[Image source: Instagram]

Meet Ankita Bhardwaj, the Instagram influencer who has taken the beauty domain by storm. She stepped foot into the world of blogging and Instagram at a time when South Asian women were still paving their path to the top and Bhardwaj instantly became one of the trailblazers in the movement. Today, she’s worked in beauty campaigns for mammoth companies like L’Oreal and Sephora, and she has no intention to stop!

 

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With an unabashed love for her cultural background, and with the goal to encourage thousands of her followers to just embrace who they are, Bhardwaj and her creative talent know no bounds. From channeling her inner Bollywood diva to creating empowering looks of the royalty of Punjab, this successful young woman strives to push each one of her fashion and beauty looks beyond anyone’s imagination, setting herself apart from many.

Bhardwaj talks more about her journey, passion, and how she started it all, in an exclusive interview with Brown Girl Magazine. Tune in below for the complete conversation:

Tell me about yourself.

I currently work as a supply teacher in Toronto. But, I have always been into fashion and beauty from the age of 2-3. I would raid my mom’s closet, she’d be in the kitchen cooking while I would be trying on her clothes and jewelry, so it’s always been a passion of mine. Later, I moved out to go to Teacher’s College and was staying on my own for school. It was hard being away from family so that’s when I first started creating my looks and posting things on Instagram. It started off with me posting my outfits of the day and just the typical stuff, but it soon became something that allowed me to open up and gain the confidence to showcase the cultural side of me because that was always important to who I am. I grew up being obsessed with Bollywood and all things Indian, so that really tied into my looks. And it all just took off from there. I got a lot of support from the audience.

And how was the support from your parents?

They didn’t know about my page until about a year and a half later, and it was through one of my aunts who told my mom that she really liked my posts on Instagram. At that point, my mom was more like ‘What is she talking about?’ So, then I told her about it. They first thought that this was a hobby of mine and it wasn’t anything serious. She was excited to see my work because she’s also into fashion, and she was excited to see me collaborating with all these South Asian companies,. But again, they weren’t serious about it and they wanted me to pursue teaching more. It didn’t become real to them until I signed with an agency, and I was getting collaborations with big companies like L’Oreal. They were starting to understand but it was difficult to explain to them that this was something that I want to pursue. They were more like, ‘Yes, keep this as a hobby on the side while you’re entirely focusing on teaching.’ And it’s still in the process of that, it’s still kind of difficult, where they aren’t saying ‘Ok, you’re doing this fulltime and that’s awesome.’ I’m still on that journey.

 

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How do you maintain a balance between your job as a teacher and being an influencer?

I love being a teacher. But, I also don’t want my work on Instagram to be just a side hustle, so I try to make things even—50-50—where I’m focusing on teaching as well as my Instagram. But, it does get difficult. I’m always up late, in my free time I’m always doing things for Instagram, so I’m really always working. There are days when I’m so overwhelmed, but when I’m working on my Instagram posts, it doesn’t really feel like work. The other thing is I don’t put myself on a timeline. When I’m creating content, I’ll be inspired by something one day and I’ll create it right there and then. I work as I get inspired.

Have you found a way to bridge your work as a teacher with your work in the beauty industry?

I always try to inspire my students. I tell them to embrace their culture and other things I preach on Instagram as well. So, I try to make a connection that way. And, I do have students who look up to me on Instagram which is awesome. Also, I feel like we live in such a different world right now where your teachers can also be influencers, which is amazing.

Did you feel any inhibitions at the time you put yourself out there with your first ever post?

Definitely. My heart always beats really fast before I post anything, even now. At first, I used to think, ‘What will people think about my appearance?’ But, over time, I understood that people will have things to say and it doesn’t matter. I know who I am, and the people I love know who I am. The physical appearance doesn’t matter anymore. I do get nervous, now, when I put fashion-based historical posts up because I don’t want to get anything wrong—people will come out for you!

 

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So, how do you deal with the negative comments?

At first, I used to get a lot of racist comments on my nose ring. I remember I used to comment on how the nose ring was a traditional thing and people shouldn’t be ignorant. But, then I noticed that people do it to just spread negativity, so now I just block the negative comments.

Let’s move on to collaborations. Talk to me about your very first one! How was landing that with L’Oreal?

It was crazy! That was so huge for me. I remember I was so nervous, I thought to myself, ‘Do I even know what I’m doing?’ And being South Asian, I hadn’t seen many South Asian influencers get to work with such big companies at that time, and so it was a big deal. The first time was really interesting and it went really well, everyone was really kind. Then, a year later, I got my second collaboration with L’Oreal, another hair collaboration, and I was so prepared for that one because I did it once before. The second time I went there, I knew that this was my dream. It’s amazing.

 

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So L’Oreal was your first one. Then, you collaborated with Sephora. How was that?

Yes! Sephora, I had no idea, it would be that big. I just thought it was a beauty campaign for Sephora and it would probably be showcased in their stores, but I had no idea that it would be all over Toronto. I didn’t really know too much about it going in, but once I went in, I realized that each of the models and influencers who were with me was so unique. That’s when I thought that this campaign is actually changing things. It’s changing the way we look at the beauty industry and it featured so many different aspects and people. It’s huge! And I had no idea that it was going to be on billboards, so when they told us, it was incredible. I had no idea it would get this far.

