The new Old Spice commercial featuring “former" supermodel Milind Soman’s “mantastic" body, fresh out of a testosterone spa, reminds us of a kingdom that has been without a monarch for years now. The era of the male supermodel died when men like Soman and Arjun Rampal, the magnetic clothes horses of the 1990s, walked away from fashion. It’s time to write that formal obituary.

The golden neckpiece hanging over Soman’s bare chest reads “Man" but encodes multiple messages. That a male model’s body, when served like a piece of meat, works only with a seductive absence of self-consciousness. That manhood is miles away from metrosexuality, an idea that fashion has been fussing over for the last decade. That memorable modelling is a fiery blur between brand, product and person. That a model’s overall impact may ripple out of a gym-baked body, but his real muscle lies in the individuality of his body language.

These attributes play hide-and-seek among current male models. Work for male ramp models remains inconsistent in India, but two recent shows made an effort to showcase masculine talent. Designer Ashish Soni’s finale at the recent Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WIFW) featured 20 models. Each was instantly washed out of recall even before actor Anil Kapoor strode in as the showstopper. After that, designer Ravi Bajaj showed “Mad Men", a men’s collection at Delhi’s DLF Emporio. “Forty models but not even one exceptional to justify such a good collection," said a spectator. A common refrain in the audience: Where have all the good-looking men gone?

A model at Jay Mitra’s recent show
A model at Jay Mitra’s recent show

Fashion has another agenda. Or, the lack of it. “Fashion is going nowhere as a profession for models, it is losing its voice as no designer wants to invest in male models to make a fashion statement. The industry is not true to its own needs; instead it wants to get stars to walk the ramp," says Jamal Shaikh, editorial director of Robb Report and Men’s Health. Shaikh is also sceptical about fashion magazines which are expected to create cult figures out of exceptional models but instead substitute them with Bollywood celebrities on every cover.

In print and TV ads, the attack on the male model is brutal. When a star doesn’t notch masculinity points like Saif Ali Khan for Amul Macho (underwear), the dominance of metrosexuality does the remaining damage. Raymond defines its “complete man" as “a metrosexual, caring, family man who was different from the way men were portrayed in the 1970s and 1980s".

“That was the angry young man era. But the Raymond man was softer, and every communication created showed the changes happening around the alpha male," Mrinmoy Mukherjee, director of marketing at Raymond, said in an interview last year after the company held a model hunt.

Macho men generally seem to be in the red. The Marlboro man faded away after a ban on advertising. Marc Robinson, another minor simmer on the modelling circuit, sold Kamasutra condoms till as recently as 2010 trying to light a fire. He couldn’t. Dino Morea, who flashed his pearly whites for Close-Up toothpaste and bared a daintily (too daintily, alas) shaven torso for Live-In jeans, doesn’t model any more. But the beefy John Abraham, who now wears an unattractive hunch, does. He entered the industry through the Gladrags Manhunt Contest in 1999 after completing an MBA and soon joined films. “He was too intelligent to stay a ramp model," says senior designer Suneet Varma, adding that contrary to popular perception, Abraham succeeded because of his brains not brawn. Abraham now sells Garnier men’s fairness cream and skids merrily alongside his VIP luggage.

On the ramp, a variety of male stars plucked from different points of the masculinity spectrum are sent out—from an insipid Prateik Babbar, who does no favour to fashion, to Kabir Bedi, the grand-daddyof old-style machismo. In this world, Anil Kapoor turns out to be the ruler. From bridal week to couture shows to the finale of WIFW, his saleable combo of old spice and youthfulness has been everywhere. Rampal saunters in sometimes as the cherry on a Rohit Bal couture cake. But otherwise sticks to films or sells an assortment of Nivea cosmetics, a fairness cream included. Will someone please tell him not to darken his USP?

Milind Soman in the new Old Spice ad

“Almost 50 years old now, he is still in demand, really a feat of reinvention," says Varma. Having worked with Soman’s generation of models in the mid-1990s and those before him, Varma, along with fashion photographers Bharat Sikka and the late Prabuddha Dasgupta, could be “held partially responsible" (Varma agrees) for bringing pretty boys to fashion. “Masculine but relaxed male models" to replace aggressively macho ones in the 1980s like Deepak Parashar and Deepak Malhotra, explains Varma. Parashar, now 60 years old, is best remembered for his film Nikaah with Pakistani actor Salma Agha, while Malhotra, a national-level gymnast with an enviable body, was the face of Vimal for many years. He would later do a two-bit role in Yash Chopra’s Lamhe.

The two Deepaks called “lady killers" in those days would make way for boys like Soman, Rampal and Rahul Dev, who, says Varma, laughingly, were lover boys, not lady killers. Both types had set billboards in Bombay on fire at some point. They would be followed briefly by Jas Arora and Rajat Raina, good but not as hot. “Milind’s physique and Rampal’s height were attractive but they brought something else to modelling that inspired designers like me to create garments especially for them," recalls Varma, adding that after them, Rajat Raina (Digjam, Woodlands) was the only true clothes horse. He admits that when he sees male models these days, he too wonders where all the good boys have gone.

“They are being replaced by a new breed of fitness models," responds Shaikh, explaining that a number of personal products, health and fitness magazines for men now form a part of a fairly important industry and need these models. Labelled the “Haryana Brigade" by industry insiders, fitness models are not always welcome in fashion. “There is a standing directive from numerous designers not to audition very beefed-up boys," says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), adding that hordes of such boys come out from small town gyms. “Shirtless photographs are a non-negotiable part of their modelling portfolios," says Sethi, adding that these boys come for their 15 minutes of fame knowing well that they won’t last or evoke any recall until someone cracks it in Bollywood. A recent exception is Sahil Shroff, the HCL model who evolved from fashion weeks to act in Don 2.

However, most just fall out. Girls charge from 10,000-45,000 per show depending on seniority and talent but boy aren’t even paid 10,000 a show. “We are not paid full rates. Many designers offer entry-level rates to established models and new boys are always there to fill in the gaps, so the career of a male model in India is not only short-lived, it is not a paying one either," says Amit Ranjan, ramp model.

Ranjan says a majority among his peers continue to look for other avenues to supplement their income or get a viable foothold in film and TV. “Many new boys who enter modelling now are from established backgrounds, and see it as a short-lived career," he says.

The reappearance of Soman is the final nail in a coffin that’s been shut for years now.

Gouri Shah contributed to this story.

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