Even with a black mask covering half her face, 20-year old Diya Prabhakar is striking. At 1.82m, Prabhakar stands out in spite of never meaning to. “When I walk past random uncles in coffee shops, they’d always ask if I played basketball. And when I tell them I don’t, they’d be so heartbroken and I end up feeling so bad,” she says, her long hair dancing across her shoulders as she laughs.
But of course, Prabhakar is more than just her height. She brings a new narrative to the Singapore fashion scene, whether she knows it or not. For the first time in a long while, we’re seeing a darker skinned Singaporean model fronting brand campaigns not just locally, but internationally. And for many who have always thought the industry was not made for women who look a certain way, Prabhakar breaks down those proverbial walls with every cover she graces.
Born in India, Prabhakar moved to Singapore with her parents at three months old. “I was a shy and quiet kid when I was younger. Since I was in kindergarten, I hated being front and centre. I’d avoid anything that had to do with drama or public speaking. I was a lost-in-my-own-thoughts, daydreamer kind of person,” Prabhakar reminisces.
Prabhakar was discovered at 14 years old by a model scout in India at a fashion show. “My mum was like, ‘Let’s say hi to everyone so that someone will give you a job.’ I was so embarrassed, but it actually worked. Someone asked me to walk the runway for a show happening two days later.”
She carries an effortless positive energy that comes only with unwavering family support. “It’s lame to say it but my mum was my best friend—and still is. I would use my lunch money to call her from the pay phone at recess. My mother has always wanted to be an actress, so in some ways, I guess she wanted me to have some sort of performative arts career but she never pushed me into it. It was a suggestion and I figured, why not?” she explains.
Her parents are immigrants who have made a comfortable home in Singapore for Prabhakar and her younger brother. “Honestly, I couldn’t even imagine how I would do what I do all this time without my family’s support. I know models, some friends even, whose families don’t approve of their careers because of how conservative they are or all sorts of various things, but my family is my rock.”
And it makes a difference when you know someone always has your back. “There was one time I lost my luggage while I was travelling and I called my dad. He was up on the phone from Singapore calling the airport staff, trying to help me sort it out.”
Prabhakar was fresh out of junior college in Singapore when she decided to model full-time. “I came from living at home with my family to going to a model apartment and everything I knew about modelling then came from America’s Next Top Model. But it’s nothing at all like that—it’s living with a bunch of girls who are working hard, missing home, cooking all sorts of meals in the kitchen. One of my best friends now is a Soviet model—and I would have never met her if it wasn’t for my job. We’re so alike.
“Of course, I have my main group of friends here. I tend to stick to small groups of friends that I’ve known through school and one of my best friends said that she thought I was stuck up because I’m a model and it’s literally the opposite,” Prabhakar explains as she tucks a curly wisp behind her ear.
I think a shift is happening. Some places, faster than others, but winds of change are here
Under all the glitz of being a model, there’s something about Prabhakar that makes her so familiar. She knows the industry can be a challenging place between having to navigate working in foreign lands to moulding herself to fit into a brand’s ideal, but somehow, she’s determined to smell the flowers along the way. Even her grandfather in India checks in to find out if she’s eating well and working out. “But let’s be honest, I love sleep,” she laughs.
“I never dreamt of being a model. When I was younger, I wanted to be an investment banker because I thought I wanted to make a lot of money,” Prabhakar shares. “But from the first time I was on the runway, it clicked. I wasn’t the person who shied away from the spotlight—I loved it.”
Prabhakar is currently undertaking a business course in Manhattan—the first time she’s gone back to school after taking a three-year break after her A levels. “I’ve always known that I wanted to go back to school. I know models who are also fashion designers and photographers, but I was never a creative person. I loved math and sciences in school and I still love it today. While fashion is creative and pretty, what I’m going to school for makes sense to me and I don’t know how long I’m going to model for,” Prabhakar explains.
However, the pandemic has thrown her plans off course for the time being. “When COVID-19 started getting serious, my father booked flights for my brother and I to return from Spain and New York respectively,” she says.
“For someone who loves being on the runway, I’m having withdrawals,” she laughs. “I had so many plans like everybody did and it all came to a standstill. Who knows what will happen and when it will happen?”
“I’m still working while I’m in Singapore and honestly, my favourite part is how sanitary everything has become. I get breakouts so easily because my skin has become so sensitised but now, everybody is so careful about sanitising everything. I love it,” Prabhakar regales.
“I know brands and designers have to keep doing what they do with virtual, much tinier fashion presentations but there’s nothing like a fashion show, you know? A fashion show is more than just clothes—it’s the whole energy,” Prabhakar gushes. She talks about fashion shows with as much enthusiasm as a child anticipating her trip to Disney World. “It’s the clothes, the models, the music, the make-up and how it’s all pulled together. It’s almost like a theatre production. It’s making connections, talking to people.