 

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Did you take your family to go see those billboards in Toronto?

Yes! I went with my cousins one night and just stood there outside the Eaton’s Center and watched.

How do you feel about representation and diversity when it comes to working on these campaigns with big companies? How do you feel these companies are promoting diversity now versus 20 years ago?

Now they’re reaching out to a lot of Bollywood stars even—L’Oreal has worked with Freida Pinto recently. So, before influencers, these companies started reaching out to a lot of South Asian celebrities and that was really nice to see. And once the Instagrammer and YouTuber phase came in, I saw more influencers working with these companies. But, it was after I started working with L’Oreal that I started noticing models who were more diverse. Every campaign features a different kind of model, and that includes me. I mean, I’m just a Brown Girl from Brampton and I’m working on a L’Oreal campaign, you know? It’s a huge for colored women.

 

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What is that one campaign that you really want to land?

I really want to work with Fenty Beauty. They have changed the game. I’m seeing models of different ethnicities in their campaigns—they had a Somalian model and we don’t get to see that very often. Their models have very different features. With Fenty Beauty, all their models are so unique.

I love how you embrace your ethnicity to the fullest. How was it growing up with this dual-identity?

I did grow up in a predominantly South Asian neighborhood. My parents immigrated to Canada right before I was born and settled in a brown community, so I did have that background from childhood. But, my parents later put me in a private school and that’s where I was one of the only South Asians. It was such a culture shock for me because I was never used to being around so many non-South Asian people. That’s when I started hating my curly hair and the whole upper lip and unibrow thing happened. I used to go home and fully embrace my culture, but when I went to school, with so many Caucasians, I would start hating how I looked. I went through that whole battle up until mid-high school. That’s when I became friends with people who were a part of my community, they were South Asian, and they really empowered me to be proud of who I was. It was mid-high school when I said I don’t care if I look different, I love how I look.

 

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Today, do you feel that as South Asians, models still miss out on big beauty campaign opportunities?

Of course. Especially because we have that bigger nose, our features tend to be bigger than your ‘typical’ model. I think when beauty companies work with women of color, they’ll leave out South Asians. I’ll see a lot of Latino women or those who are brown but not entirely South Asian.

Do you think that will change?

For sure! Brown women are already making a huge difference. I know South Asian women are demanding more from these bigger companies. We’re talking about it and starting that conversation. I think companies are taking note of it, and even the audience is asking for a change.

We see a lot of South Asian, Bollywood-inspired looks on your post. Talk to me about why that’s so important to you.

I want to put out content that is different, something that inspires minds in a different way. I grew up watching retro Bollywood (the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s); everything that I do is inspired by exactly that. I’ll be inspired to create a look, but then I have to make it vintage and retro because that’s just who I am.

 

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Have you ever taken a break?

I actually have taken a break! I actually took a long break from September 2018 – November 2018. I used to post once every 3 weeks, but I needed that break. Mentally, I was going through a hard time in my life and I knew that I had to take a break from social media and take care of myself, mentally and physically. I wasn’t looking after my body and I took that break and it was the best thing ever. I had all this inspiration gathered up and was a lot more positive when I came back.

What role do you think social media plays in people’s lives? What are the negatives and positives about it?

The good is that you can put yourself out there and showcase who you are. You can get recognition because a lot of South Asian women never used to get this kind of recognition in the media. Now, we’re seeing all this representation and diversity. The negative about it is how we compare our lives with others and what they show on social media. I remember I used to think that this person looks like they have everything together and I have nothing together in my life. Even physically, I would look at fitness pages and think I need to look a certain way. There’s a lot of comparing and competition, but I guess that’s human nature too.

 

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How would the beauty industry be different if there were no social media?

I don’t know if we, South Asians, would get that much exposure. There might not be that many girls who put themselves out there, we wouldn’t have that much representation.

How important are Instagram “likes” to you?

Obviously, I get discouraged when I’ve worked on something so hard and I don’t get the engagement I anticipated. That’s happened to me before, it happens to everyone. At the same time, whenever I do looks about South Asian women in history, those ones don’t get that much engagement as my regular outfit posts. But, at the same time, there are so many people that appreciate those posts, and I’m really proud of the research I’ve done and the look I’ve created. I have thought about why I haven’t gotten good engagement on those posts, but then I think it doesn’t matter because I put out something important and something that makes me so proud of myself.

 

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So, with all these influencers doing so much work on social media, how do you stay relevant?

I don’t know if I try to think of it as staying relevant. I put up whatever inspires me naturally and I hope that people will connect with it. I think if you’re thinking about it in a way of trying to be relevant, or how to show yourself off, it might backfire—it’s not genuine enough. Stay genuine to who you are and don’t follow a trend simply because it’s trending. Stay true to who you are and that is what will connect you to their audience.

What’s the message behind your creative work?

Embrace who you are—culturally and your style. Don’t be afraid to step out of the norm. Overall, I feel like I’m learning on this journey with my audience. I’m gaining the confidence and voice just as my audience is. So we’re all in it together. It’s like a story.

Bhardwaj is only on to bigger and better things and her followers can’t wait to see more of the creativity she’s got in store! Her work speaks volumes for the message she’s continuously trying to extend to her audience—be true to yourself—and it’s safe to say that she’s just getting started.


Follow Ankita Bhardwaj and her creative work and journey on Instagram, @aankita.b.

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