Nidhi Sunil: 'Beauty Is About Perspective'

Nidhi Sunil: 'Beauty Is About Perspective'

Story by Riley Runnells / Photography by Harshvardhan Shah

Nidhi Sunil is tired of letting colorism degrade others' — and her own — personal perception.

As an Indian model, Sunil has faced years of judgment due to harsh beauty standards in her country that suggest lighter skin is better skin. However, after landing modeling jobs with major fashion publications and even winning Vogue India's Model of the Year award, Sunil wants to now advocate for authentically diverse casting, rather than simply filling a quota.

Sunil not only works in the entertainment industry as a model and actress, but she's also deeply rooted in activism. From working in urban development law to help her hometown thrive to her recent work with the Invisible Girl Project, a nonprofit that works to end gendercide in India, Sunil takes pride in her making a change.

PAPER caught up with Sunil to talk about the Invisible Girl Project and modeling in today's climate.

Dress: Dries Van Noten, Gloves: Wing & Weft, Jewelry: Martine Ali

What does a day look like for you right now in the pandemic?

My life has changed drastically over the last five months because when the pandemic initially began, it was supposed to be over by like mid-May, because I remember them telling us that we're going to have to quarantine-quarantine for like maybe two weeks and then it was another two weeks, and before we know it it's fall. So it's been a hell of a ride. I started off the time being extremely positive, because 2018 and 2019 were crazy years for me. I was basically working nonstop. I moved from India to LA and from LA to New York and then I was in 10 countries in 2019, because I was shooting everywhere. I was constantly working on my visas for all of those countries because I have an Indian passport. So when the pandemic initially hit, I was excited because it was nice to get a break. I finally got time to pursue things that I didn't have time for before.

How has your work changed under these circumstances?

I produced my own film. I am on the advisory board for an organization called the Invisible Girl Project and I've been working with them for the last two years. Essentially, we applied and we were approved to present at the United Nations Commission for the Status of Women Marches of Women's Month at the UN every year. I produced a film in India, which has been edited and now it's in post, and I was going to speak at the UN in March and they canceled women's month at the United Nations.

We have 450 girls. All of the girls are essentially abandoned by their families because in India it's very hard for people from lower economic backgrounds to take on the financial obligations of having a girl child. They see female children as financial burdens because you're not allowed to work. We have a very patriarchal society, so essentially your only job is to become a good wife. But in order for your parents to find you a husband they have to pay a dowry, which can often bankrupt families and then they also get these giant loans to throw the wedding because it's the duty of the girl's family to pay for the entire wedding.

So what happens in India a lot — millions of girls are trafficked and millions of girls are abandoned by their families. And a lot of them actually are killed when they're infants. They're either drowned or smothered as soon as they are born. This is the reason why we are not allowed to find out the sex of our babies in India. It is actually illegal when you go to the gynecologist in India to ask about the sex of your baby, even though, maybe, you're being perfectly innocent, you're not trying to know if you have a girl, you're not trying to abort it, but because that's a possibility it's illegal. This year we were selected to present at the UN CSW because we're doing a lot of work around infrastructure for women in India.

Shirt and pants: Bottega Veneta, Corset: Eckhaus Latta, Shoes: Pierre Hardy, Jewelry: Martine Ali

Tell me about the Invisible Girl Project's partnership with CrushXO. What other projects have you worked on?

That was in 2016 and it was a project where we created skincare beauty, basically makeup. Every time you bought makeup the money would go to the Invisible Girl Project, and it is an organization that is registered in America as (a nonprofit). Essentially, we partner with on-ground facilities that already have infrastructure so that it's easier, like we don't have to go and build in South India. We do fundraising here and then we provide extra infrastructure. Whatever they don't have — like, for instance, access to schools, medication — and then we also keep an eye out for what is going on in and around the villages, because we work out of the headquarters based in Chennai and Delhi right now in India.

After we presented our work to the United Nations and were selected to be one of the panelist finalists for the United Nations Commission for status of women around the world, it was my idea to shoot a film to showcase our work and also so that the world could get to know some of our girls because we're a small organization. Right now we have 450 girls whose lives were taken care of and the oldest girl is 19, and she speaks two languages already. My next step is to create a mentorship program for these girls and put them in touch with people who are in similar professions who can just converse with them honestly.

I grew up in a middle class Indian family in South India and one of the things that was really hard for me was when I didn't want to either do medicine or engineering, because those are the fields where my family and extended family had a network to connect me with. I didn't have anyone to speak to if I wanted to go into a creative field. I had to figure it out on my own and it takes weird extreme amounts of really stupid courage to do that because if you're a girl who has no money who comes from a super, super poor neighborhood whose family abandoned you because you're a girl... Most of these girls don't see past having jobs like either being a receptionist or a nurse or something. But a lot of them do have these genes where they want to be so much more than that — they want to be creative, and they want to be writers and actors.

You've had a very successful career in the entertainment industry, namely with modeling and acting. Which came first?

Modeling came first. I'm in my 30s... I was already old when I got into modeling and it's not something that you do so late in your life. Most people want you to start at 16 or 17; I ended up starting at 22. I started because I did a model hunt when I was helping a friend of mine look for a location when I was in my third year of university. He was a media major and he had just joined channel V, which was India's version of MTV at that time They were doing a model hunt and then the executive producer of the show put me on the show and it was my semester break, and I ended up signing with Elite India. I didn't really do any work because I'm a good South Indian girl, so you finish schooling. I didn't do any modeling until I was done with my fifth year and I graduated.

