“People told me to just shut up and model”
Model and activist Neelam Gill on refusing to hide her working class roots, calling out racism, and going public on her battle with depression
Words: Sophie Goddard, Pictures: Jason Hetherington, Art Direction: Lisa Oxenham
Nobody in the west London restaurant Neelam Gill and I are in has noticed there’s a famous model in our midst. Or, at least, they’re polite enough not to stare. It’s understandable since Gill is dressed down – oversized streetwear under a prized vintage jacket (picked up on a recent trip to LA) and low-slung beanie; no make-up. The baggy clothes are intentional. ‘When you’re on set you have so many people getting you dressed and touching you, so when I’m not working it’s refreshing not to have to think about what I look like. I wear baggy clothes, tracksuits and no make-up on my days off,’ she explains.
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We’re meeting for brunch to discuss Gill’s meteoric rise to fame – and her adjustment to it. Scouted at just 14 years old in Birmingham, she became the first British Indian model to appear in a major Burberry campaign in 2014. The following year, she was named the face of Abercrombie & Fitch and walked for Kanye West’s Fashion Week show before becoming the first British Indian ambassador of L’Oréal Paris in 2017. Along the way, she’s been unapologetically frank about the obstacles she’s faced from racist trolling to mental health issues. Now 24, Gill is breaking new ground again as Marie Claire’s first digital cover star, exclusively showcasing Dior’s SS20 fashion and beauty. But while the Coventry-born model is fast becoming one of our biggest exports (she’s fresh off the plane from a major job in LA) she’s quick to acknowledge her hometown as a factor in her success. ‘I’m so grateful I grew up [in Coventry]. It’s shaped every part of me,” she says.
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As one of the first British Indian models to land a major fashion campaign (Burberry), you were on the receiving end of racist trolling. Do you think things are changing?
‘I’m in an industry that’s predominantly white and it was tough because people hadn’t seen it before. It’s still the go-to insult because [trolls] know it’s going to knock you and I think it’s still there, but the industry is changing. Seeing people in fashion get major positions makes me so proud. Like Virgil [Abloh] at Louis Vuitton. It’s amazing to see people opening the doors for others because that’s how we’re going to make real change.’
Do you think a class divide exists in modelling, too?
‘Definitely. I remember one of my first agencies telling me, “Don’t tell people you’re from Coventry, say you’re from Leamington Spa”. Back then, I was naïve because I thought everyone was like me.
So many reports have surfaced recently of misconduct and sexual harassment in the industry. Is that something you’ve ever experienced?
‘No, I feel very lucky that I haven’t experienced it because when everything started coming out I realised how common it was. It’s horrendous what people went through, but it’s amazing we’re living in an age where people are brave enough to speak out. For a long time models were just mannequins – you had no voice.’
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Presumably that confidence often comes with experience?
‘Of course. I think from a young age I’ve had that thing inside me where I just don’t give a fuck. I’ve always been raised to be polite because I grew up in an Indian household, but I was also raised to not take any shit. When I came into this industry, without realising it I was given a voice because people wanted to hear my opinion on being the first Indian model. I remember reading comments like, “She should just shut up and model”. But if I help one person, I don’t care if 30 people are writing shit to me in my DMs.’
You’ve spoken about suffering from anxiety and depression. When did that begin for you?
‘When I first started modelling. It was so bad. I think it was [triggered by] travelling and shooting every day; I worked pretty much constantly for two years straight. I was busy to the point I remember booking out time to move house and I wasn’t allowed – I got booked for a job in New York. I didn’t live a very normal life. I was young and so lonely. You’re going from set to set, and part of me was so grateful, but the other part of me was like, “All I want to do is talk to my friends but I’m on set all day and can’t be on my phone”. I remember crying on a plane because it was the only time I’d get to talk to anyone and there was no service. It was relentless.’
“Inside I feel like the same person but people don’t view me that way”
How are you feeling now?
‘Last year was a difficult one for me. Back then it was because I was new to the industry, whereas now it’s coming to terms with how my life has changed. Inside I feel like the same person but people don’t view me that way. Last year I went on my first holiday in over two years to the Maldives by myself. I said, “This is my one big holiday,” and then something came in and [my management] was like, “Would you mind leaving early to do this job in New York?” I said, “You know what? I’m not going to leave early”. I’d always dreamed of going to the Maldives for my honeymoon so I was like, “Should I go alone?” Then I thought, “It’s heaven on earth and if I’m blessed enough to be able to afford it at this age, why not?” I was at the point where I was genuinely having a breakdown.’
