Sultry, sexy & successful, Ujjwala Raut, hailed as the ONLY Indian supermodel in the West, found her start by chance when she won the ‘Femina Look of the Year’ in 1996 at the tender age of 17. Since then, this simple girl from Dahisari, Mumbai, has never looked back, having walked the elitist ramps in Paris, Milan and New York for A-list designers such as Emanuel Ungaro and Paco Rabanne. She has been seen in ad campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent, GAP and H&M and appeared in the world’s top fashion magazines from Vogue to Cosmopolitan But there’s so much more to this 5’10”, self professed adventurer, who is also a wife, mother and aspiring actor. In conversation, she comes across as a fun-loving, happy person who despite her 10 years in professional modeling, has only just begun her journey to greatness.
You’ve walked the ramps of every A-list fashion designer show from Milan to Mumbai, but you got your break back home in India at the age of 17 when you won the ‘Femina Look of the Year’ in 1996. At this point, had you banked on a career in modeling?
Actually, I was never the one who wanted to get into this profession. My elder sister pulled me into it. I quickly realized though that modeling is one of the few professions where women can make more money than men. Also, this profession has given me the opportunity to travel all over the world at such a young age and meet so many interesting people I otherwise would never have met, which in turn has taught me much about life.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
That life doesn’t wait for anyone and opportunities must be taken when they come your way because without availing what life brings your way, you’ll never really know what you can accomplish.
At what point did you consider that a career in professional modeling was for you?
I never actually planned on a career as a professional model. Having won the Femina title is what threw me into modeling in India initially, but I learned very quickly that going abroad, although a bigger risk, would be a better choice for me, and if I didn’t do it at that point, I was never going to. So I took that step, without really knowing what I was getting into. All I knew at that point was that I wanted to make a mark for myself and be known much more than in India. Luckily, on arrival, I fell into good hands with IMG. They are the ones who really foresaw the potential in me to succeed on the catwalks of the West. They were the ones, besides my husband, who actually pushed me.
How did you get from modeling in India to the catwalks of the West?
I made a conscious decision whilst in India, having gotten quite fed up with the scene out there, that I wanted more than what India had to offer in terms of modeling. I really wanted to work in Paris, so being an adventurous person by nature, I did. I also believe that the timing was right for me being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people as well.
How was the scene different in the West as compared to India at that time?
In the West, there’s much more competition because your competing with girls that are constantly coming from all over the world, whereas in India, there were and mostly still are today, only Indian girls working. The competition is fierce here but according to people in the industry here, I was very different and unique.
You were ANOKHI!
(Laughs). Yes, very ANOKHI! I never looked like any of the young girls that were around at that time, being that many were blonde and blue-eyed.
What is the difference in the modeling industry here today versus when you first appeared on the scene?
When I first came here, I didn’t know anybody and didn’t have any friends at a time when I most needed it. Today, I know virtually every model of consequence because I have worked with most, if not all, of them at some time or other. It’s funny, one day you’re so far away and the next, you’re so close. The biggest difference I have found from then and now is not in the industry per se, but in the industry’s perception of me. When you’re on the periphery of the industry versus being in the inner circle, you’re viewed differently and based on that view, your own perceptions of the industry are like night and day.
In what way?
It all has to do with how you are treated. It’s the treatment that makes the difference on your perception of an environment. Today, I am treated like part of the family and so I feel like I am.
I absolutely agree — you’ve managed to do what no Indian model before you has been able to do by becoming a member of the elite group of supermodels in the West. How do you feel about that?
I still get goosebumps on the occasion that I am reminded about my success and status.
Well, I’m glad to oblige!
Keep obliging! (Laughs) You know, when you’re actually working with big name stars who you’re used to seeing on TV and in magazines everyday like Jennifer Lopez, you’re very humbled, and even more so when you realize that the bigger the star, the more humble and down to earth they are. They really accept you with open arms. You know what I still don’t like about India is that everyone in this industry hates each other. Here in the West, it’s nothing like that, and I guess that’s because over here, it’s a mult-billion dollar business whereas in India, it is considered more a hobby. I don’t think that the Indian modeling industry has actually realized how much potential this profession has.
