What strikes one instantly about former Kingfisher calendar model Shilpa Reddy is her personality. Tall, lissome, svelte and uber glamorous, Shilpa makes a tremendous impression as she walks in to her flagship store for this rendezvous. The radiance in her face is as arresting as the massive solitaires on her ears. Shilpa juggles several roles with élan – wife, mother, daughter-in-law and fashion designer, while also crusading for causes besides being a celebrity in her own right.
I begin by asking her how she became a model despite hailing from a traditional Telugu-speaking family. Shilpa rewinds to her childhood with a laugh. “I was the black sheep in my family – the one with too many questions and the child who always tried to rebel against everything. From the beginning I always wanted to do what my parents did not want me to do. I was drawn to glamour and would watch all the Miss India competitions on television and even Miss Andhra Pradesh (at one point it was big). Plus even as a child, I used to love dressing up and dressing other people up too.”
Once Shilpa decided to embark on the grooming route, she ensured she did everything right, from fitness to diet. “Then came the competitions and contests. The first one was inter school and later college. I kept winning from school onwards!” The first major title Shilpa won was Miss Andhra Pradesh. “I won it without my father’s knowledge. I took only my mother into confidence. After he learnt that I won, my father appreciated me but was quite worried. Today as a parent myself, I understand his perspective. He felt modelling was a bit too out there, and that it might be quite hard for him to protect me. Although from his perspective it was my safety he was worried about, I felt like my dreams were being crushed. My mother has always been very encouraging. After Miss AP, I wanted to participate in Miss India as well but there were objections at home.” Shilpa dropped the idea of competing in the Miss India paegent, opting instead to do a fashion design course at the Academy of Design, Toronto, Canada. “I reasoned that this was something more substantial that I could fall back on later in life.”
Shilpa married Preetam Reddy and participated in the Gladrags Mrs India (2004) pageant and won the title. From that point on, modelling offers poured in and she was seen on the ramp and on the coveted Kingfisher calendar in 2006. In many ways, her career took off post-marriage. “Modelling was never big on my list. My aim was to win pageants – I just wanted the crown on my head! Modelling happened because of the Mrs India title. My husband was extremely broad-minded. Way before our wedding, I told him I wanted to take part in Mrs India and he told me that I didn’t even have to ask him about it! That was the kind of support he offered. The titles I won paved the way for immense opportunities. I signed up with Atul Kasbekar’s agency Matrix. Atul signed me up as a model.”
That ensured a lot of work for Shilpa. “Once I was associated with Atul, and Kingfisher happened, a lot more offers came my way. The thing about me is that I never really asked anyone for work. That’s why I didn’t make it that big as a model, because I just took whatever came my way. I didn’t model with ambition nor did I try to network extensively and meet people. That wasn’t my cup of tea.” Still, Shilpa has walked the ramp for some formidable names including Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi.
As a married woman, Shilpa raised many, many eyebrows by appearing on the Kingfisher calendar in a bikini. “I got married really young. In the modelling industry, there were already women with two kids. It is only in the movie industry that people think twice if you are married. In fact, I only knew some models were married a good year or two after I had met them! Nobody talks of marriage in the modelling industry. Nevertheless, it was a jaw-dropping thing for many people when I was featured in the Kingfisher calendar after marriage. It was astonishing for people living in Mumbai too. Down South it was absolutely sensational. But right through all of this, I had my husband’s unconditional support – so I felt I only needed to answer this one person. He knows what I am.”
Shilpa cruised along as a model for three years. Having always been fit and very slim, she could easily avoid crash diets and problems like anorexia and bulimia that models suffer from. “I had an edge over the others because I had a toned physique and was into fitness in a disciplined way. So I did not put in any extra effort at all. In fact that’s probably why I made it to the Kingfisher calendar. I’ve never had to train extensively or make drastic changes to my lifestyle to look like a model.”
With her killer looks and showstopping figure, Shilpa could have easily entered the film industry. “Well, I did get a lot of offers before I got married. In fact there have been instances when directors came to my college, found out my address and came home to offer me roles. But my parents were absolutely closed on the aspect of acting. After marriage, I chose not to act in films, because the schedules would be erratic and would disrupt my personal life.”
Then came Shilpa’s slow but steady shift from modelling to designing. “Modelling soon became monotonous, there was nothing challenging about it. See, I’m a creative person. My mind is always racing with thoughts and modelling meant putting on your make-up and waiting for hours for the show to begin. I shouldn’t be saying this, but there was a lot of negative energy around me – people constantly talking about others, drinking and smoking. I didn’t want to be around people like that. You master the trade in a year or two and after that you stagnate.”
A model’s shelf life is indeed limited. “That’s why nowadays models are trying to do other things – accessory designing, footwear designing or they are getting into the food business by opening a small joint. They work as emcees and even do travel shows. My point is that models today are doing a lot more than just modelling because it is is no more a full time career. I felt the stagnation setting in and decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided I needed to do something more substantial, something that challenges me.”
