A decade into the business of modeling, Fia Khan is ready to move on. Rooted firmly in Germany and moving happily between Berlin and Karachi as well as the television and fashion industries, the unconventional fashion model talks about her life, career and the politics that thrive in both professions.
Ten years a model, Fia Khan is ready to retire. In fact, she’s one of the few professional models in Pakistan’s strengthening fashion industry that wishes to walk off the catwalk at the zenith of her career, before people start calling her an “auntie” model. She’s 36 but that’s hardly an age at which models quit in Pakistan; they continue as long as their figures allow them to, sometimes even longer. Not Fia. She has better plans for herself and they include moving along.
Movement has been a standout feature in Fia ‘Sophia’ Khan’s life. Her father, pen name Rishi Khan, who ran the weekly Sadae Watan, a newspaper from Lahore back in the ‘70s, ran a headline against Zia – ‘Eid keh liye kya chahiye?’ he wrote, ‘Zia ka sar!’ – which resulted in his immediate and unsurprising imprisonment. He managed to escape and channeling his way through Afghanistan, found exile in Germany. “We often thank our lucky stars that he ended up in West Berlin, not East!” Fia laughs as she shares her story. It took Fia’s mother and her brother two years to join him and in 1981 Fia was born, in Germany, which to date is home for her. Growing up in Berlin, she fell in love with a Turk, married and had a beautiful daughter, Aleyah, but unfortunately in 2006 the couple parted ways and Fia decided to return to Pakistan.
It was a time when fashion was booming in Pakistan and Fia, standing a little over 5’8” got roped into modeling. Hers is an intriguing story, one that continued through her second and happy marriage in Karachi and another baby girl, Amelia, who is now almost three years old. Living in Karachi and holding onto her German roots, Fia wants to ensure that her daughters benefit from the best of both worlds.
We decide to meet at N Pro, Nabila’s salon/ sanctuary that is second home to the dynamo who is often spotted here for the services as much as the conversations and cold coffee.
Was modeling a choice or a necessity, I ask her, and how easy was it for her to make a breakthrough in the apparently hostile world of fashion?
“I must say it’s been very, very easy for me,” she replied easily, as we sit down at the worktable. “I actually went to a fashion show with my friend, Gul. Nadia Ali hadn’t turned up and the organizers asked me whether I’d be interested. My friend pushed me into it. I was tall and freshly divorced and extremely unsure of modeling because my dream was to be an actress and dance – the Bollywood bug had bitten me vey strong. But then Gul said, ‘don’t you want to be able to support your daughter?’ and I realized she was right. I didn’t want to be dependent on my parents forever. It was my decision to get married and my decision to bring a child into the world so I had to be responsible. Gul knocked some sense into me and I did the show. Two days later I got called for a Maria B show and then I got calls back to back. So I have been treated very well, I must say. People knew I was educated and had a good family background and came from Germany so I didn’t have any hard times except the usual backstage politics that arise with openings and closings.”
How bad do backstage politics get and why are openings and closings always such a big deal?
“There are a few models like me, Sunita, Cybil and maybe one or two others who have never had a problem,” Fia replies. “I’ve never had issues wearing what I’m given because I know I can carry it. We come, do our work and we stand out. I have been given the worst dresses and in the beginning I used to wonder why they gave me the worst clothes; it made me angry. But then I realized that they gave me the worst outfits because I could make them look good. I enjoy watching girls fighting over openings and closings – they’re always the same faces; I don’t even have to take names – and I think it’s also difficult for them to give others a chance. Maybe they lack confidence.”
Do you feel that the pay scales for models are fair, considering modeling is a profession that still has no regulation?
“For Pakistani standards I can’t complain,” she answers honestly. “I’ve managed to run my house even when I wasn’t married and it’s been fine despite the fact that I don’t have other businesses or sugar daddies on the side. I thank God that it pays well, maybe not well enough, but well.”
“There are girls who come in with other side businesses in mind that actually spoil the pay scale for the rest of us,” she adds. “Those are the girls who come in to make a name in modeling and then use that name for ‘other’ work, if you know what I mean. Those girls even agree to free shoots because they earn from somewhere else; how much they’re paid for modeling doesn’t matter to them. But then there are those like us who depend wholly on modeling for a livelihood as well as a career. Our business gets affected because of them. Why would a brand pay to employ us when it could get other girls for free? I’m not saying that all models are like that but even the few who are spoil it for the rest of us.”
