“I’ve always had my demons”: Neelam Gill on racism, modelling and mental health

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Anita Bhagwandas
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The word ‘game-changer’ is bandied around a bit too much these days. But when somebody steps outside their expected role to call out wrong-doing or to shine a light on previously taboo issues such as mental health, then there’s nothing more fitting.

Stylist cover model Neelam Gill, who has just been named the (highly prestigious) new face of L’Oréal Paris, is definitely one of those people. The 22-year-old from Coventry was also one of the first British Asian women to land a major campaign when she became the face of Burberry Beauty in 2014 – chosen by CEO Christopher Bailey himself.

She’s also a vociferous tweeter and YouTuber, posting her ‘rants’ about everything from trolling to anxiety. In short, she’s setting the bar high for the new generation of models who say it like it is…

You’re being called a role model for Asian girls after winning the L’Oréal Paris contract. Who did you look up to when you were younger?

I loved the famous Asians I knew from Bollywood films who had crossed over – like Aishwarya Rai. I would be so happy and proud, seeing her ads in all the major magazines that my mum used to buy.

I’ve always loved Naomi Campbell too, even before I was a model, because I was drawn towards anyone I felt was strong and fearless. And I loved Nicki Minaj – I loved seeing her on stage, in an area that was mostly male-dominated, and owning it.

That’s the type of woman I look up to – women of colour really owning what they do, whether it’s modelling or music.

How did you feel about your looks as a child?

One of the main struggles for young Asian women is the perception of beauty. When I was a kid, I thought it was normal to not be represented in the media. I’d come back from holiday crying because I didn’t want to have a tan. I thought being fair was beautiful – that’s what was drummed into my head as part of our culture.

It’s so f**ked up. When I first started modelling, even Indian people didn’t think I was pretty, they’d say “she’s so dark”. It was only when I got older that I realised this isn’t the case and it’s really messed up.

How was school for you – were you the cool kid?

I was not popular at all, but I loved it. I was friends with a lot of boys because they saw me as one of them, but I was never the popular, hot girl – no way. I’d be friends with some of those girls, but I was always their ugly sidekick who would boost their confidence. I stuck out: I had glasses, I had braces, I was really skinny and then I went through a huge growth spurt.

Then I went to a different sixth form outside of Coventry and a lot of kids there were from private schools – they didn’t work at weekends and had nice cars. There were only about three Asian people in the whole sixth form, so that was a shock for me as it was not as multicultural as my secondary school.

The others looked down on us but I just thought, ‘I’m here for two years; I don’t care what these people think of me. I’m going to continue my £25 shift at Hollister on the weekends and get really good grades,’ and that’s what I did.

Did you ever experience racism?

Some of the boys in sixth form were really racist to me, but I’m quite strong-willed and not someone who would cry over it. They knew I wasn’t someone they could pick on physically – I’m not going to take that type of s**t. They’d wait for me after school, shout racist terms out the window at me, but then drive off.

Has it become easier to cope with rejection as you’ve got older?

I’ve always had my demons – depression runs in my family. I know people say “You can’t take it personally”, but really, if you don’t get a modelling job you really wanted and you know it’s based on your looks, it’s pretty hard to not take it personally. Especially if someone said it to your face.

That’s why you have to have a really thick skin to do this. When I was 18, I definitely didn’t. I’d moved to London, I was away from my family, I’d pretty much disconnected from all of my friends because I was working so much. About a year later I had a breakdown. My body shut down, I kept being sick and then just broke down.

That’s when my family got involved and said, “You know what Neelam, let’s book you a holiday.” Now I know to take more time out.

Do you feel more empowered and in control of your career now?

As a model, you not only have to be selling clothes, you have to be a person that people enjoy being around and sometimes that’s really exhausting, especially when you’re going through s**t in your personal life. Especially with me, I can’t be fake – it’s really hard.

I do think that age definitely plays a role in it. When you’ve been in the industry a while, you just have to learn to try and not take it so seriously. I just try and switch off and tell myself that “yes, it is a part of my life, but it’s not my whole life”. There are other aspects to me and there’s still a world out there. The world still goes on, whether you book this show or not.

I definitely feel at a point where I’m in much more control. I feel lucky that I can say yes or no to the jobs I want to do. I don’t have a big group of friends, but I do have two, three people that I can call and we can just laugh and talk about our problems and just forget about them, you know.

Is that why you’ve chosen to be so bold and outspoken in interviews and on social media?

When I was growing up, it was always instilled in me to be honest. And now that I have a platform, if I’m outraged by something I’m going to talk about it. Or if something has happened to me, I’ll talk about it.

Most of my friends are either black or Muslim. We talk every day so I know their struggles and if there’s something happening that affects them or their community – such as when people weren’t calling the Finsbury Park mosque attack a terrorist attack, just because it affected Muslim people – I want to speak up on it. Because maybe I could help change some people’s perceptions. And that’s just as important to me as modelling.

Images: Karina Twiss / Rex Features

Watch: Neelam Gill on race, tokenism and making it in the fashion industry