LSA100: Disruptor Vanizha Vasanthanathan is shattering glass ceilings and redefining fashion

Vanizha Vasanthanathan is more than just a model; she’s the beacon of change. 

Vanizha Vasanthanathan transcends the traditional role of a model, emerging as the face of change — someone who breathes hope and aspiration for many as an embodiment of diversity. Beyond the captivating poses and glamorous runways, Vanizha is on a mission to redefine the narrative in an industry that often adheres to rigid norms.

“I thought it was a scam… I couldn’t believe it,” Vanizha chuckles, reminiscing about the unexpected turn of events that led her to grace the cover of Vogue Singapore. This laughter encapsulates the disbelief and sheer joy that accompanies Vanizha’s journey, a journey that goes beyond the glossy pages of fashion magazines. 

Behind her model persona, Vanizha also excels as an Odissi dancer under the tutelage of the legendary Datuk Ramli Ibrahim. At 181cm, she’s equal parts elegance and strength — repositioning her body both hard and soft. She flexes — there’s grace behind that strong movement — and offers the right amount of attitude for the shoot. Being expressive through non-verbal movements is clearly her forte especially having been an established classical dancer for years, and Vanizha applies that in her ‘role’ as the muse on set. She’s unafraid to tear the walls.

As a disruptor in the fashion world, she challenges not only the conventions of the industry but also the perceptions of beauty and more importantly, representation — representation at a much larger scale. Vanizha Vasanthanathan is more than just a model; she is a force driving change, shattering glass ceilings, and breaking industry norms. In all the shoes she fits in, she remembers the parts she plays in every one of them. 

I sit down with Vanizha, delving into the intricacies of her journey, exploring the transformative impact she’s made, and peering into the future of fashion as she envisions it. 

LSA100: Disruptor Vanizha Vasanthanathan, Class of 2023.
Vanizha captivates in YSL Beauty, dressed in La Senza.

How was 2023 for you and what were your highlights?

This year has been amazing. The highlight of my year was my Vogue Singapore cover. I really didn’t expect to be on the cover of Vogue, and being the first Malaysian-Indian cover star, it’s a dream for all models. I thought it was a scam when I got the email from them because I couldn’t believe it. As much as you think you deserve all these opportunities, sometimes you just think it’s too good to be true. So, that’s my highlight of 2023.

Congratulations on the cover! When you were at the shoot, what went through your mind?

At the shoot, I was feeling blessed and grateful but nervous and still in disbelief because you don’t know if it would make the cover. They might cancel and reshoot with someone else. These things happen. Until I see the magazine in person, I’m never sure. Plus, I’ve never met the team before, and it’s Vogue, so I thought people would be very serious and all that made me nervous. But they were very welcoming, and that warmed me up. After meeting the team, I felt more at ease.

What was your family’s reaction to the cover?

I told them right before the shoot, my mother was like, “Vogue? What is that?”, and my father, who knows more about fashion and this world, had to explain to her it’s an international fashion magazine and it’s a big deal that I’m going to be on the cover. Every time I’m on a cover or a spread, my parents are always very proud of me. And when the cover came out, they were sharing it with everybody! 

Your presence in the fashion industry promotes diversity and inclusivity. How important is it for you to be a role model for dark-skinned models, especially in Malaysia?

Since I started modelling, a lot of things have changed. More Indian models are coming up in the modelling industry now. I’m proud of myself for changing the status quo in the industry. Even in the way people who look like me look at themselves. I get a lot of messages from youngsters saying that because of me they feel more confident about themselves or change the way they think of themselves. For me, modelling is very personal. It’s not just modelling for fashion’s sake, it’s about being a role model as well. When I was growing up, I wanted to change the way people look at people like me and I believe it’s happening.

When I started, you could count how many Indian models that were out there. They could still include more dark-skinned people. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Indian, they could be Malay or Chinese and so on. Dark-skinned models shouldn’t be a token that you include in your campaigns to show that your brand is diverse. We need to have equal opportunities.

As a Malaysian model, how has your cultural heritage and background influenced your work and the message you convey through your modelling career? 

