140 to 70kg, deaf and mute to radiantly positive: Mikhail’s magic makeover
Today, 26-year-old Mikhail Merchant doesn’t lower his gaze when he walks. In fact, he locks his expressive eyes with you as if he has nothing to conceal and no scruples in allowing you into the prowess of his personal space. He fully understands your language, and responds in his own – and he makes this process effortless and liberating, as you let your pretenses down and communicate with your heart.
If you see him today, you may never be able to tell that this man spent his life believing that his worth was directly proportional to his hearing and speech disabilities and inversely proportional to his mighty circumference.
Starting at rockbottom
Mikhail Merchant did his schooling in Mumbai. However, two items evaded him in the genetic lottery that most of us simply inherit by chance – he was always a rotund child, and harbored a disability right from his birth, deafness and muteness. The children he was surrounded by didn’t know any better than to viciously bully him, thus adding to his burgeoning sense of feeling like a fish out of water. Over the years, he developed deep-seated introversion and grappled with rapidly diminishing self-esteem.
Like every Indian boy, he had his rite of passage, that is, an inherent obsession with cricket as a young boy, and even went as far as playing for the under-14 team at Mumbai’s CCI club, but this chapter of his story had to end abruptly. “I had always wanted to become a cricketer, but unfortunately, things didn't work out for me because of my disability,” he recalls.
He went to HR college in Mumbai for his 11thand 12th grade, but was faced with an unanticipated crisis as his mother passed away when he was 16. “Many episodes and people teach you things, but no one made a greater impact on me than she had,” he recalls.
Reeling from the shock of losing a person most dear to him, things kept going downhill for the next two years, and he was gripped by clinical depression. “It took me two years to realise that there was no point in crying, and instead I must do something to make her proud,” says Mikhail.
Going further downhill
The rise was hard, yet he strove, he struggled, and he accepted his new reality. But the circumstances didn’t do their part in making it easier for him to cope. Since he couldn’t regain his composure in time in order to appear for his 12th grade exams, he ended up dropping out of college. He was now tasked with handling the family’s travel agency that his elder brother had taken upon himself to keep afloat.
All of 18, the pressures and responsibilities soon got the better of Mikhail, and the brother duo decided to discontinue the company, and start their careers afresh. While his brother started trading in luxury cars, Mikhail had that time off to now think about what he wants to do with his life. But it was slim pickens for the chubby college dropout in this judgmental world.
When the road ahead went bleak, his mom, once again shone the guiding light she was known to wield during her lifetime. “My mother used to be a model back in the day. And my family was pushing me to do something concrete and asked me to do anything I would enjoy,” recalls Mikhail.
Nowhere to go but forward
At 22, he faced the facts – he was obese and his self-confidence was at an all-time low. The idea of going out, and meeting new people was mortifyingly intimidating to him, as he would be often made fun of because of his weight and disability. But, he wanted to make his mother proud and wanted her to look at him from above and know that her son is fighting. “For nothing and no one but her, I made up my mind to do what I had to do with only one goal - being able to confront myself in the mirror and not be ashamed,” he says.
Courtesy his family’s encouragement and support, he was able to overlook his perceived shortcomings, and embrace his new ambition fully – of training, getting in shape, and then building his physique for the competitive modeling industry.
He would wake up early and his breakfast - four white eggs, one glass of plain milk‑for about one hour and walk for almost 40 minutes. Mikhail loved cooking his food himself, which would also help him in keeping a strict watch on what he was eating – after which, he would hit the gym for three hours straight. “The first year was one of the most difficult phases of my life,” he recalls, adding, “I had to sacrifice my love for dairy products and chocolates and of course had to set a routine for myself, full of exercise – not just physical exercise, but exercising complete control over my whims.”
A gruelling four years ensued – but on the other side, emerged a new man.
He had shed nearly 70kg. The scale, thus, went from 145 kg to 75 kg – that’s just a little over a half his original weight.
He was radiant.
He smiled with the adorable awareness that it makes the knees of strangers and the voices of well-wishers’, quiver.
Indeed, he marveled at what he had created in the mirror.
Having gained a lot of attention after building his physique, he believes that he can break the stereotypes in this industry where perfection is the least that is expected. “Not everyone has to be perfect to reach their dreams and goals. As they say, nothing is impossible. I want to see my work with the media as an opportunity to bring awareness to deaf culture,” he says.
"Like me, everybody has flaws. Why should mine be considered graver? My ability is stronger than my disability."
In fact, he opines that deafness is an advantage in modeling, because he is accustomed to being expressive and conveying messages without speaking.Garnering the most state-of-the-art ear machines, he easily receives vibrations and has different modes on it, like one for the car, the phone, the road,etc., which helps him sense some sounds, albeit not clear vocals.Since he never had the money to join courses on modeling, his friends stepped in and built his skill set. “I learnt lip reading and tried to create speech from my inner voice,” he says.
At this point, he can fully grasp what you are saying to him, purely through almost superhuman lipreading.
Where he’s going
The digital age has drastically altered the scenario by opening up various avenues of work, and Mikhail will be capitalising on this by choosing non-mainstream media to start off with, namely bloggers and internet channels. So far, Mikhail has completed two photoshoots with his ear machines on in the pictures, to create awareness about deaf culture.
He has approached a Mumbai-based modeling agency, which is currently training him to walk the ramp, as well as posing for print ads. Another watch brand has approached him to model for their new campaign, which is likely to hit the air early December. He is extremely excited about it, as it will be his first paid gig.
He has learnt some precious life lessons in his journey of multiple losses and discoveries.
"Any kind of disability is a matter of perception. If you can do even one thing well, you will have a place in the world and be needed,” he says to people like him.