Teen Vogue Editor on Brown Women Power
Editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue Versha Sharma talks about the power of brown women in fashion and elsewhere. She focuses on covering social justice, culture, fashion and politics through the lens of young people. She also talks about the surge of incredible South Asian Americans creatives in the US.
Varsha was named South Asian woman of the year in 2022 by the Howard South Asian Women’s collective. Previously, she was managing editor and senior correspondent at Now This. Varsha has produced several short documentaries and has reported on many serious issues from all over the world. She won an Edward R. Murrow award with the Now This report team having got her start in journalism with an internship at Talking Points Memo in 2009. Varsha went on to cover the 2012 presidential election for MSNBC.
This conversation with Versha has got me absolutely buzzing. Hope you enjoy it too.
Versha Sharma Teen Vogue Editor on Brown Women Power
S5 Ep 3 Versha Sharma Teen Vogue Editor on Brown Women Power
Versha Sharma 0:00
You know, you think about who was on the cover of those magazines, and it was predominantly thin white women. And that was it, right? I never saw somebody who looked like me on one of these covers. And so to be in this position now and get to make those choices, it’s just the easiest choice in the world for me to say like, “Hey, let’s look at who we’ve historically excluded. And let’s give them a chance to shine.” And those are some of my favourite covers and features that we’ve done. So a lot of it is about what I would have wanted growing up? What resources can I provide to young black and brown girls out there today who may feel like they don’t belong wherever they are? And again, being able to have a platform like Teen Vogue to do that from is just incredibly exciting.
Sangeeta Pillai 1:01
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian American women. I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful. Talking to Varsha Sharma fired me up, because she’s so full of encouragement and energy for all South Asian folks. Varsha is the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, where she focuses on covering social justice, culture, fashion and politics through the lens of young people. Varsha was named South Asian woman of the year in 2022 by the Howard South Asian Women’s collective. Previously, she was managing editor and senior correspondent at Now This. Varsha has produced several short documentaries and has reported on many serious issues from all over the world. She won an Edward R. Murrow award with the Now This report team having got her start in journalism with an internship at Talking Points Memo in 2009. Varsha went on to cover the 2012 presidential election for MSNBC. This conversation with Versha has got me absolutely buzzing.
Versha Sharma 2:54
So yes, born and raised in a small town in central Louisiana and I love it, like my family. Most of my family is still there, I still go back and visit a lot. It was very defining growing up as somebody who was considered “other” in this area, both in terms of my skin colour, my background, I’m the daughter of immigrants, my religion, I was raised Hindu. And so I do think those were very formative experiences for me for my entire life that have led me to be passionate about the topics and representation, the way that I am. But again, I loved it. I have a lot of great friends still from my childhood growing up in Louisiana. It’s a very unique state among American states. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but it is, and I love it for so many reasons. The culture, the food, the weather, the people, southern hospitality is a real thing. So yeah, I had a great education. I ended up staying there for college as well before I made my way to New York.
Sangeeta Pillai 3:54
What was it like to be a young brown woman growing up in that part of America? What did that feel like?
Versha Sharma 4:02
It varied, I can’t say I necessarily have one memory, the earliest memory of realising that I’m different from other people. But there are certainly a series of memories that I have of being made to feel othered or othered by people at school, or out in the community. Now to my parents’ incredible credit, they really banded together with other South Asian immigrant families in the area and actually started a Central Louisiana Indian Association. So I was able to grow up with a handful of other kids and other young South Asian women, who were also the daughters of immigrants. And that community became so, so core to me, but in general growing up it’s the Bible Belt, an extremely religious part of the US, extremely Christian Southern Baptist Evangelical. So there was a lot of tension, sometimes between me and classmates or if I tried to go visit like a friend at church, because I thought it was a cool thing to do with my friend, I distinctly remember being 11 years old, and having this Southern Baptist preacher try to get me to sign a slip of paper that said, “Jesus Christ is my one and only Savior. And I accept that.” I’m 11 years old! And I’m like, “I think I need to talk to my parents before I can sign this.” Still again, very formative, very formative.
Sangeeta Pillai 5:25
I can imagine. And what about friends or other kids in school? What was that like? Did you feel like you fit it there or not?
Versha Sharma 5:34
It’s really interesting, because growing up in the 90s, and early 2000s, and sadly this is still true for parts of Louisiana and the South, there was still a lot of segregation between white students and black students. And some of the schools that I went to, we Indians or South Asians, we were always the in between. So we could easily have friends in both groups, in both circles. And I loved that about being Indian, I loved that I could go between the groups and be accepted. And hopefully, in some cases, bridge those friendships as well. But in general, again, I had a very positive experience with my classmates, with fellow students. I will say things changed after 9-11, as it did for a lot of brown people everywhere, I suppose. On the day that the 911 attack happened, a fellow student yelled at me to go back to Afghanistan. And I was like, first of all, I was born here. Second, my parents are from India, it’s just…the whole thing started. Discrimination against me, my family, my parents certainly increased after that time. But again, I know that that’s something that happened to a lot of people everywhere.
