The model wants to thank the R&B star for her lucky break. “With such a deep-rooted prejudice in people’s mind, it would’ve been very tough to get work. The Rihanna factor turned out to be a blessing,” says Renee. “Rihanna has already convinced people that she’s sexy and beautiful, and the West is crazy about her. If I resemble her, how can I be unattractive? That’s how our mind works. I don’t know where I would’ve landed without Rihanna.”
Now a resident of Malviya Nagar, New Delhi, Renee at first faced endless rejection — and even ridicule — for her dark skin and unconventional features. She was made to feel small, inadequate, and was even propositioned by those industry people who believe that every model is ready to offer sexual favours in return for work. The language barrier — she wasn’t fluent in English at first — dented her confidence as well. Whatever modelling jobs she did get would end up in her dark skin being lightened by make-up and Photoshop.
“They told me all models are into prostitution. I wouldn’t become a model unless I pleased clients. Being dark had already killed my chances,” recalls Renee. A make-up artist once publicly declared, “Sundar ladki ka make-up toh koi bhi kar sakta hai (Anyone can do the make-up for a beautiful girl). The real challenge is to make a dark girl look good and I’ve done it.”
But one day, a friend realised that Renee bore a striking resemblance to Rihanna, and photographed her without changing her skin tone. “I laughed off the Rihanna part. But soon, everyone was saying the same thing,” says Renee.
Some fairies are black, too…
Incidentally, in this fairness-obsessed country, “kaali” is a word that has followed Renee from childhood. At the age of three, she participated in a fancy dress competition in school, dressed as a fairy. As soon as she came on the stage, someone shouted, “Dekho dekho, kaali pari (look, a black fairy)”, and the auditorium shook with laughter. Little Renee left the stage sobbing. Twenty years later, as Renee obliges selfie-seekers, she often recalls that incident. She smiles and says to herself, “Kuch pariyan kaali bhi hoti hain (Some fairies are black, too).”
But despite the Rihanna factor, she gets only one-third of the modelling work that her fair counterparts do. “Few are willing to bend rules. For most people, beauty strictly means fair skin. It’ll take time to rewrite norms, but I’m happy that I’m part of the change,” she laughs.
Renee wants to meet Rihanna one day. “She has, in a way, turned around my destiny. I’d love to meet her, surprise her, and thank her,” she says.