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The Indian-American fashion model Sonia Dara ’12 (’13) broke into the field at 15 at an actor/model/talent competition in Orlando judged by agents. She grew up in Atlanta; her Hindu parents supported her modeling ambitions as long as she maintained her grades. Unlike many of her peers, who wanted to “drop everything, move to New York, and model,” Dara continued high school and so signed with the local Elite Model Management agency. (Fashion models work with different agencies in different cities; today, IMG represents Dara in New York, London, and Milan; Factor in Atlanta and Chicago; Nathalie in Paris; and Munich Models in Munich.) She worked weekends or after school, and took time off from classes only for really big jobs—the runway show for Yves St. Laurent in Atlanta, or the Paris shoot for Vogue India. “I try to take it as professionally as possible,” she says. “There’s very quick turnover in the industry; if you slide down that slippery slope, there’s another girl waiting to take your place right away. Lots of talk about who’s in, who’s hot, who’s fresh.”

Versace, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Balenciaga, Saks, Neiman Marcus, Seventeen, and Women’s Wear Daily have featured her. After her freshman year at Harvard, Sports Illustrated (SI) booked her for its 2010 swimsuit issue. The magazine flew her, business class, to the state of Rajasthan in northwest India (her family’s home turf), building on her status as their first South Asian swimsuit model. She spent 48 “super-excited” hours in India, amid “racks and racks of swimsuits. This shoot is more about the girl than the swimsuit, but since I was the first model from India to do this, I made it a point to pose as elegantly as possible; I was more hesitant to do risqué stuff. I’m not comfortable with that.”

 Though she wasn’t paid for the SI job, “the exposure you get and the jobs you book afterwards are incredible—it’s booking on a whole different plateau,” she explains. Dara took two semesters off to work through the surge of opportunities. She did interviews with the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, was on the cover of Elle India, and served as a guest judge on the America’s Next Top Model television series, where she met the show’s creator, supermodel Tyra Banks (who took an intensive executive-education program at HBS in 2010). That led to a summer internship at Banks’s company in New York. Dara also won a modeling contract with Laura Mercier Cosmetics, a far more lucrative engagement than runway modeling or editorial work.

Nonetheless, Dara is fully aware of the “flavor of the week” fickleness of the industry. Last summer, the economics concentrator interned in investment banking at Deutsche Bank in New York City. During her year off, she recalls that, “As a 20-year-old, I sat there at a casting with 15- and 16-year-olds—they barely have hips!—and I felt old! You have to have a backup plan, and I’ve got the best backup plan ever: Harvard.”