Is Mumbai ready for queer ramp scorchers?

Nepal’s first trans model and Czech Republic’s latest gender neutral headturner bulldoze discrimination to own the ramp. Now, they have but one wish. To walk for Manish Malhotra

A Nepalese farmer’s son will walk the ramp at the upcoming Mumbai style extravaganza, Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2017, and ‘he’ isn’t modeling menswear Anjali Lama, born Navin Waiba to a family of agriculturists in Nuwakot, is Nepal’s first transgender model. In another first, she is about to become the first transgender person to model clothes at an Indian fashion show next month.

Before Anjali, 32, could tackle the identity crisis, she was battling poverty. “My family is uneducated. We hail from a small village. We had no electricity when we were growing up. I completed my education by studying under lanterns,” she says, her flawless skin showing no signs of the struggle when we meet her at a central Mumbai hotel.

But juggling her dreams with anguish was something she learnt early. For as long as she can remember, Anjali wanted to be a girl. Finding solace in the company of her late mother and female friends, she realised she didn’t identify with the gender she was assigned at birth. “By the time i hit my teens, I was drifting away from the family. My brothers wondered what was wrong; they had already heard rumours. I decided to come out. When I did, they told me to stay away from the family. But my mother supported me. She would have been thrilled to see this,” she says, taking a moment.

Anjali’s success coincided with Nepal making progress in recognising the rights of transgender communities. The country allows its citizens to choose their gender identity, and issues passports with a third gender category.

In Kathmandu, where she moved to find her freedom, she was ostracized in the hospitality industry that she tried breaking into. Then, she met others like her and was guided to a community center that worked for LGBT rights. Friends suggested that with her lean frame (she’s 5’ 9”) and killer cheekbones, she stood a chance at modelling. “I liked the sound of it,” she says about the career she dabbled in back in 2009 while continuing to work for the centre. When she was featured on the cover of Voice of Women, a Nepalese magazine, that same year, she thought it would be her big break. “There were times I was better than the others but didn’t make it. My trainer at a modelling agency admitted it was my orientation that was coming in the way of success. Brands didn’t want to associate with me.”

The next year, when she walked for an event titled, Monsoon Fashion Show, she caught a blogger’s eye, who told her story to the world. That was the turning point. “By 2016, I had established myself in Nepal,” she recollects, although she was yet to crack a premier fashion week. “I didn’t have the money to travel far or invest in an expensive photoshoot.” India was close at hand. She wrote to the Lakmé organisers last year to check if they’d entertain an entry from a transgender model. And although, they were game, she failed the audition. A disappointed Anjali returned to Nepal but couldn’t take the idea of walking the ramp before hundreds out of her head.

“I couldn’t sleep, and began working out to distract myself. I spent the year reaching out to agencies in Mumbai, gymming and learning the catwalk from youtube videos. “The models out there were young, beautiful. I was already 30,” she says, explaining how an attempt to put on weight with calorie rich foods ended in acquiring a paunch. “I decided to work out every day for 30 minutes, and managed to crack the auditions this year. I was in the top 5.”

Anjali says if she hadn’t made it, she was planning to quit modelling. But that’s another story.

Shacking up with friends at an apartment in Santacruz, she is already dreaming big the way everyone does in Mumbai. The breast augmentation she underwent in 2010 was a step towards transitioning fully, which she hopes to do with a sex change surgery. “I hear things get better for models with this big a platform, but my orientation worries me. That the fashion industry is a lot more open gives me hope,” she says, wondering if she’ll ever model for the designer she has her heart set on. “Manish Malhotra… I want to walk for him.”

‘I realised I’m not the typical model’
He is “obsessed” with Manish Malhotra’s designs, but also digs Sabyasachi and Manish Arora. That’s a string of strong likes for someone who will model on the Indian runway for the first time.

Czech-born Petr Nitka, 23, is used to making news. And it’s no different here, with a ramp gig planned at fashion week in early February. Hailed as Czechoslovakia’s first gender-neutral model, Petr says over an email from his country that he, like his colleagues back home, is curious about what Indian designers are going to dress him in.

Having taken to modelling like fish to water, Petr first modeled for designer Alexandra Blanc at the South Africa Fashion Week in July 2016. Johanessburg-based menswear designer Roman Handt saw an article on him in a publication the next day, and was keen that Petr become the face of his brand.

A career in fashion, predictably, allowed him to explore his passion for make-up and clothes. Growing up in Ostrava, a city in north-east Czech Republic, he remembers a childhood marked by an unusual interest in getting made up. “When I was a kid, I was disappointed that I couldn’t wear make-up or nice clothes. Contrary to that, I feel free now.”

His mother’s support and a move to Australia to pursue academics proved to be game changers. The trip led to a meeting with independent photographer Bharathan Kangatheran in Perth. When pictures from a shoot were published in a leading magazine, Petr met his moment of truth. “I realised that I wasn’t the typical model. The best aspect of being a gender-neutral model was that I could pursue my profound love for fashion.”

Petr, who in an interview to fashion magazine, Emma, last year, said he was a bit of a man and woman (“I am empathetic [like a woman] but I am lazy like a man. I’m a mix of both sexes.”), has worked towards moving away from conventional gender identification. Gender-neutral persons prefer not to identify as man or woman, and have recently begun taking on unisex pronouns like ‘they’ or ‘them’. Petr’s variegated choices reflect in long, mascara-lined lashes and unwaxed arms.

When he isn’t working, Peter prefers to dress in unisex clothing. “But I am skinny and it is difficult to find basic male clothing. I prefer simple fashion for women — skinny jeans and tops. They look like they were made just for me.”

Petr is excited at walking the ramp in India, because it’s only in strange places that he has found fame and acceptance. His career really began outside of his own country after he found that no Czech agency wanted to represent him. Now, he walks for brands that make menswear (Brandt) and womenswear (Jaroslava Prochazkova, Marcel Holubec, Lukas Krnac). Although, he does admit to designers finding it challenging to figure what they will dress him in.

Is Manish Malhotra racking his brain?


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