Revisiting the feisty Mehr Jesia’s ‘I Believe’
WHEN YOU THINK TOP, YOU THINK MEHR JESIA’.
‘There can never be another Mehr Jesia’ – these are not things I say or believe in. It’s what others say to me over and over again. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t really know or care, it’s not important to me.
But what I do care about and what is important to me is the fact that what I am, what I have become today, is thanks to this profession.
The name, the fame, the money, the experience, I owe it all to the beauty business, the modeling profession, I’ve taken so much from it. It’s time to give back to it.
Why the modeling industry is such a confused one with no clear patterns of form and functioning is because people have simply extracted from it. Models have come, taken from it, and gone. They’ve exploited or they have been exploited.
Nobody has had a larger perspective of the profession or nurtured any real desire to change things; to create a precise format of operation which could then be stabilized for the generations that follow. Nobody has cared enough. The attitude has been a ‘make hay while the sun shines, then run’ one. I am going to change that.
I’m quitting today, yes. But not ‘quitting’ as in ‘deserting’ or ‘abandoning’. I’m taking a backseat for a few months during which I’m going to plan and create a modeling agency. One that will revolutionize the modeling profession. My agency is going to build up models, guard and protect them. Having been through it all, since I have worked with the best and the worst, I know exactly which are the loopholes and where we models fall short. But let me start at the beginning, where it all began.
CHILDREN HAVE THIS IN-BUILT RESISTANCE TO ANYTHING THAT PARENTS SAY OR WANT; I WAS NO DIFFERENT…
We were a nice, normal, regular, typical Parsi family. Very happy, terribly integrated. Mum and dad met through Air India where they both worked, my mum as an air-hostess. The four of us travelled a lot; summer holidays were always in America, Europe or Australia, mainly Australia because mum has a lot of relatives there.
My childhood was full of fitness-consciousness because my dad is very particular on this score; he has to work out every day, even now. We spent a lot of our growing years in Talwalkar’s at Mahim. We got what we wanted but basically, we were brought up to think twice before wanting to buy something. (The result is that even though I am earning so much of money now, I still respect its value.) There was logic in everything. You were given your pocket money of ₹ 10 a week; it was up to you to spend it in a day or spread it out and it was meant to include Saturday night movie expenses too.
My father is deeply spiritual. All Parsis have to wear a sadra and kasti and pray once a day. My dad would insist on this and I would feel forced into doing it. Children have this in-built resistance to anything parents say or want. It was when I was around 13, a Parsi priest explained to me the symbolism and significance of the malmal clothing, the protection it provides from the forces of evil; by then the prayers too were translated into English so I knew what I was saying. Initially, I used to pray only when I needed something; then I realized communication with God had to go above and beyond needs. I’m glad my father disciplined me into the prayer habit; I don’t miss out my prayers for a single day; I pray after my bath; it’s where I get my strength and stability from. And I’m never
without my sadra and kasti except, of course, when I’m doing a fashion show.
THERE ARE SOME THINGS I DON’T AGREE WITH IN ZORASTRIANISM…
It is a beautiful religion and there are beautiful people who are part of the religion, but there are some things in it which baffle me. If a Parsi boy marries a nonParsi girl, they can have Parsi children, but if a Parsi girl marries out of the community, her children will not be Parsis. This may have been acceptable in a certain era when people had a certain mentality and discrimination was tolerated; but not now when the world has changed and people are more educated and enlightened. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Moreover, the community must accept that today it has become very difficult to look out for a suitable partner in life who is Parsi. My parents want me to marry a Parsi only, but I’m sorry I don’t agree with their views.
My maternal grandmother did things her way. She didn’t want to be taken to Doongerwadi for her last rites. She wanted to be cremated in Sydney where she was living. And it was done over there. Everyone agreed to it. Thank goodness she paved the way. So if I marry a non-Parsi and later, the religion doesn’t allow my body to enter Doongerwadi, it’s alright with me. It was not important for my grandmother, it’s not important for me.
I would have wanted my children to be Parsis, but if it’s not possible, it’s not, what can one do? I would say today that it’s not important what religion you belong to (especially since religion seems to be the cause of less joy and so much upheaval these days). I would still give my children the values and traditions of being good human beings; no one can stop me from doing that.
I WASN’T VERY GOOD AT STUDIES AND I HATED MATHS…
So I was sent to this excellent tuition teacher called Naju Shroff, to learn Maths. She made me fall in love with the subject and till today I love Maths (I got 98% in my SSC exams). The point I’m making is that if I make up my mind to do something, I try to do it 100% and I will not give up halfway.
I was very popular in my school, J B Vachcha, and I’m sure I must have been great, both as an assistant captain and as a captain which I became subsequently, because I was not a hard taskmaster. I had to see that everyone had clean nails, that they were wearing their badges etc. I let offenders be, because I really did not consider it an important enough issue. I mean, isn’t it the parents’ duty to see that their daughters come to school with clean nails? Even when we had to practise for the march past – all other captains would call their group at 6 in the morning (school started at 8); I told my team it was okay by me if they came at 7.30 (which was when I came!). I knew how difficult it was to get up early in the morning, and I wasn’t going to inconvenience my group just because of a little power play. When I became the Red House captain, it was the first year the house came first; we were so happy that instead of marching thereafter in a straight line, we almost ran over the people at the side!
