Phyllis/ Anjali Mendes

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Mendes at Pierre Cardin’s 1976 spring-summer show in Paris
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Anjali Mendes. From Orble.com

Contents

Sources

i) Dileep Padgaonkar, Parisian saga of a babe from Byculla

ii) Dipayan, Dipayan

iii) Anubha Sawhney, Anjali Mendes: a model life, TNN | Jan 18, 2004 The Times of India anubha_sawhney@indiatimes.com

iv) Anindita Ghose, Anjali Mendes, Pierre Cardin’s muse Live Mint Fri, Jun 18 2010. anindita.g@livemint.com

Biographical details

(Adapted from Anubha Sawhney's seminal article on Mendes, which is the source of most of the tributes to Mendes that have been published.)

1946-2010

The first dark-skinned model to grace the Parisian ramp... Pierre Cardin's muse for 12 years... India's first and only supermodel on the international stage. But if life is beautiful for Anjali Mendes, it is because she has been able to take the rejection, preceding the recognition, in her stride and overcome the ordeal of love's labour lost. meets a free spirit who doesn't live life after a fashion, but fashions her own life

She was born as Phyllis Mendes: She grew up as a tomboy — she climbed trees, played cricket and did all she could to show off in front of boys. The fourth of seven children born to Cajetan and Flo Mendes, she was named Phyllis after her birth on January 29, 1946. Her father was a representative for Swiss watch brands in India. Her mother, whom they called 'Flo', didn't work. She was too busy having babies!

They were never rich: Her paternal grandmother stayed with them and literally brought them up. With seven children, her parents barely had enough money to educate, feed and clothe them. She didn't know money, but didn't miss it either. They were a loving family — her parents just adored each other.

She was too tall to be a front-bencher: She attended Their Lady Of Glory School before moving to St Teresa's Convent. She was never a brilliant student. And she was a back-bencher because if she sat in the front rows, she blocked the vision of students with 'normal' height.

Books & Padma were her best friends: She grew up on Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland. At school, Padma was her best friend. She was a good student, had brown hair and light eyes... as opposed to her long limbs, spectacled eyes and awkward looks. Once, ashamed of her exam results, she told Padma, 'I'll be very famous one day.'

She studied to be a secretary: Back then, girls became secretaries and got married. She had planned no differently. She never had boyfriends because none of the boys she knew was taller than her. When she joined Sophia College, her parents barely managed to pay her bus fare. When she asked for more money, her mother told her to earn it. She joined a kindergarten as a teacher and earned her first pay cheque — Rs 65! In her second year of college, her father lost his job. There was a drain on their funds. She dropped out of college to take up a secretarial course.

A chance meeting changed her life: After completing her course, she worked as a secretary to ad guru Bobby Sista. She had thick glasses, long limbs, mini skirts and hair longer than her skirt. One day, while on a bus to office, a girl with a magazine suggested that she apply for an upcoming fashion show. She gave it a shot.

She found her calling in modelling: When she went to Jeannie Naoroji, the show coordinator, she said: 'Get contact lenses.' After Dr Dastoor gave her hard lenses, she opened the show! She walked the ramp with models including Shobha Rajadhyaksha — now Shobhaa De. The next day, The Times of India called her an 'Ethiopian princess'. Years later, Jeannie revealed that her mother had said: 'Of all the beautiful girls in India, why are you taking this kallu [blackie]?'

Her long legs were her greatest asset: Shobha, Zeenat Aman and a few other girls comprised their gang. They had fun —there was no competition between them. She was called 'Daddy Long Legs', but on the ramp, this very feature gave her an edge over others. Consequently, she opened all the shows.

Paris was a risk worth taking: Jeannie, Maureen Wadia and others kept telling her to work abroad. In 1971, she earned Rs 5,000 by doing a photo session to showcase the jewels of the Maharaja of Jamnagar. Around then, she decided to go to Paris — the mecca of haute couture —and meet Pierre Cardin. Armed with a return ticket on Kuwait Airlines and 150 francs, she set off for Paris.