As you may know, I’m also an Indian classical dancer. I’ve been doing dance way before modelling. Dance has helped me in my expressions and movements on set. Most of my clients want me to do dance poses and incorporate dance culture into my shoots or shows. Being a dancer and model has allowed me to promote my culture.

In a world where standards of beauty have been traditional, how do you think your presence as a dark-skinned Malaysian model impacts the perception of beauty and standards in the industry? 

There’s still room for improvement. Of course, things are changing, but it’s already 2023. As much as I try to be an inspiration and change things, I can’t be the only one. I want more people to join the modelling industry so there are more faces because we have so many different races in Malaysia, and that should be reflected in the industry. When I’m overseas, they’re surprised to see that there are dark-skinned Malaysians. Instead of using foreign models, we should use our local models. We should promote our own country, and our own people, and we should give equal opportunities to local models.

Being as accomplished as you are on the international stage has its responsibilities and people tend to have high expectations of you. How do you feel about that and how do you manage it?

It can be stressful. I usually take a break to avoid burnout and not do anything else. Sometimes when you’ve done so much and you just need a break to clear your head. Now that I’ve done Vogue, people always ask me, “What’s next? What’s the next big thing?”. Then, I start to overthink and question myself if I’m doing enough or why am I not getting other chances. You get scared of being forgotten. Especially with social media, you need to constantly post something so people remember you. It can be overwhelming, but I try to shut it down and focus on my next steps and work towards that.

On top of your accomplishments as a model, you’re also a trained Odissi dancer. How has your background in dance influenced your modelling career and vice versa?

I feel like dance has helped my modelling career. Dance opened a lot of doors for me in the industry. My dance master, Ramli Ibrahim, is quite a well-known person in the dance and fashion industry. So, people know him, and he mentions to his connections that I’m a model, which leads to more opportunities. Dance has also helped me in terms of flexibility, and as you can see from the shoot just now, I wouldn’t be able to do that if I wasn’t a dancer. It has helped mould me and built my confidence.

What advice would you give to young aspiring models who may face hurdles due to their skin colour or ethnicity?

You have to break out of your comfort zone, put in the hard work, and go for it because nothing comes easy. People sometimes say with what I’m doing now, it came easy. No, I’ve put a lot of effort into it. Whatever you do, you need to put in 100%; there’s no 99.9%. And whatever you want to do, you can do it at any age. Age doesn’t matter because dreams have no age. Lastly, be present. This generation lives online. They don’t know how to interact with people in person, but online they’re incredibly different. Break out of your comfort zone, put yourself out there, and talk to people.

What’s next for you in 2024?

I’m planning to go to London and work there as it’s been my dream since I started modelling. So, I plan to go there for London Fashion Week, and I’ll be there for three months, and we’ll see how it goes. I don’t plan much; I’m a very go-with-the-flow type of person to avoid getting disappointed when things don’t work out the way I want. For my personal life, I want to focus more on my family. I want to spend more time with my parents because being the youngest, sometimes I feel guilty because my schedule is so busy that I don’t get to spend time with them. Especially when I travel, I’ll be away for a very long time — that’s what I’ll be focusing on next. 

LSA100: 100 Malaysians, 100 Milestones

Lifestyle Asia KL introduces LSA 100, an annual list that recognises Malaysia’s most influential names and celebrates their talents, contributions, successes and milestones. As the bellwether of style, travel, design, entertainment, business, sports, and more, these 100 Malaysians represent the next generation of go-getters who are paving the way for sharing their know-hows with the world through the power of digital media. LSA100 comprises five categories namely The Rising Aces, The Trailblazers, The Disruptors, The Tastemakers and The Navigators. Find out more about LSA100 Class of 2023, HERE

editor-in-chief & creative direction MARTIN TEO | words MALLIE MARAN| assisted by PUTERI YASMIN SURAYA & RONN TAN | photography HERRY CHIA | videography SIMON TAN | video editing JACKIE MAH | makeup SHIYO JOO using YSL BEAUTY | hair CODY CHUA | stylist AZZA ARIF | wardrobe LA SENZA

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