“Growing up in my generation (the nineties) wasn’t easy. There was no internet or awareness about celebrating yourself and embracing your physical traits. There was no Beyoncé back then to look up to. Only a Britney Spears who didn’t look anything like me,” says the “plus-size” Sabyasachi model Varshita Thatavarthi who has been breaking the internet of late.
Right from the tokenism allegations on designer Sabyasachi after a Woman’s Day post to the widely lauded look of Varshita from his recently launched Fall/Winter ’19, a lot has been said about the designer, his muse, and inclusivity in the fashion industry.
However, all of us somehow missed on appreciating just how refreshingly gorgeous this new face on the fashion block happens to be. Well, all of us but Sabya. In a recent interaction that I had with Varshita, she told me about a chance encounter with Sabyasachi, how it culminated into a life-altering opportunity, the struggles of making her place in a hegemonic industry, and more.
Intrigued to find more about her sporadic journey? Read on:
Beginning with your modelling journey, what inspired you to get into the industry? How did it all transpire for you?
I never aspired to become a model. I always wanted to become an actor and started modelling because I thought it would help me transition into films.
I came to Chennai after an unsuccessfully struggling in Delhi, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. I moved to Chennai with the dream of becoming a part of Mani Ratnam’s films. Since it was also where Madras Talkies was based, I thought I’d stand a better chance of auditioning for Mani Ratnam’s films, if I learnt Tamil and lived in the same city.
I also thought that if other filmmakers were constantly rejecting me for the way I looked, people like him might find something in me to work with. It never happened though. I was there for nine months. But somewhere in between, I met Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who I jokingly call ‘the Mani Ratnam of fashion,’ he gave me a break and life hasn’t been the same ever since.
Sounds like a dream! How did the two of you get in touch?
It was back in April 2018 when someone told me about a Sabyasachi jewellery exhibition in Taj Coromandel. Sabyasachi had just started out with his jewellery collection and I got excited at the idea, immediately took an appointment, and went there to check out the collection. It was only there that I met him for the first time and had no idea he was going to be there.
I was very nervous around him because I had admired the man and his brand for years and to suddenly have him around gave me butterflies. But his staff made me comfortable and at one point Sabya sir walked up to me and told me that I was very beautiful. I was thrilled. I thought to myself that “if Sabya thinks I’m beautiful, I must be beautiful.”
I bought a pair of earrings, asked one of his assistants if I could take a picture with him, and he obliged. I left feeling content that I had taken a picture with him and posted it on Instagram immediately. Then I totally forgot about it.
Two months later in June, his team got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to come and do a trial shoot with him in Calcutta. I immediately gave a”yes” and I was flown to Calcutta where I met Sir and did the bridal shoot (which was later posted on Women’s Day). My life hasn’t been the same ever since.
Oh, the Woman’s Day post! It snowballed into something else entirely. How have you been dealing with all this trolling since then?
We all know how it went down. Sabyasachi sir was massively trolled for putting up my picture about body confidence on Women’s Day. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be happy about my picture going viral or sad about the designer who had transformed my life being trolled.
I had already been part of Sabyasachi’s Mumbai runway show and his winter fall campaign so I was left wondering about this misplaced judgement and the whole tokenism debate. Some of them even trolled me after my pictures from the Charbagh collection were out for wearing a deep neck blouse despite being heavy chested.
However, I’ve been very fortunate to learn very early in life that these trolls amount to nothing. I’m here for the love and the hugs. I’m here for the tens and thousands of women who’ve been messaging me every day congratulating me on my success and thanking me for representing them and making them feel confident in their bodies.
We all live in a society that fails to value anything or anyone that falls outside its idea of ideal or perfect. How difficult has it been to fight the repressive ideas pertaining to body all this while?
I grew up in North India around many people who judged me for the way I looked. In India, we have this notion that women are their most beautiful when they have fair skin and a petite body. Even at school, I was often bullied by my classmates for being dark and was made to sit with other girls who looked like me. So I know what it feels like to be judged for my appearance right from the beginning.
When I went to my grandparents’ house in South India for summer holidays, I used to look around and see that everyone around me was applying ‘Fair and Lovely’ and ‘Ponds Powder’ and thought maybe the girls at school were right and I must do things to tweak my appearance. I was doomed to believe that I was ugly unless I changed the way I looked.
I’ve been trying for films for five years in South India. Almost every director or producer I met wanted me to come back fairer and thinner. I was even once suggested by a journalist friend of mine to lie to people about not knowing my mother tongue Telugu because the industry preferred giving opportunities to girls from Mumbai and Delhi who didn’t know the language. I was shattered. I wondered why I had lesser opportunities when I could speak the language and needed lesser training and when I actually looked like an average South Indian woman.
How difficult/easy it is to break into an extremely hegemonic and elitist industry when you don’t really fall under the stereotypical category of beauty and perfection?
The fashion magazines and runways around the world have been dominated by stick-thin models for decades now. Of course, it’s not easy to break into an industry like that overnight. Sure, America has seen some success with plus size models like Ashley Graham who’ve been fighting for people to see their potential but there’s still so much more that remains to be done here.
Now coming to India, I find it annoyingly strange when models are expected to be size 2 when an average Indian woman is size 16. Who exactly is the fashion industry representing?
I, in fact, find it repulsive when people address me as a plus-size model because it goes to show that people like to categorise women who have fuller bodies while thin models are referred to as just models.
How has been the journey for you on a personal level? How has it impacted your internal makeup?
It takes an enormous amount of patience and strength to cope in an industry that has been conditioned to believe that anything above size 2 is an aberration. I’ve been rejected for five years because I had a fuller body and dusky skin. I’ve been to corridors of hell when no agency in India wanted to represent me because I didn’t fit their conventional body type requirement.
I had to learn the hard way that plus size women are not afforded the same opportunities as their small size counterparts. Hence, I had to be brave and fight the hardest. It hasn’t been easy for me or anyone else I know who is my size in an industry that notoriously promotes body discrimination.
However, my campaign with Sabyasachi has tried to break many barriers that were formerly set up by the fashion industry. I’m flooded with messages from women across the world thanking me and loving me for being part of this massive change. And now this is what I want to do.
I believe everything that has happened in my life has lead me to this moment. I want to work with all the major fashion designer brands and beauty brands to raise awareness about body positivity, I want to be on the cover of important fashion magazines to show the world that women like me can also be an important face of this multi-billion dollar industry.
Being a Sabya model is like ending up in the best hands in the industry. Tell me about your experience with the designer.
He is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met. A thorough professional. When I was walking the ramp for the Mumbai show, I was really nervous because I had never done it before. I was placed amongst the former and the current supermodels in India but all of us were given the same level of attention and care and sir really put me at ease. Even though he’s really shy as a person, he is quite friendly and approachable.
It goes without saying that he is bringing body-positivity and fighting for inclusivity in fashion. And from what I’m allowed to confess, he loves women of all shapes and sizes. His regular posts featuring his brides should attest to that.
Please give us a sneak peek into some of the amusing back stage moments.
All the other models as you can see have really great bodies and I know the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into maintaining the same. It was sometimes funny at dinners because I always had my plate full since you know we were shooting in Karauli and the food is to die for. But when I looked around I saw most of the models eating very little and I know they have to follow a certain diet to look the way they do, but I felt a little more fortunate than them for having a larger appetite and being able to satisfy it being a “plus-size” model. Having said that, I cannot claim to eat whatever I want because I still have to workout (moderately) and be healthy.
So what’s next?
I’m not at liberty to talk about my future projects right now. I’m still getting used to the idea of NDA’s. You’ll know soon when something pans out. Follow my Instagram page for updates.