Finally, she reached her destination: She arrived in Paris on June 6, 1971. The next day, she draped herself in a sari, styled her hair into a chignon, put a tika on her forehead and got into a metro. At 11:30 am, she reached Pierre Cardin's boutique. 'she want to be a model,' she told an assistant there, not knowing that model denoted clothes in French. The assistant called a manager, saying an Indian princess had come to buy clothes! Thankfully, a lady director there understood English. After talking with Pierre, she said that he would see her at 5 pm.

Pierre Cardin found her fantastique: She sank into a beanbag with a book. Cautious of not wasting her 150 francs, she had not eaten since morning. Finally, at 5 pm, she saw a shadow across her book. She looked up and saw a man with his shirt unbuttoned till the waist and his tie thrown back carelessly. 'I am Pierre Cardin,' he said. Overawed, she tried to get up from the beanbag gracefully. When he asked her to walk, she showed him how she modelled for a sari. Pierre asked to see her legs, and she had no choice but to hitch up her sari almost till the waist. Fantastique he said in French and announced that she would be his house model from the next day! She kissed Pierre and began to cry!

From Phyllis, she became Anjali: The next day, Pierre taught her how to put on stockings and told her to wear 12-cm high pumps! Two days later, John Fairchild, the editor of Woman's Wear Daily, came to see her. 'You can't create history in the world of fashion with a name as ridiculous as Phyllis,' said Fairchild. She asked to make a phone call and dialled Dileep Padgaonkar, who was The Times of India's correspondent in Paris back then. He suggested 'Geetanjali'. She thought the name was too long; they settled for 'Anjali'.

She was Pierre's muse for 12 years: She became the first dark-skinned model to walk the ramp. For the next 12 years, she was Pierre's muse and he designed all his collections around her. Pierre let her work for designers such as Ungaro, Givenchy and Scaperelli, to name a few. The only designer she didn't model for was Yves St Laurent — she had too big a bosom for his liking.

Her love was not meant to last: While in Paris, she met an Englishman. A gourmet, he taught her all about food, wine, theatre, opera and made her a svengali. She fell in love and they decided to get married. When he succumbed to cancer before their wedding, her life lost all meaning. She have not lived like a nun after him but she could never have married any of the men she have met since then.

She quit while on top: Paris was her home, but she returned to India to celebrate Xmas with her family. In 1979, her mother passed away due to a stroke. Her father followed in the early 1980s. Back in Paris, having inherited her grandmother's hands for Indian cooking, she had become a popular hostess. At the height of her modelling career, she quit. Pierre asked her to look after the India side of his work and she became his businesswoman for 18 years. When the design house completed 50 years in 2000, it shut down overseas offices. She left gracefully. Subsequently, cooking and putting together a recipe book (an Indian cookbook that she published as Cuisine Indienne De Mere En Fille) kept her busy.

Dileep Padgaonkar: Parisian saga of a babe from Byculla

Sometime in early June 1971, a woman called at my home in Paris, where I was posted as this newspaper’s correspondent, introduced herself as Phyllis Mendes, a model from Bombay, and said she had some news which could be of interest to me. She had arrived in the city two days earlier to seek an opening in the Mecca of haute couture. Within twenty-four hours, Pierre Cardin had engaged her, the first ever ‘coloured’ model in the history of France’s fashion business. She was eager to tell me her story down to the last telling detail.

My wife and I asked her over for dinner that very evening. Since she towered over both of us, the first thing I asked her was: ‘How’s the weather up there?’ Without a moment’s hesitation she answered: ‘Very, very cool. And down there?’ The repartee was the beginning of a friendship that remained intact, despite frequent interruptions lasting several years, for over four decades.