You mentioned that you’ve had the opportunity to work with many big stars like Jennifer Lopez. In what capacity?
Well in Jennifer’s case, she has her own fashion line. The team that was working her show also worked on the Victoria Secret runway show that I was one of the models in. Consequently, I was asked to go and meet with her, which I did and she liked me. In other cases, once you are part of the circuit and considered one of the really big models, people know who you are and jobs come by much more readily, even easily in many cases.
Did you encounter hurdles bearing in mind that you are a visible minority?
In the beginning it was tough because I wasn’t the archetype, but this quickly changed. I remember in the early days when I arrived in Paris and did a show for Emanuel Ungaro — because of how different I looked, he would always touch my cheeks.
The ones on my face! (Laughs) He would stroke my thighs and arms, and say: “Oh you’re so beautiful! You’re so beautiful!” He used to say that I reminded him of Iman.
Fashion and showbiz are very difficult industries to conquer even for the tried and tested looks, but you didn’t see this as a hindrance when you set your eyes on the West, as opposed to the East where you would not have been considered a visible minority. But you still chose the West, why?
I was given a good piece of advice early on in my career. I was told that to model in India, a girl had to conform to a certain look that was similar to the look of the actresses in Bollywood. First of all, I don’t conform; second, I don’t look, nor do I want to look, typical, even if the look is beautiful. This is also the big difference between succeeding in modeling in India versus the West. India looks for uniformity and the West looks for individuality.
Who in the modeling world do you admire and why?
I admire a lot of people for a lot of reasons. I admire Iman for who she is and what she’s done for the Black modeling world in the West. I admire what Giselle has done for the Brazilian modeling world. I really look up to Christy Turlington because of her look and Kate Moss because of her style.
Describe a typical day at work.
Depends on where I am and what is required of me. Usually, if I’m in New York, I go to work for 9am. When I’m abroad, like now being in Milan, I get up much earlier because the process in Europe is much different here than in the U.S. — the expectations and work ethic is different.
In what way?
Europe work is usually always runway show related as opposed to the U.S., which may be runway, editorial or something else. But in both cases, the working day runs long. A standard day will run at least ten hours long.
I know. We work much harder than we are given credit for by people who are not in the industry. The general public only sees the end result and not the days of hard work that make the end result look so effortless. Also, they see us in magazines or on TV at parties and think that that’s all we do.
Tell me about the parties. What is a typical night out for you and the celebrity circles you move in?
Well, I get all dressed up, meet with friends and go have fun. I’ve met so many very famous people and meet them all the time, so it’s quite normal for me now.
Okay, I guess today it’s not such a big deal being at celebrity parties because you’ve been doing this for a while. Let me ask you then, when you first began attending such parties, how did you feel being amongst all these celebrities that you were used to seeing on TV, in movies and in magazines?
It was an unexplainable high. I couldn’t believe that on one side of me was Pierce Brosnan and on the other was Donatella Versace. It was at that time so wow, but not anymore. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy celebrity parties because I do. I get to catch up with everyone. The difference now is that it’s not surreal. Another difference now is that you know that people, especially the media, are watching you so you have to be aware that you don’t come across in any way that you may regret. I go because I love to party, I love to dance, I love hip hop, and I generally just like to have a fun time. But I only go out for two to three hours. I’m not the type to be out till four to five in the morning because I have to work the next day, and my work is about how I look.
You’ve been quoted as saying: “To make it internationally, Indian models need to know that the focus should be on the clothes, not on them.” Do you feel that this knowledge early on in your career was what gave you that competitive edge over all other Indian models who were also trying their luck internationally at that time?
