Considering that rich, Gulf nations such as Kuwait were generally divided along ethnic lines, I could never truly be accepted by my Arab/Middle Eastern peers. I was exposed to a high level of racial prejudice at an early age, an experience that, over time, hindered the growth of my confidence and social skills. With my arrival in the U.S., the culture shock was profound enough that I could barely speak up to anyone in a public setting. My sense of belonging became disillusioned - one that could neither understand American culture in its myriad of forms, nor my South Asian background. As a timid, introverted adolescent growing up in the States, I essentially lost my connection to my South Asian culture and began drifting towards what I call the "Shopping-Cart" approach to finding your group niche. Attempting to 'join' groups ranging from the Preppy crowd to the Goths (who dress in all black by the way), I felt completely lost. It wasn't until college, when I discovered my identity through individuals and groups that literally had the same story as me - namely, that of assimilating into American culture as South Asians. Today, I feel as if one of my goals is to simply propagate South Asian culture and stand proud as a desi wherever I may be in the context of my American environment.
What got you interested in modeling? Was it difficult to get a break in the mainstream scene. Any memorable moments?
My interest in modeling began to take shape when I realized my passion for performance. Whether I was given the chance to host events, dance, act in plays or short films (I've done over a dozen theatre productions ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary and have done 5 short films), I felt completely at ease, as if my true self came to life. Modeling in a way, was a by-product of my acting passions, which began to take shape a lot earlier in high school. I realized that perhaps I wouldn't be half bad at it and could also make some money along the way, especially with an early hint of beating out 500 national contestants for the International Male Model of the Year award for a hair salon franchise at the tender age of 17.
I did feel however, that I couldn't just start modeling right away, as I wasn't yet tall enough and that I had a baby face. While I acted through college, I relentlessly worked on my physical self - I needed just the right shapes for my opportunity in this very fickle,
judgmental industry to take place. Finally, at the age of 21, I decided to get my first composite (model) card done. I began to receive calls immediately after I began sending my pictures out to agencies. To date I'm with three agencies, L'Agence Models, one of the top agencies in Atlanta, People Store, Inc., an acting and modeling agency, and Atlanta Models & Talent. I'm currently in the process of acquiring one to two more agencies for further work.
If you have a particular look you think can exploit and sell, itís not as difficult as you would think to break into the industry. Since I was ethnically different, agencies savored the possibilities of representing a model that could land parts others (Caucasians/African-Americans) couldn't. What has been difficult though, and I think, one of the hardest lessons I've learned in this industry, is that just because you have an agent, it doesn't mean you'll receive work. I've realized that I have to take the initiative to really achieve anything in this business. For example, I am the one who has to make the contacts, I too have to keep sending out my pictures to clients, I need to maintain myself and continue training, whether it be my voice, my emotional range, my body, or my mental frame of mind. An agent is only good as how much you're willing to invest in yourself.
Ah! The infamous, memorable moments! Let's see here - I shouldn't speak of things that may offend South Asian sensibilitiesÖ or should I?
haha! I think the best part of working as a model is when well, um...you meet gorgeous people (laughs). No no, actually there was one where I got to imitate Al Pacino's classic character, Scarface in a poster photo-op for a national magazine. That was a lot of fun - the black and white suit, the hair, the cigar in the hand. Another moment was when I had to continuously keep a lighter on for a pose with a larger group, spread out on a very retro, slinky sofa - portraying a club scene.
I think some of my best moments have shone in my acting, the most recent short which I acted in for the 48 Hour Film Festival, where I played a loony scientist with a scary laugh. It was even screened in Atlanta at Madstone Theaters.
What is your fitness routine?
Oh that ever-nagging obligation to the gym! hahaha! Like anyone else, I try to make excuses for not going - that is, until I start feeling lethargic, out of shape, and see that bit growing on my stomach! My relationship with the gym began at the age of twelve, coupled with my martial arts training for seven years and a healthy appetite for food, I found my personal niche in personal fitness. Though I was very bulky growing up, it was easier to get lean as I approached my 20s.