At home, there was no obsession about academic excellence; for my parents, my passing was good
enough. When I got 76% in my SSC exams, everyone was astonished because it was my sister Aban who was the brilliant one and she’d got 78%. My parents were so happy and I went around excitedly informing everyone that I had got a distinction.
I feel very good and warm when I think of those days at home. I was what you would call a very good girl. My sister was the beauty of the house actually, she was the one who liked to go out for parties. I used to be happy watching videos at home.
Even though my parents were liberal with us, there were certain rules that had to be followed. The four of us had to have our meals together, which meant we had to come home by a certain time.
And whether a party started at 10 or 10.30, curfew time was 11 p.m. We didn’t rebel because they were very reasonable in the way they told us things. One thing I do remember is that they didn’t like me eating with my fingers but I loved to eat that way because you can eat more when you eat with your hands.
My father also insisted that I wear long skirts. Even when I used to go to the gymkhana to play badminton, I had to wear a long skirt, and then change into my short skirt. At that time I used to think it was silly, but now I see the wisdom behind it. Because imagine me walking down that street where so many people would be looking at me, and my badminton skirt was really very short.
I’VE NEVER SEEN A BETTER MARRIAGE THAN MY PARENTS’; THE CREDIT GOES TO MY MOTHER…
The relationship between one’s parents is so important for the way children turn out. My parents were good with each other, and that gave us a sense of well-being which I took for granted then but today, hearing others’ experiences, I realize how fortunate we have been. My mother did not work after we were born (both of us were caesareans) and she was always there for us. My mum loves cooking and my dad left the kitchen in her hands. Till today, we have two servants in the house, but mum does the cooking 99% of the time. She picks up recipes from magazines, and for us eating at home is a pleasure. She used to go to stitching classes, and she tried to push me to do it too, but I dropped out after three months. Basically she has kept a fabulous home for us and I do not know what we would have done without her. I’ve never seen a better marriage than my parents’ and I’ve seen a lot. I would say the credit goes to my mother. My dad is a darling but he is a very strong personality and he’s hot-tempered too; he believes in keeping his emotions under control. My mother is the one showing emotion all the time, she’s full of affection; we are the world to her. I know my father loves me very much but he will not show it.
IT WAS THE FIRST TIME MY FATHER SLAPPED ME, AND BOY! IT HURT…
I’ve always been very good with children, dogs and cats. In our colony, there are some Montessori schools; during the summer vacations I used to go and help out with children and by the time I was 16, I wanted to be a Montessori teacher. My parents wanted me to graduate and become an airhostess; it’s what both of them have done with their lives; at one point, I too more or less decided to become one for I thought it would be the best way to see the world. I had already seen the world with
my parents, but it’s different when you are seeing it on your own.
Meanwhile, I was in college and I hated attending lectures - as a result of which I had to leave Sophia College and join another institution. Then one day my father heard that I was bunking classes again and that I was at the gym; I don’t know how, but he came to know. Suddenly someone ran in and informed me, ‘Your father’s here’.
I jumped over the wall into the next compound. He caught me and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Nothing, I don’t have classes’. He knew I was lying and he slapped me right there. It was the first time my father slapped me and he didn’t speak to me for the whole day.
That hurt more than the slap. In the evening, he just came up to me, hugged me and said, ‘I really want you to make something of your life and I don’t see you going the right way’. Little did he or I know that a few months later, my whole life was going to change.
MOST YOUNG GIRLS ENLIST FOR THE MISS INDIA - CONTEST JUST FOR A LARK I THINK THAT’S WHERE THE WRONG ATTITUDE BEGINS…
If you check with most of the young girls who enter for or who win the Miss India Contest, you will find that in nine out of 10 cases, they have entered the contest just for the heck of it. And that’s where the wrong attitude towards the beauty business begins. The beauty profession is not considered a serious one in this country, not even by the participants, even though it calls for more labour and painstaking effort than perhaps any other profession. People stray into the line accidentally and by chance; very few are born into it or grow up with an honest acknowledgement that, ‘Yes, I am beautiful and I am going to make capital of my looks’. If only young girls can be less coy and change their way of looking at things, they can channelise their energies into a more decided course of action, and India will have to begin to take a more serious perspective of the beauty trade. I never even thought I was good looking. Sure, we used to have beauty contests in our gymkhana and I used to win – ‘Best Legs’ and ‘May Queen’ and that sort of thing – but it was always a joke, nobody took it seriously.
It was at a wedding that I came across a photographer called Farookh who was assigned the contract for covering the Miss India Contest. He asked me to take part and I replied, ‘Are you mad?’ for I couldn’t see myself standing a chance. He coaxed me saying I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so what was the harm in trying for he believed I had a lot of potential. He told me I would not have to do anything, he would fill my forms and do all that was required. So he took my pictures and filled in the forms and sent them in for me.
VIMLA PATIL DID NOT WANT ME IN THE CONTEST BUT MAUREEN WADIA WAS DETERMINED I SHOULD WIN…
I had to go to the ‘Femina’ office for an interview. Till today, I don’t know why, but Vimla Patil did not want me to take part in the contest. She even sent me a note saying that my form was too late. I have no idea why she did not want me in. I remember feeling, why should it be like that, it is a beauty contest and everybody should be given a fair chance.
