Life, as Mehr Jesia knows it

As India Couture Week walks its way across Mumbai ramps, 80s icon Mehr Jesia talks about life after modelling, why she’s happier at 40 and why ‘in her time’, models were so much more professional

She doesn’t read books, no, not even Chetan Bhagat. She doesn’t pick up magazines either — she is clueless about the controversial Vogue shoot that had cool, poor people modelling $1,000 Burberry umbrellas.

She is appalled at my insinuation that fashion models are known to experiment rather freely with narcotics. She is not aware of any moral hazard in promoting ‘too thin’ models so long as the models themselves are healthy. She retired at the peak of her career to start a modelling agency that folded in a couple of years.

The agency, called Face One, folded in spite of (not because of, we’re sure) Vijay Mallya’s backing. She started a training school for models that also, coincidentally, folded in a couple of years. The film she produced with her husband, Arjun Rampal, was named, very cleverly, I See You. It sank before anyone could see it.


When she was 24, and at the peak of her modelling career, she got an offer in London: To replace Isabella Rossellini as the new international face of Lancome. But India’s first supermodel turned it down because she was missing her home in Dadar Parsi Colony. You listen disbelievingly as she tells you she has no regrets about turning down a modelling break that could easily have catapulted her into the Cindy Crawford/Kate Moss league. Make no mistake, even at 40, Mehr Jesia is every inch a super model, head included.

As she sits there, curled up in an armchair, looking leaner and fitter than any of the ageing seniors of the Indian Test team, you get the distinct impression that she exists in a couture bubble all her own. A bubble, which has now floated far, far away from the Indian fashion firmament.

Though not so far that she can’t float right back when she wants to — she choreographed Ashish Soni’s show at the Indian Couture Week, a few days ago. Yet a glazed look comes over her face when you broach any topic other than the two she is an expert on: Modelling and Mehr Jesia.

What betrays her passion for the fashion industry, and for modelling, is the inescapable note of wistfulness that creeps into her voice as she speaks about the modelling scene in India. The phrase that pops up most frequently in her speech is “in my time”. “In my time, models had no problems doing fittings for 15 hours. There were no time-related issues. Models would rehearse for three days if they had to. In my time you could tell models to travel from Bombay to Calcutta by train.

These days, you can’t. Today’s models, who are literally nobodies, don’t want to rehearse for more than an hour. They make it seem like there’s so much happening in their lives, when there is nothing happening in their lives. In my time, the audience used to go mad with us. Today, even the audience doesn’t give you the energy they are meant to. You are performing; you are on stage, for God’s sake. But they just sit there like ducks, such cold people. In those days, people would scream when we came on stage, there used to be such energy. Today, everybody expects you to just float in, and out.” 

Still, having quit at her prime, does she ever feel tempted to make a comeback? “I can’t blend in with the models of today,” she says. “There is a certain quality — call it ‘Mehrness’ if you like — which I used to bring to a catwalk. If I wanted, I could simply sit down on the ramp, and move the garment around in my own way. I once did that for a Rohit Bal show and he went bananas. Today, you can’t do that.”

Perhaps this transformation — some would call it a decline — of the fashion model from someone who had a certain individuality, into a mere clothes hanger with the personality of a zombie is also why modelling today, unlike in Mehr’s time in the 1980s, has dwindled into a mere stepping stone to Bollywood.

“I never wanted to get into films,” says Mehr. “Partly because the movies were so bad then; as a woman all you could do was run around trees. Today, the films are better. So it’s understandable if models want to make the jump to Bollywood.”

But why are there no supermodels in India today, when there are so many more models than there were in her time? “This is something the industry has done to itself,” she answers. “I was the face of Vimal for seven years. In my time, models were looked up to, and respected more than even film actresses. Advertising agencies were keen to work with professional models, who could bring a different look to each campaign. I cut my hair for one campaign, and had hair extensions for the next one — and this was 20 years ago. Today, they prefer Bollywood stars and sports stars who, because of their other commitments, look the same in all campaigns, be it an ad for biscuits, or for hair oil.”

