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In the Eye of the Tornado: A Conversation with Ayesha Adlakha

Ayesha Adlakha a.k.a Rave, a.k.a. Elena Sparrow talks about Instagram culture and being an ‘influencer’ in 2017.

“I have three kinds of days,” Ayesha says as she settles back into the archipelago of colourful pillows that is her makeshift mattress settee, “One where I’m shooting, one where I’m not shooting, and the other is when I’m hungover. I think you’ll know what the third one feels like.” She laughs. It’s a carefree laugh, akin to most things I associated with her before this interview. Over the next hour and a half, we would talk about unsavoury dick pics (is there really any other kind?), her obsession with Jack Sparrow, and the predictability of these seemingly arbitrary internet trends, amongst other things.

In the span of a few short years, Ayesha Adlakha went from being a sales trainee at Viacom18 to one of MTV’s most popular VJs, an actress, and an inadvertent Instagram celebrity. I hadn’t seen Ayesha in years, but when I visited her home for this interview and told her I was happy to see her doing all these amazing things, she surprised me by asking, “What amazing things?” She wasn’t cocky or ungrateful; she just genuinely didn’t grasp how the world perceived her job as anything more than what it was. Assuming that she was being modest, I told her, “You’re in the eye of the tornado, so you can’t see what other people see.”

Ayesha Adlakha or ‘Elena Sparrow’ as she’s popularly known on social media, currently has over eighty-thousand followers on Instagram alone. Since her TV show ‘Girls On Top’ aired on MTV India in the summer of 2016, she has garnered a vast following of fans who call themselves ‘Rave Rats’ after her character on the show. She is, as one would say, on the brink of social media stardom. As we sit in the living room of her cosy Andheri apartment talking about what her average day looks like, she lights up a cigarette and adjusts the front knot on her camo print shirt, sprawled with a sort of poised ease. “I’ve had bouts of unproductivity since I was a kid,” she says, “So I always try to do productive stuff when I’m at home — whether it’s going to the gym, working, painting. I’ve started painting a lot.” She gestures to an abstract piece — which is surprisingly pleasing to look at — that hangs next to her bedroom door. We talk about her transition from an almost-employee to VJ at MTV and how it still takes her a moment to identify as an ‘actor’ before we get to talking about Instagram.    

“I think that anybody who has the app, has been touched by the power Instagram possesses,” Ayesha says, “And I do think it’s really crazy if people start believing all what my life or some Instagrammer’s life is about is what they see. Aspiring for that is bonkers. It’s not like my life is actually going according to my timeline. It’s messy; it’s haphazard. Instagram is selective blindness, at the end of the day.” When I initially reached out to her and told her I wanted to have a discussion about the way Instagram — this seemingly benign app anyone with a smartphone can download — has power over our perceptions towards those who are in the public eye, she quickly agreed, saying, “I have so much to say about that.” Instagram ‘influencers’ are essentially personalities with a large number of following in any niche. This space is usually dominated by fashion and beauty bloggers, but TV and other internet personalities coexist here harmoniously as well. “The reason we call ‘social media influencers’ that is because for brands, we are ad space,” Ayesha explains, “But when you are not a brand, and you are an influencer yourself, you need to make sure you’re talking to the audience as yourself. I try to make sure there’s a good mix between what I want to say without a brand hovering around versus what I need to endorse.”

In 2016, Kylie Jenner came clean about her lip injections and voiced her regret over not being upfront about them sooner. “What are all those moms going to think about me?” she said in a tell-all interview with Complex, referring to the parents of her teenage demographic. While Kylie may not have picked the smartest approach with her fanbase, one can tell that her actions come from a place of responsibility. ‘Influencers’ on social media may be a term that is used loosely, but the sense of responsibility that comes with having a massive and dedicated audience isn’t something most influencers take lightly. “I feel like I’m showing my followers a lifestyle,” says Ayesha, “I often have to walk the tightrope between what is and isn’t actually real. For example, the fact that I do smoke is real, even though I will never want to put up a picture of myself smoking. Earlier I would put up pictures of whatever I was doing – drinking booze, smoking pot, whatever. I felt really bad when I got these Snapchats back from kids saying, ‘Look, our first cigarette.’ You do what you want to do and I’m not stopping you; I’m not going on a no-smoking campaign. But why am I being the reason for them to start, you know?

“If you associate ‘Ayesha’ with A, B, C great traits, you assume all the other traits are also good, because that’s what happens when you’re enamoured by something. I know that my reach isn’t as much as so many other people’s but I also know that whoever I’m talking to on social media, I feel responsible for.”

