May be they don’t make women like Ujjawala Raut anymore. The original Indian supermodel, however, is optimistic that many more will follow her route given the right direction.
One day a young girl saw a pamphlet while reading a newspaper on a train journey. It was a call out for a model contest. She took that piece of paper home and handed it over to her younger sister and encouraged her to apply for the contest. It was an impulse that changed everything for a 17-year-old girl named Ujjwala Raut. Neither of them realised that this would begin a journey that they had never imagined.
Ujjwala Raut, who now virtually lives out of her suitcase, had never even heard the word jetlag, took her first flight, literally. After having won the India edition, she flew to Nice in France for the finale in 1996. “I had never even travelled on an airplane until then, let alone imagining modelling as a profession, says Ujjwala. She still has a Maharashtrian accent despite living in New York for close to two decades. That’s when you realise that the girl who went on to become legendary fashion designer, Emmanuel Ungaro’s muse has managed to hold on to India, unlike many others who come home with rolling rrrs.
The predictable path followed. Ujjwala took to the Indian ramps. “In those days, fashion in India was about a few designers showcasing their individual collections off and on. It was a learning ground for me. Then one day, I was called for a show by an Indian designer to walk for her in Dubai. She booked me on a flight that took 22 hours to reach. Obviously, she had chosen the cheapest route with the longest layovers. Can you imagine that for a half hour show in a place that is three hours by flight, I was hopping planes and sitting in airports for almost an entire day! That’s when I decided that this is not what I want in my life. I simply couldn’t do this anymore.” Thus ended the predictability in Ujjwala Raut’s life.
After that show in Dubai, she called her agent and asked them to book a flight to New York. “It was the easiest decision I ever took. I realised that I can either stay here and be treated like a commodity forever, or start all over again and actually turn myself into someone who deserves better.” Fast forward: Ujjwala Raut was in New York living in an apartment along with other aspiring models who, too, had landed in the Mecca of fashion to chase international stardom, auditioning for shows. So did Ujjwala.
“One day, I was called to audition for Tom Ford, and I was one of the 15 girls who were picked by his team. That’s it, I thought. I had made it. As I started celebrating, my agent called me and said I should tone it down because it meant nothing and that Tom Ford was known for dropping girls even on the day of the show. My bubble burst. I was thinking: what the hell, it is not over, you mean?”
It was only the beginning. “I suddenly got a call a few weeks later from my agent saying Tom Ford wanted to see me. I went, ready to be humiliated. Once I reached there, I was told that the designer had decided drop a girl and that I was to take over from her. All that drama I felt was just another day in their life.”
But for the rest of the world it was the day Ujjwala Raut, the supermodel from India, was born. That piece of pamphlet paid off after all. Ujjwala was the toast of the fashion world walking for Gucci, Givenchy, Ungaro, Emilio Pucci, Diane von Furstenberg, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Hugo Boss, Cynthia Rowley, Betsey Johnson, and Oscar de la Renta. She became one of the Victoria’s Secret angel, and the face of Dolce & Gabbana, Gap, H&M, Pianegonda, Roberto Cavalli and Yves Saint-Laurent.
“I hadn’t even heard the names of the designers I was walking for in the beginning,” she says, laughing, which by the way is consistent in her manner whether she is recalling her happy moments or her troubled times.
“It feels great that I managed to get to the goal I set upon before leaving India. It was a lot of hard work, nothing came easy. I grew up in a modest Maharashtrian home. My father was a cop and my mother stayed home looking after the five of us. I always saw how hard my parents worked and struggled.
Now that I am a mother I can imagine what it must have taken. It is not being a supermodel that gave me the real high, but the independence that came with it. After all, this is the only profession in the world where women get more paid than men. Today, I don’t have to depend on any man to support me. I guess that is why when I fell in love with Maxwell (Sterry), I gave everything to that relationship,” focusing more on making a home than her work.
But often everything is not enough. The marriage ended with nasty accusations and unreasonable demands. “I went through a bad phase at the time, but I found emotional strength in my then two-month daughter Kasha. It is very important to financially be independent for a woman. Only then can one be strong enough to take decisions. Trust me, during tough times taking strong decisions are necessary. When we are faced with the question: ‘Is this the way I want to live the rest of my life?’, the answer to that must be strong and clear.
One such strong and clear call that Ujjwala has taken today is that marriage is never again on the cards. She throws her arms around and laughs, “What do I need a man for? Sex? Everything else I can manage on my own. Let us not confuse love with lust.”
But there are other plans on her agenda. One such call she took while modelling was that she will not be an ‘aspiring actor.’ “At the time, I had several offers coming my way. I did not want to be part of the pack. I was a model and wanted to reach the pinnacle of the profession I had chosen, which I did. Now, I have the option of doing new things and if cinema is my next path I am open to the idea. I have already explored television.” She judged and hosted the Kingfisher Calendar Hunt in 2012 alongside model-actor
Milind Soman. “One thing is for sure, I will stay within the fashion industry because I understand it now from an insider’s point of view. I enjoy and love styling and grooming.”
Right now, Ujjwala is in the process of grooming her daughter Kasha. “I want to share my experiences with her. She will soon be sixteen, and if she wants to enter the fashion world I want to give her the advantage of learning from me. I want her to be prepared to take her calls without fear and insecurity. Young girls who look for international stardom today lack that direction, which is why many of them do not reach their goal. We must bring back the Indian supermodel back to international ramp.”
Anyone, up for the challenge?