January issue 2012

By | Fashion | Life Style | People | Profile | Published 12 years ago

At a café in Zamzama, as Iraj makes her entrance dressed simply in a pair of jeans, a button-down shirt and glasses, it is hard to miss how her presence has an equally hypnotising effect on the staff and customers alike, as it does on those flipping through magazines.

If you’re a Pakistani and you don’t happen to live under a rock, then you have most certainly heard of the supermodel, Iraj Manzoor. At 5 feet 10 inches, with a tanned complexion and striking features, Iraj is unlike most of the other models in the business — a fact that has helped her survive,and thrive, in the extremely competitive fashion industry.

With a bachelors degree in Art from Indus Valley, how did Iraj end up becoming a model?

Daughter of television actress Zeenat Yasmin, Iraj grew up in the company of several notable celebrities. Iraj recalls that she was only 19 when she did her first shoot for the men’s magazine,Men’s Club, for family friend Arshad Tareen. “I remember that shoot very well. Asad Baig did my make-up and Rooha Ghaznavi was the photographer. Ironically, it was my first shoot and her last. I had so much fun doing that shoot. I did not feel conscious in front of the camera at all. Right after that I started getting calls for other shoots. I had not planned to do this full-time but I got an offer for my first commercial for Rs 25,000 and I started thinking, ‘Wow this ain’t a bad job, to look good and get paid!’” she laughs as she recounts the story.

While studying at the reputable Indus Valley, Iraj began to model part-time in between breaks from her classes. “It was tough for me because I was modelling and finishing my degree — and Indus was very tough. I remember having ink on my hands and in my nails whenever I went for shoots from college, but it was fun.” Art was always her first and foremost passion; modelling was just something the supermodel fell into. “Up until now I know art is what I want to pursue, not modelling. I know 20 years have passed by but I feel that I’m still in transition that way,” she explains.

While it is not entirely uncommon for a model to venture into an alternate career path, Iraj has always stuck to modelling. “I think my problem is that I can’t be jack of all trades. I have to be perfect in everything that I do. For my art, I need to dig deeper within myself and I need to be left alone, whereas modelling is a very superficial field. For one, you have to be completely in touch with who you are, whereas for the other you need to get away from yourself. I believe that one day, InshAllah, I will be an artist full-time because I know that I’m not a glamorous person. I am who I am, I always speak my mind and most people might consider me boring but I have to stay true to myself because that’s the only thing that keeps me sane.”

March of this year will mark 21 years for Iraj as a model. Having always spoken out against cosmetic surgery, she refuses to go under the knife. She believes that in order to survive in a field that is steeped in vanity, one has to stay true to one’s self. “I believe that we need to age. When you age mentally you also need to age physically. If you’re 40 and are still trying to look like a 15-year-old, to me that is a very sad state of mind to be in because you’re trying to be someone you’re not and, at the same time, you’re trying to get people to take you seriously. Why would anyone take you seriously when you’re not even comfortable in your own skin?”

It’s all about accepting who you are, she explains. “I’m 39 and I’m proud of it. I don’t have a problem with the fact that I have wrinkles because I feel that’s a part of growing up. Unfortunately, that is not acceptable in the industry I’m working in and therefore I have to constantly fight it.”

How does she deal with that kind of pressure?

“Sometimes I end up having arguments with photographers when I feel like my photographs have been overly photoshopped, and they turn around and tell me that this is what sells to which my response is, ‘No this is what you’re trying to sell.’ If you show a true picture then people will accept that as well because, frankly speaking, the average person does not look like that so why are you trying to portray that to the masses? I feel that high-end fashion isn’t for the masses anyway because it’s like creating something for a select few and those are the only people who are going to appreciate it. That’s precisely the difference between art and craft. Craft is mass—produced and art isn’t. An average middle class girl will never look like that. Although these days this is precisely why young girls are trying to become thinner and ending up anorexic because of it. Women have always been objectified. So in my own capacity, I make an effort not to encourage it. I feel that it’s my job as an aesthetically sound model.”

Iraj reveals she might retire from the profession in a year or sooner. While on the subject she also adds, “I’m a very moody person that way. I’m constantly surprising myself — in a good way though. I feel like one is always learning or trying to understand themselves better.” Perhaps that unpredictability, along with a deeper understanding of herself, is precisely why she has managed to captivate so many fans over the years.

As a veteran in the fashion world, Iraj has observed a change in the Pakistani fashion world and the way that people perceive models. She believes that it has now become socially acceptable for girls to aspire to become models. She demonstrates this by changing the inflection of her voice from an almost scornfully uttered “You’re a model?” to an awestruck, “Oh, you’re a model!” to show how people’s reactions have changed with time. “There’s a major shift. Even the conservative people are now impressed (by models) and the media has played a huge part in altering that perception. In a strange way though, I feel that people have now become handicapped — we think what the media wants us to think.”

Iraj feels that even the newcomers in the industry have a different attitude towards modelling. “I’ve noticed that young girls want to become celebrities and at a really young age; they are really passionate about it.” The newer models, she adds, “seem to desperately be making an effort to follow a trend. They believe they have to dress a certain way, wear 5-inch heels and skimpy clothes to try and look like a model. Why do you have to look like a model? You have to prove that you are a model by the way that you perform in front of the camera and not by the way you look behind it.”

Iraj has a few observations on the fashion world as well. “The more successful and established designers sometimes paint this high and mighty image of themselves but if you think about it, the only difference might be that they’ve got more experience. They won’t let genuinely talented newcomers rise and make a name for themselves because they’ve got a complex. It’s equally competitive in the world of modelling. People feel insecure and then they become nasty about it and that’s something I’ve seen happen too often. Consequently, I feel like a lot of talent gets crushed. There are people who have no talent but just because they have the right connections in the industry, they rise higher.”

Iraj believes the best way to deal with such people is to not do anything at all. “I never fight it because it works out in the end. I do my work and I don’t feel the need to humour people all the time. If they don’t hire me, someone else will. So actually I don’t care. Perhaps, that’s the secret of my success.”


Photos by Tapu Javeri
Click any photo to begin the slideshow:
This profile originally appeared in the Annual 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Class and Candour.”


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