My first inkling that this was no ordinary job was the fact that all three interviews for it took me, sweating and feeling out of place, to the hushed air-conditioned environs of the best five star hotels in town. The second big giveaway, after accepting the job at double my earlier salary and moving to Mumbai, was the estate agent’s behaviour. He fell over himself trying to please me as a client who might recommend him to my office colleagues and friends. The fallout of this happy fact was a room high above the reality of the city, overlooking the sea and sunset, with warm wooden flooring, a bathroom that was positively luxurious, and a walk-in closet—which was a fancy way of saying that the landlady had put a steel Godrej almirah in a tiny store room with shelves. No kitchen, but as a girl who worked in fashion now, I thought, maybe I could live without one.
In all, the flat was a perfect accessory to my new life, working for the Indian edition of the world’s style Bible.
In retrospect, I never really stood a chance. I was neither thin nor well-dressed. I didn’t have a daddy who brought me Bottegga clutches from successful business trips. I hadn’t studied abroad. I didn’t have a boyfriend who may someday culminate in a large diamond as a mark of commitment. I wasn’t ‘well connected’ and I was definitely not ‘a part of the scene’. Instead, I was new and alone in Mumbai, working hard to earn my money and living off what I earned, like the millions who came before me and will continue to do so.
THE OFFICE BUBBLE
Unlike those millions, however, I worked in an old heritage building downtown. It was one of the swankiest offices I had ever seen. Everything was new, shiny and expensive. The budgets were obscene. We had access to the best of everything. It seemed like everyone wanted to write for us or be written about, photograph for us or be photographed by us.
Resources were us. Everything was a phone call away. A one-page advertisement in an issue of the magazine was more than my annual salary. And we spent that sum many times over on our photo shoots, flying in make-up and hair stylists from Paris, sending images to New York for processing, and getting a steady stream of couriered couture from London, Paris and Milan. We had the money to hire a hundred extras for a single photograph, and we sometimes did.
I hate to generalise, but a fashion magazine office is mostly either female or homosexual (if of the male persuasion). Of course, there were some heterosexual males, but most of them were in housekeeping and security. All the girls in marketing were astoundingly better looking than those on our covers. The ones in fashion were devastatingly chic. I had never seen larger engagement rings, glossier hair, shorter dresses or that much bling other than on a Punjabi aunty at a wedding. The floor resounded with the sound of stilettos, the clanking of multiple charm bracelets and the jingle of layered necklaces as they went about their work or tapped away on BlackBerries. There were also an inordinate number of foreigners in senior positions, some with little or no experience of the jobs they were hired for. Unpaid interns and lowly paid Indians looking for a break worked long hours, picking up their slack and clearing their messes while they went for post-work drinks.
It was a bit like being a schoolgirl in a convent, with cliques, teachers’ pets and the constant peer pressure to fit in. I started buying cute knee length dresses in bright colours with deep necks and flattering empire waists. I acquired heels. Pedicures and manicures, complete with polish, became essential grooming—as also the professional blow dry. For the first time in my life, I paid as much as Rs 2,500 for a haircut.
THE LAUNCH HIGH
The magazine was unveiled at a party. There was an office pre-launch party first on the Indigo terrace, deep in southeast Mumbai, followed by dancing at a film party at another club. News of the launch had gotten around town; for about two weeks, a new anticipatory cake had been arriving everyday from friends of the magazine. To the editor, fashion director, fashion features director and marketing honchos, however, deciding the guest list looked like the most delicious part of the exercise, and they spent hours on it.
Intimations of grandness didn’t end there. The organisers of Fashion Week sent us two crates of Champagne and a stunning floral arrangement. Clothes were ordered online from net-a-porter, or custom designed by leading Indian designers who were now friends. Hair appointments were booked, the highest of our heels were dusted off, and nails painted blood red before we took off on our chartered flights. The airport was awash with Hermes Birkins in every colour, monogrammed luggage, outsized sunglasses, botox and beautiful people.
The venue was a beautiful art-deco palace in Rajasthan. When we emerged from the airport at our destination, there was a wall of photographers from local newspapers, and a million flashes went off in our faces. They took us as celebrities, and we were flattered as we had spent a lot of money, time and effort trying to look it. ‘So, this is what it feels like to be paparazzied,’ I thought, wincing in the pop-pop-pop of camera flashes and dry desert air. Some were asked for autographs as we were ferried to the three heritage hotels booked for the launch.
It was a magnificent palace that hosted the party, complete with a photo exhibition, fireworks show, display by one of the world’s leading shoe designers, and mandatory fashion show. We walked the red carpet and took pictures of each other posing on it. Waiters in white gloves with crystal encrusted bottles of perfectly chilled Champagne kept our glasses filled, as we milled about exclaiming in delight. There were a few speeches and much fanfare and self congratulation before we got down to the serious business of dancing the night away on a cliff overlooking the city. The DJ, specially flown in from New York, made her entrance on a palanquin dressed like a lady of negotiable affection in gauze flowing harem pants and a metallic bra. The dull electronic thump of the music was pretty bad, but we were high by then on the star dust scattered by the proximity of real film stars, TV coverage and launch exhilaration. The caviar gol-guppa shots, lobster paella and New Zealand rack of lamb and foie gras went largely ignored.
