I was an image consultant when people didn’t even know what it was: India’s Next Top Model mentor Neeraj Gaba
In conversation with YS Weekender, Gaba takes us behind the scenes, tells us about what actually goes on between ‘action’ and ‘cut’, making risky choices in life, the flipside of social media, and his secret talent
A Punjabi background, a traditional family and India’s Next Top Model mentor. Neeraj Gaba checks all these boxes and then some more. At a time and year – 1997 to be precise – when conventions ruled the roost, Gaba decided to go against the grain and opted for a career that was hardly considered “thriving”. He did a course in hotel management and in no time saw his career taking flight as part of the crew, with Sahara Airlines.
But that was almost 20 years ago. Flying out of India, trotting across the globe – Singapore, Australia, the US – and even studying in one of the most elite business schools in the UK, Gaba realised his one true passion was fashion and lifestyle. So, at 30, Gaba decided it was time for the big switch.
The 42-year-old celebrity image consultant is now a popular face on TV. He appears as one of the panel members-cum-mentors on India's Next Top Model on MTV India and is also working on an upcoming MX Player series called Shaadi Fit.
In conversation with YS Weekender, Gaba talks about his career in the world of fashion and glamour…
Edited excerpts from the interview
YS Weekender: Tell us about your journey into the world of fashion and glamour. Were you always inclined towards this life?
Neeraj Gaba: I come from a very middle-class Punjabi background. I was born in Delhi, and my father is into a regular retail business. There never ever was an opening or an avenue that was discussed in the family… you had to either become a doctor, or an engineer, or one of those. So, I come from that kind of a set-up but I have always tried to be a person of my own and thanks to my parents.
I have always had a very wholesome way of looking at life. As a child, I was good at studies but also at a lot of other things. This wholesome development took me to a place, which allowed me to showcase my personality… it was an organic progression. I have never learnt fashion designing but I believe “fashion is not what you wear, fashion is how you wear what you wear.”
YSW: Wasn’t it a risky decision at the time. Did you have to convince your folks?
NG: My father didn’t know what I do till the first hoarding of India’s Next Top Model was put up in Delhi. Because image consulting and these kind of things… ek normal middle-class Punjabi aadmi ko kahan se samajh me aayega (how will a normal middle-class Punjabi man understand all this)?
Now he knows, but till few years back he used to say, “I don’t know, he is doing something.” And every time he would ask me, “Are you okay… If you are not okay, I am there for you; if you are okay, it’s fine.”
YSW: You couldn’t have probably known at the time what shape your career was going to take. Did you have a plan B?
NG: It may sound a bit too risky but I have always gone with my gut in everything. I didn’t have a work visa when I first went to Singapore. I went on a tourist visa, looking for a job there.
It has always been a risk-taking kind of a thing; 50 percent of the risks pay off, and 50 percent don’t. My faith not only goes into my actions; it also goes into my relationships. One thing I believe in very firmly is, whether it is the beginning of a professional or personal relationship, or in between or the end, never ever have anything drastically sour in it.
You cannot be what you are all by yourself. Today, tomorrow, or anytime, you will need somebody to stand with you, by you, and believe in you.
YSW: Let’s talk about India’s Next Top Model. Did you realise at the time that it would be this big?
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NG: Before INTM, I was associated with Lakme Fashion Week. I have been in the image consulting business for a really long time, ever since I was a crew, even when people didn’t know what image consulting was all about.
When I was associated with LFW, these mini offers used to come my way, a couple of episodes here and couple of things there. But it never struck a chord with me because I believed if I am not integrally a part of something and I am not adding value to it, it would not add value to me in the long run. So, when INTM was offered to me, my first thought was “how am I adding value to you”.
YSW: Which is your favourite season and why?
NG: Season 1 for sure, hands down. Jab aata geela hota hai na, aap usko koi bhi shape de sakte ho (when the dough is soft, you can mould it into any shape).
These girls who came in Season 1 were raw, because nobody knew what to expect from the show. And there was no reference. Indian audience and talent are very different, especially in the raw form, in comparison to western counterparts. There were no expectations, no references, and we all were as raw as we could be.
