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Cover Story

Facing the Spotlight

Pretty faces, not-so-pretty stories. This is the usual picture we get of the media industry,

Compared to Western countries or even neighbouring India, modelling is not yet really professional in Bangladesh.

not least of all, the modelling business. But behind all the glamour and scandal is an industry that is developing, every day, into a profession.

Kajalie Shehreen Islam and Elita Karim
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

Over three decades ago, it was difficult to find people who would model for advertisements in print or on television. Even less common were ramp models.

Geeteara Safiya Choudhury, Chairman and Managing Director, Adcomm Limited, recalls requesting a friend who lived abroad to let her baby model for a product advertisement. The friend agreed. On the day of the shoot, however, the friend along with her baby failed to show. Choudhury later found out that it was because her friend had been warned by others about her baby attracting the 'evil eye'.

With time, however, things began to get easier. For Choudhury, personally, the fact that she was a woman, helped. "I was very strict. I kept all the photographs under lock and key to which only I had access. I would personally accompany the girls on foreign shoots and stay with them wherever they were put up. Parents/guardians began to have faith in me."

Before, recruiting models was an informal process, with members of advertising agencies on the lookout for the right faces, or people entering the profession through their social connections.

Fashion show director and former model Kawshiki Tupa Nasser got into the business because her sister was already involved. She was tall and thus was asked to model for someone's boutique. "I stayed on because I loved it and was good at it," says Tupa. "Modelling was never my profession, maybe that's why I could always be choosy about which projects to get involved in."

"Even in the mid-1990s, we used to get random calls for work and show up too," says model Adil Hossain Noble. "We would have to sign contracts with only a handful of multinational companies. Because the whole industry wasn't very professional, neither were the models. The remuneration, for example, was not something you could live on. Now there are many companies with many activities and so a lot more scope for work. Before, people used to model as a hobby or out of passion. Now, there is still passion, but it is also a profession."

Azra Mahmood

According to Tupa, compared to Western countries or even neighbouring India, modelling is not yet really professional in Bangladesh. "Though I must add," she continues, "that given our set of circumstances, the models who are now entering the field often develop professional attitudes quite quickly."

"Those who have taken up modelling as a profession are gutsy and the trendsetters," says Awrup Sanyal, Executive Creative Director, Bitopi "They have defied the usual career choices and have gone for where their heart was at. I think, gradually, we as a nation and a society are opening up our minds as we are more and more exposed to global media and travel. We are beginning to see and accept that there might be different choices in careers other than the conventional ones. Nowadays, careers like being a radio jockey or acting, are becoming more and more a reality. Similarly, modelling too is being looked upon as a career."

For models, not just looks, but 'the look' is everything.

"The model/actor/performer should do justice to the story of the brand," says Awrup Sanyal. "Every brand has a universe and the character/s in that universe have particular characteristics that fulfil the brand's criteria; that is what we look for. Be it gorgeous hair, a beautiful smile or a caring motherly look, such features are what make the story of a brand believable and highlight the required characteristics."

Popular ramp model Azra Mahmood, who has now stepped into the field of training and grooming young models, as well as television hosting and acting, says that acquiring the 'x' factor amongst models is not an easy task. In fact, it takes a lot of discipline to be the best. "All this glamour does not come easy," she says. "There is a crazy level of hard worked involved. There's so much that needs to be done before the beautiful face on screen or that graceful walk down the ramp is showcased in front of you. You have to have dedication, a proper sense of time management, a good deal of respect for the team and also for the profession, self-confidence and much more."

Azra also mentions the importance of keeping healthy, eating right, working out regularly and dressing well with proper make-up and maintaining proper hygiene. "One needs to develop an understanding of what is good for oneself, starting from what suits your skin to what kind of colour looks good, what is in style, etc.," she says. "You have to build an image of yourself, of what you want to be and work towards that image to finally achieve it."

Beauty Expert and Managing Director of Farzana Shakil’s Makeover Saloon, Farzana Shakil emphasises on make-up and grooming as integral parts of the modelling industry today. She mentions the willingness of models to experiment with their looks, something which was lacking before. "Make-up and developing 'the look' is all-important, along with the people working behind the scenes, including camera people, editors, graphic designers, artists and so on," she explains. "Obviously, it is a team effort. This is a highly competitive field in the country now. Everything has to be perfect, otherwise the industry won't be complete."

The shelf life of a model, according to models themselves, is not very long.

The shelf life of a model, according to models themselves, is not very long. Tupa says it is about five years. Noble says one can model for as long as they are willing to work and to maintain their appearance. Geeteara Safiya Choudhury says a modelling career can last a lifetime, for the same person can model for different products and services in different stages of their lives. "We need models of different ages," she says. "Not all models have to be young and glamorous. But they must have talent."