Shirt and pants: Bottega Veneta, Corset: Eckhaus Latta, Shoes: Pierre Hardy, Jewelry: Martine Ali

Since you were discovered in 2008, you've been featured in several major magazines. What was it like to see yourself in print for the first time?

I don't think I'll ever get used to it. it's always exciting. People meet me and they assume that it must have been a very normal climb, because I'm an Indian model and I look like a model so it must have been a regular sort of climb. But it wasn't really because the industry in India when I started was so anti-dark skin. There is a song that just got released called "Beyoncé Sharma Jayegi." The lyrics of the song essentially say, "After looking at you white girl, even Beyoncé will feel ashamed of herself."

When I started in India, it was really hard to grow up in a country where people are like, "But you don't look Indian," first of all, and, "You're not beautiful," constantly. "You're interesting looking, creatives love the way that you look. They love creating with you, but you won't be able to make any money because you're not what the average person thinks is beautiful because you're too dark." So that's why I would never get used to seeing my face on anything, because I get all these messages and emails from girls who look like me saying that they hate the way that they look. And they really want to know how I'm able to do the things that I do or how I live in like New York and LA and Bombay at the same time, because those opportunities are really not available to you. It's not normal; you have to make them happen, which is one of the reasons I'll forever be grateful for my job.

You've been named Vogue India's Model of the Year. How was the experience receiving that news?

It was crazy because there was a point where Vogue didn't even want to shoot me. I remember casting for Conde Nast: you go with your book when you start and it's like, "Oh, we're not sure now," and then all of a sudden, six years in, they're giving you this award and you're like, "Oh, okay, cool."

The traditional standard of beauty is so different from what I represented at the time for them. And there aren't that many Indian management agencies, but now if you check out the websites of any of them there's tons of beautiful brown girls and I love that. I know that magazines are not really mainstream anymore — I don't know how much influence they have — but Vogue is still pretty powerful as a voice and symbolically. But it's cool because I saw it as like, "Okay cool, they're finally telling girls that look like me 'there's a place for you here,' and that was cool."

Shirt and pants: Bottega Veneta, Corset: Eckhaus Latta, Shoes: Pierre Hardy, Jewelry: Martine Ali

Let's talk about modeling in today's climate. How has the pandemic impacted that career path in terms of people who are just entering industry?

I feel like I saw a switch in modeling when social media happened because essentially it's an industry that has a lot of children. It's an industry where you have a whole bunch of 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds — 15-year-olds in some cases — really being preyed upon by people who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. And it's really weird psychologically because these girls obviously have good genetics, so they look like they've come into their maturity as women. Some of them, of course, are given contracts because they look skinny and androgynous and they have boy-ish physical features. As soon as their body actually matures, they don't have a job in the fashion industry anymore.

With social media, there was a change that was going on where you stopped being a nameless faceless model and you could actually have a platform where your name was out there, because a lot of times models didn't even get credits. Of course, you had the '90s and early 2000s where you have people knowing who models were because they were icons in their own right. And then after 2005, you had this whole era where nobody knew who the models were. There were obviously exceptions, but in general it was a zombie lineup of girls who are nameless, faceless and who were kind of disposable. You could do 60 shows in one season and do nothing the next season because none of the casting directors were going to give you a job, and it didn't matter how big the brands you walk for were.

With the Black Lives Matter movement happened during COVID, the fashion industry is very quick to change up all their casting scenarios. I know that agencies are going to be pushing harder for representation because I've had Black girlfriends in New York who have — and this has happened to more than one person that I personally know — gone to agencies looking for representation to be signed, and they'll have like two girls on the board who are Black and they'll be like, "Oh sorry, we have as many Black models as we need." It'll be a board of like 65-70 models and there'll be two Black girls. I've had that happen to Indian girlfriends, as well. There's only like seven Indian models, like seven or eight new models working in America, and even London and Paris really. There aren't that many of us and it's an industry tens of thousands of people. As a model I really hope that we will come out of this with real representation and also come out of this expecting more of ourselves as human beings.

"You're not truly changing the narrative, unless you're changing the narrative for yourself."

You must really inspire a lot of young girls who're interested in pursuing all this.

I get so many emails and messages from really young girls in India who hate themselves, like really hate themselves. Wherever there's an industry — New York, LA, London and Paris — they weren't interested in giving a contract or giving any opportunities to anyone from India because they didn't think it was necessary, and because if they wanted brown skin models, they would just have Brazilian girls or Dominican Republic girls and girls from the south. When I started working in New York, you realize that every agency has a scouting department that actually flies into countries to deliberately go and look for young girls that they can sign. Nobody's coming out to India to scout for girls because it's halfway across the world.

I've been pushing the diversity issue in my own country, and then simultaneously there's this conversation on diversity going on outside of India. People realized that rather than vision casting, you have to focus on what a person stands for and who they are and where they're from.

For you personally, what's the most important thing you've learned on your journey?

Beauty really is about perspective and that's not an abstract concept — that is literal. I grew up in a country where I constantly felt ugly, and then when I moved to America every time I walk into a room people would look at me with these big googly eyes, like I'm this crazy, weird beautiful alien that walked into a room, so it is literally just a mindset.

I realized through the journey that only you have the power to define how you want to live your life and how you choose to see yourself, and unless we all make an informed, conscious decision to be completely sovereign in the way we choose to define ourselves, we can do like 100 things to change things on the outside. We're not really changing society. You're not truly changing the narrative, unless you're changing the narrative for yourself.

Photography: Harshvardhan Shah
Styling: Brandon Tan
Makeup: Raisa Flowers
Hair: Kazuhide Katahira
Styling assistant: Caroline Mack