Please meet this month’s cover girl, Zinnia Kumar. She’s been featured in the pages of Vogue Italia, Harper’s Bazaar and campaigns for local labels including Alice McCall and Asilio the Label. But she’s got more going on than just modelling.
Zinnia is a published scientist in the fields of human evolutionary biology and ecology and is currently undertaking her PhD at the University of Oxford. And with a recent role in a feature lm under her belt, she can add actress to the list too.
Now based in the UK, we caught up with Zinnia on a recent trip home to Australia to hear her thoughts on the local fashion industry, wearing fur, overcoming social anxiety and racial tokenism.
Hey Zinnia, what are you up to at the moment?
You’re currently living in London, so we were lucky to catch you! Do you come home often?
I come home every year during the English summer for a brief period. I guess that’s kind of how I’ve accidentally avoided summer for two years.
So how come you decided to move abroad?
The research opportunities are phenomenal. Scientists get paid more and there are more prejudice-free opportunities for minority women, without hitting Australia’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) glass ceiling. It doesn’t help that the Australian Government cuts funding into STEM each year. A lot of people who I went to uni with have also left Australia to follow international opportunities in the UK and US.
We read that from an early age you loved science. How did this interest develop?
I was always that kid in class daydreaming, looking out the window at the birds and bees. Inspired by my addiction to David Attenborough’s documentaries, I told my teacher when I was in grade one that I wanted to be a scientist. All I wanted to do was save endangered animals, stop pollution and watch humans all day.
Tell us a bit about how you got into modelling.
I was scouted a couple of years ago by a London-based casting director who told me to go into the agencies in Sydney. I kid you not, I was blankly rejected by every single agency in Australia not once, not twice but three times. My ethnic background is Indian and because of that, at the time, I was literally told by agents and agencies (in their exact words): ‘You’re not the right ethnicity’, ‘your look doesn’t do well here’ and ‘we only take Anglos’.
Disheartened, I just forgot modelling in Australia and went to London to become the ultimate mad scientist. Funnily enough, I got scouted again by my current manager. Within a few weeks of being in London, I had met, spoken to and worked for Vivienne Westwood which was a surreal experience. Today, I’m the only full- Indian signed Australian model working internationally.
The moral of the story, as with anything you want to do in life, is keep trying. Opinions are just opinions and not based on truth or fact, you create your path and your own truth.
Since finishing school, you’ve received a Bachelor of Advanced Science, published two research papers, moved to London and are undertaking a PhD at Oxford. Not to mention your modelling and acting work. How do you balance your time?
I used to have rubbish time management. In fact, I actually had my pay docked at my first job because I’d never be on time. I’d spend all night playing gory video games and sleep during the day. Then one day I decided I was tired of being a slob and I picked up two books: one called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and another called Think and Grow Rich. They changed the way I thought about myself and my life. After that, I turned my life around with discipline. I never played video games again, stopped watching TV and deleted all my social media accounts. I suddenly had so much more time in the world to do all the adventurous and ambitious things I’d always wanted to do.
I’ve made a point in my life to always do what I love and try to give back with what I do. Because of that, my work relaxes me and it never feels like a chore, so I don’t mind working on weekends.
You recently posted about turning down a modelling job because the styling included chinchilla, lynx and cheetah furs. Do you find your beliefs about the environment and animals change the way you approach your work in fashion?
Before becoming a model, I was a field conservation ecologist working in the Australian Outback. If a person who conserves endangered animals wears them, what hope do these animals have?
I believe integrity and morality come before personal gain. I was aware what a big opportunity I was turning down by not shooting Fendi’s 90th anniversary Haute Fourrure collection.
I just couldn’t live with myself knowing I helped promote and advocate the sale of critically endangered animals. Can you imagine looking back in 10 years’ time and thinking ‘oh hey, I helped make these guys go extinct’. I have a serious problem with non-vintage endangered furs and will not wear them. I just don’t understand why design directors and fabric suppliers can’t use alternatives. Luckily, endangered fur shoots don’t happen often. There’s actually a law against it, but of course, political loopholes exist. I always make a point to ask before every shoot. I make it my responsibility to be aware. However, for every shoot I turn down, there’s an endless supply of girls that will take my place, which unfortunately doesn’t stop the demand and the poaching. In 10 years, it’s believed the critically endangered and the absolutely adorable chinchilla will be completely extinct in the wild from fur poaching. It’s something that makes me quite sad.
What would you most like to change about the fashion industry?
Growing up, I was told incessantly at school and on TV that I lived in a ‘multicultural country’. But nowhere in the media, politics or academia (except occasionally on SBS) did I see any examples of people that even looked remotely like me. I never saw any ethnic girls win Australia’s Next Top Model, [they were] always the token sidekick for brands to appear diverse. Ethnic people only did stereotypical roles on TV and when I saw Cathy Freeman run the Olympics of 2000, I thought she was the most beautiful, inspirational woman on Earth.
The world is a much more globally diverse and multicultural place than it was in the ’80s. However, I think some brands and sectors seriously lack diversity. I don’t think it’s good enough to put a ‘token ethnic girl’ here and there to make your brand or your TV show appear diverse. People can see straight through tokenism. What’s important to remember when talking about diversity, is that one or two examples of diversity is not equivalent to an entire diverse market. It’s simply just one or two examples.
