Saloni Khanna is a fashion model who has walked the ramp for some of India’s leading fashion designers, including Manish Malhotra, Ritu Kumar and JJ Valaya. She has also shot for multiple print ads and music videos. But here’s an interesting fact – one year ago, none of this existed. As of February 2016, Saloni was an Assistant Systems Manager at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). How did she switch to something so counter-intuitive? And successfully so? How does it feel walking the ramp in those gorgeous designer outfits? And do you really have to eat half a peach for lunch?
Let’s find out.
IT and fashion are like chalk and cheese. How did you switch to something so unrelated?
I have a degree in Electronic engineering. After graduating college I worked at IBM for 6 months and then at TCS for 2 years. One of my friends was into modeling and one day I just accompanied him to a shoot. The people on set saw me and called me for their next shoot. So I went and got a couple of pictures from there that other people saw. That’s how it started. It wasn’t intentional, one thing just led to another. And I went with what came.
But growing up, had you ever considered modeling as a career?
Never. I had thought of a zillion things, but not this.
They say that for a complete outsider in this industry, it is mandatory to invest a certain amount of money in say, getting a portfolio done. Is it true?
Not really. Some do invest in a portfolio and get good pictures clicked before approaching an agency. But if you are confident enough and think you satisfy their criteria, you can just turn up with normal pictures on your phone. And if they like you they call you back for a meeting. So it’s not a compulsion, though I would say it’s good if you do. It gives you a fair idea of how you react to the camera and you get that kind of exposure before you take it up professionally.
And how much do you need to know about fashion if you plan on entering the industry?
Nothing. I didn’t know anything.
So you kind of learn on the way?
It must take a lot of physical and mental preparation to be a model…
I think any and every profession is difficult, in one sense or the other. But here you need to have that kind of temperament, because there is no stability. You have to maintain your self-confidence at all times. There will be people who will put you down. Then there is the competition, the negativity – there are positives of course, but it is very important to be able to deal with people and situations. Just be confident, believe in yourself and most importantly, stay grounded. Because people do tend to change when they start getting good work.
As a model, it must be required for you to shed your inhibitions. Take for instance, bikini or lingerie shoots. Are you comfortable doing those? How do you define your limits?
Yes I do have certain limits that I have defined for myself, but my limits can be different from someone else’s. I think it’s just a matter of personal choice whether you want to do a lingerie or a swimwear shoot. It depends on how comfortable you are with your body or how good you think you’ll look. I wouldn’t refuse it because someone asked me not to do it. Just that maybe I’m not very comfortable with my body and would not want to take it up till I reach that level of comfort.
In a profession like this, your face and body have to be flawless all the time. How difficult is it to control your diet?
It really depends from person to person. Some people are naturally thin or have naturally great skin, so they don’t have to work very hard. I was always a ‘healthy’ kid and had to lose a lot of weight. So now to maintain it I have to be cautious of the food that I eat. I do eat everything though, just in controlled portions. But thankfully in other aspects like skin or health I am blessed genetically (laughs).
Don’t you think it’s ironic though? On one hand there is this awareness about real women with real bodies and on the other, models are expected to be faultlessly skinny.
See it’s changing. It’s not as strict as it used to be, especially in the Indian fashion industry. They have become more accepting of different kinds of people. People of different shapes and colour. Brown is considered beautiful now. But it’s slow and will take time. It’s work in progress.
And why is there a minimum height criterion to be a model? Is there any particular reason behind it?
It’s not true for all sectors of the industry. Acting and print don’t have such requirements. Only for ramp you need to be 5’7” and above, because the garments look grander on tall people. And it also sets you apart from the rest of the crowd.
How do you feel walking down the ramp? Is it intimidating or empowering?
It’s both (chuckles).Before I get on ramp I’m always thinking – Oh what if I trip, what if it doesn’t go well. But the moment you step on, you kind of forget all that. You are there, and this is it. You do feel this sense of power knowing that everybody is looking at you. It is grand.
Do they prepare you for the ramp?
There’s a lot of training involved. They work on your posture, your walk has to be a certain way. I had never worn heels because I’m naturally tall. So I had to practise walking in uncomfortable stilettos on wooden platforms and slippery grounds. And walking in huge garments! Sometimes we wear garments that are one-fourth of our body weight and it is really hard to walk in them. But these are things you learn with experience.
I’ve always wondered, why is it that no one smiles on ramp shows? Do they ask you not to?
See it depends on the garments and the associated theme. If the garments are strong and require you to have an attitude – take a military theme for instance – then smiling doesn’t make sense. Mostly it’s like that. For fun garments you’ll see models dancing on stage, even making people dance. So it all depends on the concept that the designer has in mind.
In ads on the contrary, they always show models to be incredibly happy. Are you actually having that fun or is it just a shot for the camera?
We are actually having that fun. If we weren’t it wouldn’t show in the picture. You cannot fake it. When you look at a picture we can tell whether a person is fake smiling. After a few shots the nervousness falls away, you get comfortable with each other and things just fall into place. It’s very candid.
So much fun at work!
That’s how work should be, no? You should have fun in what you’re doing. Only then can you do it for a long period of time.
Couldn’t agree more. But then there are also people who think modeling is only about having fun. How do you react to people who look down upon the profession?
Yes, but those are usually outsiders. People within the industry understand the hard work that goes in. Outside the industry they aren’t sure about what you do. So there are some people who judge you, or think that you are doing this because there is nothing else you can do. I don’t really try to prove my point to them, because you can’t change them. They will change when they have to. But when somebody crosses the line, you have to put your foot down and tell them.
And how are people within the industry – the designers, choreographers, film stars – how different are they from you know, regular people?
They are all just like us. They are all kind, sweet and genuine. The biggest people in the industry are also the most down to earth. So you find that a little funny because you’re a little intimidated the first time you meet them. But then they come and shake your hand and hug you. You feel overwhelmed that you used to watch them on TV and now you’re standing next to them.
You are constantly in the midst of people, surrounded by glitter and glamour. Do you sometimes feel like you need a break from it all? You know, days when you get sick of dressing up and just feel like lazing around in pajamas?
All the time, all the time. Even when we go for weddings I don’t feel like getting dressed. Because we do that everyday. So sometimes you just don’t feel like it.
Don’t tell me even you have the occasional binge-eating day.
Of course. Haha…and it’s just a myth about models not eating. As I said everyone has a different body type. There are so many models who eat a lot but never put on weight.
What are your plans, going forward?
It’s only been around 11 months since I started doing this, and I have a long way to go. My goals keep changing every few months (laughs). There are a lot of things I haven’t tried yet, like acting. So that’s going to be the next step. I like to take it as it comes. I was working a 9-5 job for 2 years and I never thought I’d change my profession so drastically, but it happened. I’ve stopped planning since then.