I normally workout four days a week (that's right - there's no need to go crazy and hit the gym nine times a week). My routine includes a healthy mix of weights and cardio, with about 50 minutes of weights, and 20 minutes of cardio, usually a 1.5-2 mile run on the treadmill or outside on a professional track. If I'm preparing for a dance, for example for the Boogie Woogie finals, my cardio simply consists of dance rehearsals, as it is quite intense, lengthy, and more effective than running for a total body workout.
The icing on the cake, and probably the hardest aspect of my fitness routine, is eating a well-balanced diet. If you want to have that six-pack and that lean, Brad Pitt look, eating healthy with plenty of water throughout the day is crucial. And considering our South Asian tastes, a platter of Biryani or Dosa isn't exactly the best thing to eat day in and out! Though I don't really approve of the Atkins Diet, I limit my carbs to a handful of rice and plenty of whole wheat/grains, usually in the mornings. Lean Chicken, a variety of veggies, fruits,
daals, and salads are the usual order of the day, with portioned sizes every three hours. However like anyone else, I fluctuate, with many a cravings for ice cream, pizza, and anything else greasy or sweet I can get my hands on!
What are your other passions/hobbies?
Besides working on my acting craft, seeking out work in modeling, and dancing, I enjoy reading, usually books with a South Asian touch, studying film and its actors, observing people (for character development) - getting a bit neurotic huh? Okay okay -- I also enjoy studying the political and legal scene around the world (i.e. The Economist, BBC, Human Rights Watch reports on conflicts around the world; I've worked for the Georgia General Assembly, Sec. of the Senate's office for two legislative sessions), I enjoy traveling - just visiting a new city and absorbing its particular culture; I also enjoy writing on a variety of issues/topics, community service through Raksha and other mostly South Asian organizations; I'm completely obsessed with the Internet! Just the wealth of information it contains can take up half my day; I actually wish I had more time to cultivate other interests: I've been wanting to learn the Tabla for the longest time, try stand-up comedy, as well as revitalize my drawing/painting days.
Tell us about your experiences at the India America pageant?
What an experience it was! I strongly suggest if anyone has an inclination to compete in something of this nature, go for it! It is well worth the effort.
I went into the competition with a purpose of simply enjoying myself and making new friends, and perhaps, win something along the way. To my surprise, I got both the 1st Runner-Up and Mr. Photogenic 2004. More than winning those titles however, the surreal experience of walking on stage, being judged on the most minute details of one's expressions, walking styles, and clothing, and subsequently on my dance and the Q&A, was in effect, a natural adrenaline-pumped high for me. I thrive on moments like these, and what better way than to travel across the country, representing Atlanta, and doing what I do best.
Though the competition was tough, the group of appx. 35 bonded like none other in a matter of two days. The contestants came from every corner of country, and it was the simple process of connecting to a plethora of very talented, unique individuals that I savored the most. The glitz, glamour, celebrities, and the constant enthusiasm of the crowd was all there, but you have to understand that all of this is so transient in life. In the bigger picture, what did you learn from this experience and how did it help you grow as not only an individual, but as a responsible member of a wider community?
What's in the future, Shezi?
At the moment, I'm confirmed for several short films, which will be entered into international film festivals. I am also heavily auditioning for other acting projects that will take place this summer, including a feature film jointly based out of Los Angeles and Atlanta. The modeling assignments are there as well, along with the usual dance gigs. I'm also preparing for law school in the fall either at Temple or Rutger's University, which will prepare me in a more critical manner for the rest of my life, not to mention the option to study entertainment law, a facet of this industry I think I could very well have a career in. In between my law semesters, considering I'll be close to New York, I will continue with the arts, whether it be theatre, modeling assignments, or films. As an artist by nature, the urge to pursue these crafts will only grow stronger, inevitably to the point where I will ultimately pursue it full-time.
As General Patton once said, and as one of my favorite quotes, "Do what you can, where you are, with what you have", a simple statement that can prove quite difficult, but with the right planning, focus, and
hardwork, nothing is impossible - and I truly mean, nothing. Life for me at the moment is about taking calculated risks, exploiting the talents that one has in their reserves, and simply building upon each detail of life towards that larger goal.