The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Neeraj offers fitness training. Picture by Pabitra Das

It’s the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, only not so sinister. On the ramp, or at social dos in the evenings, she is the glamorous model, in daringly stylish clothes, her back bare, coloured hair blow-dried into place, eye-shadow shimmering, high-heels keeping time to the music, chandelier earrings and cocktail rings adding to the dazzle, even as the more-than-a-hint-of-cleavage stirs sighs and fantasies. Next day her pictures are in all the city newspapers’ party pages. But during the day, she wipes off the make-up and slips into a plain salwar kameez to go and teach at school or counsel people fighting addiction or take charge of the microphone as an RJ or work at office. Call it multitasking or just the need to remain afloat in a city where the glamour industry is really to come of age, but most of the city’s top models have a back-up career going.

A model’s life in Calcutta may not be a very model life. It’s a little difficult to think of her as one, but Jessica, one of Calcutta’s highest-paid models, is also a school-teacher. “After completing M.Sc in geography, I joined La Martiniere for Boys. I taught there for a year, then decided to take a break and finish my B.Ed. Now that it’s done, I’ll be joining a school soon. And I have been giving private lessons at home all along,” says the model. She enjoys teaching but the money sure helps.

Her boyfriend, Neeraj, also a top Calcutta model, works as a fitness expert. “I have been a fitness freak all along. I used to be a state-level swimmer and an inter-club rower. Then I took a break to concentrate on modelling, but started working as a fitness expert too,” says Neeraj. The model is a consultant at Gold’s Gym.

Jessica with a student .Picture by Pabitra Das

Having an alternative career is a necessity for models in many ways. Modelling is a short-lived career, in Calcutta (as in Mumbai or New Delhi, where the money is big). “I have been a model for six years and that’s a long time for any model, but I know that sooner or later, fresh faces will come in. It makes sense to have another career going,” says Jessica.

And there is no guarantee of how many shows there will be in a month.Calcutta is especially difficult. “Fashion has its high and low seasons. December sees many shows, but months like March are a lean period,” Jessica adds. “Then it’s my tuition money that keeps me going.”

Model-actress Bindu says: “Now that the Pujas are around, I might even get nine assignments a month, but in a lean month there might be just one or two.” But she adds it’s not so much the quantity as the quality of work that is lacking in the city. “There are small shows happening all the time. There are shoots where the model has to take her own clothes. But beyond a point, a good model will not want to be a part of such a show or a shoot,” says Bindu, who is more into print ads.

She is very clear, however, that modelling is just a stepping-stone to acting. She has played the lead in the ETV mega-serial Meghbalika (now off air) and has bagged a Ravi Ojha serial in Calcutta. “It’s easier to find a toe-hold in modelling, and it gives you the much-needed visibility, so important for an acting career,” she says.

Pocket pinch

Lack of quality work leads to lack of money. A top model in Calcutta may earn between Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 for a show. For newcomers it can be as little as Rs 800 — or even less. “In Calcutta, organisers do not care about the quality and talent of the models. They just want a girl who can walk the ramp in skimpy clothes,” says Bidita, a model. She gives herself another 10 years of modelling, but is also studying for her MA. “I sing and paint. Some day, I would like to hold an exhibition of my paintings,” she says.

The veterans agree that the steady stream of would-be models — as glamour gains acceptance as a profession, their number keeps increasing — has a negative impact on the industry, because of the low rates the newcomers would settle for. “The organisers will get any newcomer who will agree to little money,” says Bidita.

Neeraj points out that male models fare worse than women. This is one profession where women are one-up on men. “Everybody wants to be a model. They are glamour-struck. But the fact that they are ready to model for so little is not allowing the industry to grow. Some guys even model for free,” says Neeraj. “There are more designers for women. So women get more shows and their pay is also slightly higher, say about 20 per cent.” Neeraj is one of the few male models who earn as much as the top women models.

And if the organiser is ready to splurge, then he wants a model from Mumbai, no less. “It’s a simple case of ghar ki murgi daal barabar,” fumes Bidita. “A model from Mumbai will charge over Rs 20,000. Plus one has to pay her airfare and for her stay in the city. The organiser will pay so much to them but bargain with us for every rupee. We surely aren’t so behind them in quality.”

Some feel that Calcutta models are indeed that far behind in quality. “At fashion shows in Delhi and Mumbai, we often have to hear how city girls stick out like a sore thumb,” rues Jessica. “Few models from the city get shows in other cities. We have only six-seven top models against the many in Mumbai or Delhi. And as for shows abroad, they might get offers only in Bangladesh. A few will be travelling with me to Japan soon,” says model co-ordinator and fashion choreographer Amit Pandey.

And a Calcutta model, too, has a lifestyle to maintain. At every appearance he or she makes, people expect her and him to look sexy and gorgeous. Looking good all the time requires a lot of money. “I can’t wear the same dress to two functions. People will remember. A lot of our earnings are spent on make-up, clothes and grooming,” says Nicola, a model who also works as an event manager and fashion choreographer. “I need to spend at least Rs 5,000 on myself every month,” says Bidita. Bindu spent a lakh on a make-up kit from Mumbai. “This is necessary expenditure for a model. I have to take care of my skin,” she insists.

Supporting a family on the earnings as a model is definitely out of the question, says Neeraj. “I couldn’t do that. Not by working as a model in Calcutta. I need a steady income and modelling cannot give me that,” he says.

Life beyond ramp

With some models, having a second career is not merely the need for another source of income. It’s the need to do something more beyond the ramp. Or to kill time between those truant shows. “I can’t just wake up in the morning to realise that I don’t have anything to do that day. My counselling job keeps me busy,” says Tina, a model who works as a counsellor with an NGO. Tina says her other career gives her a sense of fulfilment. “People think models are dumb. But at the NGO, no one is bothered that I am a model,” she says.

Adds Nicola: “As a fashion choreographer I get to do so much more, from co-ordinating the clothes to the make-up to the music. It gives me immense satisfaction, because this too is a part of the glamour world that I am so fond of.” For Sanjukta, being a model has been both an advantage and a disadvantage. “I worked as a welcome ambassador for ITC, and I did get an edge over the other applicants. Some colleagues picked on me initially, saying I didn’t have an idea about the way the industry functioned. But I enjoyed the work,” says the model, who wants to open a grooming school for aspiring models.

“The city has no proper infrastructure for modelling or grooming, which is why newcomers often find themselves with the wrong people. The scene is very amateurish,” says Jessica. Model co-ordinator Pandey agrees. “Even those who do not have a good model profile often get work, because they are ready to work for less. They end up doing shows that are more flesh shows than fashion shows,” he says.

But does this take way from the lure of modelling' No. Even if the money isn’t enough, the high is, for many. “When you are new, you don’t mind working for a thousand rupees, or less. For a youngster, just entering the industry, Rs 800-Rs 1,000 for a few hours of work is good money,” says Sanjukta. Jessica, too, insists that she loves it. “As you grow up, you need something more stable. But I was very young when I started and modelling has made me very independent and happy,” she says.

Besides, who doesn’t have a problem in life' Even Naomi Campbell feels that she is being snubbed by Vogue, which is not featuring her on its cover any more.

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