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Sonia Dara: A Real Role Model


Some would say that Sonia Dara has it all…cover girl for leading fashion magazines, the very first Indian to feature in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated and a guest judge on America's Next Top Model. However, her greatest accomplishment, in her own words, is her acceptance into Harvard. Yes, ask her about herself and Sonia will state with pride that she is in New York City for the summer where she is working at the investment banking division at Deutsche Bank. Grounded, confident and raring to go, Sonia is indeed the model model. We dig a little deeper to learn more about her journey.

"We had to constantly remind ourselves (and Sonia) that there are so many teenagers who would love to be in her shoes and be fortunate enough to appear on television (guest judge on America's Next Top Model); several covers of famous fashion magazines worldwide; be the very first Indian to be featured in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated; have a huge poster of her face (for Laura Mercier) displayed in Saks Fifth Avenue (NYC) and Harrod's (London); walk the ramp in many famous cities wearing fancy clothes designed by world-renowned designers and, to top it all, become an Ivy Leaguer at Harvard," say Sonia's proud parents Prithipal and Poornima Dara, President & VP of P2 Patent Prosecution, LLC.

“The last item (Harvard) is especially very, very satisfying to us as parents of Indian origin who place a premium on education, because it proved to us (and to Sonia) that she can have her cake and eat it too,” they add. “In other words, she did not compromise on her education just so she could explore unconventional avenues, but instead struck a remarkable balance between the two, making use of every opportunity that this wonderful country has to offer.”

Over to the interview with Sonia.

Sonia, Tell us about yourself. Where are you in life right now and where would you see/would like to see yourself in the next 5 years.
Currently, I am in New York City for the summer at Deutsche Bank where I am in the investment banking division under Media and Telecommunications. I still have one more year left at Harvard and hopefully I will receive a full-time offer either at Deutsche Bank or another company and will work for at least two years. I have been considering taking the GMAT and will look into business schools when I have the opportunity. At this point in my life, I would love if modeling could still fit into the schedule, but I will have to play it by ear. I had a great run in the industry and now I am exploring other fields.

Modeling is not exactly a field many South Asians are familiar with, in fact many may even shy away from it. You are the first model of South Asian decent ever to be featured in the SI Swimsuit Issue. Do share this experience from a South Asian perspective. Also tell us about the role of your family in this journey.
When I spoke to my parents about the possibility of modeling, I was 15 years old, awkwardly skinny, and terrible at basketball. My parents agreed to let me enter the industry under three conditions: (1) I maintained good grades, (2) My mother would travel with me wherever I worked, (3) I didn't lose sight of my family and community back home. I entered the industry in a proper manner by attending a competition called AMTC where I received 15 callbacks from agencies around the world. In September 2005, Elite Model Management in Atlanta offered me a contract and subsequently in June 2006, their New York branch did as well. I spent two summers in high school living in New York and my mother came with me for every casting and job. It was great having someone on your team with you at all times. After all, I owe it to my family for getting me to where I am today and I would not have been able to without their support. When Sports Illustrated chose me to be a rookie for their 2010 issue, I consulted my family and we decided that this was a great opportunity to further my career. I realize it can be seen as contradictory to have an Indian girl posing in a swimsuit, but I tried to pose as elegantly as possible so as not to offend my heritage and background. As the first South Asian in the magazine, I realized I had somewhat of a responsibility and I took the job very seriously. Hopefully this came across in the edition.

Apart from being a model or Harvard graduate, who is the real Sonia Dara? How would you describe yourself as a person?
According to my roommate, I'm rather "outgoing, rambunctious, determined, strong, considerate and I hold to my standards." I promise I didn't pay her to say that.

You have achieved and tasted success at a very young age, when most are still trying to figure out what to do with themselves. There is something special, a driving force if you will, that pushes you. What do you think is this driving force?
As previously mentioned my family and friends are a huge part of my life and their support is really what keeps me going out there and staying strong. Aside from them, I have been incredibly fortunate to have been at the right places at the right times and for luck to be on my side. Agents saw me, decided to invest their time and effort in me, gave me a shot, and I did what I could with those opportunities. I have a very, very long list of people to thank.

