UAE: How an all-inclusive modelling agency is redefining what beauty looks and feels like

Underneath all that glitter is a stark reality that is rarely discussed. That of broken self-esteems, eating disorders, casting rejections, and self-loathing

By Laraib Anwer

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Amanda D’Silva, a model with Down Syndrome
Amanda D’Silva, a model with Down Syndrome

Published: Thu 1 Sep 2022, 9:20 PM

Last updated: Mon 29 Jan 2024, 7:45 AM

“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” In the age of social media, however, the eye of the beholder has (almost) been templated. We routinely come across images of men and women who look a certain way, and eventually become a talking point themselves for the way they appear. Why are we so awed by the likes of Gigi Hadid or Kendal Jenner? Is it their success, power, charm, and exorbitant influence? Or is it because they fit perfectly into our notions of what beauty ought to be like — thin, picture-perfect, and flawless? ‘Oh, she has won the genetic lottery’ is a phrase we often hear in passing. Well, who defines this ‘genetic lottery’? Moreover, on what basis are its winners selected?

The world of modelling creates the beauty agenda. But underneath all that glitter is a stark reality that is rarely discussed. That of broken self-esteems, eating disorders, casting rejections, and self-loathing.

Mariam George is the co-founder of The Mariam George Models
Mariam George is the co-founder of The Mariam George Models

This has also given rise to other talking points in the world of fashion — modest fashion, plus-size modelling, and pimple positivity being just some of them. But to what extent do these conversations change the reality on ground?

Despite being told she was born for the limelight since childhood, Mariam George faced countless modelling rejections. Why? Because she did not fit into the standard of a tall, fair, and skinny woman we hope to see as face of brands. So, the 21-year-old decided to start her own modelling agency with friends, Anuroop Ajit and Ashi Karun. Today, The Mariam George Models claims to be the first all-inclusive modelling agency in the UAE. To Mariam, however, it is a platform to help others find beauty in themselves and redefine what it truly means to be beautiful.

Getting behind the camera

After dropping out of college, Mariam began posting fun skits on TikTok, which acquired a following. Today, she is a social media influencer in her own right with a following of 127k on Instagram. Being effortlessly confident, she aspired to become a model. It only helped that she did her first shoot at the age of 10 and loved every bit of it. Years later, when she decided to take the plunge professionally, there were harsh realities waiting for her. The standards in the industry were way too rigid for someone like Mariam to flourish. It was then that she decided to take matters into her hand. “I do not like being told what to do, so behind the camera was the perfect place for me,” says 21-year-old Mariam. As part of her role ‘behind the camera’, Mariam wants to bring out the best in others and have them “thrive in their own independence”. “I want to make sure they are comfortable in their own skin,” she says.

Why inclusive modelling?

This wisdom has come after Mariam experienced a spate of rejections herself. In fact, she was rejected in her first modelling gig before she joined Bareface, a modelling agency based in Dubai. The competition, however, was tough, and she realised that the industry hardly had a spot for a 5’5” curvy, South Indian model. She then got into commercial modelling, which only involved shots of her face.

Mariam, however, wasn’t alone in her struggle. She saw her own friends, who had stunning pictures on their Instagram profiles, get rejected by agencies for not fitting into their standards. She decided to take charge. The rationale for setting up The Mariam George Models has been simple: “When you see someone on a billboard or magazine, the first thing I want people to think is ‘Oh my God, she looks just like me’, and not, ‘Oh, I wish I looked like her’.”

The idea is, undoubtedly, powerful and appealing. But will it survive the jarring, deep-seated constructs we have of beauty? Mariam says her goal was never to get more clients, rather she wanted young talents and public, in general, to know that there was an organisation they could approach, a place that served their interests. “It is not always easy getting clients since most brands are not looking for diverse models, and there is just one standard that they stick to. But I think slowly, the industry is changing and brands like Huda Beauty and Reebok are supporting more inclusivity in their shoots,” says Mariam.

Consistency and beauty have never gone hand in hand, as every era has established a different standard of beauty. Now, in the 21st century, ideals that were unacceptable back in the day are seen as assets in the modelling world. “Every single body type at one point was considered beautiful, but never all at once. So having them considered beautiful all at once is the goal, that not just our agency, but I think the entire world is trying to achieve,” says Mariam.

What goes into it?

Breaking free from standards does not mean there are none. Effort and dedication still count. Mariam says while the agency does not have any criteria, “when we go through applications, the one thing I always look for is if they have put in an effort or if they are just sending applications for the heck of it”.

Mariam recalls the times when people have sent images with masks on or faces covered, which defeats the very purpose of a portfolio. It is then left to Mariam and her team to sift through and look for people who are ready to strike a pose and know how to make a picture look good. In fact, this is how Mariam understands modelling as well — to her, it is about making a picture look good rather than making oneself look good and, most importantly, being confident.

The joy is unmistakable in Mariam’s face as she talks about her models who have undergone this journey with her. Famous TikTok-er and ‘good friend’ Warren Martinn was someone who caught her eye. Despite Warren nailing the walk on the runway, he faced rejection from various agencies owing to his acne and braces at the time. “Being a minority does not make you weak,” says Warren, who hails from Pakistan and recently modelled for a campaign by Huda Beauty. “It only strengthens your impact in this world. The Mariam George Models seeks to empower us, change our perception of beauty, dissolve the standard, reinforce the word ‘beautiful’ and ensure that we know we are beautiful.”

Amanda D’Silva is another model from the agency who got selected by a sunwear brand. Afflicted by Down Syndrome, Amanda’s entire personality changes in front of the camera and she oozes confidence as she strikes a pose, says Mariam. Amanda admits that the platform has enabled her to do what she really enjoys and has “helped me embrace my disability with dignity”. She plans to become a Down Syndrome advocate in the UAE and says that being part of a platform that promotes diversity has been a huge encouragement.

Plus-size modelling has been a talking point in the world of fashion, but there are still brands that fall short when it comes to offering clothing for this demographic. Shirley Nazmi is an Egyptian plus-size model based in the UAE, who Mariam describes as someone with the most captivating smile. “It helped a lot with my self-image, helped me see that plus-size women are actually appreciated somewhere. They made me feel a lot more comfortable in my skin, it was almost like a push to start my self-love journey,” says Shirley.

In our collective idea of beauty, we don’t often make room for those who suffer from skin disorders like albinism or vitiligo. Iman Somani is an 18-year-old model from Canada who divides her time between Dubai and Montreal and is afflicted by albinism. She has been working with the agency for a year and says that it has allowed her opportunities she didn’t think she had. “It’s allowed me to work with different companies, build my resume/portfolio and experience new things (I have modelled for Huda Beauty’s campaign for concealers). They are doing a great job of spreading the right message, especially for the new generation.”

Ever since it started last October, Mariam and the agency have indeed come a long way. In the end, she hopes to give more people a chance to be bold and beautiful in front of the camera without having to shed off their true skin. With dyed hair, tattooed skin, pierced bodies, different body types, warm and cold skin tones, acne, and everything that makes a person themselves, Mariam hopes this revolution goes on and a day arrives when one doesn’t look at the other and wonders if they could pull it off. Perhaps the time has come to remove ‘pain’ from ‘no pain, no gain’.

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