Bombay Dyeing was one of the chief sponsors of the contest. I think Bombay Dyeing had six votes and ‘Femina’ had four. And Maureen Wadia wanted me to win. Vimla preferred this other girl called Maureen Lestougem. But Mrs Wadia, I’m told, was quite insistent, saying, ‘There’s no way this girl (me!) will not become queen. I’m not going to let Vimla take away her form’. I was not even part of all this behind-the-forms activity, I had no idea what was happening. (It was only very much later that Maureen Wadia mentioned it to me once and said, ‘Do you know Vimla didn’t want you to be part of the contest?’)
Anyway, there I was all set to participate on the day of the contest, not knowing a thing of what was happening. I truly didn’t expect to win. I wanted to wear black and mum said nothing doing. My sister had just got married and she had this lovely dark purple sari which was the next best thing to black and I cooly borrowed it for the contest. I went to the hall 15 minutes before the last call and put on my sari. I discovered to my horror that it was way above my ankles (my sister is four inches shorter than me). There was no time to switch. My sister quickly did my makeup and I left my hair loose.
The compere Erol was a real darling. At that moment, when you are consumed with stage fright, a compere can either put you at ease or demolish you. Erol was very nice and reassuring, he told me that I had a good chance of winning. He asked me some general questions on stage. I was terribly nervous and I don’t know what he asked and what I said; if you’ve ever had that unreal feeling where you feel kind of dumbstruck, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I was just wishing the whole thing could be over soon as I saw each of the contestants go on the ramp one by one, and the singing in my brain was so loud that I did not hear the question that came to me next.
All I remember is that there were a number of models standing at the side and they were cheering me. Among them were Arpana Sharma and Vanessa Vaz. They started screaming and I did not know what was happening. Then they told me to go up and say, ‘Both give you the best’.
So I went up and said it, and the audience went crazy and started clapping. (Later I was told the question had been, ‘What do Bombay Dyeing and the Miss India Contest have in common?’) I really feel a sense of gratitude towards those models for their backing; without them perhaps I would have just stood there and made an ass of myself.
I can’t remember much more about the contest. My mum told me, ‘When you’re walking back, before you walk back, just turn, look over your shoulder and then walk’. I did that. I had a ball on stage and that’s when I discovered I loved the limelight and could be quite comfortable in it.
Vimla’s choice, Maureen, was looking very beautiful. She was wearing a white sari with a red border and the length was just right. She had lovely, long hair and I thought she would definitely win. When they called her name as the first runner-up, I thought, that’s it then, I don’t stand a chance because I
thought I was less beautiful than her. At these things, somehow, you always feel that the whole world looks better than you. When they called my number next (I think it was seven), I couldn’t believe it. My mouth fell open and my ears did two somersaults. I think I had my gums showing rather than my teeth. I smiled so much. I was so happy.
My parents were delighted. Apparently during the contest, every time I came on stage, they would clap thinking that if the judges heard more claps, they would give more points. It took us more than two hours to get home with all the gifts I got - refrigerator, cooking range and a whole lot of goodies.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, I WAS GIVEN ONLY ` 5,000 TO BUY MY WARDROBE FOR THE MISS UNIVERSE CONTEST…
The days that followed passed in a daze. My life changed completely. Before this, I had been a quiet, young girl, going through the usual pace of life. Now suddenly everyone was giving me importance and treating me like somebody extraordinary. I had not told a soul that I had won, but everyone came to know through the newspapers. Friends, persons from my community, began to crowd all around me, congratulating me all the time. I could not believe all this was happening to me.
I was given just a week to prepare for the Miss Universe Contest which would last for approximately a month-and-a-half! In that one week, I was expected to get my clothes organized, buy shoes, learn makeup (I knew nothing about makeup; no one in my family had applied makeup as a regular thing). Believe it or not, I was given only ₹ 5,000 to buy my entire wardrobe for those one-and-a-half months.
(The winner gets ₹ 5,000, the first runner-up ₹ 3,000, and the second runner-up ₹ 2,000. I think this is ridiculous. Miss World and Miss Asia are going as Miss India too, not as first and second runner-up respectively.)
I got in touch with Xerxes, the designer. I didn’t know how to put it, so finally I just said it straight: ‘I have won the contest.
I have ₹ 5,000 and I’d like you to make my evening gown and some other clothes if this is possible’. He asked me to come over to his studio, and after we’d discussed the situation, he said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll manage somehow’. He tried to ask the boutique where he was part-owner whether they would sponsor my wardrobe, but they didn’t want to do it. So finally, he did everything by himself. He gave me all the outfits. I feel so touched and grateful even today when I think of it; I thank God for the goodness in people.
Xerxes and I got along right from the start. He’s one of the maddest Parsis I’ve met in my life, a real Bawa, a true Bawa, an absolute darling. He also introduced me to Hemant Trevedi, who taught me all about makeup that could be taught in that limited a time.
