Grime amidst the glitter

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By After their brush with fame and glamour, models often fall victim to drugs and depression. Velly Thevar looks beyond the arc lights
  • Published 9.09.07

Kallu never had it so good. The stray dog, usually found around Mumbai’s Gateway of India, had a friend who visited him every day with biscuits. Then one day, she didn’t turn up.

Kallu’s friend was a model called Gitanjali Nagpal. Earlier this week, Nagpal was found in Delhi, wandering around with matted hair, asking strangers for money. The Mumbai chapter — her rise to fame and fall — is not something she is willing to talk about. “Mumbai is scary. It is so dark,” she says.

In some days from now, Gitanjali will be just another statistic. In the world of fashion, Gitanjalis happen every day. Young, bright and beautiful, they go through the rollercoaster of life — one moment they are up, and the next, down and out. The lucky ones pick up the threads of their lives again. Some, like Nagpal, are left in despair.

“Fashion models go through extreme amounts of stress. I know of so many models who have tried to commit suicide by slitting their wrists,” says Mumbai fashion photographer Akash Srivastav. Some take to drugs, others depend on cough syrups or balms to get a high.

Dr Harish Shetty, a Mumbai psychiatrist, stresses that more housewives take their lives than models. But the small world of fashion, clearly, has an abnormally high rate of suicides. “But I think substance abuse and depression is a secular illness. It afflicts all classes,” says Dr Shetty.

Of course, it goes without saying that there are models who meet success or failure with equanimity. “It is not as if all models are junked out of their psyche and are lying on the floor smoking pot,” says supermodel Nina Manuel.

Yet insiders maintain that drugs are a serious problem in the stress-prone glamour world. A model’s life under the arc lights is a short one. Every day she lives under the threat of being ousted by a younger model. The pressure to stay thin throws up a multitude of health problems. And, as Delhi fashion designer Paras Bairoliya points out, models are getting younger— with some merely 15 or 16 — and they find it particularly difficult to cope with a stressful profession. “People outside the fashion industry see only the glamorous side of it. But there is either a lot of work, or a dearth of work — and both are extremely stressful situations,” says Bairoliya.

The stress starts right at the time of shooting a portfolio. It entails finding the right photographer, distributing the pictures, making the rounds of model coordinators and seeking auditions. “In the initial days, a newcomer rushes from one audition to another — and sometimes does 2,000 auditions a month,” says Srivastav, pointing out that in the absence of agents in the business, most have to rely on the convenience of model coordinators.

A model coordinating agency like the Elite Model Management in Delhi gets about 20 queries a month out of which it signs up one or two aspirants on a two or three-year contract. “Some models come from smaller towns and shift base to Delhi to pursue a career in modelling. Their sights are set on Mumbai where everyone can find some work,” says Sabina Setia, model coordinator for Elite. The agency grooms the aspirants and seeks to get them work.

And it’s not always easy even when the models find their niche. “You live by your looks,” says film-maker Anuradha Tandon. “And then suddenly one fine day you look at yourself and feel that you have missed the bus. You haven’t made the big money, and there are new kids on the block who are younger, smarter and more aggressive.”

Angelin Laha, a 21-year old Calcutta model, went through it all. Unable to make any headway in her fledgling career and beset with financial problems, she committed suicide in her Howrah home in July this year.

Clearly, not everybody in the industry earns its famed mega bucks. With a surplus of models, beginners get paid Rs 2,000-5,000 per shoot and even leading models do a show for Rs 10,000-15,000. The supermodels, however, can quote their price, ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1,00,000 per show.

When money is a factor, there are enough people waiting to exploit a model’s financial vulnerability. An insider says “money bags” hover on the fringes of the fashion world, waiting to pounce on any model who succumbs to the lure of the lucre. The way out of the trap, says Manuel, is to move on. “You cannot model forever. You have to accept that designers who doted on you will reject you for a newcomer.”

Bairoliya adds it helps if a “coping system” is in place. “Having a strong family or friends to fall back on is very important. I think it is important to take time off and indulge in some self pampering every once in a while.”

Model Tapur Chatterjee does just that. “I cannot be pushed. I take a one-month holiday every year and smaller ones in between. Joining the rat race is not important.”

But Gitanjali Nagpal’s case surprises Srivastav, who worked with her from 1997 to 2000. “She was like a thousand flash bulbs. She had set high goals for herself,” he says. Some in the industry believe that Nagpal got caught in drugs — though doctors treating her say there is no sign of addiction.

Nagpal is now at Vimhans hospital. Asked what she’s been doing in Delhi, she says, “I have been walking around, looking at clothes.” Says a Vimhans staffer, “She seems to believe that she is going to be modelling in the Wills Fashion Week. She has repeatedly said that she wants to get out because she is expected to walk down the ramp.”

Ramp flameouts


Last week the 32-year-old former model was found begging on the streets of Hauz Khas
in New Delhi. Doctors say she is mentally exhausted and emotionally unstable.



On July 6, 2007, the 21-year-old Calcutta model committed suicide by hanging herself in her Howrah home. She had felt her career was not going anywhere.



On April 20, 2007, while Abhishek Bachchan was getting ready to marry Aishwarya Rai, Kapoor slashed her wrist outside the Bachchans’ bungalow in Juhu. The model-turned-movie extra claimed that she was married to Abhishek. According to some of her acquaintances, Kapoor was on drugs.



On February 8, 2006, 28-year-old model Kuljeet Randhawa hanged herself in her Juhu apartment in Mumbai. The former Gladrags model and television actor was said to be suffering from depression for a long time.



On July 29, 2004, the 26-year-old model-turned-veejay hanged herself from a ceiling fan. Joseph was depressed after she called off her wedding with businessman Gautam Khanduja. She had found out that contrary to his claims, Khanduja was still married.