Throughout the evening, Phyllis spoke about the turns and twists in her young life: a strict, religious upbringing in a lower middle class Goan Roman Catholic family; a difficult childhood and adolescence in the back lanes of Byculla; indifferent studies in school and college; the initial forays in modelling; the first crushes and so forth. But what caught our attention was her fierce ambition to wow the rich and famous who frequented the salons of Parisian fashion designers. It reflected her deep-seated desire to get even with those who had heaped insults and indignities on her back home because of her class origins, dark skin, ordinary looks, poor eye-sight and, not least, her tall and lanky frame.

The day after the dinner Phyllis reported for work at Cardin’s plush offices on the elegant rue du Faubourg St Honore. That afternoon she called me to say that her bosses were unhappy with her first name since it did not sound Indian enough. Would I suggest one? I suggested ‘Geetanjali’ — Tagore’s work was known in France thanks to a fine translation by Andre Gide — but Phyllis thought it was too long. Besides, the French might not be able to pronounce it correctly. So I shortened ‘Geetanjali’ to ‘Anjali’ and told her that the worst they could do was to call her ‘en jolie’ and ‘jolie’, in French, meant ‘lovely’. From then on the world knew her as Anjali Mendes though for me, as for those who had known her in Bombay, she would always be Phyllis.

Our meetings became less and less frequent as we both went our separate ways. I returned to India while Phyllis travelled the world, first as a Cardin model, later as a business executive in charge of opening Cardin outlets in India and Pakistan. The meetings, whenever they did take place, turned out to be both delightful and disconcerting. I admired her drive and energy and took pride in her success and fame in the face of the heaviest odds.

At the same time, every encounter proved to be quite an embarrassment for she would run down people accusing them of some misdemeanour or the other. Soand-so was a shameless name-dropper, she would say, and promptly proceed to drop names of aristocrats and statesmen, businessmen and show business celebrities who had been flattering or courting her.

She would have a dig at a model, a business associate or a former friend for their indifference to intellectual and cultural pursuits. Yet her own reading was confined to glossy magazines specialising in high society gossip and Barbara Cartland romances. Her favourite expletive for women she hated was ‘whore’ but she thought nothing of flaunting her ‘conquests’: men who referred to her as an Indian princess, an Egyptian queen, a bird of paradise, an exotic fruit and, not least, as India’s ‘real’ ambassador to France. (One enraged Ambassador struck her off the Embassy’s guest list.)

In her eyes, those who were out to ‘get her’ — professional rivals, former friends, ex-lovers — had no class, character, good breeding or morals. She, on the other hand, attended mass on Sunday and read the Book of Psalms every day in order to remain on the straight and narrow path of Christian virtue.

Two months ago, on a visit to Delhi, she gave me the manuscript of her autobiography and asked me to edit it and help her find a publisher. It ran into 382 pages, each one more whacky than the other. It was, on the one hand, a fusillade of rants against all and sundry and, on the other, self-serving accounts of the highs and lows in her life.

But lurking beneath it all was another Phyllis: vulnerable to the feeblest slight, real or imagined, insecure to the extreme, aware at all times that life had denied her the one thing that she truly yearned for beyond fame and money: love that resembled a Barbara Cartland romance.

Phyllis died alone and abandoned in her home in the south of France last week. She had just moved in there from Paris. She was 64 years old. One should hope that the weather up there continues to keep her cool.

Dipayan: "An ugly duckling who transformed into a beautiful swan"

She was the cynosure of everyone's eye, always surrounded by fans and critics she was the darling of the town. But when she died, she died a lonely death in her apartment far away from Paris at the ripe age of 64. She always yearned for love and had many suitors too! But this diva did not have anyone whom she could turn to for love and care. What an irony! The woman who was the toast of Paris died two weeks back in a hospital in Aix-en-Provence battling an unidentified stomach infection all alone.