I know one thing for sure: the job of a model is to wear the clothes of a designer in the way the designer wants the world to know that their clothes should look and be worn. Every designer has a distinct look and objectives with that look, so your job as a model is to project that and not yourself. In this way, the emphasis is rightfully on the clothes which it is your job to sell, and not on yourself. By selling the clothes, you sell yourself, not the other way round.
I hope I’m not giving out all my secrets! (Laughs)
No, you’re just letting us know why you are the only reigning Indian supermodel in the world!
Thank you! Another point is that I find the ramp boring in India because of the fact that the emphasis is on the model and not on the clothing. I mean the girls stop at the bottom of the ramp and f**king stand there and don’t move, like it’s about them. That’s not modeling, that’s insecurity translating into need for fame. They all do the same thing, and I was bored with it when I did India Fashion Week, and that is not the way I feel when I’m on a Western ramp.
The modeling industry, as we know, is highly competitive and there is always a younger, fresher more beautiful girl around the next corner. How do you deal with girls coming onto the scene that may be all of these more than you?
I work very hard to keep my competitive edge because there will always be someone better than me and you and her and him. I’m quite confident in my abilities, and I have a great team of people who represent and manage my career. That’s very necessary in this profession — to surround yourself with good, able, experienced people— I feel I have that with IMG.
The great thing about your look is that you distinctly look Indian as compared to the Western look of many Indian models, due to which, they have been successful in India. They have used their Western looks to get where they have, you have taken advantage of your Indian look to get where you have, which is a lot farther than any of them. Why do you think your ‘Indianess’ has worked to your advantage in the West?
It’s funny because when I first started working, people thought I was Brazilian. I remember when I first used to do my rounds at the agencies, they used to say that I’m not anything like the typical Indian girls that they see all the time which are pushing their Western looks and generally have a more shapely figure. They looked Bollywood. By contrast, I do not look Western and I am thin. The agencies were not used to this kind of Indian woman, so this worked to my advantage. Tom Ford told me that my look is such that I could be from anywhere and made to look like many different nationalities. I’m proud of my look and very blessed to look the way I do, but I also make a conscious effort to groom and understand the West’s modeling etiquette. Also, I’m glad that I’m not blonde and blue-eyed either because the competition for jobs for them is even more fierce. There’s so many of them, as opposed to me. There are not many girls that look like me. If I didn’t look this way, I don’t think that I would be where I am today.
Maybe you’re right about that.
I know I’m right about that!
Is the industry really as exploitative as it seems?
I think it depends on whether you allow people to exploit you. It’s more the case when you’re new in the business and you don’t know when you’re being exploited. Also, there are so many gay people in this industry so it’s super safe for women, but I don’t know about the guys. Of course, that’s not to say that you don’t get hit on left, right and centre, but isn’t that the case in any industry when you’re an attractive woman?
You’ve got a point. Both the fashion and entertainment business are very provocative industries, and once you enter them, it’s very difficult to hold back from getting lured into a lifestyle of sex and drugs, more so than any other industry. For an up-andcoming model who is dying to become a part of the ‘it’ crowd and wanting to excel in her/his career, what would you say s/he should consider to avoid getting lost in all the decadence?
Personally, I don’t drink or smoke. I used to smoke, but I quit once I got pregnant. What you say is very true and very right. But I feel it’s an individual’s choice. The person has chosen that path. Doing drugs ages you very quickly, which is a no-no for this industry if you’re planning a long-term career. Sex, although great, is only great if it’s healthy and not used as a tool for anything other than what it is supposed to be for, which is the enjoyment of each other as consenting adults. I think what helped me was my upbringing. Even though my family wasn’t physically with me, they were and always are with me in terms of what they have taught me is right and wrong, which makes the difference between being exploited or not. Besides, my dad was a cop. I was petrified of doing anything that would make me look bad in his eyes.
But you chose a career in a very non-traditional industry. Did this not pose any problems with your family?