Mehr attended Sophia College, from where she was thrown out for lack of attendance. “I was never the kind to pick up a book. I was into sports.” She has played Badminton and Snooker at the national level, and swam for Mumbai.

Her father, Homi Jesia, is a former Mr India who still works out at the age of 72. “I owe my ‘athletic genes’ to him,” she says.  

By far the toughest assignment she ever faced was to crack Hindi at her Board exams. “I was howling in panic, going mad, and was telling my mother that I won’t pass. Mum told me not to get stressed out, that I can give it the next year by correspondence if necessary. But three months later I was Miss India. I was like, ‘Mamma! I don’t have to study anymore!’”
Instead, she launched a million sighs as the face of Lakme, Nivea, Bombay Dyeing, Garden, OCM, Palmolive, Philips, and of course, ‘only’ Vimal, among other brands.

Is she religious? “How can I be?” she asks. “I’ve been thrown out of my religion for marrying a non-Parsi (model-turned-Bollywood star, Arjun Rampal). I can’t even enter a fire temple.” And neither can her two daughters. “But these things are bound to change, before my daughters turn 10, they will,” she says confidently. 

Wouldn’t she rather be 20 again, and back in the limelight? “Any day I would choose 40 over 20,” she says. “I am much happier today. I’ve got my two kids, a family of my own; there is more solidity to my life today. At 20, I was so unhappy.” Why was she so unhappy at 20? “Well, waiting 15 hours for a single shoot?” she says.

“It was so painful.” Now, doesn’t that sound a lot like the 20-year-old models of today whom she doesn’t like? Perhaps the models haven’t changed after all, from her time. It is Mehr who has. She’s not 20 anymore.

  • farokh balsara

    meher is a LIAR–its she who has discarded her religion and the religion has not disowned her as she mentions,if she has had a registered marrige and not discarded sudreh and kusti ,she can definitely walk into the fire temples ,ofcourse her children cannot ,they will be better off following their father s religion as it even suits their identity

  • Jamshed

    Yes you are right, Meher is a liar.. First they break all customs and consider themselves modern, and then as time progresses, these people who have married outside try to come in the religion and propagate the mistake they have made as the right thing and instigate others to follow that path.

    And in her dreams , that its gonna change, and we are going to allow such people in our Pak Iranshah and Agiyari’s.

  • rustom

    One wonders why convert to something one wants to change?

    I guess to most of those who think arbitary change is arbitaraly good…freedom comes without responsibiity.

    Freedom to enjoy the tangible and intangible assets of zoroastranism is a MUST,

    Responsibility to study what Zarathustra talks about and thus passing it on…Is again A must but a MUST SHRUG!!!

    How much of zoroastrianism does one really know that these want to change it.
    Someone might feel Idol worship is ok to thy and thus zoroastrianism must accept it, whislt some can claim the philosophy of mazdayasnism and deavyasnism is same, so fuse it.
    Fuse or demand to change Zoroastrianism they can but would feel physically limited and MORALLY wrong to do to other religions what they do to Zoroastrianism

  • Mal

    Give it a rest..Your as lame as they come.

  • Arani

    WOW she really has worked at who she is. SAhe is simply real.
    Other great models of her time are/were Pruyadarshini Pradhan, Suzanne Sabloak, Madhu Sapre, Namrata Shirodhkar, and there were more.

    BTW I believe as any mother would that if her daughters have no right to go into a Fire Temple then neither can she.

    Go Mehr.

  • Naureen Zariwala

    What crap… people we are in the 21st century and need to adapt with growing times… or else we will perish.. YES I SAID PERISH!!! Stop being fanatics….No one care about fanatics… no wonder our religion is dwindling….