Sangeeta Pillai 6:45
Yeah, was it difficult at all, to kind of bridge that gap to be kind of this young American girl, but at the same time, the South Asian girl, how did that feel?
Versha Sharma 6:58
Oh, yeah, I feel like I have had those dual identities my whole life. And it’s really only in the past, I don’t know, five to ten years as an adult, that I feel that those have come together in a more fluid way. But absolutely the dual identities of different cultures, all of that was very… It presented a lot of challenges for me growing up. I mean, I also – not all Indian immigrant parents are like this- but I have very traditional Indian immigrant parents who put a lot of pressure on me about pursuing a certain career, or only marrying an Indian when I grow up, no dating, all of those kinds of strict roles. So that was definitely a clash. But I think being born in the US and raised here, I always felt pretty strongly that I, myself am American, even if other people were like, go back to where you came from, or go back to where your parents parents came from, I never felt like I questioned the American part of my identity.
Sangeeta Pillai 7:55
That’s wonderful. Because often that creates conflict within us, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t sound like it did for you. And that’s really, really wonderful.
Versha Sharma 8:03
I think it made me that much more determined to say, “Hey, I’m just as American as you are”. My definition of patriotism might look a lot different to yours and I think mine is the better definition.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:18
Yeah, I saw this photo of you in one of your articles. You were from school and had all these things on it, like librarian, treasurer, sports Captain, tennis captain and it just kind of went on and on and on and on. Were you…I’m guessing you were quite a high achiever. Is this like the South Asian gene that kicks in, like, you’ve got to work really, really, really hard. Is that what was going on?
Versha Sharma 8:41
100% my dad drove us very hard in terms of academics, and then also extracurriculars and sports like tennis as well. But that was 100% all from my dad. Homework on the weekends or homework before TV at night. We were Spelling Bee champions, my sister and I, so we definitely were part of that stereotype as well. But I don’t regret any of it. I’m very proud of all of it, looking back on it.
Sangeeta Pillai 9:14
Talking about childhood dreams and aspirations made me think of my own. It’s strange to say this now, but I didn’t have any big dreams. If you’d asked me then about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said, “Teacher” because the only working women I saw around me were teachers. That was the extent of my ambition. I didn’t see any women who had big lives around me. Every woman I saw from my mother to the Auntie’s next door had pretty small lives. They cooked, they cleaned, they looked after the families. And now thinking back to the big jobs I saw, either on TV or in the newspapers were all held by men, astronauts, men, heads of companies, men, Arctic explorers, men. So it is no wonder then that even with the vivid imagination of a child, I couldn’t imagine anything more for myself.
Sangeeta Pillai 10:24
Let’s talk about words, books and writing. I have a feeling that it plays a really big part in your life. Can you talk to me about that?
Versha Sharma 10:34
Absolutely! I’ve always been a voracious reader growing up, my parents would say you’d always see me with a book in my hand, wherever I went. Talking about the Indian community that I grew up with, even when we went to other people’s houses for poojas, I would bring my book, because I just always wanted to be reading. And I think pretty early on, I had an interest, a significant interest in politics, again, largely down to my dad, and then journalism pretty early on as well. And it was fiction writing, it was nonfiction writing, I did all of those things growing up, experimented with different types of it. My sister is also a writer, she’s my older sister, so I think that helped and that encouraged me. But I think words have an incredible power, they were either my source of escape, if I felt like I wanted to escape into some fantasy land, they were a way for me to learn about other people’s experiences, or to see what experiences I, myself, identified with. And I’ve always been a huge fan of history as well. And so one of the things that I love about journalism is, it is the first draft of history, the way that we report on the things that we report on, the stories that we choose to tell, the people that we choose to highlight, all of those are very specific choices. And again, being a brown woman who didn’t necessarily feel like I belonged in a lot of spaces growing up, being able to have the platform that I have now and make those decisions.just feels really powerful. And I think of it as a real responsibility as well.
Sangeeta Pillai 12:05
Absolutely. And I guess what words do, I think I’m talking about probably my own experience, what it did was opened up this world that wasn’t immediately accessible or visible to me. Yes, I grew up in Mumbai, a very poor family, a very, very traditional family. And I think books opened up this other kind of universe. And for the first time, I saw other possibilities that I couldn’t see in my immediate environment. And I love the power of that. It’s almost magical, that it’s like this doorway to this fantasy land, and you can be that person.
