It was a normal day for Fariesha Adnan who works as a supervisor at a department store in Kuala Lumpur – that is until a stranger approached her and asked her if she would like to be a fashion model.
The stranger, Sharmila Ramanathan (photo below), founder of e-commerce business initiative NativesMY, was looking for individuals from marginalised communities to model her Deepavali clothing collection last year, and the lanky Fariesha caught her eye.
Fariesha had harboured dreams of modelling, but as a transgender woman, she never thought it was possible.
“It was like a dream.”
But after the surprise and elation wore off, she said, doubt and scepticism started to seep in.
For starters, she wondered if this was a scam and Sharmila yet another con artist.
And then, after she was convinced that NativesMY is a genuine operation, she faced a bout of self-doubt.
Chuckling self-consciously during an interview with Malaysiakini, she said she had wondered if she could actually do the job. Prior to modeling for NativesMY, she only posed for selfies, she said.
“I suddenly found myself in front of (another person’s) camera. I needed to know how to pose as well as the correct angles.”
At 39, the youthful Fariesha (photo) did not only get to fulfill her dreams in a fashion shoot.
She also found herself walking down a catwalk thanks to coaching from former Miss World Malaysia, Thanuja Ananthan – an experience she believes has pushed her out of her shell.
“I was quite shy before this, now I can talk to people more openly. I’ve never had an opportunity like this, so I’m thankful to Sharmila,” she said with a smile.
The positive feedback, especially on social media, came as a second surprise for Fariesha who has had her share of negative remarks.
It has prompted Fariesha to consider modelling full-time but this is something she will need to mull further.
More than a fashion brand
She was among four transgender women and a refugee who participated in the fashion show in September.
The Deepavali campaign embodies NativesMY’s objective to be more than a fashion brand.
The socially-conscious brand features handmade accessories by artisans in India, Thailand and Tibet, which are then marketed online.
Underlying the e-commerce, however, is the aspiration to use the business to empower marginalised communities, Sharmila said.
When considering how to market her products, Sharmila said she looked at how other brands had hired professional models and celebrities to endorse the brand online and decided to put a new twist to the concept.
“I understand why companies are doing it but I wanted to do something more meaningful.”
“Actually, I was open to anyone from the marginalised community but when I looked for them, it so happened that I found more transgender women,” said Sharmila, who holds a degree in advertising and marketing.
In fact, the Deepavali line was also dubbed “Hope” and dedicated to marginalised communities in hopes for improvement in the lives of those in such communities.
The desire to push for social change had before this seen her leave a plum job at an advertising firm to work for an international NGO, but it was not until she found a way to meld both her interests that she found fulfilment.
But life has not been a bed roses since she founded NativesMY.
“Now, most of the time when I meet my models, I will be taking a cab and carrying most of the bags (of clothes) for them to change into. I have bruises on my arms because I carry these bags.
“But at the end of the day I ask myself – am I happy? I am.”
The venture is fully-funded by Sharmila using her savings, as she does not want NativesMY to be constrained by investor requirements.
For example, she said, she did not want an investor to tell the brand’s models they cannot dress as women.
A group of transgender women last year lost their bid to declare unconstitutional a syariah enactment that criminalises cross-dressing.
Muslim transgender women risk arrest and action when dressing as women, as their identity cards state they are male – the gender they are assigned at birth.
A transgender man recently also lost his bid to change his gender on his identity card, after going through gender affirmation surgery.
“I want Natives to be a platform where people can be who they are. If (the transgender women) want to keep long hair or wear make-up as most of the time they are told not to,” Sharmila said.
Sharmila hopes the experience will help the models conquer their self-doubt and improve their lives.
“At the end of the day, I feel that this fundamental skill is the most important thing in getting a job and living a better life.”
“Especially for individuals from the marginalised community because they are so discriminated, stigmatised that they do not have basic skills such as confidence,” she said.
One of the NativesMY models had a passion for doing make-up, for example, but never had the confidence or the opportunity to pursue it.
After participating in the Deepavali campaign, Sharmila said, the model started following her dreams by becoming the make-up artiste for a local pageant participant.
This is an experience Sharmila hopes to replicate with those from other communities who have had to live on the fringes to society stigma.
Among those she hopes to recruit for the next campaign are those living with HIV, she said.
She also hopes to partner with corporate bodies through corporate social responsibility projects, at least to raise awareness among employers of employment discrimination faced by these groups.
“When I was looking for transgender people, I literally went to all malls to find them. It was so hard to find them.
“I think it’s because they have not been given opportunities to get proper jobs.”
“The next step is to see more progress (on this front), in that I hope that more companies will be more open to hiring them and giving them a chance,” she said.
Sharmila believes there is some level of acceptance already out there, evident in the positive feedback to NativeMY’s campaign on social media.
But she hopes Malaysians can do more than just share positive messages on social media.
“Malaysians just share things but that’s just creating awareness. They should go to the nearest NGO and do something.”
Do you agree?