At 6’2, with sensual Greek-god looks, model Omer Shahzad was looking for something much more than working with designers like HSY and Sana Maskatiya; gracing covers of fashion glossies and igniting ramps at leading fashion weeks. So he took his promising mix of machismo and histrionics to the small screen to dabble with drama. “I always wanted to be an actor after watching Faisal Qureshi and Noman Ijaz in TV plays. But you have to start somewhere and modelling happened first for me,” he says while flashing a perfect set of pearly whites.
So far, his two years in the fashion industry have been about learning and persistence. “It’s very difficult to enter and survive in fashion because of the cut-throat competition. For every person who helps you, there are two who are out to discourage you.”
But how hard could it be for someone as gifted as him? “I knew nothing about fashion and there was nobody to turn to for support. I would be gone all day from home and my family would complain, I would stand in queues for auditions and I had no clue where or how to get my portfolio done. I would regularly leaf through fashion glossies so knew who Nadia Hussain and Vaneeza Ahmed were. I also knew that I could be a model and was willing to try hard but those were very frustrating times.”
Omer’s break came in 2011 when Vinnie selected him for Bridal Couture Week. “There were 200 boys and girls at the audition and I was one of the eight male models selected. Then I made an appearance in Noor’s morning show on Hum TV.”
Omer Shahzad still remembers his very first fashion shoot with fashion coordinator Umer Mushtaq, after which he was noticed by the industry bigwigs and was flooded with offers. “It is only after you get published in a fashion publication as a model that they finally recognise you as an entity,” he says.
So does the notorious casting couch exist in our industry as well or is it just restricted to other fashion forums? “Yes, it does! And you have to bear its full impact when you are desperate for work and recognition. I still see it happening all around me. There are individuals in our fashion industry who exploit their name and status. Everybody knows about their tactics and who they are. They merely pose as professionals but they are anything but. They can make all the tall claims and promises they want but at the end of the day it depends on you what kind of a reputation you want for yourself, and if you are willing to compromise. It is a small world and things get around really fast. Personally speaking, I have always gone to extreme lengths to make sure I only work with the right people.”
And who are these ‘right people’? “HSY is quite the professional and he deserves the success that has come his way because he has worked so hard for it. Industry professionals like Saba Ansari of Sabs Salon, Nabila, Tehmina Khaled, Deepak Perwani, Tariq Amin have built their reputation and credibility after years of hard work and their work is result-oriented. You also learn from them because they are institutions within themselves.”
At 26, Omer has now worked with the crème de la crème of fashion. “I have worked with celebrated designers such as Deepak Perwani, Sania Maskatiya, HSY, Zainab Chotani, Fahad Hussayn, Deepak and Fahad and Zaheer Abbas. Then there is the backstage scene at fashion events and weeks, and Amir and Muneera have always been helpful.”
In 2012, Omer hooked up with the commercial modeling agency Citrus where he says he learnt a great deal about modeling and grooming. Spruced up, polished, preened yet the first time on the ramp cannot be compared to what he feels now. “The very first time I appeared on the ramp I was so confused. It is such a glamour shock. All eyes are on you and you have to step out with an aura like you own the world. I remember my heart was pounding inside my chest the whole time.”
Pakistan has a buzzing fashion presence and in any top fashion event there are at least 20 male models. Why is it then so difficult for newcomers? “There are no institutions here. Lahore has Khawar Riaz to groom and mentor male models mostly so most of them are from there. But it’s more difficult to get into the game if you are not from there. The industry in Lahore doesn’t seem to care much for talent from Karachi. But when I went to Lahore to do a bridal week this time, I got a lot of encouragement. I’m the only model from Karachi who works for HSY, so I guess you ultimately get recognised for your work.”
Omer is currently enrolled in an MBA programme and feels that young people who want to be models must set their priorities right. “It’s no cakewalk. If you want to project a good image of yourself as a model, you have to get a higher qualification and a job so that you learn people skills which will help you for the rest of your life. I did internship, worked in operations at a multinational where around two dozen people reported to me. Having a job will support you financially because in its early days modeling never pays the bills.”
To start off as an actor, Omer says he took acting classes at Arjumand Murad’s agency four days a week. “We were eight guys and were given scripts and characters to act out. The recordings would be shown to us later.”
Today, he is currently acting in three major drama projects while the serials Choti Choti Khushiyan and Chor Darwazay are simultaneously on air as well. It makes me wonder out loud if the Pakistani Kevinc Tatlitug (Behlul of Ishq-i-Mamnoon) has finally arrived! He smiles, but goes back to looking focused. “I can’t tell you how hard I’ve worked to get where I am today. The actor inside me is growing, although the two fields are like chalk and cheese. Fashion has its own charm but since modeling is limited to a certain time, acting is my main field of play and I want maintain both in a fine balance for now.”
“When the ‘lights, camera, action’ cue is on, it is very difficult to deliver expression and lines in pin-drop silence with a dozen people watching. It looks so easy when you watch it later on TV. People say you have to be natural but even that ‘natural’ is tough. In commercials, too, these days they want performance-based actors; not just good-looking models.”
With his chiselled good looks, doesn’t Omer think he would be restricted to only certain type of roles? “I debuted with Adhoori Aurat in a negative character which became popular. Now I am open to all kinds of roles. But it’s tough out there and there’s more than just Faisal Qureshi and Adnan Siddiqui giving you tough competition.”
Initially, Omer remembers producers were reluctant to take him on as they believed models have attitude problems. But he attributes his success to hard work and humility, “Attitude only gets you work on the ramp or in front of the lens. Presently I am working with Atiqa Odho who plays my mother, and I love it. Moreover, I have won nominations and awards but if you have an air about you all the time, you can’t survive in this industry. I treat everyone around me like family. The day you let all the glitz and glamour get to your head you’re done for.”
How does he react when fans tell him he has an uncanny resemblance to Bollywood heart throb Hrithik Roshan? “I’m better than him because I’m taller! But I adore Hrithik because he keeps fit even as a model-turned-actor. Somehow actors in Pakistan don’t focus on fitness that much,” says Omer whose working day starts with a daily workout and a run. “I eat and drink healthy: occasional sodas, no greasy junk food and only boiled/grilled white meat with herbs,” he adds.