One of the major platforms for models today in the country is the Lux-Channel i Super Star, a beauty pageant that requires the models to look good, and also showcase a good level of confidence, poise, communication skills, intelligence and much more. Aupee Karim, one such super star from the year 1999 is famous for her simplicity, confidence, intelligence as well as acting skills, not to mention the glamour that she showcases so easily. "Professionalism and discipline are important in every field," says Aupee. "We should concentrate on improving ourselves and broadening our horizons -- looking after our health, respecting our profession, respecting artists who are older and much more experienced and of course maintaining our culture while doing so."

Aupee Karim

"Young people joining the profession today are very serious," says Kaniz Almas Khan, whose organisation Persona contributes significantly to the industry by grooming the models. "The profession requires much more than glamour on the outside. Many young models are willing to experiment with their looks, try out different styles and honestly work hard to build a career in this field."

"The honesty and the beauty inside a model actually glows on the outside, which is very important," says Khan. "There are of course, both the negative and the positive aspects of this profession, as in any other. However, to make this into a more professional industry, one has to be willing to take risks and be open to self-improvement."

But can modelling be a sole, full-time profession in Bangladesh? According to Tupa, some models can actually make a good enough living doing only this.

"There is no standard pay scale for models yet," says Tupa, "but some models have made enough of an impression, whether with their looks or because of their professionalism or probably a combination of both, that they are doing well enough to take modelling up as a profession."

There are some problems, however, says Geeteara Safiya Choudhury. A model is restricted to modelling for one brand of any one category. That is, if they model for one brand of soap, they cannot model for another brand of soap for a stipulated amount of time. "In that sense, our models are not paid as much as models abroad for that one brand ad to be sufficient."

Famous ramp model Aleef Chowdhury, who has also captured a lot of attention with his recent acting talent on television, says that there has been very little improvement where finance is concerned. One of the very few successful male ramp models, Aleef has been working in this industry for the last 12 years. "The payment scheme has still not improved or developed if we compare it to the assignments we used to do years ago. For instance, if a ramp model back then was paid around 3,000 takas for an assignment, it would obviously come up to at least 12,000-15,000 takas now. However, it is probably not more than just 6,000 takas. This is one of the main reasons why models are unable to take up modelling as a sole profession. One has to work elsewhere to survive."

Azra agrees that modelling still cannot be taken up as a sole profession in this country as it does not pay enough. This is a major hindrance, she says, as it prevents many people from taking modelling as a serious profession.

"The market is still very small," says model Noble. "Other than multinational corporations and our telecommunication companies, very few local groups use models to advertise. Thus it is still difficult to survive on modelling alone. It pays much less compared to other countries, even our neighbour India. And so people also work in television dramas and film, or work somewhere full-time and model part-time."

Aleef too says that some models find success in not only modelling but in doing something along with it. "Some models end up as choreographers, such as Tupa, or designers such as Bibi Russell. But this is not possible for everyone," he says, "for these require a different dimension of creativity and intellect which not all models possess."

Many young models are willing to experiment with their looks, try out different styles and honestly work hard to build a career in this field.

According to Shahriar Rahman, Chief Operating Officer, Interspeed Advertising Limited, however, there is scope for growth. "It is a competitive market, every product has to advertise and so the industry is growing."

Asif Azim, who has also made quite a name in the Indian modelling industry.

Farzana Shakil points to several changes that have taken place in the industry in the last decade. "There are lots of fashion shows and reality shows happening now," she says. “We have billboards, television has developed and so have other media. Unlike the work that was done years ago, today we follow a trend, we work on themes and a lot of investment is made in this field as well."

"Brand properties such as You Got The Look or Lux Superstar are taking place because there is a realisation that the industry needs better groomed models/actors," says Awrup Sanyal. "Moreover, for a country whose ready garments industry is so big, models are important requirements for the industry. There is also a plethora of local fashion brands that have come up and they need local models too. Frankly, any developing economy would need a profession like modelling; we are no exceptions to this rule."

Actor Aupee Karim points to the development of acting as a career over the past several years. "Neither was it given importance, nor did it pay the bills," she says, "but today it does. It will take a long time, but this change and acceptance will come to the field of modelling as well."

As with any media industry, the modelling business too is wrought with allegations of exploitation. Payments come late or never. Potential models, especially women, are taken advantage of.

Shayla (not her real name) was taken to Kolkata by a small agency for a photo shoot and then made to wear skimpy clothes, something that was not relevant to the product she had been told she would be modelling for. She was not allowed to take anyone with her, on the basis that the company could not afford an extra person. When she came back to Dhaka, her photos were used without her consent on posters for a different event.

An elderly man called up another struggling model, Rita (not her real name), claiming to be opening a new agency. When she went to meet him with the promise of her photo being put up on billboards all over the country, the man tried to molest her.

About a month ago, a young woman with dreams of becoming a model was taken to a hotel in Dhaka and raped by the men who had promised her stardom. The suicide versus murder case of former model Tania Mahbub Tinni in 2002 is yet to be solved, the culprits, yet to be brought to book.

Such stories often discourage young people from entering the profession. Industry insiders, however, claim that it happens everywhere, the media industry simply gets more coverage.

