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While literature and Bollywood film stars like Freida Pinto are part of a recent boom in the export of Indian culture, fashion models making international headway are in surprisingly short supply. Lakshmi Menon is an exception.
The 30-year-old, Bangalore-born and Goa-based model became a mainstay in the fashion scene five years, ago after being part of Jean Paul Gaultier’s show in Paris. Since then, she has been a runway staple and the face of several high-profile ad campaigns including Hermès, Givenchy, Bergdorf Goodman and Max Mara. She has also been featured in fashion tomes like American and Indian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. Ms. Menon recently spoke with India Ink about her success in a notoriously fickle industry, her love for India and the pressure to be thin that comes with the career.
How did you get started in modeling?
I was in college at Bangalore University studying sociology when a modeling scout approached me and told me I had the height [Menon is 1.8 meters, or 5 feet, 10 inches] to get some ad work. I could do it on the side while finishing school and make some extra money, so it seemed like a good idea. I didn’t start modeling full time until I graduated, but although I worked in India for several years, I never had much success since all the big ad campaigns featured Bollywood starlets.
Courtesy Supreme Management
What was your big international breakthrough?
An agency in Europe had seen my work in an Indian magazine and contacted me because Jean Paul Gaultier wanted an Indian girl to walk on one of his shows. So I went to Paris and was part of a few shows, and every successive season, I started doing more. I was never an overnight success – my work was a slow buildup.
Tell us about your upbringing. Were you brought up in a very traditional Indian home, and how did your parents react to you modeling professionally?
Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised traditionally, but when I started modeling, my parents were quite supportive. My father was in the Indian Army, and we moved around all the time to small towns and though I am a Hindu by birth, I grew up nonreligious. We celebrated festivals like Diwali but didn’t go to temple.
Why do you think there are so few supermodels of Indian origin?
There have been Indian girls who have made their mark in fashion like Ujjwala Raut, and I think our success is a lot about luck and being in the right place at the right time. Overall, though, it’s an industry that’s dominated by blond-haired, blue-eyed women. Other ethnicities come after.
Courtesy Supreme Management
Has being Indian helped or hindered you?
It has definitely worked to my advantage because I’m not just another white girl trying to make it. But I also don’t fall into the category of a classic Indian-looking girl, which has helped me get more work. People think I am South American, Middle-Eastern and other ethnicities so I tend to get booked more because I’m exotic looking and less because I’m Indian.
Are you recognized in India a lot more now than you used to be? Do fans ask you for autographs?
I tend to keep a low profile when I am at home so I am mostly left alone. Some people come up to me and tell me they admire my work, but no one has ever asked for my autograph, which I like – it would be too much to have all that attention on me.
Have you ever thought about moving out of India and setting up base in Paris or New York, which would be more convenient for you professionally?
I do spend six months a year out of India traveling for work, but I never want to leave because it is my home. I tried living in Paris for three months, but it was very lonely. In Goa, I live in a house up on a hill overlooking the sea with my partner [the photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta]. We have two dogs, a garden and lots of close friends who are like family. It’s a very normal and happy life that I don’t want to change.
Do you ever think about getting married or having children?
Neither are that important to me right now. And, with all the traveling I do, it would be impossible to have a child anyway.
What do you think about the expectation of thinness that come with being a model?
Courtesy Supreme Management
No one in this industry wants you to be full-figured. The clothes are a certain size, and you have to fit them into them. Being anorexic is an issue. That said, there are prolific models like Naomi Campbell who are not super skinny, and more fashion magazines such as American Vogue make a point to feature models who are not extra thin.
I personally am not unhealthily lean. When I first started in the business in my teens, I was very slim and still developing. I grew into being a woman in my 20s, and now there is no way I can fit into size zero. I am 5’10’’ and 56 kilos [123 pounds] and wear a size four.
How do you maintain your figure?
I do have to work at it, but I try to be balanced about it. I have always been physically active and I run, swim and do Pilates, but I eat everything in moderation including carbs and dessert and have a few bites of dark chocolate every day.
So many models such as Cindy Crawford, Kathy Ireland and Heidi Klum have made the crossover into acting, being TV hosts and entrepreneurs – have you ever contemplated other ventures?
Not really. I try and live in the present. I know modeling has a short life span, but that doesn’t worry me. When it’s all over, I am sure there will be other opportunities.
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“I look at myself as any other model. But yes, sometimes I’m looked upon as an exotic thing that’s landed on their shores.”
Know For: Hair, Skin, Pout
Designer Runways: Stella McCartney, Carolina Herrera, Hermès
Editorials: L’Officiel, Dazed & Confused, Allure
Hometown: Bangalore, India
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