Meet the Model Who Steadied Her Pace Towards Success

Dress – Sachin & Babi | Boots – Brother Vellies

Success in modeling looks different for everyone but at its core booking high-profile money jobs, shooting for the mononymous photography giants, and runway glory are milestones on which the industry can reach a consensus. For Nepali model Varsha Thapa it has been a long journey, in time and distance, towards success yet something she has been anticipating since her debut. With both top editorial and commercial clients calling this past year, it’s hard to believe in a less favorable (read: diverse) market she was struggling to get signed a few years back. Still for the multifaceted muse accustomed to leaps of faith, commanding the attention of those who ignored her is a minimum requirement to fulfilling her dreams. With visuals shot by Emmanuel Sanchez Monsalve, sat with the model to discuss persevering through rejection, finding her breakthrough, and cementing her destiny for herself.

Photographer – Emmanuel Sanchez Monsalve for
Styling – Pierre Ellis and Bronson Vajda
Hair – Gonn Kinoshita | Makeup – Olivia Barad
Special thanks to Wrythe Studio

Pants – Sachin & Babi

You’re from Nepal, which from my understanding is remotely landlocked – how was the process of getting signed and discovered overseas?
Back in grade school in Nepal, we had just gotten cable and my Mom would always put on her daily soaps. As soon as breaks would come on, I’d switch to Fashion TV so even as a kid I always admired the industry. How the models were so beautiful and that their beauty was celebrated by fashion, I really loved that. I was this very gawky, very tall kid in class. Everyone made fun of me, “Oh my god, look at her!” I saw these women being celebrated and loved for who they were, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is where I should be and this is where I’m going to be appreciated.” That stayed with me from school until college and then I thought, maybe I’ll apply to different agencies online. But back in 2011, model agencies didn’t check their emails.

Yes, it took a while for fashion to embrace digital. Now Instagram is king for scouting.
Exactly! Back in the day, I emailed so many agencies and a few of them answered and responded, “No, you’re really not our look.” There was not much diversity and it was very hard for me to be accepted.

In what sense?
My New York agency was great because New York is generally more accepting to models of color, from different backgrounds. But even here maybe it started working out here, let’s say, three years after people knew me. “Okay, we’re comfortable booking her because we know she’s a good model.” Before that it was this unsureness, this doubt, not having enough tearsheets, not having enough editorials. I needed to know that I was paying my rent, I had enough money to buy food, or transportation because metro cards are crazy expensive. There were many times I jumped the subway turnstiles. I was staying at a models’ apartment which added $2,000 in addition to the utilities. With the added test shoots they were sending me out on, photographers would charge the agency and in turn, the agency would charge me. Getting out of a debt of around $30,000 with my agency. You question yourself. You question your being.

The industry thinks of models as commodities and you’re clearly thinking of yourself as a person. It’s a business that’s based on what the powers that be are willing to accept.
Yes, absolutely. When I first got here, it was a cultural shock because in Nepal the first priority is love – taking care of family, making sure everyone is healthy, and there’s food on the table. It’s very maternal energy. Coming to New York City was very paternal. What are you here to do? Make money. Whatever you’re doing it revolves around whether it’s good for business and making money. It took a while to understand this concept and I was kind of lost at first.

So how do you transition from entering and quickly learning about the reality of the business, to the next stage? How did you continue to persevere after those initial first hard months?
My mom wasn’t really thrilled that I was getting into this field. Back home, modeling is not a job. And now I want to become a model, go to this unknown city where people are harsh and it’s a different culture? When I left home I made sure that, no matter what happens, I’m not going to look back, or go back home to ask for money or help. In my life, I feel like I have never learned how to give up. All these years that I kept getting rejected, I just bettered myself to see what else am I besides a model. I figured out about my music. I’m a singer-songwriter for my band, Sita Virgin.

Suit – ADEAM | Shoes- Brother Vellies

Yes, tell me more about the other side of you.
As a kid, I always knew that I sang, and I was a singer before I ever was a model. When my family would come around, my mom would say, “Varsha sing for us,” and I would stand in the middle and start singing. My entire family loved it. I wanted to have a platform for me to share my gift with the world. When you have really tough times, you turn to art. We just started doing the music and realized how great of chemistry we had. As we went on, we made four or five songs and thought let’s do a show. We did our first show at Mercury Lounge and it was amazing. Prabal [Gurung] was there, all my friends from fashion came to support me.

It’s a divine thing to bring up Prabal, how rare is it to have a designer with the success level that he has, but also be from your home country, too? We talk about diversity in the modeling industry, yet diversity as designers is even less. How did you guys first connect?
When I started researching about fashion back home I thought, oh my god, it’s Prabal and he’s from Nepal. He is one of our people and he’s out there killing it. I couldn’t understand how he was able to do this. And I thought, when I get to New York I have to meet Prabal. I went to my agent and asked if they could please do me a favor. Please tell Prabal that I’m from Nepal. At first, he’s like, “No, are you sure?” because Nepalese, we’re not tall. The average height of Nepali women is like 5’2″, 5’3″. I was such an exception. Then I met him and I told him about my journey. He was completely taken aback, “Wow. I love your story. I love where you come from. I love that you have so much of a back story to you, and the fact that you’ve struggled to be here.”

