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Exclusive: What Life Looks Like for a 15-YO Model Who Rose from a Mumbai Slum

Maleesha Kharwa, a 15-year-old living in a Mumbai slum, always dreamed of becoming a model. This became a reality after a chance meeting with Robert Hoffman. Today, she’s a professional child model, featured on the covers of popular magazines. Here’s an exclusive interview about her journey and all that goes into living a dream.

Exclusive: What Life Looks Like for a 15-YO Model Who Rose from a Mumbai Slum

On every post that 15-year-old Maleesha Kharwa uploads on Instagram, one hashtag remains — #princessfromtheslum. They say the universe works in mysterious ways, and that couldn’t be more true in the case of this warrior girl. Born and raised in a Mumbai slum, she believed she was destined for something far greater than the life she knew — and she was. As Maleesha settles down for a conversation with The Better India, her words are in harmony with the tune of self-belief. It is almost impossible to not begin to believe in destiny after hearing her tale.

A chance encounter

In 2020, Robert Hoffman, famous for his role in Step Up 2: The Streets (2008), was in Mumbai for a music video. What was planned as a short stay turned out to be much longer, he recalls 

“I was there for the premier of a short film I did with Arsala Qureshi and Jas Sagu. But this was at the same time that the COVID lockdown struck, and I was stuck for five months,” he tells The Better India. “The music video I was looking to do immediately sank when the lockdown started, right on our first planned shoot day. It was really frustrating.”

It was around the same time that Robert met Maleesha.

Maleesha Kharwa rose from a girl in the slums of Mumbai to a model
Maleesha Kharwa rose from a girl in the slums of Mumbai to a model, Picture source: Maleesha

His first thought on seeing her, he says, was to question why she was living in the street. He felt she had a “million-dollar face”. “I was sure she couldn’t have been overlooked in Mumbai — the entertainment capital of India. I knew for sure that the international beauty industry would absolutely see things differently.”

When Robert approached Maleesha asking what she wanted to be when she was older, pat came the reply. “I want to be a dancer and a model.” 

While Maleesha was simply stating her dream, Robert says he knew this girl’s life was about to change.

The day Maleesha’s life changed

“I was living by the water with my brother and father in a slum in Bandra. We would sleep on the ground because it was very hot. We would make our small house with sticks and cover it from the sun, but the municipality would come and break my house many times. We would have to build it all over again,” Maleesha says.

“We live by the ocean, but it is very dirty. To wash dishes, we dig a hole in the sand and the water fills up in it. After we clean the dishes using this water, we use tap water that we get from a garden nearby to rinse the dishes off.”

Maleesha believed that in the future, she’d be a model. While people told her it was a far-fetched dream, she never lost hope. And then one day, Robert Hoffman walked right into her slum.

“I knew the next step was to speak with her father. With my friend playing the role of interpreter, we spoke at great lengths, so I could be sure they understood that modelling was neither a guarantee, nor something that could be counted on forever,” Hoffman explains. “I was happy to see that he didn’t take the decision lightly, but instead took a few days to confer with the rest of their family. A few days later, they told me they were in.”

Then, says Robert, he knew it was time to start padding her life with trustworthy, artistic and professional women to make sure her web of peers, influence, and accountability was as thick as possible.

Maleesha's life took a turn for the better after a chance meeting with Robert Hoffman
Maleesha’s life took a turn for the better after a chance meeting with Robert Hoffman, Picture source: Maleesha

From playing in the slums to being on the cover of magazines

Maleesha recalls this being the day that she had been praying for years. “We made an Instagram account for me with a video, and so many people started to follow me.”

But while fame had found her on Instagram, Robert says there were a lot of legalities that needed to be figured out before she could start modelling. “We began speaking to NGOs, the US consulate in Mumbai, entertainment figureheads, and unending voluntary consultants about how to craft Maleesha’s movement and the GoFundMe account for her in the most delicate way, considering her age and socioeconomic status.” 

He adds that once this was in place, everything else worked out like magic. People around India had begun hearing of Maleesha’s story. “Hope you become a great star”, “Your journey is beautiful”, “Your story makes me believe in miracles” — many such feelings were echoed by Maleesha’s fan base, which is now at a whopping 2,24,000 followers on Instagram. People’s amazement at what Maleesha’s unwavering belief had brought her only grew when the young girl appeared on the cover of the October 2020 issue of The Peacock Magazine.

An excerpt from the magazine has Falguni Peacock talking about how fascinated they were with the little star. “We’d seen many pictures of Maleesha before. But when we saw her on the shoot day, we were in awe of her chirpy, cheerful spirit and her eagerness to know how a professional photoshoot was conducted. We had a great time chatting up with her in between shots,” adds Falguni.

Following this opportunity, Maleesha’s story found its way to leading magazines, and her testimony is even on the pages of Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

‘Everything is overseen by a professional.’

Robert adds the main emphasis has always been on striking a balance between the world of glamour and ensuring that Maleesha still leads a normal life. “Everyone Maleesha works with is made to understand that under no circumstances will she ever be out of eyeshot of her adult male guardian, and that her hours of work would be limited,” he says, adding that he has made it obligatory for anyone who wishes to interview or work with Maleesha to have a video chat with him first so he can make sure everything seems fine. 

“Another major point for us was that education would always come first, and that modelling stops if grades go down. Early on, it was decided that Maleesha would stay clear of pageants and mass-auditioning. In fact, Maleesha has yet to go to a single audition. Every job so far has come to her. The kid and her story are truly magic,” he adds.

Even if you put these accomplishments aside, says Robert, Maleesha’s heart is full of the childlike wonder of her age. “She gets way more excited to receive cookies or any other sweets than hearing about the dollar amount of a job.”

One would wonder how Maleesha’s life has changed following this exciting phase. But she says things have largely remained the same, except that her father no longer has to skip meals for them. She continues to go to the same school where her friends are, and her modelling roles are managed by Robert. 

“We’re very, very cutthroat about jobs. They have to be big and they have to come at us with a lot of credibility. They have to and they gotta be a positive experience. We vowed early on to maintain her ability to have a normal childhood and it seems to be working out,” he says.  

He adds that her modelling money is split four ways. “One-fourth goes to the family directly for daily expenses, one-fourth towards their housing, one-fourth is saved for advanced education, and one-fourth for career expenses. Her money sits untouched in a completely separate bank account just for her, to be released to her at the age of 18.” 

He adds that the family moved into a locked home with a kitchen and proper bathroom a couple of years ago, through the help of a supporter. “Since then, her career money has taken over the rent payments, and we’re looking to upgrade her to an even nicer place.”

‘Always keep smiling’

Is it scary to be part of an industry that many find so tough to get into? Do the bad days make it overwhelming?

Maleesha’s reply is quick, and you can tell she’s been asked this several times. “I don’t know; whether I win or not, I say ‘always keep smiling’. If you cannot enjoy your life in bad times, then it will not be possible to enjoy your life even in good times.”

Looking back at the journey, Maleesha says she often thinks about how doors that were once closed, all opened for her when she least expected it.

While Maleesha partakes in brand collaborations and modelling assignments, she also studies and lives a routine life
While Maleesha partakes in brand collaborations and modelling assignments, she also studies and lives a routine life, Picture source: Maleesha

Taking me back to one of her posts on Instagram, where a vision board shows ramp walks by major fashion brands and her own face cut, copied, and pasted smack in the middle of the collage, Maleesha says, “Some people think that I should not be a professional child model just because I am an Indian girl from the slums, and this makes me so mad! But then it only makes me want to work harder.”

She emphasises that no matter the dream, dream it. The universe will make it happen.

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Edited by Divya Sethu

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