As the party wound down at dawn, I found myself swept along with the detritus of the night to the private suite of a film star and her industrialist boyfriend. I stepped over a minor actor who had passed out and was lying across the doorway, to find myself in a room with his visibly upset wife, assorted royal cousins, models, actors and a couple of girls from office. Cocaine in beautifully origamied Rs 500 notes was spilt on antique silver trays and offered, even as room service was called for more single malt.
There was an even more exclusive party going on in the suite’s bathroom—with much shrieking in the air, breaking of glass panes, and guarding against intruders. The industrialist had his Man Friday woken up to plug in his iPod so that we could have some music. This shocked me more than any of the other excesses that night.
THE JOB LOW
After a weekend of hard partying, chartered flights and relaxed brunches, work resumed. Meetings were held in a conference room with custom designed wallpaper and a tacky smoke mirrored glass table large enough to seat 20-30 girls in heels and statement jewellery, dripping chic. Across the crumbs of working lunches ordered from Indigo deli (the turkey, cranberry and blue cheese baguette was mine) and freshly ground and brewed cappuccinos from the office pantry, we would discuss who was deemed worthy of our pages.
In one meeting, I remember discussing a possible story on an NRI filmmaker in the UK. “But she is at best a size 14,” exclaimed the fashion mavens. We agreed that it would be impossible to make her look good enough for our pages even if we photographed her seated behind a vase of twigs. “And couture for photo shoots in those sizes is tricky,” they sighed. I kept silent, hoping that no one had noticed my very own size 14 body seated behind that table. I think we dropped that story.
No image in the magazine was real. I suppose you could call it hyper-real… like reality is meant to be, only better and more perfect. Even the tiniest of photos published was scrutinised for any sign of human imperfection. Veins were smoothened down, wrinkles erased, eyes opened more, smiles made just that little bit wider, teeth whitened, and any unsightly bulges excised. I was coached to walk the fine line between making people look perfect but natural, not plastic. We thinned arms, removed cellulite and made people glow. Surprisingly, even the men wanted in, and fat cat Delhi designers would call and sheepishly request that we eliminate their double chins before we printed their pictures. We spent more time and money polishing our pages than we did creating them.
Magazine covers are the most coveted real estate in this world. Marketing decreed that although we were a fashion magazine, only Bollywood sells in India, so the majority of covers had actresses, and in some cases, actors’ wives. They also spent some of the massive budget on surveying the readership and coming to the conclusion that, sadly, no one really understands fashion here, people don’t like to read much, and that our target audience was unworthy of our talents and quality. “Could you please dumb down the magazine?” was what I heard all the time, while politically correct speeches were made and we were asked to use more quotes, more boxes, more celebrities, more Indians, more images and less content. My mind boggled at the thought of making the magazine even dumber than it was. Meanwhile, covers and fashion mentions were traded for advertising, and a finely balanced system of appeasement—of stars, friends, designers and major labels—was put in place.
My friends thought I was a lucky cow (their words, not mine). The beauty cupboards were stacked with make-up, nail paint, illuminators and luxe moisturisers from all over the world that were called in for shoots and up for grabs afterwards. I encountered hair powder, skin caviar, 24 karat gold face refiners and more renewal serums than you could shake a Number 15 MAC blending brush at. Scented diptyque candles, antique dressers, hipster journals, coffee table books and sequined home furnishings were brought in for photo shoots.
The fashion cupboards overflowed with the latest offerings fresh off the international runways, and enough Louboutin and Jimmy Choos for any sartorial emergency that may arise. Christmas would bring gifts from luxury brands in strict pecking order. The heads of departments and editors would get designer handbags and lavish gourmet baskets, while the small fry got monogrammed make-up bags and Chanel sunglasses. Sometimes, I would go out to a party and see someone from the fashion department wearing a dress we had shot earlier in the day, still to be returned to London.
Fashion Week was work, we reasoned. The whole office would go dressed in their best, take over the front row and demand VIP treatment. Life became an endless round of working, partying at Blue Frog, shopping at Good Earth, and relishing Sunday brunches at Olive. Every week would have a few parties or shows, complete with sponsored goody bags containing coffee table books, crystal embellished USB drives, a year’s supply of lip gloss and mini bottles of Moet.
There were also the exclusive, by-invitation-only offers of luxury brands at huge discounts. I fell in love with a pair of Gucci high heels which were unaffordable, even at an 80 per cent discount, while my office colleagues gushed about what a bargain they were at Rs 8,000. It was either the shoes or taking the local train to work for a month. Most girls in office would have bought the shoes and worn them on the local train, but I didn’t have the same dedication to fashion.