At this point the fashion designing course Shilpa did in Canada came in handy. And thus the label Shilpa Reddy was born. Her designs can be defined as classy, sophisticated and versatile. Shilpa says that her forte “is the fit, the timelessness and versatility. I do individual pieces which can be teamed up with what you have in your wardrobe. The fit is something people keep coming back to me for. I myself enjoy wearing well-fitted outfits. Even a person who is extra large can be given a beautiful shape to the body by the way you cut the garment. Not many designers in India focus on that. They try to do something simple which doesn’t require finishing or cutting. I may take one day longer to make an outfit but I would always give a well cut, well finished garment.”
Shilpa does have several high profile clients. “It is always a welcome challenge to design for all the well-travelled people who walk into my store. They understand the process of designing, the finish and the cut. And their mantra is ‘no compromise.’” She has designed outfits for Jwala Gutta, Lakshmi Manchu, Shriya Saran and Sushmita Sen. “They are my friends too.”
Shilpa has not participated in Fashion Weeks. “I wanted to, but at two and a half years, my son is too young. Fashion Week can happen if not this year, the next year but I don’t want to regret missing out on the most precious moments of my son’s childhood. Once you enter the national market there is no looking back. Every season you are expected to deliver and the competition is is cut-throat. It is very challenging and people can write you off just like that. It is tough. As a designer, you cannot delegate too much. You have to be hands-on. The exact shade of a certain colour or the size of a button can make all the difference,” she explains.
Right now Shilpa retails from her flagship store Shilpa Reddy located in the premises of the popular N Asian restaurant. “I supply to other stores like Kimaya, Amara and Aura in Nagpur. We are in talks with Aza as well.” Shilpa also wants to sell outfits online. “There is a huge Telugu-speaking community settled in the US and hence there is a significant market there. These people understand fashion and so we want to try and do something online for them.” Shilpa’s future plans even include writing a book.
Shilpa credits her success so far to the rock-solid support her husband has offered her. I ask her about her in-laws. “My mom-in-law is very chilled out. She was also a fashion designer (from New York). My sister-in-law Keerthi Reddy was an actress. The family is pretty broad-minded. My husband’s immediate family – my mom-in-law, my sister-in-law and his aunts have been very encouraging because in their time, the women in their family always broke the norms – they rode a Bullet, wore bell bottoms… They were very forward right from the beginning. So for them it was no big deal. I must say I am lucky!”
Shilpa is involved with social causes too. She spreads awareness about cancer and is actively involved with Roshni, an organisation run by her husband’s aunt. “Roshni aims to help people get over their suicidal tendencies and mental stress. They get calls from students before exams saying they are going to die. Just one counsellor can talk to the student and ensure the thought of suicide can go away, show them a new light, another way. So many lives have been saved there. The work the counsellors do is amazing. It is close to my heart. I’m the face of Roshni and I try to employ innovative methods of fund-raising. Recently we started palliative care in collaboration with MNJ Hospital. We have a team which helps terminally ill patients to manage pain. They counsel families on how to manage pain as well. I’m associated with Apollo’s Cure Foundation. We raise awareness for it every year, and I’ve been involved in the Cure Foundation for the last five years. “
Shilpa is a known fitness enthusiast. She adds, “I enjoy meditation, I do a few kriyas and am a follower of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. I feel his philosophy and ideology match the way I perceive spirituality. I do not practice yoga as I am not a vegetarian. I feel yoga is not a form of workout. It is a lifestyle. If somebody does yoga and ends up eating McDonalds stuff, it doesn’t gel. I do stretches and a few poses, that’s all. The way people perceive yoga is like a workout, which it is definitely not.”
On her journey so far, she says, “I have done all that I have wanted to do, at least post-marriage. I have no complaints or regrets. As I’m ageing, I am very happy to be transforming into a wiser person, with a more refined thought process. I am enjoying adding one year to my life every year.”
What has helped Shilpa is the fact that she never lost focus and always lived in the present. “I always keep my eye on the goal. There’s so much of potential energy in your mind. You may have hundreds of ideas. Don’t talk about them, execute them. Otherwise, your thought or idea however brilliant it is, has no value.”
Your take on cosmetic surgeries and treatments: I don’t believe in them.
What you like about Indian clothes: Everything! The grandeur, the colour, the embroideries, the craft, the weaves… India has so much to offer.
What you see in young designers today: The urgency to make it big. Success takes a little bit of time, it’s a process. Everyone wants to make it big in a short span of time.
Your personal style statement: Be comfortable with your body first. That’s the key to looking good.
Your concept of comfort food: I love Hyderabadi biryani once in a while. I love pappu charu, papad, vadiyam, fried chillies and pickle with some ghee.
I cannot do without: My iPhone
I’m used to: Drinking lots of water and herbal tea
I feel sensitive about: Animals, but I am little partial to dogs
My handbag contains: A lot of things – tape to measure, comb, lip gloss, small mirror, pen, hair band…
I’m emotional about: a lot of things. I’m a Cancerian.