Known for being transparent when it comes to likes, dislikes and sharing information, Fia openly spoke about professionalism and ethics in fashion, or rather the lack of them. And whether modeling actually is a financially viable profession or not. “Models earn anything between 50-70,000 a day at fashion week. Lawn pays well. You can get up to 15K per outfit and that’s a jackpot,” she revealed.
Fashion models are infamous for being unprofessional. Why is that?
“I am always punctual,” Fia is quick to clear her name. “Cybil, Hira Tareen and I am always on time and because of being punctual we are the first everywhere because no one else turns up on time. I’ve seen catwalks being constructed because of being on time, which implies that delays don’t necessarily happen because of us. Secondly, senior models don’t need rehearsals but we’re all asked to turn up at the same time. It’s the new girls who need training and rehearsals and not us. You can even give us the sequence on a piece of paper and we’ll get it. But the new girls don’t want to learn.”
It’s precisely all this and more that has convinced Fia that it is a good idea to retire while she’s ahead of the game. She has started dabbling in show direction, her first prominent experience being of choreographing the Daraz Fashion Week that took place a couple of months ago.
“The new girls were so bad; I had gone nuts by the end of it,” she recalls in bewilderment. “They didn’t get the simplest of things like entering from the right side of the ramp and and turning right. These new girls want to be stars overnight but that doesn’t happen. We’ve gotten where we are slowly and steadily. We know how to work the loop and how to avoid as well as cover mistakes and mess-ups. If something drops on the catwalk we will pick it up in our stride or kick it off the runway so that it doesn’t spoil every picture.”
Moving on for Fia also includes working on television. She made a TV debut in Khuda Zameen Sey Geya Nahin in 2008, in which she played the role of a German speaking agent. Currently she is acting alongside Saba Qamar and Atiqa Odho in Besharam; she just made an entry in Episode 3. So how does she compare fashion and television industries?
“I am working in the TV industry now and I have to say the politics there is much worse than what we see in the fashion industry,” she shares. “In fact the fashion industry appears ‘pure’ in comparison to what I see in the TV industry. There’s a lot of politics and hypocrisy and backbiting. I was shocked because I have seen co-artists turn 180 degrees into somebody else. This doesn’t happen in fashion. Likes and dislikes are very open and visible.”
Then why, I ask her, does she want to retire from modeling this year?
“I’m done with modeling; I want to leave with a boom. I want to leave very gracefully. I wouldn’t mind making special appearances for certain designers but I will not be modeling mainstream anymore.”
It is not easy to envision Fia as a mainstream, commercial model simply because her looks are more angular and western than the pretty picture of traditional beauty that most brands prefer and promote. It may have restricted the volume of her work – we do see her more on the catwalk than in print – but it obviously doesn’t bother her too much. She’s content being herself and having an identity. In fact she’s so confident and outspoken that she’s almost been blacklisted from a channel and a fashion week that the channel organizes.
“I think everyone has a choice to do or not do whatever suits them,” she defends her decision to be choosy about projects. “Secondly, self respect is very important for me and if someone doesn’t give me that then I don’t want to work with them. I don’t care how big their fashion week is; I won’t be part of it. I just want to be treated professionally and respectfully. I can’t put up with the fact that my money is deducted even though I come on time whereas certain other girls get extra privileges, despite coming late, just because they’re close friends with the organizers. So I can’t work with people who aren’t fair. But I’ve also heard that the organizers have now banned me and I’m going to ask the CEO of that channel the reason. A designer wanted me to open her show with Moammar Rana and the organizers told her that Fia wouldn’t work for this particular event. I want to talk with them and know the reason because it is not fair.”
Under what pretext, I ask her, should models be banned if at all?
“Models should be banned if there is misdemeanor backstage,” she says, clearly implying to social evils including alcohol, drugs and unethical or immoral behavior.
As she moves on to other avenues, Fia also speaks about leaving modeling and taking up projects that excite her more. She’s currently organizing a fashion show in Berlin – ‘Pakistan Fashion Berlin’ – simply because she wants to “change the way people think of Pakistan in Germany.” She has already tied up the essentials and has roped in big names like HSY, Fahad Hussayn, Maheen Khan and a new designer called Eclat and is scheduled for July 2016. Between television and fashion, Berlin and Karachi, work and life appears to be an exotic and interesting mix of experiences for Fia and she hopes to make the most of it.