Versha Sharma 12:40
It is! Exactly! And it’s just endless, endless possibilities, right. I have very fond memories of going to the library and just spending hours going through the various books or series or trying to decide what I wanted to read next, I mean, truly endless possibilities. And I’m also very much a child of the internet, digital native, sort of a social native, but a little bit older, I’m a mid range millennial. And so again, having access to just all of the information that’s available on the internet, also felt really, really magical. I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but just because we’re talking about it, and because you mentioned the word magic, I will say Harry Potterwas a huge obsession for me growing up and continues to be. It’s really disappointing to me to see what JK Rowling has become, and the transphobic positions that she chooses to stand behind. Because that series was such a source of solace for me growing up, in so many ways, and for so many reasons. And there’s a brilliant quote from Dumbledore that she wrote and it says “words are the most inexhaustible source of magic”, and I completely believe that it is inexhaustible, you can achieve anything with it. And part of me hates to quote that because of who wrote it and what she stands for today. But I did find meaning in that growing up.
Sangeeta Pillai 14:00
I absolutely hear you. Words were similar for me as well. So I guess words, your words took you to where you are now. The editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. I’m gonna say that again, because it’s so bloody impressive. The editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. So what I love is that in this role, and in this magazine, you’re pushing these conversations about identity and immigration and mental health and big, big, big topics. And that’s not the usual fashion magazine stuff, is it? Where does that come from? Talk to me about that.
Versha Sharma 14:40
I mean, I’m glad you asked about my childhood because so much of it is “what would I have wanted at that age?” Because I did read these magazines regularly growing up whether it was 17, Cosmo, YM back when it existed, and some of it I related to like articles about what happens when you get your first period, all of that is still important, and we cover that as well, but you think about who was on the cover of those magazines, and it was predominantly thin white women. And that was it right? I never saw somebody who looked like me on one of these covers. And so to be in this position now and get to make those choices, it’s just the easiest choice in the world for me to say like, “Hey, let’s look at who we’ve historically excluded. And let’s give them a chance to shine.” And those are some of my favourite covers and features that we’ve done. So a lot of it is about, “what would I have wanted growing up?” “What resources can I provide to young black and brown girls out there today, who may feel like they don’t belong, wherever they are.” And again, being able to have a platform like Teen Vogue to do that from, it’s just incredibly exciting.
Sangeeta Pillai 15:47
I think it’s phenomenal. I think I found your Instagram, and then I was kind of following what you were doing. It blew my mind the kinds of things you were talking about. And I was thinking to myself, “Oh my God, imagine if I was a teen and I was reading this,” it would be life changing in many ways, because we never- I never saw stuff like this. Like you’re saying, it was only very thin white women on the cover of fashion magazines. And it was very much “how to find the boy” or those kinds of things. Not that that’s not important. But it was definitely not about identity and politics and migration; all of this kind of stuff. So I feel like you’ve completely changed what we perceive as teenage fashion magazines. It’s absolutely incredible. I just love it.
Versha Sharma 16:37
Well, I give a lot of credit, and take a lot of inspiration from young people to both my peers, and Gen Z, and maybe even a little bit younger. Young people today understand true intersectionality. And they understand that you can be obsessed with fashion, and also obsessed with politics and culture, and whatever it might be. And more importantly, they understand how all of these issues intersect. So they know that fashion plays a huge role in the climate crisis, which is the number one issue that they care about, understandably. And so I also came into this position, just wanting to make sure that Teen Vogue reflected how young people are thinking and feeling today and it is very much that these issues are all connected.
Sangeeta Pillai 17:19
It’s so true, when you say this. I speak to a lot of young people with some of the work that I do. And I love sitting down and talking to them because some of their perspectives are so amazing and things I’ve never thought about. And I think it’s so important for us to listen to them. And kind of almost let them lead the way because they’re the ones that create change. And we have to allow for that and we have to take heed. I think what you said there about fashion and politics, they are connected. Climate change and fashion are connected, all of it is connected. And I feel like before we’ve occupied these bubbles we’re like, “Okay, I only do this, and I only do that, and this doesn’t talk to that.” And the world is this one place, and everything’s connected. And if we’re not thinking about it all together, we’re not doing the right thing. So 100%.
Sangeeta Pillai 18:19
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, “what is a podcast?” Yes, I did that, to creating the multi award winning masala podcast. And now, I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting master classes on my website, and one of them’s been created, especially for women podcasters. Just go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. and I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode.
Sangeeta Pillai 19:17
I’d love to come to some of the features that I’ve read in Teen Vogue. And from you. I love that feature you did with Ms Marvel. I absolutely loved it. And again, I have never in any mainstream publication seen a character like that talk about partition, for example, and that is phenomenal. Like, how did that come about? How did that interview come about? How did that piece come about?