  • rustom

    well in ure zeal to call other’s fanatics, look at your own post, sounds more agressive n fanatical than the other’s
    and ofocurse since we live in the 21st century, u may feel one has to change, but no the americans wont gve p being americans, nor the ausies, nor the civil code, nor laws change just due to tiem of any society, the jains, sikhs, cristians, all and every maintain their identity, emirates wont change their law in regards to not granting others citizenship especially with time as other’s population increases in contrast to the original dubaians,abu dabians, etc…the ladhakis wont change and maintain their identity, so the the tribes in andaman n nicobar and brazil, outsiders cant buy land in Himachal pradesh, kashmir, jammu and states with low population of indegenius people, so as not to get them fused in the larger ones….u might think these small tribes or populatins d it to perish whilst the world does it to maintain their culture n identity…so contrast to what u think…
    well naureen u know what , people who take shelter in the arbitary change and arbitaraly good and just because we are moving from century to century, do it with lack of basic general knowledge…u might even think that archimedes principles or einsteins wil change with the next century..but actualy no….

  • Candika Carton

    I’m appalled by the negative comments made against our handsome bollywoodest’s lovely Mehr, just for marrying a fellow Indian of a different religion. You’ve unashamedly
    brought sickening pressure into Arjun Rampal’s career and marriage with your disgraceful discrimination on grounds of religion. Arjun Rampal’s marriage to a Zoro has put your religion on the world map and has made people more open minded towards a religion that was otherwise looked upon by the world as hideous scavengers! This Zoro Community should be taken to the international court of justice on grounds of religious discrimination! At this stage of things, we should be considering the couple and their children’s happiness and the best way to do this is to make minor changes to the Zoro’s religious rules to allow the family into the fire temple, else, why don’t you fok back to Iran where you think you originate from? You dared came out to the open with these insolent comments!

  • arjun

    modelling syallabus

  • Huzan D

    @Candika Carton: first of all. The marriage of an actor that for the longest time used to be at best a B-grade actor in his earliest years, to a Parsi, did not put zoroastrianism on the world map…Hideous scavengers? The tenets of Zoroastrianism, to whomever I have told, has never cringed once. Actually, Zoroastrianism had long been put on the world map through many: Zubin Mehta, Freddie Mercury, and many more. I understand that one should take heed of one’s children and their happiness, but zoroastrianism, in every word of the sense will not change; should not change. Zoroastrians may be a proud bunch, but we have a reason to be. For, zoroastrians have been the only who have maintained pure blood, and not been diluted like many others. “This zoro community should be taken to the international court of justice on grounds of religious discrimination”? Candika, try pledging other religions who abuse boys, who destroy temples and mosques, and who kill thousands of millions of people, just because they dont agree with their belief. Apart from Shintoism, Zoroastrianism is the only possible religion that has maintained a proper ettiquete of living in a nation that was, before four generations, a foreign one. “why don’t you fok back to Iran where you think you originate from”? If India was devoid of Parsis/Zoroastrianism, it would be nothing less than a hell-hole. May you be christian, hinduism, muslim or sikh; each of your religion has left behind a path of barbarism and absolute obliteration of humankind.
    Before you try and comment about Parsis/zoro, try and see where you are speaking such things.
    May it be that you have a certain adequacy for the parsi people. But, may I suggest getting your face out of Rampal’s arse, and stop worshipping actors. May it be known that I do not care about the episode in the fire temple, what enraged me is what you say about the parsis/zoro, and where you say it. Such a thing was not needed to be spoken in a PARSI forum.

  • Dsouzaconnie2

    mehr rocks

  • Dsouzaconnie2

    mehr rocks

  • arani

    mehr is amazing…huzan- sorry mate youre like hitler…the world is about love not seperatism…religion is about god not bullying, and evil people do evil things in the name of god and religion…which is the biggest sin.

  • arani

    mehr is amazing…huzan- sorry mate youre like hitler…the world is about love not seperatism…religion is about god not bullying, and evil people do evil things in the name of god and religion…which is the biggest sin.

  • Krishna Menon

    Great Indian Woman,,,,Meher,, i am a great fan of you and Arjun.