If it hadn’t been for Hemant and Xerxes, I would never have stood
a chance. Come to think of it, I didn’t stand a chance anyway; how could I, considering how raw and unprepared I was for what followed?! I’M QUITE SURE I MUST HAVE COME LAST IN THE MISS UNIVERSE CONTEST…
I had the most fabulous, best time of my life at Panama, that is where the Miss Universe contest was held in 1987. We were 68 of us, out of which only 40 could speak English; 28 communicated through sign language. It was a glorious season. We used to have rehearsals from 7 in the morning. All the other participants would be up before 5 to do their makeup and hair so that they could come to the rehearsal very prim and proper. I would get up with difficulty at 6.45, run into the shower, brush my teeth and run out to join them. After three weeks, I got tired of the rehearsals and bunked even that. It was so boring - rehearsing for everything, the theme song, the contest, the dance.
Here again is where we Indian girls fall short because of a faulty attitude. This is what comes of entering the contest for a lark. The whole thing continues to be a joke. I’m sure somebody who was really interested in the contest and in winning a name for India, would have given all the activity there the seriousness it called for. I just couldn’t summon enough enthusiasm to become part of it. And while I acknowledge that the original fault is mine for having entered the contest so lightheartedly, I believe the organizers too share the responsibility. I think the conditions for selecting a contestant who might win should be made far more stringent, so that the ‘larkers’ can be sifted out from the sincere participants. The ‘Miss India’ title and I did not do justice to each other.
I have no idea what rank I achieved in the final contest. I’m quite sure I must have come last. And I’m not saying this with pride but with apology. I remember one judge telling me I stood a good chance and asking me what I would do if I became Miss Universe. I said, ‘No way! I don’t want to be Miss Universe. I’m missing my dhansak, my bhel puri, my family and my friends; I want to go home’. I was there just to have a good time and I made fabulous friends.
All 68 of us were like one big family. I was one of the youngest. We flew from Panama to Miami, all of us in one aircraft, and from Miami we had to go back to our respective countries. I remember how the 68 of us were cramped in a bathroom that could accommodate only 30; because we were just crying and hugging each other. We’d been isolated from the world for those few weeks, we’d grown to love each other very much and we’d had such a nice time together that nobody wanted to go home. Imagine yourself in the situation. You’re all thrown with each other. You’re young and you’re not allowed to meet anyone from outside; you are all eating breakfast, lunch and dinner together. No, there was no feeling of intense competition except maybe among a small fraction (the ones who finally won); the rest were there just to have a good time.
MADHU SAPRE HAS PROVED OUR GIRLS CAN COME OUT TOPS BUT ONLY IF WE’RE GIVEN A FAIR CHANCE…
Miss Venezuela who won the contest that year had
been put through a one-year preparation for the event. She was given the crown of her country only a month after the one-year preparation. She was thoroughly groomed, she was taught which were her best colours, she had to learn every trick about makeup.
That’s how it is done internationally. All other countries are very methodical in the way they prepare their participant for the final event. I was given one week; I believe Madhu Sapre was given a month; I would still say it is not enough. We need
more grooming work if we want our girls to stand a chance. And Madhu has proved that our girls can come out tops if only they are given a fair chance. I believe the organizers and the sponsors should keep a lot of factors in mind.
First and foremost, our girls do not have financial support. Sure, like we are told, we know that the more money you put in, the better it will be for you, it’s like an investment for yourself and all that, but let’s face it, some girls just cannot afford even that kind of investment. It’s very sad to lose out on account of not having enough money because I’ve seen the competition and I know that our girls do stand a good chance of winning. The girls there come with a complete wardrobe. They know they are going to be there for a month; they are briefed about exactly what they have to wear in the morning and in the evening; it is all jotted down for them. They are made to go through a hairstyling course and they are trained in public speaking; they know what to answer and when. We look at them and feel tongue-tied. Any wonder?
(I’m really happy though to know that now, from this year, the winner of the Miss India Contest is going to be given more money for her wardrobe. I’d thought of relaxing my rule of not doing any more fashion shows by doing just the fashion show on the Miss India night to be held in Bombay in March. I would do it I thought just so that I could give my earnings from the show to the winner to help her with her wardrobe expenses. That’s when a colleague told me, ‘She won’t need your three thousand, my dear – this year, the wardrobe allowance in ₹ 1 lakh!’ Wow! I’m really glad things have improved. We will stand a better chance now.)
Further, the competition in India MUST HAVE a swimming costume round as that is how it is done at the Miss Universe Contest. If this is not done here, you might send someone there who looks extremely beautiful in a ghagra, but when they put her in a swimming costume, they might be disappointed.
No, I don’t think a swimming costume should deter Indian women from entering the Miss India Contest. It’s like I said right at the start of this piece.
Are you serious about making it as a professional in the beauty industry? Then get your attitude correct right at the start.
Girls who are seriously interested in making something of their lives will still enter the Miss India Contest even if they have to wear a swimming costume. I know it would have not prevented me from entering. What’s the harm in wearing a swimming costume on stage? I’ve been wearing one and going swimming every day of my life.
Another point the judges should be particular about is the contestant’s height. You can’t have anyone and everyone winning, without considering
the international standard of acceptable height. I may not have won the international contest, but my life had changed its course and there were no two ways about it. A new, unexpected career unfurled before me and I was quite happy to flow along with it. I began to earn my own money and it makes me feel good to think that I have been looking after myself financially from the age of 17.