Versha Sharma 19:42
Yeah, well, I don’t know. It was probably different for you because you grew up in India. But for me as an Indian American, I feel like I didn’t learn about partition and how brutal it was and how many people died and how many people were displaced until much later in my life and when I did learn as an adult, I was like, “Wait a second, like this is… this is huge.” Like, I don’t understand why I wasn’t taught about this before. And there’s a lot of factors that go into that, our parents and grandparents’ generational trauma, they may not want to talk about it with us, I completely understand that. But to have that personal experience of not having learned about it myself growing up, and then to see that the show that is centred on a young Pakistani Muslim girl from New Jersey, a teenager is tackling this and not only tackling it, but actually like sending her back in time to witness it firsthand. I just thought it was such a phenomenal way to educate people about this thing that happened, and also tap into that trauma that is in so many of our families, if not all of our families, in some respect, depending on how far you go back. And so Sana Amanat, who is somebody who I’ve admired for a really long time, because one of my pet obsessions, you’ll see this with my Captain America shield right here, I’m also a huge superhero fan, huge comics fan, and she was the first person that I found out who was a brown woman who’s working at Marvel. And not only that, she’s really risen through the ranks to create a lot of change there. And a big part of that is Ms Marvel, first the comics and the TV show. And so when the TV show came out, I knew that I wanted to talk to her, I wanted to talk to her about the storyline in particular. And again, seeing the reaction from people was really incredible. There were two camps, there were my peers and younger, who were the same as you. They’re like, “I’ve never seen this depicted on western TV like this before. This is amazing.” And then there are a lot of people who responded to me on social media about that interview, and they’re like, “I had no idea that this happened. And I learned so much about it.” And I’m like that, forget ratings, forget whatever else- that is the success if you’re teaching people about this!
Sangeeta Pillai 21:55
Absolutely. And I think this is the point, when we talk about representation, and this is the point where key parts of history don’t get told. Because the people who are telling them are not the people that it’s happened to, whether it’s partition – millions and millions got displaced and murdered, and what you’ve just said, that trauma lives on in how many generations and it carries on in the UK. I mean, there is more and more conversation about partition, which is great, but what isn’t happening is none of the kind of colonialism, none of it’s talked about in the textbooks. Most kids here have no idea that the British ruled over this part of the world for hundreds and hundreds of years. They do not know, nobody talks about it. And again, for me, it’s such a shock because growing up in India, that was in the history books, we learned that! Half of the history of everything we learned was the Indian freedom struggle, colonial kind of movement, Jallianwala Bagh, where all these peoples were shot dead, they are quite brutal parts of history. But it’s completely as if it never existed. And when you get people from those communities in places where we can create these stories, that’s what comes out. And I think that’s phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal. The other piece I wanted to talk about is Bridgerton, which I love. I’m a huge fan.
Versha Sharma 23:22
Same, same, same, as I’m sure you can tell already.
Sangeeta Pillai 23:26
Yeah, I can. And the fact that you should share this same surname, Sharma.
Versha Sharma 23:31
That’s right. I don’t know if I can use the word but I lost my shit when I saw that.
Sangeeta Pillai 23:39
You can swear as much as you like.
Versha Sharma 23:31
The character’s name is Sharma! I was like, “Oh my God,” and actually, credit to Netflix here. I tweeted that, ages ago, when we first found out they were going to be the Sharma family, and just said something like, “My entire life I’ve never seen my name reflected back at me in Western media.” I’ve never seen that kind of representation. Even though Sharma is such a common name. One of the most common names in India, and among South Asians, but I’ve never seen it and so I tweeted about that and a lot of people noticed it. Netflix specifically reached out to me because they also saw that and they knew that this new season was going to have a lot of meaning for me personally, and they gave me incredible opportunities to talk to the cast, and I really, really loved it.
Sangeeta Pillai 24:25
Fantastic. Now what I love and you’ve mentioned this in your article as well, and I noticed these things when I was watching it, cultural details again, we never see that unless there’s a person from that culture. You know, the Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the Bali classic Bollywood track… What is that playing? I’m like, “is that? No, it can’t be, it can’t be. Oh my god it is.” And I lost my shit to you know.
Versha Sharma 24:56
We’re all losing our shit watching it. And it wasn’t just us, it was the actresses too. Charithra, who plays Edwina, told me when I was watching the screener episodes she was so excited about it. She didn’t even want to spoil me. She’s like, “have you gotten to Episode Six yet?” And I said, “No.” And she’s like, “when you get to Episode Six, listen out for the song at the beginning, because you’re going to love it.” It seems like something small but it’s so meaningful to so many of us.
Sangeeta Pillai 25:25
It isn’t small and that is it. When you hear yourself and see yourself and listen to yourself represented as you really are, rather than this kind of pastiche of Indianness, which is sometimes what you see on screen,it just feels like “oh, you see me.” That’s what it feels like. You see me, you hear me, You know who I am. You’ve bothered to understand who I am. That is super! That Haldi ceremony, I mean, it’s incredible. Like what? You have Regency England and you’ve got this Haldi ceremony and I think yeah, it’s phenomenal.
Versha Sharma 26:04
It’s phenomenal. I didn’t quite put it together myself when I first watched it. But again, the cast pointed this out to me, something that was also really special about that is, there was no on screen explanation of the Haldi, they were just doing it together as a family. And as a viewer, even if you didn’t know exactly what that was, you’re like, “Okay, this is some important tradition to this family, and this culture.” And that’s really cool too, because that means they didn’t make it seem super exotic, or something totally foreign. It was just there. It’s just part of the show.