“The most exciting brand I’ve worked with so far has been Alexander Wang. They kept me on the edge of my seat. People in my model apartment were called for the casting and I wasn’t. I was disappointed, but my agent spoke to the casting director after—talked me up, told them that I was going to be good for the collection and they saw me,” she gleams.
“I wore the shortest shorts I had because I knew Alexander Wang likes his runway models to have really long legs. Right after the casting I could hear him comment, ‘I really liked her legs,’” she smiles. It is not a smile that she wears just on her mouth—you hear it in her voice, in her choice of words and the way she relaxes. It’s the feeling you get when you fulfil a goal you’ve made up for yourself, the way Prabhakar has.
“One of the things I noticed was how diverse Alexander Wang’s show is and I think a shift is happening. Some places, faster than others, but winds of change are here,” Prabhakar adds.
When you’re a young Indian woman who has worked in Singapore, India, the UK and the US, a segue into talking about race and tokenism is only natural. “These days, we talk about race more than ever and I think it’s very important to,” she says thoughtfully. “There are a lot of unfortunate negative experiences out there, but I’ve been very lucky to be able to share all the best parts of being Indian with my friends who aren’t.
“When I was growing up, I never saw people who looked like me on TV or magazines, but I think the way my parents brought me up helped me not to overthink it. On one hand, yes, I stick out because I’m tall and because of my frizzy hair, but I never thought I was not beautiful because I didn’t look a certain way. In fact, I don’t think I ever cared about looking beautiful—my parents taught us that all the other qualities to being a good person are more important than how you look,” Prabhakar expresses with a tilt of her head.
For anyone with a dream, don’t be afraid to take risks. It’s not going to be easy, but you can say, at the end of the day, that you did it
She describes the hair of her youth as a tangled mess of frizz that was impossible to put a brush through, but over the years of working with professionals, Prabhakar has learned to work her curls and make them look their best. Her mane of hair is enviable and moves as much as soft beach grass in the sand with every slight movement.
“I still do think it’s important for magazines and brands to have diversity. I have showed up to some jobs and I’m the only brown person in the room, but increasingly, people all over the world are becoming more aware that representation is important and that’s the way it should have been from the start anyway,” Prabhakar continues.
“I can feel that things are changing and something as deep-rooted as this cannot be turned overnight at the snap of your fingers. I got a lot of reassurance from my mum when I was growing up. However, I can’t say the same for some of my friends, who also grew up not seeing someone Indian, or darker skinned, on billboards or ads. I think diversity is very important.”
It’s an interesting narrative, balancing the notion that you’re hired for how you look against knowing that you’re more than just who people see you on the outside. For many young women who have duskier skin tones, who don’t have what is deemed to be conventionally beautiful features, watching Prabhakar rock runways makes her a beacon, a shining light that fuels them towards turning daydreams into ambitions.
But for Prabhakar, it’s just another day on the job. “I’ve never felt that I was the person representing my race, or other brown people, when I show up on set. Yes, I was hired for how I look, but at the end of the day, it’s my job. I show up, I do my best, I peel off the layers I’ve had to put on—physically and metaphorically—and I go home. I know I am more than just how I look.”
While there is a lot of systemic racism to break down in the country, Prabhakar remains relatively unperturbed by it. Her experience as a model—where she gets hired based on her natural beauty—is built on a different framework from someone who might have to go through layers of discrimination while job-seeking.
“Beyond brands and posting on social media, I think it’s more important to have these conversations about racism and diversity within your groups of friends. It’s okay to talk about race and it’s okay to have conversations about culture and religion,” says Prabhakar. “That’s the great part about being in Singapore, right? You’re surrounded by all sorts of people. I’ve been very lucky not to have experienced racism or discrimination of any kind when I’m working.”
She admits that there are things she has to work at, especially when it comes to certain acts of microaggression that occur. “I’m not good at speaking up. There have been multiple instances where they’re not lighting right or not using the right foundation for my skin or they don’t know what to do with my hair. It’s not racism, for sure—they just don’t know.”
Prabhakar’s infallible self-assurance is not only admirable, it’s also almost comforting. She displays no ostentation, always brimming with anecdotes about the model apartments she has lived in or her Trader Joe’s staples when she misses Indian food while living in the US. Whether conscious or otherwise, Prabhakar chooses to savour her blessings and strengths, and sets her sights on what she wants.
With her kaleidoscope of unique looks mixed with professionalism, Prabhakar’s career is poised to go as far as she wants it to. Her self-confidence in the way she looks, especially for someone who’s only 20, makes her an indomitable spirit in the industry. “I’ve learnt that I don’t need to fit into a beauty ideal or mould or look a certain way. This is how I am and I’m working on being the best me I can be. If you know you are unique and you are special, use that to your advantage,” she says.
Photographer: Bryan Huynh
Stylist: Desmond Lim
CGI artist: Rodolfo Hernandez
Motion design: Aníbal Díaz
Director of Photography: Vanessa Caitlin
Hair: Christian Marianon
Make-up: Cheryl Ow
Production assistants: Andy Leow, Zhan
Stylist assistant: Joey Tan
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