lot of visibility through hoardings, and stores like Westside, Pantaloon and Globus, which advertise heavily for seasonal collections, are also among the big assignments.

The models are, however, getting strong competition from big name movie stars for many of these products. Take Garnier, which recently signed on Kareena Kapoor for its hair colour product for instance. Also unlike filmstars who rake in multi-crore advertising contracts, new models only earn between Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 4.5 lakh for one-year contracts for face and beauty products.

What do these girls earn as they start to climb the ladder of success' Starting rates on the ramp are about Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 while top models like Randhawa reportedly earn Rs 30,000 to Rs 35,000. Newcomers like Neha and Sonalika earn around Rs 15,000 to Rs 18,000 a show.

Choreographers like Adams believe that given the number of shows, the ramp is more lucrative than one-off contracts. But says Shetty, “Supermodels aren’t made on the ramp. Yana Gupta, Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone are all wanted because of campaigns. Ramp models don’t get noticed when they walk on the street.”

Not everyone agrees that the existing and new crop of girls have it in them to become supermodels. In fact, model turned choreographer Marc Robinson says, “There are lots of wannabes, no real stars. Everyone is looking at modelling as a stepping stone to films. After a long time, one Deepika Padukone came along but even she’s looking at films now. In our days, we only looked at modelling.”

Top models like Katrina Kaif and Yana Gupta, he points out, didn’t stick around long enough to be supermodels but switched to films. Even supermodel Ujwala Raut’s sister Sonali, 20, says she’s more interested in films. Signed on by Matrix five months ago, Raut at 5’7” is considered a bit short for the ramp. Nevertheless, she says, “It doesn’t matter what they say. If you have charisma and confidence, you can make it.”

Sonali has done some catalogue work for Chennai Silk and Roopali dress material and editorial shoots so far. But Shetty feels she has potential as a model. But Sonali, who’s already got film offers is “more keen on films”.

Neha too is eager to pursue an acting career and is thinking of joining a theatre group. Elite has started focusing on castings for movies and TV serials and signed up some of its models for serials. Around 50 per cent of its business today comes from this space and Puri expects it to increase further.

That’s not stopping the surge of girls vying to get into the modelling business though. And, it’s definitely not stopping girls like Mashoom or Monikangkana from pitching for that supermodel tag.

Photographs courtesy Elite ModelManagement, India; Matrix India Entertainment and The Ramp

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