We all write, and rewrite, the stories of ourselves every day. Now that reality TV has really hit its stride, we get to watch other people do — or pretend to do — the same thing onscreen.
America’s Next Top Model was, for me, a perfect balance of inane task and princess fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to find out that the title of ‘fairest one of all’ was something that could be grasped through good old bootstrapping? The racial dynamics of the show were terrifying, but Tyra Banks hid them behind a fairly decent percentage of black finalists in its twenty-two seasons. Top Model shows have sprung up all over the world, but India’s Next Top Model only arrived in 2015.
It made sense that the show wouldn’t find an obvious gap in the market in India, a country with a well-established pageant circuit: it would hardly seem realistic as a good first option for an aspiring new face. Indeed, a lot of the participants were girls who’d been on the pageant circuit and saw this as another set of clips for the reel, while others were so obviously ill-suited for the profession that their motives must have been more opaque; the eventual winner (spoiler alert!) was, to make sure viewers got their happy ending, a girl who couldn’t be explained away by either of those alternative explanations for her presence.
“…for a Top Model season with multiple brown faces, I wanted to champion the one who looked most like me…”
Having waited so long for a Top Model season with multiple brown faces, I wanted to champion the one who looked most like me, but I soon found myself giving into the show’s logic. The girls were from different regions, and amongst them was our diaspora beauty Monica Gill.
Monica, who had represented the USA when she won Miss India Worldwide 2014, was a trier: she spoke in Hindi in all of her asides, she refused to trash-talk the other girls when given the opportunity to explain why she thought her competitors should be eliminated, she used her kathak training to produce a beautiful photo on the theme of Rekha-meets-Career-Barbie.
She was also portrayed as being really awful at fitting in. No matter how fluent her Hindi (at least as good as host Lisa Haydon’s), she wasn’t able to get the others to see her as a part of the group. She asked what was for breakfast as though parathas weren’t the obvious answer, she was too finicky about cleanliness, she didn’t stress out about what her parents would think of her lingerie photo shoot.
In episode four, though, things come to a head. Fifteen minutes into the episode, the girls big up the first runway challenge, which takes place at a Mumbai fish market. That we get the other girls’ re-telling of how this relates to Monica’s difference, rather than the actual footage of the encounter, is a delicious tactic: do we not get to see it because it was so authentic, so spontaneous, as to have occurred off-camera, or did it simply never occur at all?
I have no idea, but here’s the story: an old woman stops Monica to chastise her for showing so much skin. Monica talks back, pointing out to the woman that she didn’t chastise a nearby man who had at least as much on display. To an American viewer, this is badass. (And completely believable, given a key point about Monica’s history the show never brings up: she minored in Women’s Studies during her undergraduate studies.) To her detractor, the story’s narrator, this was a sign of her perverse non-conformity. About twenty-five minutes into the episode, the girls sum up her major flaw for her: she’s “always standing out of the group just to stand out of the group… [she shouldn’t] always need to be different.”
“Being different was the only choice she could have made without selling out.”
In the India the show creates for us, Monica, the girl from the land of Lean In, will always stand out, but never in the way she intends. (And if she didn’t have the same problem in America, wouldn’t she just have been America’s next top model?) Monica doesn’t look a thing like me, but like her, if allowed one phone call, I’d have skipped calling my parents to assure them I was being fed properly to contact the maybe-boyfriend Vikram. (Sorry if you guys are really serious, Vikram! It wasn’t clear because of editing, not because she doesn’t love you.)
Like the Monica that has been edited to look merely like a mirror for the show’s ABCD fans, I, too, have had the stray thought that if everyone just had the bits of me that were seen as so weird by my childhood classmates — the skin color, the extra language, the culture that was obviously best passed on through dance and the pursuit of medical or corporate success — then I’d be the fairest of them all. India’s Next Top Model knows that’s not really the answer, though: even Monica can’t make herself act surprised when she’s eliminated, knowing having a non-‘real Indian’ winner in the first season would be a crazy departure from genre.
“Having a non-‘real Indian’ winner in the first season would be a crazy departure from genre.”
Instead, the show’s writers have done their research. She could fit in all the time, which would mean, on a reality TV show, that she would disappear. Otherwise, she could play it so that in hindsight, being different was the only choice she could have made without selling out.
At the end of her very special episode, Monica is saved from elimination. “F*ck, dude,” she says, like every fifteen-year-old American desi trying to prove they’re more liberated than their Indian cousins, like every twenty-five-year-old surprised American who wouldn’t take misogynistic sh*t about their appearance from a random bystander at a fish market. She leans in. She stands out.
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Rashi Rohatgi hails from Pennsylvania and now teaches in London. Her fiction and poetry have been published in The Misty Review, Allegro, and Anima, and an essay about Bollywood marriages is forthcoming in The Toast.