Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Vogue India defends decision to put Kendall Jenner on cover after backlash

The fashion magazine was lambasted by many Indians for choosing a white model rather than a famous Indian model or a Bollywood actress to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.
The controversial cover of Vogue India's May 2017 issue.
The controversial cover of Vogue India's May 2017 issue.

NEW DELHI // The Indian edition of Vogue has defended its decision to feature American supermodel Kendall Jenner as the magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary, following a social media outrage over its latest cover.

In the magazine’s May issue, Jenner was photographed by Mario Testino against the luxurious Samode Palace in the Pink City of Jaipur.

Although Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput and other Indian models were also featured on the inside pages, it was Jenner whose face was on the cover.

Vogue was lambasted by many Indians for choosing a white model rather than a famous Indian model or a Bollywood actress to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.

For some, the decision seemed to showcase yet again the Indian obsession with fair skin, as demonstrated by soaring sales of skin whitening creams.

Some blamed a “colonised” mentality which seems to think that no Indian celebrity, no matter how famous, can match a western celebrity in status.

Vogue India editor Priya Tanna did not take calls, but the magazine issued a note explaining that the indignation was misplaced because, while it was celebrating 2017 as its 10th year in India, the actual 10th anniversary edition would be out in October.

It also pointed out that covers featuring non-Indian faces were rare.

“In the last 10 years, Vogue India has had only 12 international covers, including Kendall Jenner, in 2017. Therefore, statistically, 90 per cent of our covers are Indian! And we are proud of that,” said the magazine on its website.

It said that Vogue, as an international brand, would inevitably feature some international celebrities on its cover but only “occasionally”.

But by the time the clarification was out, social media was already awash with criticism.

Comments on Twitter included “Vogue India, you are aware that Kendall Jenner is 100 per cent white woman and does not embody or represent a real Indian woman?” and “Disappointed in India to pick a Caucasian girl who doesn’t even relate to India in anyway”.

Another critic said: “Kendall is 100% a white woman, she does not embody or represent a real Indian woman. How dare you whitewash your own women and your own culture”.

Criticism of the preference for fair skin has been mounting in India in recent years. The latest expression of this distaste was film star Abhay Deol tearing into his fellow actors last month for endorsing skin lightening creams.

On social media, he shared pictures of ads starring Shah Rukh Khan, Vidya Balan, Sonam Kapoor, John Abraham, Sidharth Malhotra, Shahid Kapoor, and Deepika Padukone promoting fairness creams.

This is the second time in recent months that 21-year-old Jenner – the half-sister of Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney Kardashian – has found herself at the centre of a controversy. Her appearance in a Pepsi commercial in April drew flak for trivialising social protest and social justice to sell a fizzy drink.

Vogue India was also criticised for insensitivity in 2008 when it carried a photo shoot showing impoverished Indian villagers modelling luxury handbags and umbrellas.

One photograph showed an elderly couple standing outside a mud hut, with the husband donning a turban and holding a Burberry umbrella, and his smiling wife sporting an Etro handbag. At the time, the magazine was accused of “spitting in the face” of the poor.

Commentators scorned the magazine for using the poor as “props” with some wondering if the magazine would have dared use the homeless in London or Paris for a similar shoot.

But not everyone feels that Vogue India has erred this time.

Some Indians pointed out that whenever Indian stars went abroad and were feted, such as actresses Priyanka Chopra and Aishwarya Rai, Indians were proud of it, and asked why it was different when a foreign celebrity like Jenner was selected by Vogue India.

Shefalee Vasudev, the former fashion editor of India’s daily financial Mint newspaper and author of The Powder room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion, said an Indian face was crucial for the cover when a magazine was celebrating a special anniversary but saw no reasons why, for a normal issue, a non-Indian model could not be used.

“The basic argument is diversity,” she said.

“If you want diversity then that means all colours, including white models. For Vogue to exclude white models would be to put India on the right (political right-wing), rather than in a globalist position.