Meet Neelam Gill; The 21 year old model who is the first British-Asian to be crowned the face of L’Oréal Paris UK! She conquered the Burberry ramp at London Fashion Week in 2014 and in those short few years she's made massive strides for diversity and representation in Fashion all round. We applaud her resilience through personal challenges of divorce, racism, online bullying, breakdowns and her rumoured fling with Zayn Malik and track her meteoric, (and ongoing) ascent...!
Gill was 14 when she was first scouted by a modelling agency tottering around Birmingham like every other teenager. Coming from a traditional, working class, Indian Coventry family, it wasn't until Gill got four A*s at her A-levels, (showing she has more than ample brains as well as beauty), that Neelam was allowed to finally give modelling a shot. She was signed up by 'Models 1', once home to the original supermodels: Yasmin Le Bon, Twiggy, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evaneglista. One of her very first jobs was being sent to meet none other than the mammoth luxury label, Burberry in 2014.
Neelam Gill makes her Burberry Debut at London Fashion Week 2014
She went on to become the first model of Indian origin to star in Burberry’s global campaigns as well as magazine covers and celebrity ramps for everyone from Kanye West to Dior.
The crown jewels on the mantel so far though is the recent announcement that Gill is to be L'Oreal Paris UK's cover face. Something that has rightly delighted Gill but is quite a coup for women of ethnicity everywhere. “Saying 'this is a dream come true' would be an understatement. I feel honored to be working alongside such an influential company, especially being the first British Indian model! Growing up I felt left out & unrepresented knowing that nobody in mainstream media looked like me, and now I hope to change that.”
It hasn't always been plain sailing for Gill though. Her parents, both from traditional Indian families, were born in the UK and had an arranged marriage. Working and living with the paternal in-laws at their corner shop, her parents had a hard time and ended up in a messy divorce when Neelam was 7. “It was the rough part of Coventry. There were rats and mould, and I have memories of my mum just being on her knees and scrubbing.”
“I thought I would never get over that pain. I remember just being heartbroken, I was numb for years and years. I always thought if I could get through that, then I could deal with anything.”
Gill cut off contact with her biological dad; her mum remarried when she was 13 and she later took her stepfather’s surname. “I don’t hold any animosity towards my [biological] dad, his wife or his kids. I’ve never met them, but I don’t really feel the need to. I feel a lot of guilt for what I put my mum through.” Gill says she became difficult and cold as a child. “I was really hard on my mum at a time when she really needed me. I wasn’t there for her. I do what I can to be better to her now.”
It was around a year after her Burberry debut that Neelam suffered from deep anxiety and depression; “I had a huge breakdown – I just felt so disconnected from everything. I’d lost so many friends, I’d moved to so many different apartments, I kind of went a bit distant from my family. They weren’t 100% happy with me because work stuff was crazy and they felt like they were losing me. I was getting all these big jobs, I didn’t think it was going to last and, you know, that was my main issue: I never ever said no. Even if I was exhausted or ill.”
But it was her experiences of this and the online bullying she faced after entering the public eye and her rumoured fling with former One Direction's Zayn Malik that stimulated Gill to stand up to bullying publicly, helping so many young people like her. We love that Neelam's crusaded for anti-bullying and promoting the position of non-white girls. According to Gill, Black, Chinese or Asian models are usually only included in ads as a token gesture and never acquire dominant positions. Current stats estimate 8 out of 10 of the most booked models are white.
Neelam Gill with Fellow L'Oreal Model Maria Borges
In her crusade against racism, Neelam stands for the underdog, for those bullied in society. She's publicly supported British Sikh Harnaam Singh, the girl who courageously wears her beard caused polycystic ovary syndrome.
She's posted a series of outspoken videos to her YouTube channel, of her chatting on the effects of bullying, depression, body image and racism which she says she feels are necessary regardless of the backlash that she often gets. It's worth it - “If I reached one person who needed to hear those things. Depression is still something I suffer with,” she says, “but it’s something you learn how to cope with and you get help.”
For us, this girl is a superstar. She's real, she has down days but she's also forged through those to help others...(not to mention just a super cool fashion icon. For Neelam, it only goes up from here!