Model-actor-producer John Abraham on the demise of the supermodel and the ascent of fashionable Indian men. And why every male model must watch Zoolander
John Abraham zips through the GQ shoot with the kind of self-assured speed that only comes with experience, alternating between playing the willing muse and assuming complete charge,flashing a self-congratulatory grin every timehe’s pleased with the outcome. What was tobe a five-hour shoot wraps up in just over two.Despite his now-hyphenated, more recognizable avatar as actor-producer, it turns out you can’t take the model out of John Abraham.
The Nineties were the years of the male supermodel. It was the West that paved the way, but India had its own contenders – Abraham, along with Milind Soman, Arjun Rampal and Marc Robinson, and their equally successful female contemporaries, occupied hallowed turf. They brought that X-factor to a fledgling fashion industry and extended its audience, sometimes even overshadowing the clothes they modelled. Their public influence shaped our post-liberalized cultural identity and also, crucially, demonstrated to urban Indian men – fed until then on a movie diet of macho action heroes, rugged and hairy – that you could wear a lace shirt on the runway and not have to sacrifice your masculinity.
The world of modelling Abraham left behind a decade ago is no longer recognizable – for one, the era of the supermodel is over. With star power having shifted from the runway to Bollywood, Abraham remains one of the few celebrities to have held sway over both – a commercial A-lister, successful producer and the last of the male supermodels.
You seem to slip back into fashion so easily. It’s where it all started.
Do you remember the first time you thought you had the potential to be a successful model? Back in 1988, I was visiting [photographer] Atul Kasbekar at his studio, and I remember him saying to me, “Have you heard of Marc Robinson, Rahul Dev, Arjun Rampal and Milind Soman?” Of course I had. And he said, “You’re a combination of all of them.” Those guys and you – the first and the last of the Indian supermodels. You guys became household names. Still are. It’s pretty unbelievable that after all these years we’re still the flag-bearers for male models.
Models today just seem so much more dispensable. What’s changed? Actors came in their place. They have the faces, the bodies and the ability to sell anything, from a washing machine to engine oil. Why would advertisers go for models, whose names nobody knows, when they can cast actors instead? Also, the media has made fashion a much bigger world and accessible to many more people.
Cricketers have jumped into the fray as well… That kills me, man. There’s less and less going around for models.
Did you realize then how good you had it? I was really lucky to be there at the right time. There are so many good-looking guys now with great bodies, but they just don’t have an identity of their own.
What gave you that sense of identity? What gives a supermodel his or her edge is personality. Being a clothes hanger can only take you so far. With Dino [Morea], Milind, Marc and Kelly [Dorjee], there was an X-factor that they possessed.
What gave you yours? The fact that I was a sensible, thinking model. I was savvy enough to steer my career in the right direction.
No Derek Zoolander, then? Well, as a model you’re always a bit of a Zoolander [smiles]. That movie is the bible for male models. Seriously, at the risk of sounding narcissistic, I was smarter than most about making decisions for my career. Someone once asked me to model for an underwear brand, trying to convince me it was the “Indian Calvin Klein”. I was like, no way. I was careful about the brands I endorsed. I was also very expensive.
How expensive? When others were getting paid Rs.5,000-8,000 per show, I was getting as much as `40,000.
You must have attracted a lot of envy. Senior models did have a sense of insecurity, because we were all partaking of the same pie. It didn’t matter to me, though. As far as my work was concerned, I was a horse with blinkers.
The Nineties, the world over, was probably the best time to be a model. Was life a decadent haze? Well, I didn’t drink, and I didn’t do drugs. My only indulgences were motorcycling and hanging out with my four best friends.
What did you do with all that money? I saved and saved, and saved some more. The modeling season lasted from November to February: I’d fly in from Kolkata, snatch my boarding pass out of the coordinator’s hands and rush to Goa to do a Wendell Rodricks show, take my next boarding pass and head to Delhi for a Rohit Bal show. I used to save aggressively, because I didn’t know when I’d run out of work.
Were there parts you didn’t enjoy? I hated feeling objectified. I once did this celebrity bartending event in the late Nineties where a woman actually tore my shirt off. I know what you’re thinking, but I didn’t enjoy that.
That couldn’t have been the last time, either. See these scratch marks down my arms [points to them]. Some of them are over 10 years old. The appreciation is sweet, but I’ve never understood why women scratch.
But that adulation took you places – all the way to New York, in fact. Yes, it was after I was first runner-up at Manhunt International in 1999. Carrie Models, a Singapore-based agency, signed me on and sent me to London and then New York.
What kind of work did you find there? The supermodel archetype in the West those days was Caucasian, having changed now, if only slightly. It was hard, and I went to New York absolutely broke; but for me, getting to live in the Village was like walking into Wonderland.
How could you afford to stay in the Village? I stayed at a friend’s place, and he agreed to be paid later. There was a coffee shop around the corner from him, and the first time I went there the owner hugged me for a very long time. Turns out he had a brother back in Barcelona, and I was the spitting image of him. From that day on I got free coffee and food in his restaurant for six months. I got some work – catalogues and a few private shows for Indian designers. But after six months, I was ready to come home.
Was fashion just a stepping-stone to acting? Not at all. I wanted to be the best model ever, and that was it. Acting just happened when Mahesh Bhatt discovered me [Jism, 2003].
You didn’t really have a precedent to follow – of a model turning actor. Others had tried… I was constantly told that models couldn’t act, reminded of people who’d tried before me – Deepak [Malhotra], Dino, Milind – and I carried that baggage around for years. All of them have now shut up.
Today, fashion cues come from film, but in those days they couldn’t have been used to actors like you, with a distinct understanding of style. Absolutely. I remember for Jism I wanted to wear linen pants with Zara slippers, and they were like, “What? Nobody wears stuff like that in a Hindi movie.”
What did they want you to wear? Very tight jeans and shiny shoes.
Things have changed. And so has the male consumer. Today, you hear men talk about couture and prêt; it was language that was alien to Indian men. But I don’t think men should become brand babies, either, walking around with giant horses on their chest. You have to let your body and personality determine your style.
What’s the one thing you’ve carried forward from your days in modelling? A strong sense of self. It’s particularly hard to hold on to when you become an actor. That’s why some actors have the most horrific relationships, crazy lives; they burn out. Of course, what modeling really gave me was a platform for film. If I wasn’t a model, no one would have known of me. John Abraham would’ve meant nothing.
Photo: R Burman, Stylist: Vijendra Bhardwaj, Hair: Neha Gandhiwala, Make-up: Venkadesh Reddiar, Production: Gizelle Gordo, Temple Road Productions, Set: Bindiya and Narii, Assitant Stylist: Tanya Vohra
-Arati Menon Carroll