Sahar Lone speaks with Anita Chhiba, the global cultural influencer behind the hit Instagram page @diet_paratha, on the ongoing need for truly diverse representation in Aotearoa.
In the early 90s, New Zealand airwaves were dominated by Rachel Hunter’s Pantene commercial with (blonde) hair so healthy it shone, and the (all white) casts of shows like Baywatch and Beverly Hills, 90210. All the while, Anita Chhiba, like me, was growing up as a South Asian in Aotearoa.
The 31-year-old Indian was born and raised in Pukekohe, a suburb Chinese and Indian market gardeners flocked to because it was, and still is, the breadbasket of our largest city.
Other than as stereotypical representations of shopkeepers, taxi drivers and model citizens, Chhiba, who is back in Auckland from her home of London for the summer, doesn’t recall seeing South Asians on New Zealand screens until recently.
“I don’t think our stories are told authentically. I did see one Anchor ad about barfi recently [a popular Indian sweet] though,” she says.
Being raised in a multicultural community, Chhiba says she didn’t realise the impact that the white gaze, casual racism and eurocentric beauty ideals in wider society had on her identity until later in life.
After leaving high school, Chhiba graduated with a degree in graphic design from AUT, then worked as a creative producer in advertising. She found the industry homogenous and grew tired of pushing for better representation. Frustrated at the lack of opportunities available to her, she moved to London in 2018.
Around the same time, Chhiba discovered Instagram accounts and influencers of South Asian origin such as Brown Girl Magazine.
“Seeing brown people doing sick stuff where heritage wasn’t tied into what they were doing, I was like, ‘Wow, we can exist like this in mainstream culture’,” she says over a video call from her parents’ home on a rainy day in Auckland.
Diet Paratha, whose name is a play on that of hugely popular Instagram fashion critics Diet Prada, is an online platform that celebrates South Asians here, there and everywhere. Its Instagram page has garnered over 24,000 followers, international media coverage, and partnerships with luxury brands like Burberry, Gucci and Chivas.
Followers use Diet Paratha to discover talent across the subcontinent, from Pakistani-American Grammy-nominated musician Arooj Aftab to Indian-British fashion designer Supriya Lele and Bangladeshi-American writer Nancy Uddin.
Chhiba’s influence has also made the hooked nose cool. There’s an ongoing struggle among many South Asians to accept hooked noses because conventional beauty standards have always favoured nose shapes most commonly found in white people.
Engagement is highest for posts about the side profile. They make people with the hooked nose feel seen and bind the online community together, offering a place to pluck confidence from. The comments are always heartwarming.
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Chhiba has been interviewed by Vogue, Dazed and Highsnobiety, and says her success is in large part due to the support of other South Asians and untapped demand.
“That just reflects how important it is to have people on the inside. Because they have literal skin in the game. They want to tell these stories. They know how important these stories are for us because there are so few of them.”
The heft of the platform derives from the fact that in the UK, Asians are the second-largest demographic.
Deals with Diet Paratha not only help brands increase their market reach to South Asian people, they also provide employment opportunities for creatives from the diaspora.
“Brands are definitely seeing dollar signs. I think it’s up to us as creators to reinforce the need for true allyship rather than performance activism,” says Chhiba.
Chibba is back home in Auckland for summer weddings and to visit family. She hosted an event earlier this month at Auckland’s QT Hotel in the Viaduct Harbour, where a panel of South Asian speakers – including Vogue India’s head of editorial content, Megha Kapoor, as well as trans advocate and content creator Kris Fox – reflected on how much has changed recently, and how Aotearoa is still lagging behind despite a lot of recent progress.
Chhiba partnered with Viaduct Harbour to organise the event and diversify the downtown precinct’s audience beyond its usual patronage. Importantly, she was paid to deliver the event, alongside other talent.
Diet Paratha actively seeks to promote work by people who are queer, non-binary or from minority groups such as Kashmiris (like myself). This inclusive approach extends to a keenness to tackle critical issues like colourism, casteism and classism facing the community.
She cites Parris Goebel as an inspiration – being a young, Pasifika woman from New Zealand who champions and creates opportunities for people in her community. Goebel recently appealed to media to highlight the achievements of teenage dancers who performed in the Savage X Fenty show when she felt their efforts were going unrecognised.
Chhiba says she is in a privileged position, being able to demand greater representation on projects she contracts to now that she has built a profile. “Where I can, I try to get full South Asian teams to work behind the scenes. These projects are not only representative in a visual sense but they’re also creating opportunities.”
For a recent project with fragrance brand Byredo, more than 25 South Asian creatives were paid to bring together a creative vision for the perfume Mumbai Noise. Talent was crowdsourced by Diet Paratha followers – including designers, chefs and cocktail-makers.
When Chhiba couldn’t find a South Asian florist, she organised for two South Asian alumni from a training course to shadow more established suppliers and learn the ropes. She is acutely aware that experiences working for large brands can be career-defining for emerging practitioners.
Since arriving back home, Chhiba has been talking to people in creative industries, PR and media. She says that despite the growth of pages like hers, some people in positions of power are still not hip to them.
“New Zealand brands need to do more work on the inside and they need to diversify their teams because it reflects so obviously on the outside. You need people who are part of the culture on the inside looking for trends.
“It’s bittersweet, because I had to go out and carve my own lane to be respected. I’m just lucky that Diet Paratha has been recognised as a cultural contributor,” Chhiba says.
After this recent trip, Chhiba reckons there’s potential in Aotearoa for her work, although she will be returning to the UK early next year.
“London for the most part is amazing – it’s so multicultural, there are so many opportunities. It’s a safety in numbers thing. I don’t think I could have done Diet Paratha in New Zealand because the support is just not there in the community at scale.
“That’s why I can do Diet Paratha full-time. There is support there for creators and for people to thrive. It’s really hopeful and it’s changed my whole life – it really has.”
For this South Asian writer, I hope we see more of Chhiba’s work on our shores.