"Exploitation is not as rampant as it seems from the outside," says Shahriar Rahman, "this industry just attracts more attention and so the scandals get more coverage too." As for personal exploitation, according to Shahriar Rahman, it happens in every sector, but because those in the media are talked about more, so are scandals surrounding them.

"This is difficult to control," says Rahman. "Some models lose their way between the ambition to be a model and a superstar." Exploitation is a two-way process, says Rahman. Because there is no professional source to go to, there is opportunity for exploitation.

Adil Hossain Noble
Aleef Chowdhury

"If a person is too desperate," says Noble, "they can be taken advantage of, not only in the media but any other industry or profession. You have to be smart and careful. If people come to me for help, I point them to established agencies they can try out, and if I think that they have potential, I recommend them to those agencies, but I don't promise that they will succeed. Falling for an unrealistic offer, one that is obviously too good to be true, is simply foolish."

As far as financial exploitation goes, says Shahriar Rahman, the lengthy business process -- between the client, the different departments of the advertising agency such as marketing, procurement, finance, the production house and finally the performer -- sometimes results in delays in payment. "This is basically due to inefficiency," says Rahman. "Sometimes, however, it is not the agency's fault. Models sometimes don't show up. At other times they don't do as was required or expected of them and so are not paid as was promised either."

There is a lack of ethics education, points out Rahman. "There is no place to learn the ethics of the trade."

According to Geeteara Safiya Choudhury of Adcomm Limited, however, neither agencies nor clients can afford to be exploitative. "It will ruin their reputation."

From taboos to uneasy social acceptance, the modelling industry has faced it all.

Exploitation is not the only problem in the industry, however. There were, and, some claim still are, a number of taboo issues, such as those against certain products and services. Geeteara Safiya Choudhury recalls people's reluctance to model for advertisements for condoms and other contraceptives. Young, unmarried women also refused to act as mothers or wives. Social prejudices were at work too, such as people's discomfort with an advertisement in which the husband served his wife tea.

"Now they look at things more professionally," says Choudhury, "and behave accordingly as well, such as showing up on time for shoots."

According to many, however, the industry still lacks professionalism. Some agencies claim that many models themselves lack professional ethics and skills. They do not know how make an agreement, to price themselves, how to handle a transaction. Some bring their parents into it, who do not know the language of negotiation and make things more difficult. This is especially true in the case of younger models who are not in charge of the cash flow.

Kawshiki Tupa Nasser

Another problem is the emphasis on looks over performance. "Some models want to be models but not actors," says Shahriar Rahman of Interspeed, "a quality which is necessary in advertising. Some young women are still reluctant to be cast as married women or as mothers. They would rather just be pretty faces. I also still find it difficult to find people to feature in commercials for contraceptives."

The main problem, according to the agencies as well as models, is the lack of professional and reliable modelling agencies responsible for cultivating and supplying models. The beauty pageants and talent hunt shows, claim some, are more about entertaining people in the short run than grooming and developing models in the long run.

"Right now," says Shahriar Rahman, "I have to dig up from memory faces which might be suitable for a particular role, then I have to speak to them, find out whether they're available to work and are willing to model for the product, figure out their schedules, everything. I need someone who has all this information and can provide me with models based on the brief I give them."

According to Tupa, lack of support from sponsors is also a problem. "We also need support from the government. No industry can grow in a country without the help and support of its government," she says.

For things to be more professional, every sector must be so, emphasises Noble. "Models should work with very professional agencies, which will in turn help them to develop professionalism as well. The more professional people involved, the more professional and better the industry will be."

The modelling profession has come a long way but still has a long way to go. Some claim that even today, it is looked down upon. People do not always take it seriously and comment on how 'fun' it is to be around models. Often, parents do not like the idea at first but enjoy it when their children become celebrities.

"When I first started out, some of my conservative family members were discouraging," says model Noble. "But there are many renowned celebrities from good families with good reputations. Today, someone wanting to enter the industry will be encouraged."

"The struggle is in the conservative familial and societal norms that we have," says Awrup Sanyal of Bitopi. "There will be resistance but change will come. If we are really free people we should be able to choose."

According to Kaniz Almas Khan, there was a time when young women used to keep their modelling career a secret from their families. Some would even rebel against their families' wishes. "This has changed now," she says. "More and more families are willing to let their children, especially daughters, try their luck in the modelling scene."

"I think that modelling has gained quite a bit of acceptance in recent years," says Tupa, "and I'd even go so far as to say that it is considered a respectable field for young people to enter nowadays. There will always be people who will not go into the entertainment industry, but overall, I do believe the prejudices that existed against modelling in the early years of the industry are now over and done with."

The beauty pageants and talent hunt shows, claim some, are more about entertaining people in the short run than grooming and developing models in the long run.

From taboos to uneasy social acceptance, the modelling industry has faced it all. Challenges remain to be overcome. Perhaps the biggest one of all is the establishment of the profession as a formal one, which not only brings glamour and fame but is also a means of earning a living with as few risks as possible.

opyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009