I NEVER ASKED MY PARENTS FOR A PENNY AFTER THAT…
When I came back, I had to work for Bombay Dyeing for a year (that was part of the contest contract) without payment. Then I did ads for Palmolive, Lakmé, Forhans... after which ads kept pouring in. For the first year or two, I think I worked almost every day. I realized that now I could earn enough money to make all my dreams come true. It was great to know that I could finance myself in every possible way. If I wanted to, I could blow five thousand bucks on a single outfit. I never asked my parents for a penny after that. I wanted to start giving to my family; up to that point I had only been taking from them.
This line is full of glamour and can take you away from reality, but that’s where the family structure helped me. I still had to keep to the house rules, so I could never let anything go to my head.
I discovered you can set your specific standards and patterns in this line, you don’t have to conform because there is nothing to conform to; the profession has such a nebulous history. And so I created my own mould. I became a model only when I walked into a studio or a set. As soon as I left the studio, I was plain Mehr Jesia again. In my personal life, I don’t even use makeup. And most of the time I go for parties wearing jeans.
Anna Bredmeyer, Shyamlie Verma and Vanessa Vaz were the reigning models at that time. Shyamlie was especially stunning. And I had a lot of help when I started. Arpana, Lubna, Mickey, Sangeeta all helped me make it big. As far as shootings were concerned, I’d have just Mickey Contractor by my side. I used to insist on it. I remember Sonu Walia had told me to take my own brushes and sponges along for makeup, because the makeup artistes used the same thing for everyone.
So when I met Mickey the first time (I didn’t know his standing), I pushed his brushes and sponges away and I laid out my own and said, ‘Please use this’. He said, ‘Keep your mouth shut and let me do what I want to do to your face, otherwise I’m walking out of here and you can go without makeup’. The results were great. And that’s when I learnt to regard and respect professionals; to surrender my own will and ego to the person in charge, only then can the best results be achieved, by the merging of all the best talents.
The first fashion show I did was with Sangeeta Chopra. Her mother Shanti treated me like her own daughter and Sangeeta treated me like a friend. I was petrified because it was a dance show and I’d never really danced in my life; just a little tapping of the feet, that is all I knew. I’d plead with her,
‘Don’t make me do this. I’ll make a fool of myself’. But she would push me onto the stage. She would call me an hour or two before the show and make me practise on my own before a large mirror. Arpana Sharma and Lubna Adams would also do a lot to help me learn dancing. Little did I realize that one day I would not only make it to the catwalk, but I would also do solo dance numbers all on my own! (No, I believe you are being unfair in comparing cabaret dancing with modeling. Cabaret dancing is sexual entertainment, while modeling is just plain entertainment. You cannot simply keep walking in a catwalk designer show; it would become very boring; so you add a little bit of dance to it for entertainment. You have a song like ‘Leave your hat on’; it’s a very sexy number from ‘Nine And A Half Weeks’, but you have on a shirt, a trouser, a jacket and a hat and while dancing, you just remove your jacket. There’s nothing wrong with it because you are not revealing your body.)
I really am thankful to Sangeeta; if it were not for her, I wouldn’t have gone to London. She has always been there for me even if sometimes a pressing personal problem has made me wake her up at 2 in the morning.
So the beauty and modeling world is not the way it is made out to be – an empty, shallow place with no time for human relationships; Sangeeta Chopra has been my friend. She would always drill it into me, ‘Mehr, you can do anything if you really want to do it’. Believe me, you don’t need a hundred and thousand friends; if you have just one good friend, who takes the time to build up your confidence, it’s all you need. I WAS HATED, HATED! AND SOON I UNDERSTOOD WHY…
Within the industry, the only girls I party with are Alison, Marie Lou and Sangeeta. Otherwise I do not socialize with the other models. They dislike me and it took me a long time to accept their dislike and to understand it. Since I’d led a pretty sheltered life upto this point, the character assassination blew my mind. I am not malicious and I cannot understand malice. The bitchiness would stun me and I would go into bouts of depression trying to figure out what I had done or said to provoke it. At one time, I couldn’t understand why I was hated so much till Sangeeta explained to me that it was because of what I was. Successful.
The top is a very lonely place. There were a lot of people who wanted to be me. They had experienced much bitterness and frustration in the profession and they could not stand the fact that I was/ am happy.
I am temperamentally a happy person because I come from a stable family background and to me modeling was not the beginning and the end of the world. My happiness infuriated them. I felt their hatred being manifested in the quality of the rumours that were spread about me. The height came when I lost a very close friend of mine, a
model too; I was warned she was speaking ill of me but I would not believe it for a long time till the truth hit me in my face. I was working with a photographer whom she coveted and she couldn’t stand it. My success ruined our friendship. When you reach a point like that, you have to decide. Either you quit or you will stay on and not let nasty things affect you. I made it a policy decision thereafter to keep completely out of the politics of the profession.