I’ve spoken to different agencies in London and Paris and they all say the same thing: we don’t send our ethnic or black girls to Australia because ‘no one wants them’ and ‘they just don’t work’. So unfortunately, today’s Australian agencies are still majority Anglo.
What I find most puzzling is why there are so few Aboriginal models signed by major agencies in Australia. Also, how is it possible that in 56+ years and 650+ covers, Australian Vogue has only featured two Aboriginal people on its cover (Elaine George in September 1993 and Samantha Harris June 2010)? Why do we continue to turn a blind eye?
Considering you’re a model, people might be surprised to know you once struggled with social anxiety. How did you overcome this?
Growing up, I was always the one to have non-human nicknames like Gollum and Chewbacca. I always wore oversized black shirts and track pants, with the same hairstyle: a low ponytail. I was quite shy and I suffered from social anxiety, which I was embarrassed about and tried desperately to cover up. My social anxiety around males was so bad that at 20, I’d never had a conversation with a guy, never been kissed, never been asked out on a date. Growing up, I was the strangest kind of tomboy, one that couldn’t even talk to boys.
I had my first conversation [with a boy] on a field trip in my third year of uni. I had group work with an assigned male partner. After three hours of the same dialogue in my head ‘you have to say something, you have to say something’ eventually through the nerves, I uttered a single sentence. Immediately, I was amazed. It was that easy? How on earth had it taken me two decades to reach this point?
After that, I started to think positively and challenge my comfort zone. I forced myself to talk to one random person every day on the four-hour train ride to uni and back, to get over my social anxiety. I started slowly coming out of my shell and eventually experimenting with clothes. It was quite strange for me at first, I wasn’t used to attention. For the first time in my life, I was hearing the words ‘pretty’ and ‘Zinnia’ used in the same sentence. I didn’t understand how I could go from being labelled ‘ugly’ to ‘pretty’ simply by how I dressed and did my hair. I went from not being aware of what I looked like to constantly being judged by the external.
This paradox bothered me for a long time, until I realised that if we were all blind, naked and our heads were shaved, what matters? The only person we would be is the person in our minds and our flesh. We don’t have to be anyone or anything, every label is an illusion just as long as you’re true to yourself. You don’t need to live life pleasing everyone or maintaining facades.
I don’t mind spending my weekends with messy hair and wearing a tomato onesie because the people that love me know me for who I am.
Any advice for young people struggling with their identity?
One of the most wonderful lessons I was ever taught is that we must never compare ourselves to other people. In this age of social media, the best parts of people’s fantasy lives are portrayed on social media and the internet. The best body angles, the best selfies. Everyone else always seems to have it together. Concoctions of perfection is all we see.
To bring back your joy, celebrate others’ hard work, never compare, be yourself, work hard, and always remember that hierarchy and fear are illusions. No one is above anyone else, everyone is equal. The only difference between you and the Queen is a label, we’re all human and all valuable.
Describe an average day in your life.
What is average? Every day is so different to the last. Usually I wake up, try to drink a litre of water, do some resistance training, say hi to my chickens, check my emails, go to uni, work or castings, or whatever else I have planned for that day. However, without fail, I always write in my journal as it helps give me perspective.
What else should we know about you?
I’m also an actress and I just got my first feature film role in the Warner Bros. DC Films Hollywood ick, Wonder Woman.
Amazing. What was it like working on such a massive Film?
Being involved in such a major production was a great experience. e teams involved were huge! Meeting director Patty Jenkins was exciting and of course, Gal Gadot. I played an Amazon Warrior and was part of the entourage in the village with Queen Hippolyta.
You’ve had two published papers on Negative Frequency Dependence that revolve around hair (colour and beards). As a result of your work, you’ve been dubbed a ‘beauty expert’. What has science taught you about beauty?
There’s no single formula for beauty, the only thing consistent in human attractiveness trends is that it’s inconsistent. It’s a social trend that varies with media exposure, culture, time, space, opinion, context and circumstance. The only kind of beauty that is consistent throughout time, culture and circumstance is inner beauty – from inner confidence to complete self-acceptance.
Do you think you’ll continue to have careers in both fashion and science, or do you see yourself eventually picking one as your core focus?
I think they both go together quite well. There is never a need to choose and you just make your own way, a new way that no one has ever thought of before.
How many pages long is your resume?
Last time I checked it was about five pages long.
Where will you be in five years?
Politics? UN? Academia? Hermit? Actress? Chicken Whisperer? It’s impossible for me to say exactly where I will be. But that’s the best part.
My favourite place in the world is... Sunnataram Forest Monastery in New South Wales.
My career highlight… Wonder Woman, shooting with Sølve Sundsbø and getting booked for Vogue Italia.
Beards are… mysterious.
My family always says I... am a bit weird.
Fashion is... dynamic.
The naughtiest thing I’ve ever done is… encouraging cannibalism by feeding fried chicken to my chicken.
Science is... art.
My favourite piece of clothing is... my amber ring.
The one thing I’d change about the world is… make it happier.
My style is… gothic-bohemian with a touch of ‘I’m just chilling at home’.
Photographer: Kay Sukumar
Stylist: Rachel Robertson
Hair: Abby at Usfin Atelier
Featuring: Zinnia Kumar
Production: Karan Kumar at Something Production
This shoot was originally published in Fashion Journal issue 170. You can read it here.