Over the past two months, I watched India’s Next Top Model, a reality television show aired by MTV India, with bated breath. Somewhat unexpectedly, my personal favorite contestant, a 23-year-old girl from Nagaland, decimated nearly everyone in her path, making it to the grand finale. Her name is Gloria Tep, and she’s the daughter of a Naga mother and Malayali father.
After a rocky start – what's an underdog narrative without one? – Tep became a finalist in the competition, earning third place in this past Sunday’s finale.
How sweet it felt to see her flirt with victory. Beauty competitions in India are, after all, hardly representative of the country's broad swaths of beauty, usually dominated by girls from Bareilly or Junagarh. Who could’ve predicted that a girl from Nagaland, such an underrepresented state, would step onto a national platform of this scale?
This is a country that considers Nagaland outside its imagined borders, neither here nor there. Those Seven Sister states, connected to the mainland by a mere slice of territory, have often been treated as if they exist independent of India’s national pulse. It’s apparent in the casual language those from the northeast encounter once they migrate to India’s metropolises, like the slur of “chinky” that follows them. It’s apparent in the physical violence that rushes after them, like the cruel murder of Nido Taniam last January.
When it comes to the entertainment industry, it’s apparent in the fact that Bollywood would rather outfit Priyanka Chopra with prosthetic eyelids, effectively donning her in yellowface, than get a Manipuri actress to play Mary Kom. Never mind that Bala Hijam or Chon Chon, to name two such Manipuri actresses, could conceivably play Kom. Why sweat specifics when you’ve got a fair-skinned Punjabi actress like Chopra who has such market power?
This is the cyclone of an industry that Tep, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has entered. It is one that rarely assigns value to the wealth of talent that exists in the northeast.
From the first episode, Tep was burdened with representing “her people” back home. Standing before the judges, she spoke of her identity crisis, saying that she felt out of sorts in Nagaland because her father was Malayali. Afterwards, she was asked to tell those watching her back home, in her native Nagamese Creole tongue, that she would be India's Next Top Model.
This was part of the easy, feel-good narrative the show wanted to build up – that Tep’s dominance over the competition would be a win for the northeast. This narrative reeks of utter hypocrisy.
The show's producers, who also did not respond to requests for comment, forced Tep to wear her Naga heritage like a dog tag. They reminded us in each episode that Tep hailed from that geographically and ideologically distant state of Nagaland – that she is different, that she is other.
The judges emphasized this very point just moments before her elimination. Regardless of the competition’s outcome, they claimed, Tep should feel satisfied that she’s given a face to a dream so many in the northeast have had – a dream of seeing one of their own grace their television screens. She should feel proud that a girl from her region has achieved so highly. As if she must settle for simply being invited to the party.
Lisa Haydon, the show’s host (who is also half-Malayali), referred to Tep in nearly every episode as "our Naga girl." She commented with the simultaneous affection and condescension one would use when speaking of a domestic pet. In one episode, Tep showed up before the panel of judges wearing a crop top emblazoned with big, bold letters – TURN'T UP – prompting guest judge Javed Jaffrey to ask whether she was from Uttar Pradesh. She politely giggled and said, no, repeating what avid watchers of the show had heard ad nauseam. Her father is South Indian, her mother is Naga. After, Jaffrey joked that she was "Nagayali," making her seem like some hybrid creature. She smiled and took it in stride.
Fellow competitors denigrated Tep behind the scenes. They called her fake, selfish, competitive, overconfident, plain. How dare this common girl from the outskirts of India have the gall to believe in herself? Sirf main, main, aur main, another contestant said of her. All about Gloria.
These comments, often couched in the language of animalism, make one thing very clear. The assumption underpinning Tep’s mere existence in the competition is that she shouldn't be good enough. There is no way that a girl from Nagaland, with a face unlike any other who’s risen to prominence in the country, can achieve success.
Tep was thrust into an impossible situation. Pinned upon her was the punishing task of demonstrating her region’s worth. To do so, she had to play into the stereotypes of the northeast that Indian popular culture has grappled with for decades – that it is exotic, worth probing at and studying, not “authentically” Indian until proven otherwise.
Because she was the only one in the competition who hailed from the northeast, Tep took on this ugly burden and everything that came with it. She was forced to stand for something bigger than herself.
I can’t help but hope that Tep has challenged the country’s rigid standards of beauty, if only so that the women from the northeast who follow her will step into less hostile territory than the one she’s encountered. Perhaps she has paved some sort of way. But for now, as long as India gawks at the beauty of the northeast like it would a creature at a zoo, this is just Tep’s cross to bear.