Friends remember Mendes for her humility and gregariousness. "She may have been the toast of tout Paris and presiding deity at the House of Pierre Cardin for decades, but her heart remained in India", says De. Ad man Gerson da Cunha adds that though she spoke fluent French, she never attempted to hide her strong Indian accent. "I think she betrayed her most noteworthy quality by getting into modelling", says da Cunha. "She was so smart and focused that she would have made a great manager". Cardin believed so too.

Writer Shobha De recalls how they had become fast friends from the day they met around 40 years ago at an audition. "Those were the early, heady years when modelling were just about coming of age in India. She was ridiculed here and going to Paris was one of her best decisions", says De, adding that Mendes rose rapidly to become something of a cultural icon, feted and adored by the press in Europe, courted by visiting royalty, movie stars and the international jet set that famously included the late Princess Margaret.

Socialite and former model Queenie Dhody wrote in the Mumbai Mirror, "Anjali will be remembered as a radical who acted upon her gutsy thoughts". Having known a few models who have made it or have tried to make it, I am aware of how extremely difficult this path is, mainly owing to how the Indian woman's body is basically shaped. Anjali Mendes's legs did it for her."

Her friends from the fashion and advertising fraternity in India are shocked. Several of them met her during her last visit to India about three weeks ago. "She was remarkably healthy and disciplined. She did her yoga and prayers everyday and ate carefully. This is all too surprising", designer Wendell Rodericks said over the phone from Goa. A small peek into the life of this eternally beautiful woman reveals how her initial days were marked with struggle and how with her unconvential looks she went on to create history. Here's a brief insight into this ultra glamorous model's life.

In 1971, before Parisian ramps had seen women of colour, before Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell, a dark, 6ft- 1-inch tall, sari-clad model waited in French designer Pierre Cardin's salon for eight hours. Cardin's assistant called a manager, telling him that an Indian princess had come to buy clothes. When Cardin finally met her, she was hired on the spot. He called her "a jolie" (Anjali), and Phyllis Mendes became Cardin's muse for a little over 12 years. She also modelled for designers such as Ungaro, Scaperelli and Givenchy. But the former supermodel remained a Goan girl who served her sorpotel with champagne at her apartment in Paris.

"She may have been the toast of tout Paris and presiding deity at the House of Pierre Cardin for decades, but her heart remained in India. Phyllis was like a rare and precious black diamond, whose real value is only known to connoisseurs and lovers of beauty", noted author and former model Shobhaa De said describing this black beauty that created a berth for India in the Mecca of fashion - Paris.

Discarded by the Indian fashion fraternity for being too tall, dark and skinny Phyllis who created ripples in the fashion world transformed from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. Mendes went on to walk the ramp with the likes of Zeenat Aman and Shobhaa De, but the Indian fashion industry largely rejected her for being "too tall, dark, gawky and skinny" all unattractive traits to the industry back then. The press even called her an "Ethiopian princess". In a 2004 interview with The Times of India, she had said: "I am an ugly duckling who transformed into a swan on her own."

Life was beautiful for Anjali Mendes; it was because she was able to take the rejection, preceding the recognition, in her stride and overcome the ordeal of love's labour lost. Born as Phyllis Mendes she grew up as a tomboy who climbed trees, played cricket and did all she could to show off in front of boys. The fourth of seven children born to Cajetan and Flo Mendes, she was named Phyllis after her birth on January 29, 1946. Her father was a representative for Swiss watch brands in India and mother called "Flo", didn't work. She was too busy having babies! With seven children, her parents barely had enough money to educate, feed and clothe them. So Mendes did not know money, but didn't miss it either.

Jeannie, Maureen Wadia and others asked her to work abroad. In 1971, after earning Rs 5,000 by doing a photo session to showcase the jewels of the Maharaja of Jamnagarhen she decided to go to Paris "the Mecca of haute couture" and meet Pierre Cardin. Armed with a return ticket on Kuwait Airlines and 150 francs, she set off for Paris.

