By Pravin Nair

Through the Looking Glass: Vanizha Vasanthanathan is our February 2024 Cover Star

Beyond what she shows us, Vanizha Vasanthanathan is redefining beauty by first asking us to look at her.
vanizha vasanthanathan

The mirror. Reflective, shiny, flat, plain, colourful, big, small. While the history of its existence has
been debated into the finest grains of sand, the mirror has existed as a monolithic figure in the course of human civilisation. Many usually pay it no mind and brush it off for being what it is: a commonplace, everyday object. Then there are others who see the mirror for what it is: a looking glass made to understand desire. The answers seem to lie beyond the flat plane, deep beneath the surface. You catch a reflection of yourself in the mirror, pouring over every detail and you hear a question begin to form: “Is this real life?”

You try your best to discern what is and what isn’t. Generations of people propped themselves firmly in front of their reflections and made themselves up. But now, the mirror sits in the back of your pocket. What was once made of obsidian or reflective metals is now a complex body of metals, plastic, and glass. Maybe this mirror is buried, in your bag. It could be placed firmly on a holder in your car. Or maybe, it’s in the palm of your hand as you lay on your side, heating your sheets as the sun sets languidly outside. To be seen is to first see yourself.

“I wonder how she sees herself,” I asked this question out loud when I came across Vanizha Vasanthanathan’s online presence last December. Who is she? The idea began to coalesce itself: who is she beyond this mirror shown before me? Her life seems to reflect an idealised yet curated representation of the glitz and glam. These are of course healthily mixed in with real-life shots of her with her friends and family. Vasanthanathan’s socials seem to reverberate an underlying voice: “Hear me out and look! Tell me, what do you see?”

She sat on her make-up chair, facing herself. “You know, a lot of people think of me as this really cold person. My face tends to set people off on a tangent”. She was looking at me through the mirror. “Cold?” I asked. “Yeah. Like standoffish. You know what I mean?”

Thirty-one years old this year, Vasanthanathan has carved her name for herself in her craft as both a model and dancer. She walks into rooms with her head held high. This is the only way she knows how. “I suppose this is real life,” she smiled as she whispered her answer into the microphone. “I don’t necessarily like to share the rues of my day on my Instagram, but I never make things up either. I always keep it as real as I can,” she followed through.

Her Instagram bio reads, “Model & Odissi dancer”. Movement is integral to her identity. This started at the tender age of fifteen when she wove her way into the traditional dance practice with her guru, Ramli Ibrahim, the founder and artistic director of The Sutra Foundation. She was initially supposed to partake in karate classes but insisted on trying dance instead. “The temple to me is like a second home. I grew up both at home with my parents and at the house of God. This is where my ardour for dance began,” she explained.

She sits in a make-up chair day in and day out. She looks at herself all day. For as long as she has been modelling over the last ten years, she’s kept herself company. One would think that a person would get used to what they see in the mirror. But in the quiet of her Milan apartment bathroom, hours after her casting had closed for the day, she began picking herself apart. “I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. I was in the presence of so many other beautiful models and that made me feel inferior. I tried to self-soothe but instances like this—which occur here and there—leave me broken and in tears. I think we suffer from ways to appreciate ourselves. It’s a process.”

She quoted the late Michael Jackson’s song, The Man in The Mirror, explaining that it’s not about just who we are on the outside but more so the image of our inner selves that shines through in every other facet of ourselves. “It’s an important tool to remind yourself to stay grounded; to be present in real life.” But real life is gruelling and very rough around the edges. Real life is taking a chance on yourself, flying to China for castings, and spending five long, demanding days in fitting rooms, makeup chairs, runway rehearsals, and shows all while being hungry for hours on end. “There’s no food and water allowed backstage”, she shared. “I did China Fashion Week for two seasons. I can confidently say I don’t think I’m going back.”

The experience she encountered in India for Lakmé Fashion Week was entirely the opposite. “Models were taken care of. We had allowances and were always tended to. We had the luxury to focus on our craft. I cherished this experience a lot.” Leading up to these opportunities, the model cleared the air, sharing that she almost admitted defeat. “Before the Sephora campaign materialised, I was so close to giving up. Jobs were scarce. That job changed my life. When it came out, many people reached out to me, thanking me for what I did—for being a representation of dark-skinned Indian people. Others were proud that I was an Indian model up on a billboard in Bukit Bintang. That tells you something, doesn’t it?”

LOEWE, Top, Short, Bottom, Jacket, Shoes, Bag

She alluded to the marginalisation of Malaysian Indians at large. In the same breath, she affirmed, “I do what I do because when I was young, there was barely anyone who looked like me on the covers of magazines. I do it for the young girls and boys wanting to break into fashion and make a name for themselves.” The fact of the matter is this: life for Vanizha Vasanthanathan has not been a breeze. She might reflect herself to be put together but there, beneath the surface, lies frustration and fear—bubbling. Like all things, insecurities start in childhood. Being the odd one out in school for being dark-skinned and tall took a toll on her. Ironically, she is now a model despite the constant torment she faced as a kid. “I wouldn’t have been able to keep pushing forward without my family. They are my rock. They’ve believed me in everything that I’ve done. It’s always everyone else who seems to have an opinion on what I should look like, act like, and what sorts of careers I should pursue,” she explained. But despite the support one receives, once there’s a crack on the surface, the wound runs deep. She explained that this shoot and cover opportunity was one of the rare few instances that she’s been put in the spotlight—one without another talent in the picture.

LOEWE, Dress

She giggled through what she was about to say to me, but there was seriousness in her eyes. “You know, I can’t be too certain, but there haven’t been any other Indian models who have been featured on local magazine covers. There’s been no one besides Jayalakshmi Appadorai, who I saw on the June 2001 cover of Her World when my father bought me a copy. Then there was Sangeeta Krishnasamy on the cover of Glam in 2018, and Her World in 2018 and 2019.” She elucidated that models who look like her are typically made to share covers. She even began questioning why it took so long for her to be on a cover, despite having been in the industry for over a decade.

Vasanthanathan, despite the circumstances placed upon her in the industry, is defying the norms of beauty in Malaysia. Her defiance in staying steadfast for herself and other fashion novices alike is bittersweet. “It’s the big-name players in the industry who decide who makes it where. I’m here to tell them to look at me and everyone else who looks like me. We get to play too, she says. No longer is she here to be defined by those who gatekeep. This solo cover is just the start.

Pay attention. Are you looking?

Photography: Amani Azlin
Creative Direction & Styling: Ian Loh 
Hair: Ckay Liow
Makeup: KF Bong
Art Direction: Shane Rohaizad
Styling Assistant: Sarah Chong
Photography Assistant: Azuan
BTS Video: Lorraine Chai