In the fashion industry, the power of image reigns supreme, capable of reshaping the destiny of brands. Consider the legendary impact of Cindy Crawford's endorsement for Pepsi Cola during the 1992 Super Bowl, or Nicole Kidman's collaboration with Chanel to rejuvenate the timeless fragrance, Chanel No. 5. It is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry which is riding on the shoulders of creative souls with models being the epicentre of it all.

Yet, it's a tricky profession, marked by the notion of a finite shelf life. Enter Fouzia, a supermodel from Pakistan who defies such limitations through her remarkable adaptability and influence in the fashion world. Having effortlessly transitioned into acting, her debut film, The Java Plum Tree, has swiftly captured global acclaim, earning accolades at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

City Times sat with Fouzia to know more about the image conscious world of fashion, her debut film and how she plans to give back to the fashion industry.

Fouzia, do you long for the era when models were genuine celebrities, given the scarcity of those who now meet such standards?

If we talk about few decades ago, i.e. the 90s and early 2000s, it's evident that models were celebrated icons of their time. There was a profound sense of professionalism, camaraderie, and a healthy spirit of competition that pervaded the industry. Aspiring models had the opportunity to be mentored by seasoned veterans and we all grew together. But now, the focus seems to have shifted towards the allure of online popularity, with brands prioritising potential models based on their social media following rather than their suitability for the brand's image. The new wave of models have emerged from the ‘hashtag’ culture who are appear like clones of each other.

You have turned down many acting offers before. What made you say yes to The Java Plum Tree for your debut?

Having worked on numerous ad campaigns, transitioning to acting wasn't a challenge for me. However, I've declined many scripts because they often portrayed me as a submissive woman suffering from domestic abuse—a narrative I actively oppose in real life. The role in this film felt right; it's about a headstrong, competitive supermodel. It's time we moved beyond the repetitive portrayal of women as damsels in distress.

Pakistani films are slowly making their presence felt at Cannes Festival. What was your reaction upon learning about the film's selection for Cannes ?

I was confident that the universal appeal of our film, The Java Plum Tree, would garner widespread acclaim. Winning Best Social Justice Film at the World Film Festival in Cannes affirmed my decision and thrilled me, especially as it marked my debut. The film is now being dubbed in French to reach a broader audience. We are looking forward to represent Pakistan there.

Do you believe the prevailing notion that 'models cannot act' holds merit, given the challenges many models face in establishing acting careers in Pakistan?

Not just this one, models face numerous stigmas and endure online trolling about their looks and age. Internationally, icons like Naomi Campbell still headline major fashion shows, while Giselle and Cindy continue to work successfully. To answer you, perhaps the innate confidence and distinctive attitude we models possess don't align with the submissive roles in our dramas. Yet, figures like Iman and Vinny have successfully transitioned, proving it's possible. In fact, most of the stars in our film are or have been models themselves.

The film addresses issues of sexual harassment. What message would you convey to individuals who have encountered such experiences in their professional lives?

No industry is immune from sexual abuse, but it is our right to have a safer and more equitable fashion industry with real accountability. It’s essential for women to support and advocate for those unable to speak out. Workplaces must provide safe and unbiased mechanism to report such incidents with proper follow-ups. Holding the guilty accountable is fundamental and only then one can claim to have a safer work environment.

What keeps you committed to this profession of modelling?

At this stage in my life, my biggest flex is my fitness and the experience I bring to the table. Styling myself to feel glamorous brings me joy. As the sole recipient of the Lux Style Icon award and the only veteran still active in both ramp and editorial work, it's clear that brands recognise my value. The awards, respect, and love I receive fuel my passion for fashion—it's an addiction.

When you gaze into the mirror, do you see what other people see?

That’s a tough one. In showbiz, as Rekha ji once said, ‘you become the image and the image becomes you, yet you remain a mystery’. I think this mystery often works for the best. Even when you're taking a shot for a cover or striking a pose on the runway, your internal state—whether sadness or a different mindset—stays hidden. This duality is something we gradually learn to master.

Why do you think the Pakistani film industry has struggled to achieve stability despite numerous attempts?

In Pakistan, the TV and film industries overlap significantly. Film stars should embody a unique presence, but with the same actors appearing daily on TV and then on the big screen, the novelty fades. Dramas, now filled with songs, dances, and elaborate costumes, no longer mirror ordinary life, leaving nothing for audiences to love in films. Additionally, with directors often working on both dramas and films, the distinction blurs.

Your frequent trips to Dubai suggest a fondness for the city. What aspects of Dubai do you cherish most?

I have travelled the world, but nothing compares to Dubai. You take a two-hour flight and your whole world around you changes. I have experienced days starting with lunch in Karachi and ending with dinner in Dubai, it’s just at an arm’s length away. You feel at home and the accessibility of this city is commendable. I love the scent of Oud and I feel it’s spread across the city. The people are hospitable, and the hotels and excursions are beyond lavish. What else do you want for a good break?

After achieving so much in your career already, what do the next few years look like?

I'm passionately committed to nurturing the fashion industry and shielding upcoming models from the hurdles we faced in our early days that include improving the backstage and green room conditions. I am deeply invested in a documentary project that aims to shed light on the fashion world's inner workings. Dubai’s landscape plays a major backdrop in that. Additionally, I am choreographing shows, with recent ones including an event for the Italian Embassy and a fundraiser for the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital. Mediocrity bores me so I am driven to infuse each project with innovative elements to raise the bar.

Sadiq Saleem is a Dubai-based writer and can be contacted on his Instagram @sadiqidas

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