After arriving in Paris on June 6, 1971 she draped herself in a sari, styled her hair into a chignon, put a tika on her forehead and got into a metro. At 11:30 am, she reached Pierre Cardin's boutique. "I want to be a model," she told an assistant there, not knowing that model denoted clothes in French. The assistant called a manager, saying an Indian princess had come to buy clothes! Thankfully, a lady director there understood English. After talking with Pierre, she said that he would see Mendes at 5 pm.

As she waited dressed in a saree for Pierre Cardin to emerge she was overawed to see a man with his shirt unbuttoned till the waist and his tie thrown back carelessly. He was none other than Pierre Cardin, who asked her to show her legs, and she had no choice but to hitch up her sari almost till the waist.

Fantastique he said in French and announced that she would be his house model from the next day!

From Phyllis, she became Anjali: The next day, Pierre taught her how to put on stockings and told her to wear 12-cm high pumps! Two days later, John Fairchild, the editor of Woman's Wear Daily, came to see her and said. "You can't create history in the world of fashion with a name as ridiculous as Phyllis," said Fairchild. She called up Dileep Padgaonkar, who was The Times of India's Correspondent in Paris back then. He suggested "Geetanjali" as Tagore was quite famous in France that time. She found the name too long and settled for 'Anjali'.

She became the first dark-skinned model to walk the ramp. For the next 12 years, she was Pierre's muse and he designed all his collections around her. Mendes never married, but while in Paris, she met an English aristocrat who groomed her for Parisian high society. He succumbed to cancer shortly before they were to be wed. A gourmet, he taught her all about food, wine, theatre, and opera and made me her svengali. She fell in love and they both decided to get married. But he succumbed to cancer before the wedding. With his death her life lost all meaning. She did not live like a nun but did not marry either.

In an interview to an English Daily she said, "I miss love in my life but accept this as my karma. I am an ugly duckling who transformed into a swan on her own. I have proved all that I had to prove to myself and there are no regrets. Focusing on yesterday and tomorrow serves no purpose. I always live for the present."

I remember her as a charming lady who could create furor with her unusual beautiful features and unconventional looks. I was mesmerized by her beauty when I went to receive her at the international hour way past midnight.

She came to India to launch the brand Pierre Cardin. Accompanying her on this visit was the fashion Guru Cardin himself who wanted to have an audience with Mother Teresa. I arranged the meeting of the Diva and her guru with Mother Teresa in Kolkata.

At the height of her modelling career, she quit. Pierre asked her to look after the India side of his work and she became his businesswoman for 18 years. When the design house completed 50 years in 2000, it shut down overseas offices. She left gracefully.

Two months ago, on a visit to Delhi, she gave Dileep Padgaonkar, the manuscript of her autobiography and asked me to edit it and help her find a publisher. It ran into 382 pages, each one more whacky than the other. It was, on the one hand, a fusillade of rants against all and sundry and, on the other, self-serving accounts of the highs and lows in her life.

But lurking beneath it all was another Phyllis: vulnerable to the feeblest slight, real or imagined, insecure to the extreme, aware at all times that life had denied her the one thing that she truly yearned for beyond fame and money: love that resembled a Barbara Cartland romance.


Colleagues’ reminiscences

“She was remarkably healthy and disciplined. She did her yoga and prayers everyday and ate carefully. [Her sudden death at a relatively young age was] too surprising,” designer Wendell Rodericks said

“She was extremely sharp, had thick glasses, long limbs and hair that went down to her knees,” Sista recalls.

Shobhaa De recalls becoming fast friends with Mendes from the day they met around 40 years ago at an audition. “Those were the early, heady years when modelling was just about coming of age in India. She was ridiculed here and going to Paris was one of her best decisions,” says De, adding that Mendes rose rapidly to become something of a cultural icon, feted and adored by the press in Europe, courted by visiting royalty, movie stars and the international jet set.

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