At some point in your life would you be able to completely walk away and stay away from the limelight?
Yes and no. I have fun with it and if given the opportunity once again to do so, I will most certainly take it up. As for now, I am focused on a different career path in investment banking and I will see if it can potentially be leveraged into another field that includes fashion. We will just have to see!

With so many milestones, what do you believe is your most gratifying experience in life so far, can you explain why you feel that way?
 In life, the most gratifying moment I have had was when I received the call from Harvard notifying me of my acceptance. Here was a point in time where my hard work and late nights studying all paid off. It was something that I truly earned based on effort. In contrast, when it comes to landing a modeling gig, more often than not, it depends largely on extrinsic factors, whether the client thinks you fit the bill physically, and it's in their hands completely. For Harvard, it was more of a relationship that I had to build and I was proving myself to the college via test scores, essays, interviews and so forth. I, as a person, was being accepted for who I am as a whole, not just based on appearance.

Have you had any setbacks, disappointments at all?
Nope. I believe life is a roller coaster and you have to take everything as a learning experience. When the work got slow during my year off while modeling, I didn't throw my hands up immediately and call it quits. Rather, I weighed the pros and cons to heading back to school and decided based on that.

Now , your mom Poornima Dara is part of Singles Mingle Committee at the upcoming AKKA World Kannada Convention in Atlanta. If you were to register, describe the kind of partner you would ask for, from the committee.
Someone tall who can cook up a mean chicken tikka masala?

From your perspective, do you think the SI shoot changed your life anyway, people's reactions towards you, etc..Do you think all of the reaction was good?
 I was nervous and tried to be mindful of the way I needed to present myself. Fortunately, the way that I needed to present myself falls in line with who I am and my personality. Hopefully I was able to make not only my loved ones and friends proud, but also the Indian-Americans who have seen the issue. It's rather tough to please everyone but from what I have seen, there is much positive feedback.

If there are parents, especially South Asian parents that have reservations about modeling, what would you say to them?
 If you trust your child and the way you brought them up, they will be just fine. There are so many stereotypes surrounding the industry and it couldn't be further from the truth. If you are serious about modeling, then you will treat it as a job and be as professional as possible, which was my case. You make what you want out of it. I have been modeling for seven years now and I have never shown up late for castings, jobs, and meetings and I eat well and drink plenty of water. If you're cut out for the industry, you or your child would do the same. Now that I got that serious note out of the way, I wanted to add that it's also fun! I get to wear the most amazing outfits, get my hair and make-up done, and have someone photograph me and it's considered "work". There are few careers out there that can compete with that. 

In your experience, what are the list of things not to do, as a teenager?
As previously mentioned, you need to develop discipline and a good work ethic. If you establish good habits at an early age, it'll stick with you for life. So eat well, exercise, be punctual, be professional, respect everyone around you and you'll go far in life. 

If today, I said to you, Sonia, you have it all, there's nothing more to aspire for, would you agree?
 I would have to disagree. There are so many things I haven't tried that I aspire to do, such as picking up a new dance or a sport, the list goes on. Life is so fast-paced and evolves on a day-to-day basis that it's impossible to stay stagnant and think you're at your pinnacle. That's just boring. 

If you could take a break from everything, today, right now, where would you go and what would you do?
Travel the world. Learn to cook in Italy, surf in Australia, hike in Tanzania, paint in southern France, fish in the Philippines, and dance in Argentina. Yep, that's what I would do. 

What is your message to any aspiring models, South Asians in particular?
Don't stick to the status quo. You would be surprised what you can accomplish if you put yourself out there with confidence. Make yourself known, take care of yourself, and don't let your inhibitions get the best of you. The first step is up to you. Go to open calls at agencies in your hometown and move from there. Do the research and find good, trusted agencies and learn to network. Best of luck! 

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