As India Couture Week walks its way across Mumbai ramps, 80s icon Mehr Jesia talks about life after modelling, why she’s happier at 40 and why ‘in her time’, models were so much more professional
She doesn’t read books, no, not even Chetan Bhagat. She doesn’t pick up magazines either — she is clueless about the controversial Vogue shoot that had cool, poor people modelling $1,000 Burberry umbrellas.
She is appalled at my insinuation that fashion models are known to experiment rather freely with narcotics. She is not aware of any moral hazard in promoting ‘too thin’ models so long as the models themselves are healthy. She retired at the peak of her career to start a modelling agency that folded in a couple of years.
The agency, called Face One, folded in spite of (not because of, we’re sure) Vijay Mallya’s backing. She started a training school for models that also, coincidentally, folded in a couple of years. The film she produced with her husband, Arjun Rampal, was named, very cleverly, I See You. It sank before anyone could see it.
When she was 24, and at the peak of her modelling career, she got an offer in London: To replace Isabella Rossellini as the new international face of Lancome. But India’s first supermodel turned it down because she was missing her home in Dadar Parsi Colony. You listen disbelievingly as she tells you she has no regrets about turning down a modelling break that could easily have catapulted her into the Cindy Crawford/Kate Moss league. Make no mistake, even at 40, Mehr Jesia is every inch a super model, head included.
As she sits there, curled up in an armchair, looking leaner and fitter than any of the ageing seniors of the Indian Test team, you get the distinct impression that she exists in a couture bubble all her own. A bubble, which has now floated far, far away from the Indian fashion firmament.
Though not so far that she can’t float right back when she wants to — she choreographed Ashish Soni’s show at the Indian Couture Week, a few days ago. Yet a glazed look comes over her face when you broach any topic other than the two she is an expert on: Modelling and Mehr Jesia.
What betrays her passion for the fashion industry, and for modelling, is the inescapable note of wistfulness that creeps into her voice as she speaks about the modelling scene in India. The phrase that pops up most frequently in her speech is “in my time”. “In my time, models had no problems doing fittings for 15 hours. There were no time-related issues. Models would rehearse for three days if they had to. In my time you could tell models to travel from Bombay to Calcutta by train.
These days, you can’t. Today’s models, who are literally nobodies, don’t want to rehearse for more than an hour. They make it seem like there’s so much happening in their lives, when there is nothing happening in their lives. In my time, the audience used to go mad with us. Today, even the audience doesn’t give you the energy they are meant to. You are performing; you are on stage, for God’s sake. But they just sit there like ducks, such cold people. In those days, people would scream when we came on stage, there used to be such energy. Today, everybody expects you to just float in, and out.”
Still, having quit at her prime, does she ever feel tempted to make a comeback? “I can’t blend in with the models of today,” she says. “There is a certain quality — call it ‘Mehrness’ if you like — which I used to bring to a catwalk. If I wanted, I could simply sit down on the ramp, and move the garment around in my own way. I once did that for a Rohit Bal show and he went bananas. Today, you can’t do that.”
Perhaps this transformation — some would call it a decline — of the fashion model from someone who had a certain individuality, into a mere clothes hanger with the personality of a zombie is also why modelling today, unlike in Mehr’s time in the 1980s, has dwindled into a mere stepping stone to Bollywood.
“I never wanted to get into films,” says Mehr. “Partly because the movies were so bad then; as a woman all you could do was run around trees. Today, the films are better. So it’s understandable if models want to make the jump to Bollywood.”
But why are there no supermodels in India today, when there are so many more models than there were in her time? “This is something the industry has done to itself,” she answers. “I was the face of Vimal for seven years. In my time, models were looked up to, and respected more than even film actresses. Advertising agencies were keen to work with professional models, who could bring a different look to each campaign. I cut my hair for one campaign, and had hair extensions for the next one — and this was 20 years ago. Today, they prefer Bollywood stars and sports stars who, because of their other commitments, look the same in all campaigns, be it an ad for biscuits, or for hair oil.”
Mehr attended Sophia College, from where she was thrown out for lack of attendance. “I was never the kind to pick up a book. I was into sports.” She has played Badminton and Snooker at the national level, and swam for Mumbai.
Her father, Homi Jesia, is a former Mr India who still works out at the age of 72. “I owe my ‘athletic genes’ to him,” she says.
By far the toughest assignment she ever faced was to crack Hindi at her Board exams. “I was howling in panic, going mad, and was telling my mother that I won’t pass. Mum told me not to get stressed out, that I can give it the next year by correspondence if necessary. But three months later I was Miss India. I was like, ‘Mamma! I don’t have to study anymore!’”
Instead, she launched a million sighs as the face of Lakme, Nivea, Bombay Dyeing, Garden, OCM, Palmolive, Philips, and of course, ‘only’ Vimal, among other brands.
Is she religious? “How can I be?” she asks. “I’ve been thrown out of my religion for marrying a non-Parsi (model-turned-Bollywood star, Arjun Rampal). I can’t even enter a fire temple.” And neither can her two daughters. “But these things are bound to change, before my daughters turn 10, they will,” she says confidently.
Wouldn’t she rather be 20 again, and back in the limelight? “Any day I would choose 40 over 20,” she says. “I am much happier today. I’ve got my two kids, a family of my own; there is more solidity to my life today. At 20, I was so unhappy.” Why was she so unhappy at 20? “Well, waiting 15 hours for a single shoot?” she says.
“It was so painful.” Now, doesn’t that sound a lot like the 20-year-old models of today whom she doesn’t like? Perhaps the models haven’t changed after all, from her time. It is Mehr who has. She’s not 20 anymore.