I WISH MODELS WOULD STOP FEELING INSECURE; THERE IS ENOUGH WORK FOR EVERYONE…
Rohit Khosla is one of my dearest friends. He has said (and I have been terribly flattered!) in many of his interviews that often when he is conceiving and designing, he has me as his model in mind. What I want the industry and other models to understand is that when Rohit and Sangeeta plug me like this, it is because they know that I will do justice to their concept and not because of any other ulterior motives or due to devious reasons. I’m sorry to sound so emotional about what might appear to be such a trifling matter, but I have been subjected to so much nastiness because of being a designer’s or a choreographer’s first choice, that I feel I must speak up today. How will we models ever improve things for ourselves as a whole if we keep trying to destroy each other? I want everyone to know through this article that you can have very good friends and that you don’t have to use your friends to get to the top because there is enough work for everyone, and enough place at the top for all those who persevere. Every model is unique. Her security should come from her realization the she is unique. No two models are ever similar. Everyone has a certain look which is just right for a particular product. You don’t have to say that A, B and C were asked for the same and A got it because she is a better model. There is no such thing as a better or worse model. There are only suitable or unsuitable models depending on specific products. My advantage was that I was born with a very versatile face. So that gave me an extension of modeling time.
Otherwise, the ideal timespan for a model is, in the present framework, four years. I’ve been in this line longer than that thanks to Mickey Contractor. He has done 100% justice to my versatile face. He made me look different in every ad. He never repeated a look.
Vimal used me for three years; I stuck to a particular look every year. For Nivea, I did a wet hair look and I’ve not repeated that look for anyone else. Likewise for Bombay Dyeing and OCM. Mickey insisted that I do a different look each time; he made me understand the importance of this. As a result, you see a different Mehr coming out of every page when she’s modeling a product.
THERE’S NOT MUCH PLACE FOR MEN HERE…
It is a line in which female models reign. Because women always add glamour to a product. If you’re trying to sell a moisturising cream, you’re going to have a female. But if you are trying to sell suitings which require mainly a male model, you will still have a female to add glamour. Like for the OCM ad, I was wearing the same thing that the male model was wearing. We did it for the fun of it and it worked.
There’s not much work or place for male models in our country. Male models come and go. They just use modeling as a stepping stone to something else and all they can get from it is a little pocket money and travel. But honestly speaking, there just isn’t enough work for them to make a livelihood out of it.
I MADE THE MISTAKE OF ADVISING OTHERS ABOUT THEIR BEHAVIOURAL PATTERNS…
Now on the subject of morality, I can only say this. What you are depends on how you behave, what you want to make of your life and how solid your own values are. I have never let myself go haywire at any stage because
I have always had 100% respect for myself. There’s nothing wrong with falling in love, having a relationship, but after that there should be respect for the relationship. I wouldn’t like to let anyone think even for a minute that he is more important to me than my boyfriend. I would not even give out vibes subtly suggesting that. And all human beings have common sense. They know when they are flirting and when they are not.
I don’t think having sex in a serious relationship is wrong. It’s true that one would like to keep oneself for the man one marries. But then, when you get into a serious relationship, isn’t it with marriage on your mind? And then when the relationship carries on for four and five years, it grows in depth, understanding, intensity and intimacy. I’ve had two serious relationships in my life and I’ve given my all to them. It would be possible in this line to let things go out of hand. But the ultimate decision lies only with you.
If you make sleeping around a lifestyle, the only person you are damaging is yourself. And then you have to ask yourself whether you like yourself so little that you would want to hurt yourself.
This is my way of looking at life; beyond that, it’s each to her own.
When I’d come into the line initially, I made the mistake of advising people. I would let them know where I thought they were going wrong and that was my greatest error. Because what you say doesn’t make a difference to them. They go ahead and do what they want in any case and at the same time, they will bitch about you because you tried to get righteous with them. Who am I to play judge? I stopped doing it as soon as I realized I was doing it.
– HE SAID, ‘ THERE’S A RULE YOU’VE GOT TO GIVE ME A KISS BEFORE YOU GO ON STAGE…’ Ranjeev Mulchandani is a model. He is the guy I love and if all goes well, we shall be married some day. It is a serious relationship. From the beginning I found Ranjeev very different and very straightforward.
His first video test and mine was a common one. But he was in his group, I in mine, and we went our separate ways. Then I did a Campa Cola ad with him. I thought he was very good looking even in his clown suit! The next meeting was at a show organized by Sangeeta. And then at another show, he asked me when my birthday was. I said it had been two days ago and he was really very upset that I hadn’t mentioned it to him on the day itself. We were in Calcutta then. As the hours and the days passed, I realized with some surprise that I could talk to Ranjeev more than anybody else. There is that certain quality about him that really appeals to me. Then suddenly before I went up on stage for the show that night in Delhi, he came up to me and said, ‘There’s a rule; you’ve got to give me a kiss before you go on stage’. I was furious; I thought, who does this guy think he is?! Then to my own amazement, I found myself thinking; why not give him a kiss, after all, he is so cute, and I gave him a peck on his cheek. Then I just carried on. But I had this bubbly feeling within. After the show,
I asked Sangeeta, who the hell does this guy think he is? Does he think he can ask anybody for a kiss?
I was in a daze. You know that shaky feeling when your knees feel like jelly? It’s crazy you know. The whole world may be after you, they’re there at your feet. But there’s only one person who can sweep you off your feet. You can’t describe it, you can’t analyse it, you can’t explain it. It just happens.
I was taking the return flight to Bombay that night and Ranjeev was going to stay on in Delhi for two days and then proceed to Bangalore. I was just removing my makeup when he came to me and said, ‘Stay back’. Again I was amazed at his audacity. I looked up at him to tell him off. And instead I went and told Sangeeta that I would be staying for two days in Delhi. And I called my mum too and told her. No, nothing happened there, I mean, not in the sense the world is curious to know about.