Sangeeta Pillai 26:37
Yeah, absolutely. And you’re right, I didn’t think of it that way. But I think that’s important as wellbecause what that’s doing, is saying, “Hey, here’s a beautiful culture doing what they do normally,” because that’s what you do. Right? If it was an Indian family having a wedding, you would just do whatever you did. It wasn’t like a big song and dance, it wasn’t “Oh my God, we are going to do this culturally relevant thing,” right? The other thing that Bridgerton did for me, and I’m sure it did for you, is I thought, “Oh my God, we are sexy. We are beautiful.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen when Kate was on screen, she is stunning. And she’s dark. And she’s beautiful.
Versha Sharma 27:19
Stunning. Absolutely,when it broke records, because obviously, the first season also did really well and broke records, but season two smashed some of those records. That feeling of knowing that the romantic leads, and the number one show in the world on Netflix, were these two young, dark skinned brown women. Again, it’s just never happened to us. We’ve never seen it. It’s never happened. And the colorism part of it, I think is a huge part of the conversation. I mean, you can see me right now. I’m North Indian, I’m definitely a lighter skinned Indian, Simone and Charithra are darker skinned, they’re Tamil. That is hugely important too, because colorism is still a huge problem in our culture among our families in the US and UK, and back home in India. So that feels really, really important too.
Sangeeta Pillai 28:08
Massively! I think, until I probably moved to the west, I thought I was really ugly, because people called me that, because I was darker. It’s only when I moved to the west, I remember looking at myself saying they’re all trying to be like me, which must mean –
Versha Sharma 28:28
That has always befuddled me. When I first went to India and saw Fair and Lovely, I’m like, “what is this? There is such a thing as skin bleaching? People do that?” Everybody back home is trying to get tan and be darker, it’s bizarre.
Sangeeta Pillai 28:46
It’s insane, but coming back to Kate and coming back to the beauty of Indian women, for the first time, I felt like, “Oh my God, we’re desirable.” I have never seen that before in that way, we’re vibrant, we’re desirable, we’re really fierce, we’re really female and we’re very Indian, and all of those coexist. That’s never happened before.
Versha Sharma 29:14
Yeah no, it’s incredibly exciting and empowering and again, even the trickle down effects like Charithra told me, she really admired the way that Simone carried herself on set and how comfortable she clearly was in her own body with some of these nude scenes or sex scenes, and she looks up to her. She’s like, “I hope to get to that place someday as an actress myself.” So you know, down to you and me and the viewers who are just watching this and feeling that way for the first time and to the actual members of the cast who also are dealing with those feelings themselves.
Sangeeta Pillai 29:48
Bridgerton made me feel sexy, like really sexy. Watching Simone Ashley on screen as Kate Sharma, getting naked with Anthony Bridgerton, now that was delicious. Of course, the sex scenes were sexy. But it was a lot more than that. I could finally see my own dark skinned body on screen and that body was desirable and desired. Therefore, my own body felt desirable and desired. I’m a lot older than Simone Ashley’s character but I felt like I could really embody a sexiness. I will admit this to you here. After watching a really hot episode, where Kate and Anthony have sex, I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself naked. I really looked at myself and I loved what I saw. Dark skin, dark hair, dark nipples. I thought to myself, “gosh, I’m so hot.” Yes, I really did that!
Versha Sharma 31:04
A person that I give a lot of credit to in the US is Mindy Kaling, of course, who has written these characters who are young South Asian women on TV, who are extremely sex positive, extremely confident, maybe boy crazy in some cases, like on The Mindy Project, but again, just refreshing to see yourself and in these ways.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:27
Absolutely. And again in Mindy’s shows, I love the detail, the saris, the puja room, and talking to Krishna. I’ve never seen that before, I never have.
Versha Sharma 31:39
It’s very casual.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:43
She’s just having a chat with Krishna. I love that. We’ve never seen that before. So tell me now, with more and more of these kinds of representations on our screens and on TV, in magazines, like you’re doing, does it feel like things are changing?
