From Zayn to Aziz, why it’s cool to be brown

Check out my cover of @interviewmag’s September issue.

A photo posted by Zayn Malik (@zayn) on

Last year, TV pundits couldn’t help but notice the ratings spike for NBC’s Sunday night drama Quantico, even during the World Series, a time when most shows presumably suffer the opposite fate. What I found even more interesting was that a show about young FBI agents starred several young, unknown actors and one superstar: Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra. Just weeks earlier, Canadian writer Shinan Govani described Chopra as being “on the threshold of being the first Indian global superstar.”

And she is just one example in a breakout year for South Asian entertainers and models. Not since the days of Anglo-Indian Engelbert Humperdinck has it been so good to be brown. Humperdinck is the ’70s crooner who once appeared on the cover of Life Magazine (with Tom Jones), and if panty tossing is any indicator, he was also one of the sexiest South Asians of that time. In 2015, that distinction belongs to the dreamy but brooding musician Zayn Malik, ex-One Direction member. Supposing we forget that he is actually the best looking guy in the British boy band, consider that his departure from One Direction and the ensuing shitstorm yielded not one, but three of 2015’s top tweets. Number one at 740,628 retweets? Harry Styles’ heartwarming adieu to Zayn.

And now Gigi Hadid’s got him.

Of course there are a billion plus brown people in the world, and a robust Indian film industry with a starry galaxy unto itself, but, for the most part, brown representation in Western popular culture has been sparse, or ridiculous, if not blank.

Comedian Aziz Ansari is everywhere thanks to his Master of None Netflix series. There’s praise for the soundtrack, the bright ’70s-style cinematography, and the obscure locations in one of the most recognized cities in the world. Master of None is Girls for a post-racial viewer (if you believe in that stuff). And that’s not all. Both on and off camera, Ansari writes about his immigrant parents, coined the term “brownface,” and co-authored Modern Romance, a book about dating in the digital age. The guy doesn’t sleep. (Though it should be noted that not everyone likes him.)

I ran into my handsome cousin at the lobby of the Wynn!

A photo posted by Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) on

Mindy Kaling preceded Ansari with The Mindy Project, and when cancelled by Fox, Hulu stepped in to save the series. Kaling has appeared on fashion covers like InStyle, and been lauded for combatting shadeism while promoting body acceptance. She is also a best-selling author of Why Not Me. It’s actually Kaling’s book that inspired Indian-American model Sabrina Behl to write an open letter about the discrimination she’s faced in the fashion industry. “I had no idea my Indian heritage would have such an impact on my career, that being Indian would be the sole reason why I wasn’t considered for certain jobs,” wrote Behl.

On the other side of the pond, 19-year old Neelam Gill is finding modeling success not seen since Yasmeen Ghauri’s in the ’80s. Gill, a British-Sikh was exclusive to Burberry (its first South Asian model ever) and just became the face of—wait for it—starchy Abercrombie and Fitch. Gill talks openly about biased casting in fashion. “Some shows have lineups that look like robots. They all have blonde hair and pale skin, and you can’t tell them apart. I don’t think people realize what I have to go through, and how much harder it is for me to get modelling jobs. But that just motivates me.” Gill isn’t afraid to rant.

Other South Asian models of note are Pooja Mor, male model Tarun Nijjer and Bhumika Arora, whose spectacular eyebrows make Cara Delevingne’s seem lasered.

Canadian director Deepa Mehta wrote and directed Beeba Boys, one of the more anticipated pictures at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Inspired by Sikh gang activity in British Columbia, Beeba Boys was criticized for glamourizing violence while tarnishing the Sikh community (good thing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named four members of the Sikh community to his Cabinet in the fall). But when the entire film cast turned up for a film fest party I was at, they were dressed to kill and having a good time (as opposed to the A-B-C-list-over-it celebs).

So why are South Asians earning their pop culture credits now? The most obvious factor would be sheer numbers and wealth potential for marketing. It’s just smart for Abercrombie and Fitch to appeal to more shoppers. Besides, South Asians are one of the faster growing ethnic groups in the United States, with massive diaspora communities in the United Kingdom and Canada. On a more significant level, South Asians are growing up—they’re second or third generation now. They don’t just want to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. There is a new wave of South Asian immigrants fleeing difficult situations. Perhaps, the more established South Asian is sensing that being born here has not translated into influence.

There has also been discussion surrounding the “model minority myth” and how it divides people of colour by fuelling further prejudice. In times of #blacklivesmatter, Donald “build a wall” Trump, and Islamaphobia, POCs should find strength in their numbers and shared experiences. See #modelminoritymutiny to be inspired.

So if South Asians are having a moment in popular culture, enjoy the sugar high, but don’t squander it.