When you’ve been brought up with strong values by God-fearing parents who’ve given you a stable upbringing, your own foundations are firm and clear. You don’t rush, escapist-like, into anything, be it an assignment or an affair. You tread carefully, there’s no sense of panic or desperation about you.
There’s a mental and emotional security that clothes your existence, allowing you enough space for analyzing and testing the ground you’re going to step on.
(I’m saying all this not out of arrogance or in any attempt to put myself on a pedestal above other young girls my age. What I’m trying to express has its root in the gratitude that I feel towards my parents for all they’ve done for me and my sister; the wonderful upbringing which made it possible for us to work towards achievement in all that we put our hands in.)
Later, we reached Bangalore where he has his family. I stayed at the Holiday Inn. I was just dying to do some shopping, so we got there, dumped our bags and just went off. When I returned, there was a sarcastic message from him saying, ‘Thanks for calling’ or ‘Thanks for waiting’ or something like that. I met him, apologized for not calling. The temperature was 11 degrees but I wanted to go swimming. We swam for
two minutes. Then things started happening. Sure, the relationship started and it began to grow. We were getting to be better and better friends.
MY PARENTS DON’T LIKE HIM BECAUSE HE’S NOT DOING ANYTHING WITH HIS LIFE…
It took three months for me to admit to myself that yes, I love him. He always gave me breathing space. That’s what I love most about him. That I can be myself with him. He always lets me do my own thing. In all my years in this profession, he’s the best thing that happened to me.
My parents don’t like him because he’s not a Parsi, he’s a Sindhi, and because he is not really doing anything with his life.
The problem with Ranjeev is that he tends to go about things a bit slowly. It takes him time to make up his mind but once he does, he gives it his all. (This is one trait we have in common.) He is interested in photography; so he went to London to do a course in it and now he is beginning to make a career out of it. He also had this concept of organizing parties – it was a huge success. But he goes about things slowly and that can be exasperating. I guess this is what upsets my parents because they feel I am making something out of my life and I’m involved with someone who is not. I understand what they are going through but it will not change my mind. It’s my life. I just know that I will marry Ranjeev only, that is if he proposes. He hasn’t asked me seriously. I know he wants to marry me and I know I want to marry him. I would love him to prove my parents wrong by making something out of his life. He knows he has to. He doesn’t like living the way he is, he wants to move on from modeling. I know he wakes up in the night, saying, ‘I’m not doing anything’ and still doesn’t know which way to go. In a way, I think I’ve been Ranjeev’s girlfriend and his mother because his parents are in Bangalore and he’s staying as a paying guest here.
Though I don’t want to give him a deadline for marriage, both of us know that the relationship can’t carry on like this forever. And I know that should I decide to get married to Ranjeev, my parents will have to accept it. No, my father cannot say he will forget me. He loves me too much for that. I’ve done worse things and he has always forgiven me and been good to me. He will forgive me this time too.
I’M FEELING SHEEPISH ABOUT THE LONDON FIASCO, BUT HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED…
When two months ago I got an offer the join ‘Models 1’, which is a leading modeling agency in London, I accepted it and that’s when and how I decided to quit the Indian modeling scene. I had always promised myself that once I reached the top, I would not wait to fall even an inch. I would leave while right up there. The offer gave me the right exit point. I did my swan song at the ‘Citadel’ show in Pune.
My family and my friends were delighted for me, they thought it was a super break.
It was going to be the acid test for my relationship with Ranjeev even though we had not given each other reason to distrust each other.
He was excited and sad that I was going (he was worried that I would find a Prince Charming there. He keeps thinking of me as the most perfect thing that has happened in his life. He feels no man can ask
for anything else – he’s talking about the fact that I’ve never been disloyal to him and that I happen to be a nice looking person too. He feels only a prince or a monarch is worthy of me. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to feel so loved.)
I went to London. I was all set to imbibe all that the profession there could teach me. But then in two weeks, I did a rethink. Nothing negative happened regarding the place or the people; I’m talking about a realisation that hit me good and proper. I suddenly asked myself, what am I doing here and for what? I’ve had my fair share of success and I’ve had enough of name, fame and all that. So why am I allowing myself to get into a situation where as a model I will have to give another two or three years of my life to this profession? I was very, very unhappy over there. It was the first time I was away and so completely cut off from my family and friends. I realized that success, money, fame – all these mean nothing if you are not with your family and the people you love. The British people are very cordial, very professional, excellent to work with, but let’s face it, they are not the friendliest people in the world. Everything is very meticulous, so carefully planned and scheduled that there is no place for spontaneity. If you go to the agency, you are not supposed to hang around for a minute more than is necessary, else you begin to feel you’re getting in people’s way. They were very encouraging, they called me ‘India’s only hope’ and stuff like that. I was to start shooting on Monday for a catalogue, the assignment was to get me £ 1,500.
But I discovered I didn’t want to do it. I did not want this big break, I did not need it and so why was I there (in London)? I knew it was going to be embarrassing to go back to India after the warm and wonderful send-off I was given. But I knew I had to have the courage to face up to my mistake, rather than waste another day of my life.