Versha Sharma 32:05
Absolutely. I think I would have loved to step into this role at any time. But I really feel like I stepped into it at a time when South Asians are rising forces, or finally getting acknowledgment that we are due in the media, in fashion, and entertainment, and culture, and politics. We’ve got the first Indian VP in Kamala Harris, right, like black, South Asian first woman, she’s all the things that’s incredibly exciting. So really it’s only accelerated since I’ve taken on this role and it’s been really special to become a part of this growing community. Everybody is rooting for each other. We’re all cheering each other along.This is something I actually had the chance to speak to Mindy about at Teen Vogue Summit, which is our big annual event that we have in LA. My first year, Mindy and Maitreyi from Never Have I Ever were the headliners. It was the three of us on a panel together, which also just felt amazing, three brown women on stage in front of hundreds of people, and I talked to Mindy about her time being the only woman and the only person of colour who was writing on The Office in those early days of the industry where there weren’t a ton of people like her. And going from that scarcity mindset of thinking, like “there’s only one seat at the table, so I have to be cutthroat and competitive and even, maybe go against my peers or other Indian women in order to get this one seat” – going from that to where we are now, where we’re just filling up the room in so many ways. There was this incredible celebration of South Asians at the Oscars, just a huge, huge party, the number of people nominated, the number of people involved in these projects. It’s just growing seemingly exponentially every year. I really do feel like things are changing a lot and it’s beautiful to see us kind of all come into these positions of power at the same time because again, we’re all helping each other.
Sangeeta Pillai 34:07
It’s so phenomenal sitting here.I’ve been kind of watching your Instagram feed, and I can see quite a few South Asian women that I follow and it feels like there’s a real surge right now, in this last six months to a year. You’re all kind of spurring each other on, you’ve got each other’s backs, and you’re really out there and what you just said, all three of you on this panel at the Teen Vogue Summit. I mean, that says a lot, and the valley party. Oh my god, I live vicariously. I literally went through every photo thinking “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my God, I wish I was there.”
Versha Sharma 34:48
You’ll have to come this year.
Sangeeta Pillai 34:50
That’s my dream, to be at the White House. The valley party is the dream. I cannot tell you, seriously, I’ll pray to Krishna.
Versha Sharma 35:01
Yeah, it’s amazing that they did that. Kal Penn, who was somebody else who’s become a friend, and incredible support and mentor, somebody else who, like Mindy, was one of the only people early in the States, who was breaking through in media, he actually helped coordinate the first White House celebration of the Valley party back in Barack Obama’s administration because he worked in the Obama White House. That was a huge deal and obviously historic. You go back and look at those photos, and it’s amazing and it’s a small gathering of people.Now you come to 2022 and we are filling up the White House, every room, the whole lawn, taking over. It’s just incredible to see the progress and feel like it’s a real moment and surreal moment.
Sangeeta Pillai 35:51
It is time my fellow South Asians. There was a time when we felt so poor, that we had to fight each other for what felt like limited resources. If you are still feeling that you’re not seeing the abundance of opportunities, of love, of the riches that the world is waiting to offer you, all you need to do is stop playing small and step forward with courage to take your big, bold, rightful place in the spotlight. The world is immensely richer with our South Asian culture, our colourful, bright, positive culture. This planet wants our fabulous food, our shimmering silks, our twinkling jewellery. This world wants our rich music, our evocative poetry, our stunning words, our beautiful voices. It is time, my South Asian sisters and brothers. The Limelight is ready for you. The question is, are you ready?
Sangeeta Pillai 37:09
Talk to me about that Teen Vogue cover featuring Charithra Chandran, I’ve never seen anything like it.
Versha Sharma 37:15
It was my absolute favourite, it was so special. Again, as soon as I knew that this new season was going to feature Charithra and Simone, I knew I wanted one or both of them. It made sense to have Charithra, the younger sister or the younger actress to be on the cover of Teen Vogue. I was so excited that she was excited and interested and willing to do it as well. One of the important things to me, is as a journalist first because I’m actually the first editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, to come from a real journalism background, not just fashion. We’ve had these incredible fashion creatives and leaders who have been EIC’s in the past, but I’m excited to bring this other dimension to it. To me, it’s not just important to put people on the cover who look like us, but to make sure that we’re being thoughtful through all parts of the process, that the writer, the byline on the piece is somebody who doesn’t normally get a chance, that the photographer is a woman of colour, that the stylist is an Indian British incredible mind. He did amazing and I adore him. Having the crew behind the photoshoot behind the scenes, and behind the article and story itself be as diverse as possible as well, you get the best creative results. The stylist Nikhil, for example, just by him being British Indian and me being an Indian American, we’re able to trade ideas very quickly and easily and understand the language that each other is speaking, it was actually his idea to get certain elements of our culture into it. So a thumbs up bottle, or a bag of Namkeen and I just…I died when he was like, “I’m bringing these to set”, garland’s of marigolds and I was just like, “Yes! Let’s see what we can infuse without being over the top, keep it a creative, highly stylized fashion shoot.” The combination of all of those elements just came together really, really beautifully with that coverand with that entire shoot. It represented Charithra and who she is and also represented her background and her childhood and growing up to.
Sangeeta Pillai 39:26
Absolutely! And it all came across, you’ve told me the details of it without even realising I’ve picked up on all of that. The detail like the little armband that’s got a **** type thing. I remember the marigold. I remember the details without really… And I’m like, what you’ve done there, it’s high fashion with an Indian aesthetic, but very modern.
