Sabrina Behl is an American model of South Asian descent living and working in New York City. The following is an account of her experiences in her own words.
Denial can be a pretty wild thing, and I was in complete denial of what was happening to me and my modeling career for so long. It wasn’t until I picked up Mindy Kaling’s book Why Not Me? that I finally felt a sense of clarity about what was really going on. First, a little about me. I was born in Cleveland. I grew up playing tennis and reached the top 40 in the nation. Though tennis was something I excelled at, I’d always dreamed of pursuing modeling. While attending the University of Cincinnati on a tennis scholarship, I decided to secretly apply to Parsons in New York City. I didn’t even tell my parents until after I found out I’d been accepted, and even though it was a struggle, I finally convinced them to let me quit tennis and focus on a career in the fashion industry. While I was in school finishing my degree, I also started to pursue modeling. And that was the first time in my life that I was made so aware of my ethnicity by almost everyone I met.
Going into the field, 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. Early on, I signed with a couple of different agencies, but the fact that I was Indian was always an issue. It was always the reason I “couldn’t” be put up for the jobs I wanted. I’ve had agents tell me that I’d never be able to work for my dream clients because they “only like blondes.”
One of my most heartbreaking experiences occurred recently, when an agent outright told me that the only reason they couldn’t sign me is because I’m Indian. The agency already represented two Indian girls, and a third one would just be “too much.” He also told me that if I had blonde hair and blue eyes, he would have been able to sign me and add me to the list of 50 or so blonde-haired, blue-eyed models they already have. I walked out of that meeting in complete shock. It felt like a slap in the face. It brought up all sorts of thoughts: What should I do? Should I lie about who I am? Should I dye my hair blonde and get colored contacts? If I photograph well and meet all of the measurements, why is my race such an issue? I’ve also had agents tell me that I should go to India, where I’d be sure to have a successful career. But here’s the thing: I was born here. I’m from Cleveland. I’m American! Why should I have to go to India to be successful?
For so long I chose to ignore these comments. But after I graduated from college this past spring, I decided that this was the time to really pursue modeling full-force. After training twice a day for months, eating a clean diet, and spending thousands of dollars on photo shoots, I finally felt that I was ready to get re-signed and make my dreams come true. I have the height, I have the photos, and I have the measurements, but for some reason anytime I mention that I’m Indian, all of the excitement immediately disappears. I’ve worked my ass off to become the best version of myself, but this industry has pigeonholed me because of my race. I’m considered a minority, and no one seems to want to let me in. Time and time again they say, “You are absolutely stunning, your photos are breathtaking, your body is amazing, but it isn’t the right time.” I’ve done everything in my power to work toward this dream, but the one thing holding me back is something that is out of my control—something that is just a label, something that I should be proud of, and yet something so many people consider a liability.
Now more than ever, I’ve realized that I have nothing to lose. I’m telling my story because I need to fight for myself—and for every other young girl who wants to pursue modeling and is marginalized based on something as trivial as where her ancestors are from. Rejection can either make you or break you, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I’m going to continue to fight for my dream, because as Mindy Kaling puts it: “Why not me?”
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