That’s definitely one essential moment in your career. Tell me about when you first went overseas as I saw you on the Y/Project runway, one season.
My mother agent is from Brazil, and she was trying to connect me to agencies in London and Milan and eventually got me signed with Storm. I went to London and loved the market. Everyone was interested in me and found me very different. I walked Ashish and I think I did seven or eight shows in London, and I thought, you know what? It’s London fashion week already, why don’t I just take my suitcase, take a flight to Paris, and try and get signed there? If they’re not going to answer to me on emails, that’s fine. I’m just going show up and ask for what I want.

So I took two of my suitcases, put them at the Airbnb and I walked around to different agencies, and all the agencies were like, “No. Sorry. We can’t take you.” It was flat no’s but at the very end, there was almost one yes. I was counting on that. They said, “Okay, we’ll take you, but the thing is that we can’t put you in our show package because that’s out already.” Then the next season, I went back to Paris and signed with Metropolitan there and they sent me to a bunch of designers, and then I went to y/Project and they were instantly like, “Oh my god. Where are you from? You are interesting.” Glenn Martens is one of the most open-minded designers and fearless. I also feel my success wouldn’t have happened without Anita [Bitton]’s help. When I came back to Paris after that great season, at the time I didn’t have an agency in Milan, but Anita had booked me exclusively for Bottega.

And then you walked for Alexander Wang’s most recent show, which is known to be a crazy milestone for any model. How was the experience backstage and even getting selected to walk in that type of show?
Honestly, Alexander Wang was on my list ever since I ever started modeling. I wanted to work with him because of how beautiful he made a woman look. And powerful. Also how much dedication he had during fittings. He had booked me to do the hair test for him he had one of those really long braids on me and I remember how passionately he was talking about putting the braid together, telling Duffy how exactly how he wanted it. I like working with creative people who know exactly what they want because I am the same and I see myself in them.

Jacket – Eckhaus Latta | Skirt – R13

In the same way, as it was to see you with that Rika Magazine editorial with Inez and Vinoodh – how was it working with them and did you learn anything on set?
They were a dream come true. They found me through Suzanne Donaldson, the [senior director of] creative production at Nike. She had posted a photo of me with Nike, and they’re friends with her. I think it was two weeks later they contacted my agency and said, “Oh we would love to shoot Varsha right away.” They could have just taken photos of me and that in itself would have been enough to show their appreciation, but they went out of their way to tell me how much they loved me.

Outside of fashion and music, what is one thing that would surprise people about you?
When I went to Nepal this past December, I collaborated with a nonprofit organization called MotoPaws, that creates these reflective collars for dogs because we have a lot of stray dogs in Nepal and India. They get run over and no one cares for them. They’re based out of India and they make the collars by using used denim as the base and then on top they put the reflective material on it. The dogs can avoid getting run over by cars on the highways.

I really liked that concept, so I contacted them and was like, listen, I’m going to Nepal. I’d love to collaborate with you. They said, great this is our first international collaboration, and we’d love to do it. They posted 60 collars to me, and around 20 other people came to volunteer with me to put collars on about 60 dogs. We went around in the streets of Nepal, we fed the dogs and it was such an exhilarating beautiful experience that led me to my ultimate goal of opening homes for stray dogs. Inez and Vinoodh saw that story and were like, we want to highlight this. I feel like the ones who really stay in this business are the ones who are grounded and humble and they’re not afraid to lend their hand for support.

What’s one thing that you wish you would have known before you became a model before you started modeling?
I wish I would have known to always embrace who I am. As I went on in life, people started accepting me for who I was. Your public persona crumbles and one day, it’s enough. I’m done playing this character. That’s what my soul said to me. I wasn’t ever fake, but I always wanted to people please and to make sure that I fit in. Now it’s why am I trying to be different and trying to fit in? And why am I trying to not be myself? Whatever I am, whoever I am, whatever age I am, wherever I come from, I’m just going to be me.

With all that you’ve accomplished, what’s are a few things that you still want to accomplish? What’s the next box to check off on?
I think my music. I really want to take it to the next level, because that’s something that’s so me. When you have a gift, you have to make sure that you give it all you’ve got. It’s up to you how you utilize that gift and how you share it with the world. I want to free people through my music. That’s my door opener to all the things that I want to accomplish, whether it brings more attention to the stray dogs or the community school that I’m helping set up

Denim set – Maison Kitsuné | Jewelry – Martine Ali

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