With strong stage presence and striking features, 32-year-old Anjali Lama looks at home among the sea of models at Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai. But with every step on the runway, she is making history. Born Nabin Waiba, as a boy growing up in the rural district of Nuwakot in Nepal, Lama was often severely bullied for having feminine tendencies. This week -- as Anjali Lama -- she became the first transgender model to grace the catwalk at India's premiere fashion event.
A childhood as Nabin Waiba
Lama has spent the majority of her life tackling discrimination and prejudice. As a child she was bullied at school, while at home she was pressured to conform to gender stereotypes by her father and brothers. "I enjoyed wearing women's clothing, and at school I mostly had female friends. The kids at school used to mock me and say 'he's a girl.' Then at home, my father would scold me, asking 'what will you do with your life?'" At the age of 18, Lama moved to Nepal's capital city, Kathmandu, where her struggle with gender identity continued. She describes this period now as "mental torture." "I was there for college but worked at a hotel and was fired because of my feminine behavior. They said I made the customers uncomfortable," she tells CNN.
Discovering the transgender community
A chance encounter, however, changed everything. "While I was living in Kathmandu, I was watching television and stumbled upon a show about transgender people. I thought to myself, 'I'm like this too.' Inspired by her discovery, Lama reached out to a group of transgender people, eventually stumbling upon Blue Diamond Society -- a group in Nepal which advocates for sexual minorities. "I realized I'm not the only one, this is my society," she says.
The journey to Lakmé Fashion Week
Lama's first foray into fashion was inspired by the very community of friends she established once she embraced her transgender identity. They encouraged her to consider a career in modeling and overcome her identity issues. "Coming out was a major step for me, so considering a career in modeling seemed like a long shot. But my friends insisted I try it out, and their encouragement made me feel good." Lama got her first major break when she was featured on the cover of a Nepali magazine called Voice of Women. Yet she still faced resistance when she tried to develop her career further.
"I asked my agency why I wasn't getting jobs. He said it is because I am transgender," she says. "But I remembered what my mother told me about not giving up, and moving forward. I knew someone, somewhere will give me an opportunity." In 2010 she was cast to walk for Nepalese designer Subexya Bhadel and made her catwalk debut. But her sights were set on going global, and walking India's premiere fashion week became the next big step. While she was rejected the first year she auditioned, this year, she made the cut.
Diversity in fashion
The fashion industry often receives criticism for its lack of diversity. According to the Spring 2017 diversity report by The Fashion Spot, more than 70% of the models cast for New York, London, Paris and Milan fashion weeks were white. But, in recent years, traditional perceptions of beauty have been challenged -- not only with regards to race but also body shape, age and sexuality. In January, Hanne Gaby Odiele -- a Belgian model who has worked with high-profile clients such as Mulberry and Balenciaga -- made headlines after revealing that she identifies as intersex. And it seems that organizations have started responding.
Lakmé Fashion Week made diversity a key priority this year, specifically looking to cast unique faces and features. This season, alongside Lama, another gender neutral model will walk the runway in Mumbai. The organization has also put together what they call a "tag-free" show, which rejects labels and rigid categories. "Fashion is looked at as a closed society. People feel it is out of reach and untouchable. We want to change that" said Jaspreet Chandok, Vice President and Head (Fashion), at IMG Reliance, the event owners of Lakmé Fashion Week.
This move, so far, has been a success. Chandok says that more plus size and transgender models have started to reach out to them for future castings. But for Lama, seeing a more diverse lineup on the catwalk is only half the battle. Once the curtains close, she hopes to encourage confidence in sexual minorities off the runway as well. "I just want to live life the way I want, and I'm not scared to do it." This interview has been translated from Hindi. It has been edited for length and clarity.