Meet Maleesha Kharwa, Indian teen from the slums turned modelling internet sensation


Posted at Sep 18 2023 06:26 PM

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Maleesha Kharwa, now 15, once lived with her family in a waterfront slum in Mumbai, in a hutment on a shoreline strewn with garbage.

But thanks to her, the family has moved up the property ladder to a rented one room apartment, with its own toilet and running water.

All due to a chance encounter three years ago, when an inquisitive American tourist wandered into the slum and gave her the breakthrough she needed.

It’s a story that has drawn comparisons to the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire set in Mumbai.

In 2020, the tourist, who turned out to be American actor and choreographer Robert Hoffman, posted videos of his time with Maleesha and her family on Instagram and YouTube.

The videos showcased Maleesha’s cheeky but winning personality, and moments of her teaching Hoffman how to speak Hindi with a voice that burst with happiness, belying the hardship she's known, having lost her mother at a young age, leaving her father to juggle his day job while raising two children.

Knowing the power of the Internet, Hoffman helped her launch a "Go Fund Me" campaign.

Since then, Maleesha has become a social media influencer, using the hashtag #theprincessfromtheslum in some of her posts. At the last count her Instagram account had 367,000 followers, and rising.

In March, a luxury Indian cosmetics brand Forest Essentials - part owned by L'Oreal - chose Maleesha as the face of its Yuvati campaign celebrating young Indian women.

Before that, she shared a cover of Cosmopolitan India magazine that bore the strap line: "Guts! Guts! Guts!"

Maleesha hopes these successes will be the springboard to a career as a model or a dancer, though she intends to concentrate on her studies until she finishes school.

"I feel good, because I look different on camera and in real life," Maleesha told a Reuters photographer at her home, surrounded by poster-covered walls.

Her breakthrough reflects gradually changing attitudes in a country where advertising, popular culture and Bollywood films glorify fair-skin as an ideal of beauty.

"Now many people recognise me and click pictures. I feel very proud of myself at that moment," she said, before adding that on some days she feels people take too many photographs.

(Report from Reuters; Production: Sunil Kataria, Tarun Kumar, Amardeep Kori)