Versha Sharma 39:52
Exactly! It’s not over the top. It’s not beating you over the head with it. There are elements that are there if you’re looking and then even her pose because Charithra, I think, was a trained bhangra dancer growing up, and some of the poses that she did with her hands and her arms were like those poses. That ended up being the cover shot that we went with and it was amazing.
Sangeeta Pillai 40:11
It was incredible, absolutely incredible. Just phenomenal. So tell me now that you’ve done this, and all these features that we’ve just talked about, do you now feel more of an assimilation between your Indian side and your American side than when you were a young girl growing up in Louisiana?
Versha Sharma 40:33
Absolutely, I do. Again, it still feels very new, for sure. But having the chance to do this, and to teach other people about it, and to bring other people into the fold. It’s just incredibly exciting. It’s about finding your people, finding that sense of community that we have found among this rising South Asian creative class. There are so many things that go into it. There are the obvious connections that we all share culturally and historically. And then you peel back another layer, when you’re first gen or second gen children of immigrants, one thing that also unites us is that a lot of us defied our parents by going into the fields that we went into. That’s just immediate solidarity and connection that you feel with people. So it’s just that connection that is so amazing. I definitely feel more at peace between the two halves or the dual identities of myself, but I definitely feel like we’ve got a ways to go. There’s much more we can and should do. There are many more positions of influence that I want to see us get to, but it’s incredible progress, for sure.
Sangeeta Pillai 41:47
And I guess, coming back to some other bits of your career before you headed up Teen Vogue, you were at New York Times, you were an editor at Now This, and all these other big, big names. Something I really want to talk to you about is your interview with Barack Obama. I saw that and went “Oh my God, I want to ask her about that.” Tell me what that was like.
Versha Sharma 42:11
Oh, career highlight for sure! So that was when I was at Now This and I was the managing editor and senior correspondent.It was one week before the 2016 election, an incredibly pivotal time. And Now This, we’ve been working, the editorial mission of Now This is News for young people, by young people. It’s actually very similar to Teen Vogue, which is, you know, I love Now This and I love Teen Vogue, and it felt like a very natural progression. But it was our mass appeal to young voters that made Obama want to sit down with us and talk to us because he knows how important young voters are. They ended up being critical to any Democratic victory that’s happened in the last 10-15 years. So that was just an absolutely incredible experience to get to interview him on behalf of our audience to ask him about the issues that our audience cares about. Again, climate change was a big one, and that came up. It was also at the time that everything was going on with the FBI investigation and Hillary’s emails. We actually ended up breaking news on that, because I asked him about that as well, so there are a couple levels there. I was so happy to be a representative for young people and happy to be a South Asian woman journalist, interviewing the president, that meant a lot. We talked about his daughter, his relationship with his daughters. It was also around the time that the Trump Access Hollywood tape came out, so sexual assault was a huge topic. That came up in our conversation as well, just like how do you talk to your daughters about these kinds of issues that are coming up? It’s just a fascinating all around conversation. And I’m so proud, I would be proud anyway, but I’m so proud because we were told we had 10 minutes with him but I stretched it to 22 minutes. I’m extremely proud that I was able to get him to stay with me for that long.
Sangeeta Pillai 44:01
You should be. Absolutely I’m sure you get a lot of messages and emails from young South Asian women who see the work that you do, who see what you’ve done, and what’s possible. What do they say to you?
Versha Sharma 44:18
One of my favourite parts of the job, if not my favourite, I think, again, early on, I didn’t even realise what my appointment as EIC would mean to other people. I knew it was a big deal. It’s exciting. I’m the first South Asian Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue. That’s great. But I didn’t quite realise the power in it until I got this random Instagram DM from somebody who told me they were a young Indian woman who was studying fashion, and they were about to drop out of school because they felt like it wasn’t worth it, that they weren’t gonna get far. She said, “But I see you’re the Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue. And I’m like, wait, maybe there is a place for me in fashion. And maybe I should continue.” Messages like that, where hopefully you can provide the motivation or a little bit of proof for people that, if you keep working, we can absolutely get to these positions. That just means the world to me, because it goes back to being that young Brown Girl in central Louisiana, and not knowing that I could end up being the Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue one day, but knowing that it was something that I wanted, that I was interested in. So being able to provide that for other young people, it’s just absolutely incredible. And going back to the idea of maybe having to prove to your parents that this is an acceptable career path that’s not a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. There’s another young journalist who was fighting with her parents about her job and said, “I showed you to my parents as proof that I should continue in journalism, because success is possible.”and that just means the world to me. I myself had to fight with my parents about this career path, my dad still guilts me about not going to law school. But it’s worth it, it’s all worth it.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:08
Wow, imagine the lives of all of those young people you’re changing in little towns and cities, and wow, you’re showing what’s possible.
Versha Sharma 46:17
I hope so. I hope so.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:19
I know so. Okay, now to talk about something really, really serious Versha. I would like to know about your favourite Namkeen.