Did you turn to anyone for help?
‘Last year I started seeing this life coach [@km_kesa] who has become one of my best friends. I felt like I couldn’t work; I was so depressed and I had an insane amount of anxiety. To show my agency I was trying, I said, “OK, I’m going to speak to a therapist”. I had a few sessions, but it wasn’t productive or beneficial. We were bringing things up from my childhood that I hadn’t thought about since I was a kid. [I was] already in such a negative mindset, I felt we were just unpicking even more issues. I needed something proactive and solution-based.’
Do you think you’re in a happier space now?
‘I do. It’s something I struggled with before I was modelling and it’s always been in my family. My mum suffered from clinical depression – at one point in my childhood she was bedridden for about three years. I’ve always been really aware of it, but now I’m learning how to cope with it better. I still have my [bad] days, but I know what the steps are to get through it.’
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Do you confide in other models who know what the industry can be like?
‘Yeah. For example, Leomie Anderson. My manager wanted me go to the Brit Awards last year when I was very depressed. I remember being on a shoot and crying in the bathroom because the thought made me so anxious. I wasn’t in a good place, I get very nervous on the red carpet. I was thinking, “Who am I going to sit with; what if I don’t know them; will we get on?” My manager was like, “OK, would it make you feel better if you went with Leomie?” We got a hotel, got ready, had the whole car ride and did the carpet together. Having that meant everything because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have done it.’
You have a huge social media following. Do you take breaks from it for your mental health?
‘I do, and I have it so only people I know can DM me. These are my message requests [Neelam displays her Instagram DMs: “I hate you bitch”, “You’ve done a lip job”, “I wanna kiss you”.
That’s shocking. Do you read them all?
‘I try not to but sometimes I click in there by accident. It definitely does magnify your insecurities, but it’s made me realise everyone is always going to have an opinion. You get to the point of not caring, where you’re like, “You know what? Nothing is ever good enough. I will never be perfect, so I may as well do me”.’
You must have to be mindful of safety, too?
‘Absolutely. I had a stalker when I first moved to London and ever since I’ve been very cautious. I was 18 and this guy in his forties sent me a DM saying, “Hey, it’s cool to see you doing your thing, I’m also 18”. He was clearly not 18. He found my mum’s information and messaged her, and he’d write on all my posts as if we were in a relationship. Then he sent a present to my agency on Valentine’s Day – I freaked out. Then I remember being in New York for a job and getting back to my hotel room and it was covered in balloons and flowers [that he’d organised]. Back then I was way more active on social media and would post, “Good morning” with a view out of my window. I’d never do that now. Something told me to look at the card and it was his name. My agent said, “Someone called the agency and told us he was your boyfriend and asked where you were staying”, and they believed him.’
“Not everyone has the right intentions”
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That’s terrifying. Do you deliberately keep your circle of friends small now?
‘Yeah, I’m pretty guarded when it comes to new people. When I came into this I was naive and thought everyone wanted to be a friend. I didn’t realise not everyone has the right intentions.’
Does having money ever make you feel alienated?
‘Definitely. When I first started it was hard. It’s not normal to earn this amount of money at my age. I’m grateful for what I do, but a lot of my friends don’t have the same lifestyle as me. If I get time off they can’t come on a random holiday with me, and I would never want to become ignorant or not be mindful of other people’ circumstances.’
Is that also the case in relationships?
‘When I was younger I found it really difficult because I could tell guys would get insecure about it. But I’m not the type of person who expects a guy my age to be doing better than me. It’s unrealistic for them to even live away from home! Now, the main thing I look out for is if they’re secure in themselves. Are you secure with the fact that I travel and I’m around so many people? With how fast-paced my life is and the male attention? When I was younger I used to go for guys my age, but in the past couple of years I’ve only dated older guys.’
Your father left when you were young. Do you still speak?
‘I don’t have contact with my real dad. The last time I spoke to him I was 11 or 12. I’m at peace with the situation now. When I was younger I had a lot of resentment and it tortured me for a long time because, growing up, I was really close with my dad. Now I’m older I find a sense of peace with it because no one in this world is perfect and I think we put such pressure on our parents. We grow up idolising them and we forget that they’re human beings and they make mistakes. My parents were really young when they got married and now [that] I’m growing up, I’m realising how difficult it is.’
Who do you look up to?
‘Smart businesswomen, like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who have built a brand for themselves; people who have used what they have and leveraged it. Some women want to remain a model and stay super-high fashion and that’s great – but that’s never been me.’