I grew up in Delhi, pre-liberalisation. We had black and white television, for a start, and just one channel. I don’t know why, but everyone remembers that. But everything was simpler and less confused and if you wanted anything it was mostly homegrown. My mother was one of Delhi’s most beautiful women and she had a very strict beauty regime, so we all got into it very young. She would use the juice of potatoes as an astringent. Whenever we went to hug her she either had egg and honey on her face. When we were little and had long hair she would put oil in it and then put egg and yogurt to condition it. From tea bags on her face to cucumber juice to papaya maks, you know, we all grew up on this very natural routine, there was no question of using anything out of a bottle. When we got a little older I remember Mom started using Oil of Olay. Our soap of choice was always Pears, but we were never allowed to wash our face with soap. It’s something my grandmother and mother boasted about and that’s why they thought they had beautiful skin. I can’t wash my face with soap even now. I use cleansers, but never soap on my face. For many years I used turmeric mixed with wheat and yogurt as a cleanser. And none of us ever got pimples so we thought that was great. Beauty was an important part of growing up, it was all organic and natural and literally from the fridge.
I think we were very lucky, we loved fashion too, and my parents encouraged us. My memories of growing up are reading books, loving clothes and being sort of obsessive about beauty. So to end up in the magazine business was not a bit odd at all.
I was actually supposed to go abroad to study, and my father decided that he didn’t want me to leave the family home. I saw an ad for India Today and in a fit of pique I applied to it and ended up falling in love with journalism. My first three months were spent sitting in a dark room with a proofreader who taught me how to really read words. I had no contact with anyone, the room had no windows and he was a crotchety old man, and I just read copy. I couldn’t believe I would be so lucky to fall in love with what I was doing.
I moved from Delhi to Bombay and worked for several years, and even dabbled a little in television but I realised that TV doesn’t excite me at all. No offense to anyone, but I find it completely foolish. I think everything about television is a lie. In 90 seconds you’re projecting your point of view, and you know you can edit everything. I’m old fashioned, I want journalism to be about analysis and to tell me what you’re thinking. But in TV it’s like, “So and so happened, Amitabh Bachchan sneezed, breaking news, could he have a cold? The stock market is going to plunge.”
I was doing business journalism, covering the stock market, which I thought was fun. It was logical. But then the Indian Express happened; my first boss at India Today remembered me and said, “Come and take over my features pages.” Back then it was just Sujata (Assomull-Sippy) and one more person and I, and we did a page everyday. So we would go out and write stories and come back and I would edit it and lay out the pages and work from nine in the morning till nine at night. It was the best time of my life.
Then strangely enough, ELLE called me. My first reaction was, “No way. I’m a journalist, I work for the Express, you know, I write about art and culture.” And then when I was talking to the team about being a sixteen-year-old I remembered that I really was crazy about fashion. I was such a goth chick, I had the black nails and the eyeliner and when my mother would travel abroad I’d be like, “I need the lace cutoff gloves otherwise I will die, don’t you understand?” Then I had the jelly shoes and the overgrown sweaters, and the little tights that I used to wear and depending on what was trendy I used to sit with my mom at the tailor and get clothes made. I mean, I was mad about fashion. So it just came back to me that I do like it and I may not be changing the world, but I’m saving the world from being badly dressed one outfit at a time.
When I first joined ELLE, it was a thrill being my own boss. If you’re remotely rude and anarchic like me then you don’t like rules and being your own boss your absolute dream. In the early days of ELLE, nobody cared what we were doing. We were the first fashion magazine. We took risks, we shot what we felt like, we bombed, we tried again. Mohan (Neelakantan, Fashion Director, ELLE) and I would sit and ideate for hours. I wrote every headline and every intro for the first four years and I rewrote every word. We were like the pioneers, you know, fashion week had just launched when I took over and we were just blundering along trying to figure it out.
Everything now is very systematic and it’s very organised, there are fashion weeks and there is a relationship between marketing and editorial and the rest of the world and it’s very structured. If you ask me what I prefer, I prefer the early days when you were just completely clueless but so passionate about what you were doing and with so much crazy integrity. Those are the days I miss but you know, I guess early man always looks back at simpler times and thinks that was more fun. The business now makes more money, it is much better recognised, people know what a fashion magazine is. One outfit at a time people are dressing better, they know trends. Earlier you could be an absolute walking disaster, now everyone’s kind of cut from the same mould in a way. For me in terms of fashion it’s less exciting, especially when I see new celebrities that wear head-to-toe brands, it makes me yawn. I’m like, "What ever happened?" My fashion team used to come to the office with full sleeved shirts and half an hour later one had cut off a sleeve, one had torn something off, one had stitched something on. For me that was fashion. Mohan never left the office dressed the same way he walked in. Neither did this wonderful stylist called Anshu. That kind of creative buzz has absolutely gone. But of course it has to change, business is business. We make more money now, we can spend more money.
