Most of us want our lives to be stuff that fairy tales are made of. But for some, fairy tales can spell nightmares. Renu Kujur is one such girl. At the tender age of 3, for a function in her sarkaari school in the remote Pirai village in Chhattisgarh's Jashpur district, Renee dressed up as a fairy. "Pariyaan kaali nahi hoti, (fairies are not black)", shouted out her classmates when she came on stage. Fighting her tears, the girl from an extremely humble, dalit, tribal family that converted to Christianity later, told her mother at night – ek din kaali pari ban ke dikhaaoongi (I will become a black fairy one day). Renee's childhood was a no-frills, all struggle affair, with her elder brother finding it tough to come to terms with a sister who was growing tall faster than all other girls her age. 'Iski shaadi karo jaldi,' he told their dad the day she turned 15. Their father, Fidelius, and mother, Filisita, didn't have the means to even think about a wedding, with he barely managing the household expenses on a meager income from a class IV government job, and she washing utensils in peoples' houses. Renu meanwhile had luckily grown to a height of 5 feet 9 inches and was told by her schoolmates that she could be a 'model'. "No one in my family had even heard of modeling as a career," she says. "And I could not speak a sentence in English. How could I possibly enter the glamorous world of modeling?" she asks, with still the same innocence, more than 15 years later.
With the help of some savings and supported by a few friends who had been to Delhi, Renu left her home and came to Delhi at the age of eighteen. The friends took her to a model coordinator, who looked at her face and burst into laughter. "Aisa rang and you want to be a model? Yahan toh gori ladkiyon ko bhi itna struggle karna padta hai," he said, dismissing her dreams even before they could be spelled out. The response was pretty much the same everywhere she went. "Good skin, nice figure, but too dark" – these words got plastered on her portfolio as much as on her mind. Back in the village, her brother continued to taunt her parents for having allowed her to come to Delhi. "Izzat kharaab karwa rahi hai," he said.
Renu, meanwhile, continued to make rounds of modeling agencies and took on a few odd jobs to support her stay in a one-room flat near Delhi's Saket. And then one day, after getting a few photos clicked for a fresh portfolio, the photographer made a remark. "You know, you look like Rihanna," he said. Renu checked out Rihanna on the Internet that day. "I could see the resemblance – the same cheekbones, the flat nose, and of course, the dark skin," she laughs. On the advice of friends, she gave herself a makeover – changed her name from Renu to Renee, learned basic spoken English, and got her photos clicked in the same look as international pop star Rihanna. "Kaam toh nahi mila us se, but more and more people started calling me Rihanna lookalike," says Renne, who had by now managed a job as a sales girl in the Tommy Hilfiger store at the posh Select Citywalk Mall in Saket. "A lot of foreigners come to shop in the mall, they would ask me for a selfie and ask me if I knew who I resembled. I would laugh and say yes – Rihanna!," she says.
Her modeling dreams still not going anywhere, Renee visited her village in 2012 and faced a severe backlash from the brother. "Ab toh shaadi karo…umar nikal rahi hai," he told their father. Renee cried herself to sleep that night, and the next morning her mom told her, "yahan se chali jaa. Ab wapas mat aana jab tak sapna sach na ho jaye." That is the last Renee visited her village.
Back in Delhi, Renee auditioned for a modeling assignment for Hindustan Times' Print Fashion Week. "The model coordinator wasn't too keen on pushing Renee for the job. She was sitting quietly in a corner. When I asked the coordinator to tell me about this girl, he said yeh aise hi hai. Kaafi dark hai," recalls Shara Ashraf, HT City's Lifestyle Editor. Renee got up and went to the washroom, and cried. "When she came out, her nose and eyes were red," says Shara. "I could see her in agony, of having failed her own dreams. "I said I want her to shoot for HT," she says.
Renee's first modeling assignment with Hindustan Times got her some work, and some recognition, but things were pretty much dismal for her. Until one day, HT came across a photo in her portfolio that bore the most striking resemblance ever to Rihanna. What followed is what Renee calls a 'dream'. A cover story on the front page of HT City nationwide editions the next morning went viral. "I couldn't believe I was on the front page – so big! My phone wouldn't stop ringing," says Renee, who now admits to lying about her age as 23 in that interview. "Out of fear that you would drop the story, I lied about my age. The next morning, I felt such huge guilt. When all other publications followed up on the HT story, I decided to tell my real age. I am 33…and proud of it," she says.
The Hindustan Times story on Renee got followed up by almost every national and international lifestyle publication, including Daily Mail, The Mirror, Allure, Marie Claire UK, LaD Bible, Elle international, BBC London, CNN, ANI, NDTV, Times of India, MensXP, ScoopWhoop, Buzzfeed, Firstpost, NBT, India Today, News18. She has now been offered an extremely popular TV show. The CEO of Tommy Hilfiger, till now oblivious that this girl works as a salesperson at their store called up to congratulate her, and called her a 'star'.
At the recently held India Couture Week, HT and Fashion Design Council of India honoured Renee, and as a special surprise for her, got her parents to fly down from their remote village to Delhi. Renee couldn't hold back her tears. "All along my dad's dream was to own a bicycle. Now my dream is to get him to own a house. Our own house," she says. When asked if her brother knows about her newfound fame, Renee says "Yes. And his response was, 'Chal kar liya sapna poora. Ab ghar aa aur shaadi kar le."
The writer of the story is Managing Editor (Entertainment), Hindustan Times. She can be contacted at email@example.com