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First person: Fashion’s tempestuous siren

September 23, 2012

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.”

Here and now Now, of course, modelling — and fashion — has become a different ballgame altogether. While she doesn’t quite see the sense behind lackluster photo shoots and events, Iraj accepts that these are the unavoidable consequences of a burgeoning industry which is only just managing to gather its bearings. “Fashion has become very commercial, with people churning out substandard work, focusing on sponsorships and media hype. Still, one can still differentiate the truly talented from the milieu. For every run of the mill designer or stylist, there is a Nabila, a Rizwan-ul-Haq, a Sonya Battla or a Maheen Khan, artisans who are experts in their own fields.”

There are also, similarly, models that she feels have great promise. “I remember loving Fayezah Ansari’s work back when she started out and I think Amna Ilyas is very talented,” she observes. “There are so many new models and once they get past their predilections for partying, they could be great. Some very good models get disillusioned when they don’t get paid on time or, in some cases, not paid at all. There’s a general opinion that models have no scruples but one should remember that many of these girls support their households. It is the people that don’t pay them that push models into entering other fields and sometimes making wrong choices.”

By “wrong choices”, Iraj is obviously, indirectly, referring to activities of the notorious, libidinous kind. However, as a more appealing option, Pakistani models have also been known to turn to television. Quite a few renowned models have tried their hand at the occasional drama serial, slagged down for their wooden performances, and then eventually improved upon their acting as they grow older. Does Iraj, who already has acting in her blood through her mother, renowned television actress Zeenat Yasmin, see herself delve into television in the future — especially now that she’s preparing to retire? “Probably not,” she ponders. “I don’t think I would be able to stand the long hours of filming. Besides, I don’t find television very interesting.”

The other most obvious option for Iraj would of course be the well-hackneyed path of lawn retail. But where many a model has hitherto succumbed to the lure of hefty lawn profits, Iraj says that it might not be her cup of tea either. Decisive, well-spoken and with a penchant for the radical, Iraj belies the preconceived notion that models are just pretty faces. She certainly knows her mind and while she hasn’t really decided on her career choice post-modeling, she knows that it has to be something that she loves. “I just want to do something creative now. Settle down and perhaps paint in my free time. It may not be very lucrative but I have been sensible enough to make investments for my future. I can’t see myself doing something I am not passionate about. Modelling, for a long time, has been my creative vent — now I want to move on to something new, something different but just as fun.”