YSW: Please walk us through the world of INTM. Tell us one characteristic or feature about the panelists – Milind Soman, Malaika Arora, Anusha Dandekar – that we don’t know.
NG: For Milind Soman, what matters to him the most in life is food. Dabboo is just not Dabboo Ratnani; he is Dabboo plus Manisha Ratnani. You can see true partnership in them. Anusha is a ball of fire, she can be very easily related to any source of energy that never extinguishes. Malaika Arora, on the other hand, is someone who has achieved so much in life yet very clearly believes that any achievement is a team effort. Never has she said that “I did this”, it’s always “we”. To come with such a humble standing is what makes her much more beautiful than what people see in her physical appearance.
YSW: Do you have any secret talent that we don’t know of?
NG: I can sing. Singing has always been a part of my schooling and college phase.
YSW: Typically, your work entails working with a lot of young people. How have the work ethics changed in this industry?
NG: Overall the economy has become very global in the past few years and the perspective, the reflections, and the ideology seem to be the frontrunners of this global scenario coming into India. Anyone who gets associated with these fields automatically gets to have the first-hand advantage of understanding what is happening in the global scenario.
The work environment is definitely improving; it’s becoming much more professional. But the thing that I have been saying for a few years now is, “where are our supermodels? Why does every model want to become an actor”?
Everybody is into instant gratification, nobody wants to put in those hours, those years to be what they can be, what they should be. This feeling of instant gratification is a result of social media.
YSW: What role is social media playing in the shaping this young breed of models and image consultants?
NG: Today if I am able to know what happened 10 seconds back in America, it’s only because of my social media reach. Every 10 seconds what’s happening is there on Twitter. So, you are very updated with the world but at the same time… there’s a show on Netflix called Black Mirror, and there was an episode where a girl had to get a certain number of likes to even rent a car… I think that’s where the world is heading.
People have started living in their virtual world; they do not belong to the real world. At dinner tables, we see people not talking to each other but talking to other people on their phones or to each other on their phones. It is a very scary space to be in.
What social media can do to our lives in a positive manner is somewhere getting negated.
YSW: What is the flipside of being in the limelight? Do you ever go on social media detox?
NG: It’s nice to be acknowledged, but I have never shared something that is very personal to me. There are times when I go for a complete detox; my Annapurna trek was my detox. There was no social media connect, no internet connection.
When I did the trek, I had time with me and obviously I clicked pictures for my memories, but I also knew that I have come here, whatever I needed to learn, I learned by walking on my own. But I would also like to share the beauty of this place and the journey with the people who love me so much… because sab log sab jagah nai ja sakte (not everyone can travel everywhere)… it’s a beautiful way of learning and sharing.
YSW: How important is it to look after one’s mental and physical health?
NG: Mental and physical health are the two vital cogs of anybody’s life. People always ask me how I am always high on energy. There is a difference between “action” and “cut”.
Do I have downtime? Everybody has a downtime. I feel low, everybody feels low. It is just that you need to acknowledge that these are my downtimes and I need to give due importance to the downtime as well. If I do not give the due attention to the time or the reasons for me being low, I will not be able to rise up again and shine.
People coming out and talking about their mental health issues is brilliant. Especially if you are in a space where people look up to you. Somewhere you end up being the torchlight for some person who is living in some village, who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them and because of ignorance they are not even able to share it with anybody.
YSW: Body image and body shaming are two big topic of conversation these days. What’s your take on them?
NG: In the offshoot of the show called Gift of the Gaba, someone asked me what do people mean when they say you are ugly? My answer to them will always remain the same, “you only feel ugly when you feel ugly”. All this body shaming… I don’t even want to call it juvenile; I want to call it criminal.
YSW: Finally, as a person who has gone through a series of career switches, where do you see yourself going, professionally, in the coming years? What is on your bucket list?
NG: I am working on this show called Shaadi Fit that arrives on MX Player. There are real-life couples. When we filmed the show, they were about to get married, and now the two couples are already married. Shaadi Fit is not just about the wedding and its functions; it is about marriage… too real a show for reel audiences.