They trusted that they had done a good job raising me. And they were right!
Would you consider going back to India to work?
If I wanted to work back in India, I know I can any day, but I also know that if I lose the time over here, I’m not going to retain my position here. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. But having said that, I’m a proud Indian and feel that I don’t want to lose that part of me either so when I was invited to do India Fashion Week, I did go back and support my own. It felt great because everyone was so excited that I was coming. It feels good to be useful to your homeland. It’s where I got my start and I want to give back. I love my country.
In light of the West’s recent interest in Indian fashion, how do you see the future panning out for India to be taken seriously as a major fashion centre?
India’s been a great influence in fashion all over the world and more so now. Everywhere I go, people are talking about India and its fashion industry. Big name designers in the West like Jean Paul Gaultier and Emanuel Ungaro are getting inspiration from India and incorporating Indian accents and embellishments in their collections, but India itself hasn’t, in the most part, figured out the mass potential its industry could have in the West. I feel there is a lot of work India has to do, but some Indian designers are beginning to realize the potential of the market out here, as more and more of them are beginning to show in Milan and New York Fashion Weeks. There’s a lot to be done.
I agree. I believe the biggest shortfall is the lack of organization of the industry, lack of support for each other and refusal to follow the rules of the world’s fashion industry.
I agree. For example, in the rest of the world, designers fit their models individually, but in India, they have all the girls come for fittings at the same time. It’s like a bloody mela. This is a lack of respect for the model’s time and very unproductive. I don’t understand the logic because how can one designer fit a room full of models at the same time? I refuse to do fittings with other girls because it’s an utter waste of time. I don’t know about them, but I have a life. You know, in India, if they’re paying you, they make you feel like they own you. What they don’t realize is that without models, there is no show. Models have a responsibility to represent the designer and his/her clothing to buyers, media and the general public. I think that deserves some respect, don’t you?
I think it deserves a lot of respect.
By comparison, in the West, designers take care of their models. If they’re late or running late, they apologize. They ask you if you’re okay. They really take care of you.
As you said earlier, this is a billion dollar industry and is so because of these kinds of rules of decency.
Another point is that in India, they cannot differentiate between Bollywood and the fashion industry. Everything is Bollywood inspired or targeted. It’s really sad Raj that they are putting so much emphasis on an unreachable fantasy world when the rest of the world is servicing the everyday woman.
Your career has in many ways mirrored that of your good friend’s, supermodel Iman. She also began her career at a time when her look was very different from the run of the mill, and she too created her own niche, rising to supermodel status, thus opening the door to Black models worldwide. Would we have even heard of Naomi or Tyra if it had not been for her? Similarly, you have opened the door to aspiring Indian models to be taken seriously in the West. How do you feel about this?
I feel so honoured that you would compare me to Iman who I admire so much. Thank you for that.
You’re welcome, and it’s a true comparison.
She is truly an amazing person and knows that she can do so much more than she has, although being one of the world’s longest reigning supermodels with her own cosmetics company worldwide is a lot! She only focuses on doing things that make her happy. Similarly, I strive to only do things that make me happy, regardless of what people may expect or want from me. A lot of people do things without first thinking about why they are doing it and if it has a benefit to them and their life’s journey. I can honestly say that everything I have done so far, I have truly enjoyed to the fullest, and I intend on continuing on this way.
On the subject of Iman, you got married at her and hubby, David Bowie’s, penthouse in Manhattan a couple of years ago? How did this become the venue?
Okay, do I have to answer that?
Why, is it a loaded question?
No, but I haven’t talked about it before because it’s a personal friend thing and no big deal.
Okay so tell me about it.
We were first going to get married in the Hamptons, and when Iman was invited, she said she would love to come but she had broken her leg and was unable to travel. She suggested we get married at her home. Iman is very particular about who she invites to her house, so it was so wonderful of her to offer this to me. I remember how fabulous it was as we sat down for dinner and the Olympic fireworks began going off and Iman said, “I got them to do that for your wedding,” and we all laughed.