Versha Sharma 46:30
Oh my God, nobody has ever asked me that question. I love it! Oh my God and I’ve got an immediate answer. It’s deep foods extra hot, hot mix.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:42
My mouth is watering and I don’t even know what it is, but my mouth is watering. Describe this to me. What does it taste like?
Versha Sharma 46:46
It’s just the extra spicy version of it and I just love it. I have loved it ever since I was introduced to it when I was like 12. I feel like it’s become my comfort food. Which is another reason when I saw the bags of Namkeen on set with Charithra. I was just like, “This is such a moment for me personally, this is so wild.” Do you have a favourite Namkeen?
Sangeeta Pillai 47:11
Yes. I love the pepper banana chips. Have you ever had them? They’re more of a South Indian thing I think. So. I love that. I love the sev. It’s a very Bombay thing. It’s this really thin deep fried, obviously it’s all deep fried, very very crunchy. And I always keep a bag in my kitchen. And every time I’m either super stressed, or super happy, or anything in between. I can go get that bag.
Versha Sharma 47:44
Exactly the same. I’m exactly the same.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:48
Any other kind of Indian food that you love? I’m curious to know what’s your thing?
Versha Sharma 47:53
Yeah, well my mom’s roti aloo is my favourite. That’s just like my favourite growing
Sangeeta Pillai 48:00
Is that like an aloo paratha or is that something different?
Versha Sharma 48:02
No, it’s like aloo paratha, yeah, love panipuri and love dosha.
Sangeeta Pillai 48:09
I love that you said dosha not dosa.
Versha Sharma 48:16
And a mango lassi you, can’t go wrong with a good mango lassi.
Sangeeta Pillai 48:19
You cannot! I love dosha’s to and appams, have you ever had appams? They are from Kerala. So they’re like the soft spongy bit in the middle and crispy on the outside. I love an appam,that’s one of my favourites. Appam and egg curry, brunch favourite of all time. Okay, now that we’ve talked enough about food, I’ve got a little question for you. What would Versha now sitting here say to Versha, five year old Versha sitting in, I’m gonna say Louisiana because I’m assuming that’s where you were, what would you say to her?
Versha Sharma 48:56
Oh, great question. I would say to her to stick with what you love. Stick with your passions, because it’s going to all work out.
Sangeeta Pillai 49:07
That is really beautiful. Because it’s that isn’t it? We’re told to stop daydreaming, stop this, stop this, get practical but actually no! Keep dreaming. Right?
Versha Sharma 49:20
Yeah, exactly. I can’t tell you how many times my dad told me I had pipe dreams growing up. But that’s exactly it. It’s that discouragement. So I’d say keep dreaming for sure. And to calm any sense of anxiety, I think it means a lot to me to say, “It’s gonna work out. Things are gonna be fun.”
Sangeeta Pillai 49:38
Yes, and even with your dad saying that, or any of our parents, or older people in our life saying that it comes from their own place of anxiety because they’ve never had that. So I think we’ve also got to understand that they’re not saying it to kind of destroy our dreams. In their minds, they’re trying to look after us because they’ve never had those opportunities. So they cannot imagine a world in which you happen, you know?
Versha Sharma 50:05
Yeah, and it took me being an adult to realise that but their ultimate goal for me, it was always financial stability. So of course, I understand why you only want to push us into three professions that have that kind of financial stability that you’re looking for as an immigrant to the US, I totally get it.
Sangeeta Pillai 50:24
Last but not least, what advice or what words would you have for the listeners of Masala podcast?
Versha Sharma 50:32
Okay, I’d say South Asians really are having a moment across industries. So please go out and celebrate it and take advantage of it. And if you’ve ever had doubts about pitching that podcast idea, or the show idea, or writing a feature, absolutely remember, you can pitch Teen Vogue anytime, just do it. If you’ve got something that you want to do, even if you’ve got a lot of anxiety or fear about it, just go for it. Because we are in this incredible moment where a lot of us have opportunities that generations before did not have, and I just want to see us all take advantage of it.
Sangeeta Pillai 51:09
That’s fantastic. We’ve never had a moment like this actually, when you were speaking that’s what I was thinking. This has never happened before.
Versha Sharma 51:18
Never happened, it’s amazing.
Sangeeta Pillai 51:20
Isn’t it? I’m getting goosebumps? All of us in all these parts of the world are rising creatively doing these amazing things and the world is there for us. It is opening up to us, which has never happened before. So this is the moment.
Versha Sharma 51:35
This is the moment, now it’s our time.
Sangeeta Pillai 51:42
Thank you so, so, so much Versha for your brimming with joy and energy and positivity and all sorts of wonderful things and it makes my heart really, really happy. To be talking to you, to be seeing you on the screen. Thank you so, so, so much for being on the masala podcast.
Versha Sharma 52:02
Thank you. Thank you for having me. This was wonderful.
Sangeeta Pillai 52:09
Thank you for listening to the Masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soul sutras.co.uk, I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.