I think like every other business fashion is going to be less about creating and more about being a successful business. If you look at the big fashion houses I don’t think there’s any bright spark that really makes you go, “Oh wow.” Yes, Raf Simons had a great collection, yes Marc Jacobs is wonderful, but you don’t get that crazy energy of the earlier days. Equally fashion magazines know their rules and their relationship with retail and they play very seriously. The recognise that beauty pays their bills and they can sell clothes - so everything is going to get much more corporate. What’s going to happen is I think the Internet is going to take over the subversive space. Because I think we have a tendency to hate rules, the human mind. Certainly, you have your sheep who’ll follow any trend. But really bright people need to subvert to survive and I think the Internet will be the forum. With ELLE of course the website will be about promoting the magazine with more of what we already do. It will be a way for us to react to our reader faster. But I don’t think it’s ever going to be a place where you can be subversive. That I’m going to leave for people like you to do, or websites like Mumbai Boss where they say exactly what they want and they don’t want to win friends. I love them. I make the team read their criticism of ELLE every month. I’ll actually go back to brands and say, “Every time you ask me to do a plug, notice it’s been picked up. Your reader’s not an ass.” Part of those models mustn’t take advertising, because then they would sell out and become like everything else. But thankfully Internet is cheap.
THE BEAUTY RULES
I am an absolute dream for an advertiser because I follow a regime. But it’s all mix and match. The most important thing about my regime is I need to be clean, for me that’s Step 1. I still use Pears because that’s what my mum used and the advertising was so powerful, I cannot change my soap. For my shampoo I use Chroma Riche by Kerastase. I’ve tried a lot of other brands but I like this one for coloured hair and as my hair dries I find it’s got the nicest conditioning. My current favourite hair mask is actually the Kiehl’s hair mask with olive oil, I use it as a mask and a conditioner. I always rinse down with super cold water, just to get your circulation working and your pores to close.
I do my body before I do my face. I break a sachet of Vitamin C and I rub it around my knees, feet, hands, elbows. I always use an anti cellulite cream, the Clarins, largely because I have terrible circulation. So I’ve been using that for five years to pre-empt cellulite. And then I use a very simple Jergens moisturiser, Age Firming. I like that it’s creamy but not sticky. And then I use a sunblock, largely just on my hands. It’s a laboratory brand. I mix a lot of cosmetics with scientific brands because I’ve worked with my dermatologist on what to use.
Then because I’m anal I brush, I floss, and I use Listerine.
Then I cleanse my face. I sometimes use the Shiseido foaming wash because it’s grainy, other times the Clarins Jojoba Oil, the gel to oil. It starts as a gel, becomes an oil and washes off as a cleansing milk. It’s very gentle, I love it. Then I use Lancome's Genifique. It’s really light and absorbs well and I think it works because I noticed since I started using it that my skin doesn’t change in different weather. It never gets dry now and I travel a lot, I go between Delhi and Bombay and Paris and so on. Earlier I used to get a lot of dryness here (points to face). My skin’s exactly the same all the time now. I don’t have different products for summer and winter anymore. So for me that means the serum is extraordinary. Plus it’s really light. After that I use Vissionaire - yes, you are supposed to use both. It’s for your pores, for some amount of sagging and it has a bit of an ingredient which is similar to Retinol, which is an anti-wrinkle, but it’s not as harsh so I like it.
I’m using the lip and eye balm from Guerlain at the moment, which I’m really enjoying. I do the whole massage and the lymphatic drainage and lifting. Then I use another Vitamin C pill on my face. I love Vitamin C! We wrote about it in the September (2012) issue. It does everything from cellular reconstruction to anti-aging. I store it in the fridge because it melts in Bombay weather otherwise.
Wait, there’s more. I feel like my skin may have dried before I use moisturiser, so I go to the fridge and I pull out my rosewater from Amritram and I spray it on because I want moisture on my face before I use moisturiser to trap it. Then I use the Estee Lauder Re-Nutriv lifting cream. Then I use my sunblock and I leave. Oh wait, and then I use Moroccan Oil on my hair.
I use the Clinique Take the Day Off Makeup Remover, I love it. And then I always use a toner and then I start doing all my serums and this and that. Those masks that my mum used to use, I don’t do them anymore. What I do is once a week I use the Forest Essentials Honey Mask, which is the closest to what Mom used to use and I find that works like a miracle. 3 times a week, I use my Ren Morroccan Oil body scrub. I think it’s important to exfoliate and get your circulation moving.
But most of all I do my yoga and my inversions. It’s anti-aging and helps with circulation. It’s the first time your skin is no longer fighting gravity, you’ve reversed it. Whenever I travel, as soon as I enter my hotel room I just stick my bum against a wall, put my legs up and for fifteen minutes I just read a book, let the blood just reverse. Yoga is the key to everything.
As told to Komal Basith
Nonita Kalra photographed by Komal Basith in Bombay. © Komal Basith