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At five years old, Shivani Persad moved from Trinidad to Canada. Her family is big - immense by Western standards - and so a multi-family household has been her norm. Between her mother’s 11 sisters and father’s eight siblings, a strong sense of family and community was inherent in her day-to-day; a testament to her Indian-Trinidadian heritage.
We were always working class (in Canada), so I wouldn’t say we were privileged in terms of money. But definitely privileged in terms of always having people around to help (...) We always had support. And of course, that also sometimes comes with drama, but in those days, at least from my perspective as a child, we had a lot of support and my cousins were, and still are, my best friends.
Shivani went through school and high school like most kids in Canada would, with the exception of the academic expectations and strict household-mentality Indian-Caribbean parents often have. It wasn’t until she went to university that she experienced life outside a close-knit multi-family home. She had to take on responsibilities she hadn’t had before, and it ultimately taught her how to take care of herself - as well as the meaning of working hard for your achievements.
I paid for my own education, which I’m really happy that I was able to do. I have a lot of pride that I did that. It’s a difficult thing to do, and in my first few years of working, I really just threw all my money back at that. It was a lot, especially as a model, where you don’t get paid frequently - and almost never on time - so I’m really proud that I was able to be responsible enough to do that.
Career-wise, Shivani initially wanted to work for the government, in a communications-oriented role. She studied political science, and eventually applied for a Master’s degree in labor - a topic that remains an essential aspect of her career today. But she didn’t get in. It was a considerable curveball for her, simply because it had seemed the next logical step on her journey. Being the relentless individual she is, however, she carved out a new path for herself, and found considerable meaning in going for a professional, full-time modeling career.
As an Indo-Caribbean woman, at that time, 10 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of representation for us. At least in Bollywood, I would see a lot of Indian women, but in terms of an actual Trinidadian or Indo-Caribbean woman there wasn’t a lot. So I kind of grew up feeling like I was never being seen. And on top of that, I’m a lot darker than the rest of my family. So I also grew up feeling like I wasn’t pretty or worthy, because there were always these backhanded comments about how I looked dark.
I also grew up feeling like I wasn’t pretty or worthy, because... [of] comments about how I looked dark.
Parallel to receiving her rejection letter from the Master’s program, Shivani was presented with the opportunity to go and work full-time as a model in London. She embarked on a tough couple of years, with little money and hard work. Because she was so determined to pay off her university costs, because she didn’t want to ask her parents for money, and because the modeling industry is notorious for late payments, there were times she relied solely on her credit card not bouncing when dining out. After two stints in the UK capital, and NYC work in-between, however, things started picking up for her. That’s also when she decided to give the career path a real try.
I went through a lot of shit, a hundred percent. But I also have to recognize that there were people who had it way worse than me (...) and there were definitely times where I was really struggling. But I am super blessed now, I have a great career, I love being in New York. And through my work with the Model Alliance just trying to make sure that models have other labor protections so hopefully they don’t have to go through the same experiences I did.
When she talks about what a model is, Shivani brings up the word ‘resourceful’. She’s fully aware that society in general doesn't tend to think of models in this way - and she mentions that it’s easy to turn into a shell of a person in the industry. But this is also a big reason she works so hard on changing the discourse around her profession. Models are strong. They’re forced to figure life out after being dropped in a brand new country for a shoot. They have to deal with immense pressure. They communicate with agencies all around the world. They handle their own money.
There are so many skills that come with being a model. And I started the (More than a Model) podcast solely for that reason. I knew so many models that were martial arts champions, or chemists, or owned their own charities. And they are amazing - they’re geniuses - but nobody asks them about this stuff (...)
The podcast is doing its work as a contrasting voice to the established stereotype models are often put into. Interestingly, it’s also a concrete example of the aspect of Shivani’s personality that she’s most proud of: Her compassion. By celebrating others, she is able to empathize with them, and gains a deeper understanding of the individuals that surround her. She refers to it as a work in progress, though - at times it’s overshadowed by the judgmental environment she grew up in. But as she experiences how multidimensional people are, Shivani is actively working to celebrate the complexity of human nature through compassion.
I used to be a really judgmental person, and judge people on their situations and I’m becoming a lot more compassionate as I get older. And it’s not about feeling sorry for people - it’s about understanding.
Although she is learning how to practice compassion with others, Shivani wishes she was more confident in herself. Less self-doubting. She experiences insecurity on a daily basis - a common trait among models. The continuous judgment on their appearance, down to the nitty gritty detail, takes a toll. Shivani is learning how to appreciate her body from a more holistic point of view - and to see the beauty in those aspects of her appearance she was and is told aren’t beautiful.
As a darker Indian-Caribbean woman (I’ve had to) realize that dark skin doesn’t make you any less worthy than anybody else (...) And that’s what I try to fight for. That’s why I do so much anti-racism work and education and why I speak out about so many things. It’s really just about changing people’s attitudes and minds. So #OwnYourGlow, really, means to find your confidence - and what you stand for.
Always pushing boundaries, always defying the expected.
This is a model on a mission - several, in fact. Shivani refuses to be boxed in - be that by the color of her skin, the career she’s chosen for herself, or the societal expectations of her. She’s taken the grind of her early modeling days, the inherent colorism she experienced as a child, and the endless superficial comments about her appearance - and turned it all into an unfaltering persistence that drives her ever forward. Always pushing boundaries, always defying the expected.
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