Mona Varonica Campbell is 5’9” barefoot, and, in her stilettos, she is close to brushing the door frame as she lets us into her Versova apartment. She has to duck as she passes beneath the low-hanging chandelier in her living room on her way to getting us some fruit juice.
Her English has traces of her native Telugu and also the other languages she has learnt — Hindi, Russian and French.
She makes it seem perfectly normal to be wearing skyscraper heels on a lazy Sunday evening just to receive a journalist. She pushes her hair back, her bright pink nails catching my attention — a fashion model in both posture and demeanour. “I take pride in my catwalk,” she says. “After all, modelling is all about attitude.” And all the right accessories too: the tiny flat overflows with Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and MAC shopping bags.
Mona wasn’t always Mona. She was born 28 years ago, with a male body, named Adapala Mohan Naidu, and grew up in Vijaywada, where her father was posted in a Central government department. Like many Indian parents, her father dreamt of his son becoming a doctor.
But, she says, “I was feminine from childhood. When I was around 15, I opened up to my father and told him that I felt different. He did not create a scene or torture me for what I felt. He made me consult a psychiatrist. The doctors told my father not to pressurise me in any way.” She says she is grateful to have had such a supportive environment.
Her realisation that she was a woman in a man’s body came around the same time she discovered her affinity and passion for art and fashion. However, to please her father, she appeared for the medical entrance examinations and secured the 90th all-India rank.
But she had also, on a visit to Hyderabad, applied to the National Institute of Fashion Technology and got called for an entrance exam, in which she ranked all-India first.
Making a name
“My father’s first reaction was that I was leaving a medical course ‘to become a tailor.’ He was not happy but I still left.” While studying, she also worked part-time as an announcer in a shopping mall. Since her voice sounded feminine, her boss named her Mona, which she liked.
Another transition was in progress: she had started hormone replacement therapy, the first step to gender reassignment. “I was always slightly overweight, but the hormones added to it somewhat.”
After graduating from NIFT, she moved to the U.K., with a scholarship, to pursue Master’s at the London School of Fashion. She had the first of the reassignment surgeries there.
She then moved to Ottawa, Canada, with her then boyfriend, a gynaecologist she had met in London.
She got a job with MAC Cosmetics, and on the shopfloor, assumed the name Varonica. She also got her first modelling assignment in Canada. “I walked for nine big shows, and I was a show-stopper in all of them.” In her ramp walk, she says, she mimicked her idol, supermodel Naomi Campbell.
By then, she had undergone the last of the surgeries. The name she chose for herself — Mona Varonica Campbell — combined the announcer name, the shopfloor name and the aspirational surname.
When she returned to Hyderabad, she set up a salon, Varonica Make-up Artistry. Then, last year, she moved to Mumbai to work for a private aviation firm as chief air crew; she works 35 hours a month, flying with six high-profile frequent flyers.
The modelling itch was still strong, she says, but there aren’t many opportunities for plus-sized models in the country. Still, she decided to audition for Lakmé Fashion Week.
She’d written ‘transgender’ in the form — “I have never hidden my identity” — and then designer Wendell Rodricks called. He offered her the chance to be the show-opener for his plus-sized collection.
“I felt like a princess that day! Wendell, always my favourite designer, called me a runway model.” She was not unaccustomed to fame. “But that was the first time I was identified as a transwoman.”
Mona is clear about her immediate life plan: one, expand her make-up studio; two, create her own plus-sized clothing label; three, be the supermodel from India who breaks barriers; and four, oh yes, earn a doctorate in business administration so that she can run her businesses better. She is studying at a university in Florida, where she attends classes one month in a year.
“That’s for my father,” she says, laughing. “I did not become a doctor, but with a PhD., I can get a ‘Dr.’ before my name.”