It was the autumn of 2007 and I was at a Mumbai club for the crowning of India’s entry to the Miss Asia Pacific pageant. I vividly remember two guests: Jacqueline Fernandez (shortly after her run at Miss World) and a charming girl with high, chiselled cheekbones. She introduced herself as Nidhi Sunil, a third year law student and fresh from an outing on the reality show Channel V Get Gorgeous . A bright smile and a hundred questions accompanied her. We kept in touch over the years, until she moved to Mumbai in 2010, undeterred by an industry that found her too short (at 5’6”, she fell short of runway standards) and dark.
Today, at the age of 33 — those cheekbones now framed by honey highlights — Sunil is the new global ambassador for L’Oréal Paris, the only model from India to get the title. Late Tuesday evening, when the official announcement was released, she received congratulatory wishes from the likes of actor and long-time L’Oréal spokesperson, Andie MacDowell. “Nidhi is from India [which I am obsessed with], so I cannot wait to meet her and hear about Kerala,” she posted on the ’gram.
It is early Thursday morning in New York, the weather outside a chilly -5°, when I call her. She is just getting out of bed, her daily yoga and meditation routine pushed back a bit. She hasn’t had much sleep the last couple of nights, fielding calls and scanning social media. “It’s surreal,” she tells me, “but it’s not sudden.” Turns out, it has been in the works for a while. Covid-19 had delayed things, and an NDA meant she couldn’t spill the beans earlier.
“I think it is multiple things coming together, and also being at the right place at the right time... my values reflecting what people really want to see represented now,” says Sunil. The former environmental attorney is the spokesperson, and an advisory board member, for the Invisible Girl Project, an organisation that aims to end gendercide in India. She is also outspoken about colourism (she wrote a piece on the topic for Dazed magazine in 2019). “I’ve always believed in the power of representation, of how powerful it can be to see somebody relatable in the mainstream narrative.” It is not something she has had much of in her early days.
The ups and downs
Sunil has overcome many hurdles throughout her career. When the fashion industry didn’t give her a chance (because of her height and skin tone), she turned to editorial fashion. After bagging her first project with Maire Claire , she slowly grew to become a fixture on the covers of fashion magazines such as Elle , Grazia , Cosmopolitan and GQ . Even Vogue , which had rejected her earlier, gave her spreads and, in 2017, conferred her the Model of the Year award.
- In 2016, Sunil partnered with her friend Jill Ulrich McElya on the nonprofit, Invisible Girl Project. “We have 450 girls, all of whom were 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,” she explains. “We fundraise [in the US] and we partner with on-ground facilities in India, to provide extra infrastructure for whatever they don’t have — for instance, access to schools or medication.” They also monitor what is going on in and around the villages [in Chennai and Delhi, where they are based] to ‘rescue vulnerable babies and girls from being killed or trafficked’. “In 2020 we were selected to present at the UN CSW [United Nations Commission on the Status of Women] because we’re doing a lot of work around infrastructure for women in India, but the pandemic changed some of those plans,” says Sunil, who also produced a film on the subject last year.
“I’d say that my journey has been peppered with road blocks as well open gates,” says the Malayali, who was born in Kochi and brought up in Bengaluru. “I like learning, and so I enjoyed [working my way] through different mediums and platforms.” This curiosity also led her to the movies. However, for “someone in my space, there is no or little work in Indian cinema. All I could do was be part of indie films”.
Then she chucked it all and got on a flight to New York in 2015, to join the agency, Wilhelmina Models. “Leaving Bombay was a difficult decision to make because I’d made it to the point where I was finally booking work constantly and consistently. And here I was going to a city and a country where it is competitive and I’d have to start from scratch once again. But that’s really who I am as a person. I always choose change,” shares Sunil, who signed on with One Management in 2018.
Big ticket campaigns soon came her way — including being the face of Espirit. “I’ve always had to advocate for myself as a woman of colour, even in my own country,” she says. “India has this strange colonial hangover where we prefer white skin, even if 90% of the people have my skin colour. I’ve had to fight for myself.”
A time for everything
Her new role at L’Oréal comes at the perfect time. The brand is committed to removing all labelling and branding focussed on fairness and whitening by the end of 2021.
“It wasn’t like I was choosing to be a voice for colourism; it just so happened that I was confronted with situations that required that I speak up. I will continue to do the work that I’ve been doing for the past four years, the only difference is that my platform is going to get bigger. Hopefully, this means that more people will have access to the work that I’m already doing,” she concludes.
Ramesh Menon is an author, fashion producer, and founder of the Save the Loom project.