Afternoon shifts to dusk and in the watery sunlight streaming in through her flimsy curtains, Ayesha’s living room induces a strange pang of nostalgia in me. There are light up tetris pieces by the window, a pack of Harnik Phantom Sweet Cigarette Candy on the divan, and an abandoned rubix cube on a coffee table that Ayesha occasionally fiddles with as we talk. All this talk of responsibility has changed the aura of our conversation.

Me: “How different would you say you are in person compared to your online persona?”
Ayesha: “You tell me!”
Me: “Well, I think there’s very little difference, to be honest. And that little difference is something everyone has. Even I’m a little different online.”
Ayesha: “Everyone tries to look better online than they do in person, [laughs] because you have to look at yourself constantly.”
Me: “Yeah, for sure. That’s what I’m talking about. So do you think it’s a conscious effort to seem more put-together for social media?”

Ayesha pauses to contemplate my question. “I feel like there is a difference,” she says, “There are some people that are obnoxiously different compared to their online personas — to the point that they would write things they didn’t actually believe in. You can tell. But then again, that’s the difference between seeing Instagram as a platform for art — where your photographs and selfies also become your art. I think Lady Gaga used social media best first. She always looked like she walked out of her music videos. I respect that sort of congeniality. I’m still to reach that point where it’s entirely possible.

“I can do whatever the fuck I want on my social media and sometimes that sort of freedom makes me think about what I show versus what I am. And then you go even deeper, man. What is my ideal self? What is my true self? I’ve really dwelled upon these questions a lot.”

In 2015, beauty blogger Em Ford uploaded a video called ‘You Look Disgusting’ on her YouTube channel My Pale Skin that went viral. The video addressed the hate she received for her skin on social media, and highlighted how people cyber-bullied her regardless of whether she covered her skin with makeup or not. Amidst a bedlam of memes and online sensations lies the universally acknowledged underbelly of social media – the hate. Ayesha tells me that she has faced two kinds of unsavory comments on Instagram; comments that are sexual in nature and others that display pure, idle hate. “I think I’ve seen every size, colour and shape of dick by now,” she says, “I’m great at turning a blind eye to it — probably because I’m a Delhi girl. The thing with haters is that you’re simply providing a platform for them to dispel this hate they already have and it doesn’t have to touch you. Having said that, you shouldn’t take it lightly if it goes beyond a certain level. I feel so thankful to social media for the direct channel I have to my followers. If you have a voice, you at least have a platform to tell your side of the story.”

Em Ford’s ‘You Look Disgusting’ also tackled the incessant need for validation anyone who has an online presence experiences. The pressure to be socially accepted and celebrated can be too much for anyone to handle, including influencers. We’re constantly and subconsciously measuring our self-worth in the number of double-taps a picture can get us. While reaching a larger audience means deals with bigger brands for Ayesha, she admits to having felt that ceaseless need for validation on social media in the past. “As a generation, we haven’t really known delayed gratification,” she says, “So we don’t know its merits. Putting something up and instantly getting a plethora of notifications gives us a high. I think the source of validation is more important than validation itself.

Me: So do you think this ‘Instagram culture’ is harmful, especially for people growing up with it?

Ayesha: I don’t know if it’s harmful, but I do know that it’s here to stay. It’s also unprecedented. The people older than us, who made the education systems we follow, who made these norms, don’t know what to do. It’s so new that people like us will be the ones making these laws, and witnessing its ups and downs. Like the internet, I don’t think Instagram in itself is the problem. You can use the app for porn, or for art. I think the fact that people are always glued to their screens and they flare up their app before they even take a poop, that does make an impact. With anything that’s got so much freedom in it, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty. Instagram can also be used wonderfully. I know both sides exist. I don’t know. It’s exciting to be alive in 2017! [laughs]

It is an exciting time to be alive. Underneath the barrage of dick pics and arbitrary trends, social media is a small and partial, albeit very real portal into another person’s life. It’s the one single thread that can sometimes make a person on the other side of the world feel less lonely. “I feel like there are parts of me my followers resonate with,” Ayesha says, “but for anybody who is trying to be me – I think that’s completely futile because you’re letting go of who you are meant to be. I am the prime example of somebody who is confused in this digital world.” If you want a takeaway about millennial lifestyle from Ayesha’s Instagram, maybe look at how a young ‘influencer’ can nurture their entrepreneurial spirit while maintaining an unwavering sense of self — all while existing in the eye of the tornado. It may be difficult at times, but that’s what hungover days, Netflix, and Facebook rants are for.

You can follow Ayesha on Instagram here!

[Editor’s note: Verbatim quotes have been edited to accommodate grammar and vocabulary corrections.]

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