She’s the ramp’s favourite wild child; fiery-haired, kohl-eyed, tempestuous, coquettishly playful one instant and elegantly sultry the next. Svelte and long-limbed at 5ft 10inches, Iraj has often stood tall among the coterie of Pakistani models. However, it is not her height that makes Iraj stand out. As stylist Nabila, who has often opted for Iraj in her more dramatic installations, explains, “I wouldn’t call Iraj a model. She is, rather, a creature of fashion, theatrical and enthralling. I don’t think Iraj, with her years of experience and complete ease on the catwalk, can be expected to just display clothes at fashion events. She is, in fact, often the single element who sets the mood for the whole show.”
Anywhere else in the world, models don’t generally wave to the crowd and dance on the ramp — here, it’s precisely that which makes the audience smile and take notice. According to Iraj, this has a lot to do with the Pakistani predilection for all things filmy. “We, as a nation, enjoy theatrical Bollywood elements in our lives and this is why people love my dramatic statements on the ramp,” she observes. “What many people don’t realise is that usually designers specifically ask me to be dramatic on the ramp. It highlights their clothes and sets the cameras whirring.”
And when she hasn’t been making statements on the catwalk, she has drawn just as much attention with her unconventional modeling trysts. Some years ago, for a calendar shoot with Nabila, she had her curly mane snipped down to a short, funky crop. This year, in an installation at Nabila’s Somptueux hair show, she once again let her hair lie loose under the ace stylist’s scissors, lying on a raised platform as it got shortened to a loose, bouncy shape. In her very first shoot for Asad Baig, back in 1991, she stood out in a miniskirt, with short curly hair and the strikingly spooky cover of Tapu Javeri’s photography book, Tapulicious, shows her in a white wig with painted white lips. And then there were the spate of music videos that she starred in about a decade ago; among them, Najam Sheraz’s Pal Do Pal where she enacted the spurned woman who sadistically cuts out her lover’s heart and the notorious Behti Naar by Rushk and Jalan by Schaz, the former criticised for its insinuation towards bondage.
“Rather than keep an eye out for public reactions, I prefer to work on projects that excite me,” says Iraj. “I don’t waste my time on partying and catfights, preferring to let my professionalism get me the right work with the right people. I don’t try to look like a schoolgirl when I am a well-experienced model about to turn 40! And I absolutely refuse to pander to the baseless Pakistani preference for fair skin when more than half the girls in the country have dark skin tones. I carry my own base with me to fashion events just to make sure that my face doesn’t get painted into an unnatural white. It’s my own way of putting out the message that women should be proud of the way they look rather than try to ape Bollywood actresses and look fair. We live in a world where everything — from the people we meet to the food we eat — is manufactured. The least we can do is to be true to ourselves.”
She is much older than the bevy of young models who walk with her on the ramp, claims to be absolutely ‘useless’ at social networking and says that she does not have any ‘real friends’ in the fashion fraternity. “I can’t sit around and waste time gossiping. I’d much rather sit aside with a book, lonely though it may be. I feel an urge to go back to painting now, away from the petty rivalries that have now become a part of modelling,” she says. “I want to retire and by next year, I probably will.” But until she does, 22 years down the line, Iraj remains the showstopper at many a fashion event — the sultry, dusky-faced siren who isn’t afraid to stand out by being, as she says, true to herself.
The days of yore Nevertheless, it wasn’t always easy for Iraj to have her way. One of her earliest modelling assignments was a biscuit commercial directed by Atiya Khan where her face was made up into a pallid ivory. “I couldn’t recognise myself in it! From time to time, my face has been painted unnatural shades but I’ve always hated the final results,” she shrugs.
She isn’t a great fan of Photoshop either with which, according to her, “model’s faces are completely altered to fit into a preconceived image of beauty”. Nor, surprisingly for a woman who is often in the spotlight, is Iraj in favour of plastic surgery. “I’ve had so many people tell me to go for a few nips and tucks but I’d much rather age gracefully,” she claims. “Yes, my face may get wrinkled but at least I’ll still look like myself. I have always modelled because I enjoy it and surgery would defeat the purpose behind which I left aside my art education and took to fashion.”
Her “art education” is her degree in Fine Arts from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. Iraj began modeling while she was still a student and even after graduating, the popularity and steady income she earned kept her rooted to the ramp and the glossies. “When I started out, there were only a handful of models,” she recalls. “We were all girls from well-educated families, trying out something new because we were lucky enough to have parents who had allowed us to do so. I remember how I would rush to fashion shows from Indus Valley, my hands splattered with black ink while Aliya Zaidi would be pouring over Economics textbooks backstage.”
“The fashion fraternity was very small but still, we achieved some groundbreaking work. Photographers like Arif Mehmood and Tapu Javeri treated each fashion shoot like a work of art. The few fashion events that took place were mostly orchestrated by Frieha Altaf, who is one of the most hardworking women I know. I remember how I was once at the beach for a fashion shoot for Frieha’s show, Lux Style ki Duniya. Without any assistants or high-fangled electronic equipment, Shaheen Saeed, the stylist for the show, tied my hair into a myriad tiny braids with her own hands. Resources weren’t always available but there was a drive and a passion to make things happen. As models, we would always ask if a shoot was creative rather than what we would be paid for it. Despite this, we were paid much more back then. We did quality work and were appreciated for it.”