I sat for three hours in Sloane Square in the freezing cold. My whole life unfurled before me. I had a clear sense of direction and purpose at last. I knew none of this mattered; I did not want to be a professional model anymore. In London or in India. I couldn’t contact my parents because they were in Hong Kong.
But I called up my sister, Sangeeta and Ranjeev. All of them said the same thing: That I was crazy and that I was blowing up the chance of a lifetime.
They said, give yourself time; you are just feeling homesick; don’t throw aside your future.
Future? It would be a ‘future’ for somebody like Madhu Sapre, who has got her career in front of her. I‘ve had my innings in modeling. I’ve received the best that the profession could give me. Is there any campaign I have not done, any designer or choreographer I have not worked with? It’s time for me to step aside now, to let other models come up.
I cut my hair, bought large, ugly platform slippers and caught the next flight home. I reached here on Saturday. My parents returned in the middle of the night on Monday. They knew nothing about anything since I wasn’t able to contact them; but
my mother saw the large, ugly slippers and she knew I was home. They love me and want me to be happy, so they’re glad I’m home; but I know in their heart of hearts, they too feel I’ve made a big mistake. I know I have not.
WHAT I’M GOING TO TEACH OTHER MODELS…
As soon as word got around that I was back in Bombay, people began calling up. Lubna wanted me to do the Dynasty show she’d organized at the Sea Rock. But I said no, I’ve quit as a model. (I may do a few assignments for friends, but no more professional modeling.) I went for the show and I cannot tell you what joy it was to be clapping and screaming with the audience instead of being there on the catwalk. There have been mixed reactions to my return; mostly the models refuse to believe that I’ve quit and will not be competition to them anymore. Well, that’s their problem; I have more important things to do with my life now.
I’m doing intensive preparation for my agency, and it is calling for all my energy. As I am setting the guidelines and the guard-lines for models, I have to recall my entire career, my own experiences. I don’t have to worry about money. Thanks to my parents, my mother especially, I have invested my money wisely. I was able to invest it only because I could make it to start with. And that’s what my agency is going to help models do – make their money without getting taken for a ride. (I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to Mickey who helped me in this regard; right at the start he told me how much I should and could ask for a campaign. For a very good campaign, one can earn one-and-a-half to two lakhs. For press ads, you can get between ₹ 30,000 to 50,000.) And never work without a contract. That’s why it’s best to go through an agency because in the beginning when they know you are new, they know you are not going to go through three or four pages of fine print in the contract and that you will believe what they tell you in two and three sentences. And that’s where the trouble starts because you commit yourself or get taken for a ride.
When you sign a contract, you automatically know what is in store for you.
Money should be paid to you after the contract gets over. And if it is going to be renewed, you should know when to charge more.
Many models feel that if the contract is being renewed, and you’re not really doing much of shooting, maybe you should charge only 50% for the second year. I don’t agree because every year the rates go up and since you are going to be stuck with that product for another year, you should get the same if not more than before.
You should fight for your rights, what else is a contract for? Don’t fear being branded a fighter. I had a problem with Lakmé and Nivea right in the beginning.
The Lakmé contract had said that on payment, it could be renewed. The contract was over, they didn’t pay me. Nivea asked me to do an ad. I called up Lakmé and told them I would be doing the ad for Nivea. There was no word from them after that; so I carried on with the Nivea campaign. And just before it was going to be released, Lakmé sent me a cheque that was predated. Luckily my mother had kept the
postal envelope in which it had arrived. I was all set to take legal action against Lakmé; fortunately the two companies settled the matter between themselves.
If someone played dirty with me, I wouldn’t want to work with them again.
I’m not working for free, those people are being paid for their jobs, so why shouldn’t I be paid too? I never feared; I was always ready to send my lawyer to anyone who tried to play dirty. It didn’t affect my career; it doesn’t affect your career. When you are a success, people will come to you on your terms; and you can be a success only if you act successful.
Indian models are among the best in the world. I’ve been all over the world and I know what I am talking about. We are on par with international standards, so it’s time we are at least nationally recognized. The girls I am going to discover and build up in my agency are going to work internationally; I’m setting up the whole network.
HOW CAN A SENSIBLE PERSON LIKE AAMIR KHAN ACT IN FILMS…?
I have had many offers to work in Hindi movies, but no thank you, I have never been even remotely interested (except once when I almost considered Muzaffar Ali’s film which then went to Dimple). When Hindi movies were in black and white, you would have such beautiful songs. Now they have made a parody of it. How can a sensible person like Aamir Khan work in Hindi films? How can any of them respect what they are doing - running around trees? You can pay me the world for it but if I don’t believe in what I’m doing, I don’t respect it or I don’t like it, how can I do it? I could have been super rich in London but that is not as important to me as my family and friends. I can live without money. But I cannot live without love.
Revisiting the sassy, super successful ‘n’ sorted Mehr Jesia’s ‘SAVVY’ cover story – the ‘I Believe’ – published in March 1993. It’s the only deep and outspoken interview that this ‘queen of India’s catwalk and ad world’ ever gave. Priceless!
Mehr with parents and older sister
Mehr with Arjun Rampal and daughters
With Arjun and Sussanne Khan
With Sussanne Khan
Mehr with Dino Morea, Preity Zinta, Sussanne Khan and Arjun
Arjun, Sussanne, Mehr and Hrithik Roshan