You’d been dating your now husband, Craig (Maxwell Sterry), for about three years before he popped the question. What made you say ‘yes’ to him?
Craig made me feel good about me and who I was and he loves me for who I am. He used to tell me that he wanted to have a baby with me. We just made and make each other so happy. He’s made me realize who I am, and who I am today has a lot do with him.
You’re both Geminis.
My gosh! You know everything!
It’s my job to know everything and then take it even deeper. The whole event from proposal to wedding has been documented as a whirlwind. How did it all happen and so fast at that? Was it maybe because you or he felt you may change your mind, bearing in mind that you are both Geminis, the two-minded sign?
No. The truth is that the distance between us – him in London and me in New York — and both of us always working, made it difficult to see each other. It was causing arguments between us because of the frustration of missing each other, so one day, he just asked me the question. Since we both knew that we wanted to be with each other, the decision was already made, so I said “yes”.
Geminis are said to be always looking for their twin. Did you feel that you’d found your long lost twin?
I agree, I agree with that. My gosh, what insight you have. I really do agree with you. There have been so many times when I have been thinking about something and he says it out loud. Raj, I cannot believe that it happens almost every single day.
Hmm. It’s a little scary sometimes but yes, you’re right. To see this, you must have found your soulmate also.
Yes, I have. It’s exactly the same way with us, and yes, it scares me also because you think about how you would survive without your other half, but it’s so wonderful at the same time that you tend to think in the positive because the alternative is even scarier.
You’re right. It’s wonderful to be so close to someone that you’re almost one person but separate entities. It’s a magical balance, and I feel very blessed.
Is it difficult to be monogamous when you are also said to be the most flirtatious sign in the zodiac?
No, because we give each other room to breath. I feel that when a person feels claustrophobic, they look for ways out consciously or subconsciously. Also, when one feels neglected, they look outside to fill that void. Neither is the case with us. We give each other room but also trust each other 100 percent. Marriage is not a necessity; it’s a choice. If you know that you can spend the rest of your life with someone, you would think a hundred times before you would do anything to jeopardize it.
You have a beautiful daughter. How old is she now, six months?
She has a very unique name.
Yes, very ANOKHI!
Ha! Yes! What does it mean?
It’s the letter ‘K’ in Indian.
What’s the significance of this name?
No significance. I wanted a simple, unique name and Craig wanted an Indian name, so that’s how it came about.
You also have a very unique name. I can see a clothing line or perfume named after you. Ever thought about that?
I have thought about it recently, and it’s in the very early stages so I don’t want to talk about it. I’m a doer not a talker. I will tell you this much — I’m aiming for next year.
Okay, so something to look out for. It must be difficult being a jet-setting model and a mom.
It can be but we are both active parents so we make it work.
It must have taken a lot of discipline to get back to being pencil thin for the catwalk after giving birth. How did you do it?
Well, I’m not the only one. IMG has many models who have babies including Kate Moss, Liz Hurley and the rest. Like them, I have a career that depends on my looks so I had a great deal of incentive to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight.
You’ve taken acting classes. What are your plans?
I want to explore the industry more and figure out which way I want to go. I have a choice to do Hollywood or Bollywood, and I’m not limiting my options in either. All I know is that I want to do what makes me happy as I’ve said all along. I can only make a mark if I believe in what I’m doing. I love the off beat cinema in India, like Being Cyrus. I’d like to be a part of that kind of cinema.
Tell me something about yourself that would shock people who don’t know you?
I cook, clean and change diapers.
What advice would you give to Indian models who want to make it as professional models in the West?
Opportunities are very rare, so if you get it, grab it!
First published in Summer 2006 issue, www.AnokhiMagazine.com.
Cover Photo: Erez Sabag
Model: Ujjwala Raut
Photos i,ii,iii,iv,v: David Vasiljevic
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