Businesswoman and model: Kalpanee Gunawardana
By Mahika Panditha
You may have seen this beauty in magazines or on your Instagram more than a few times. Let’s put a name to the face – Kalpanee Gunawardana. Although she is a model at the face of it, she also manages a few small-scale start-ups and businesses while also working as a consultant. Kalpanee hopes to contribute towards creating a world that treats everyone as equals, where their rights are protected. She wants to also be actively conscious of the environment and be a part of the solution. If you have seen the popular concept shoot with Yashvin Senanayake and Yadushika Radhakrishnan that Kalpanee is also a part of – done to raise awareness for plastic pollution – you will know what she’s talking about. We discuss this later on, so keep reading!
Kalpanee’s passion is to carve out a life that continuously inspires her to do more than she thought was possible the day before, and that is just one of the many reasons we admire her. Her guilty pleasure is salmon and cheese (honestly, good choice because lowkey same!) And a fun fact about her is that she wore only one earring till she was 15 as only one of her ears was pierced! One earring, but make it fashion, you know? Anyways, I had the opportunity to ask the lovely Kalpanee some questions earlier. Here is what she had to say.
Tell us a little bit about you. What drives you to keep going every day?
I was always a naturally driven individual, however at 22 years, I found myself caught in a spiral of a major depressive episode. With the help of medical practitioners and a supportive network, I came to terms with it but what essentially helped me was working towards a life that literally got me out of bed every day with a purpose. The work I engage in drives me.
As someone who stands up for several social issues, what do you think about using social media platforms to spread awareness?
People are increasingly turning towards social media for their news and information, and it is being recognised by leading think tanks as a powerful tool for citizen engagement on vital social and political issues. I think it is an especially powerful device to raise awareness, discuss, and find community-driven solutions for matters that do not receive adequate coverage on traditional media.
If you could change one thing in this world, what would it be?
Mindfulness. I think learning to be mindful can help us lead more conscious lives that would create a better, just, and sustainable world.
You are also a small business owner. How is that experience for you? What was starting up your own business like?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs; I have always gravitated towards self-employment and have been keen to provide solutions for gaps in the market. However, reality requires us to adapt to market challenges and it is not always successful. The first business I set up – an aspiring social enterprise working with traditional and rural craftsmen to provide packaging solutions – has taken a hiatus; I do not consider it a failure but it taught me important lessons in realising that theory does not always work out in practice. Being a female entrepreneur in an area largely dominated by men comes with its own set of challenges; further to that, emerging markets like ours behave in a very unique manner with culture and entrenched gender expectations affecting business very differently in comparison to a more developed market.
Talk to us about your business. What is the concept behind it?
I currently work in a few ventures. One provides media solutions in terms of models, personalities, and the management of all production aspects for clients where relevant. I also represent several artists in the capacity of a talent management service. I have an event solutions firm that provides ushers and brand ambassadors. Another is an educational workshop venture where so far we have conducted arts and crafts workshops for children; our one on marine conservation has been quite popular.
Any advice for some budding entrepreneurs?
Emerging markets have many opportunities where you can reverse engineer solutions from developed arenas. With the proliferation of social media, I personally think that it is now easier than ever to access the consumer. However amongst noise, a good product alone does not cut it; to stand out you must be willing to think on your feet and sometimes throw out the rulebook altogether. I think it’s important to know when to take a step back and re-evaluate when things aren’t working out.
You will fail in one way or the other, but the key is to keep at it either by changing your formula or moving on to another venture. Combining paths or taking a hiatus should not be frowned upon; working in traditional environments for example, whilst building your business may provide discipline and a wealth of information. They are all options; there’s no cookiecutter version of an entrepreneur. Experiment and take chances. Business is a game of kismet with strategy, luck, and probability.
We have to say, you are absolutely stunning! How did you get into modelling?
You are very kind. Thank you. I was introduced to a talent agent at an event whilst I was in England, Bristol that went on to sign me. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, I met Tymeron Carvalho at a charity show, following which he took me under his wing to train and mentor me. He put me forward at the pageant Best Female Model for Super Model International, a franchise hosted by Brian Kerkoven. I was trained further and given opportunities to enter the industry via his guidance and I am now represented by The Agency Sri Lanka, which manages my interests as a model.
What has been your favourite experience so far in the industry?
There are too many to name; I love what I get to do as a job! From an impact perspective towards matters close to my heart, the following come to mind as career highlights.
“Osariya”, a fashion film by Calvin Chinthaka has been nominated for and has won countless awards in the short film festival circuit. The very first of this was at the London Fashion Film Festival alongside industry giants at the historic Regent Street Cinema in London. We were nominated in our category to compete against names like Stella McCartney. This project was personally funded by the director and all parties sans the artisans came on as unpaid collaborators. The ground crew consisted of the director, his assistant, the stylist, and myself. With minimal resources, we managed to get our foot in the door, and representation matters. I never dreamed I would see myself on a trailer next to Reese Weatherspoon; it really did drive home once and for all into my heart that we do not need to necessarily work in foreign narratives to get recognition and that the world is ready to hear our stories.
Being part of Andre Estefan’s “Colonial Romance” with Nick Saglimbeni and The London School of Hair and Makeup was monumental. Not only because of the talent involved, but because I got to be part of its creation, that took an important conversation to the media and public – internationally and locally – at a crucial time in our journey forward. Stefan Joachim’s collection critically explored our colonial past and what is often referred to as a “colonial hangover”. The image I am part of in particular comprises a top garment that takes notes from the Kandyan Kingdom, and the bottom – or lack thereof – signifies what was stripped away from our nation and our land. In this setting, the female body represented the policing of it via law and changing cultural attitudes that were brought forth by colonial occupation.
Furthermore, it was an honour to have represented Sunsilk in four campaigns over the last three years; as a model that was brought in as part of an initiative to increase diversity and representation in mass media. It signified a change in prevalent advertising norms at the time from a brand of such magnanimous consumer penetration.
I also cherish the opportunity I had to represent Sri Lanka as a cultural ambassador for the Winter Olympics in 2018. On one end I was acutely aware that we had no other presence at the games, but on the other I knew how important it was to be included and to be carrying our flag regardless, at least as a minimum for now.
The Harajuku Barbie Editorial of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka in 2017 ended up running internationally digitally and on print in Cosmopolitan Malaysia in 2018. It was a fine line between appropriation and appreciation. It is almost uncharted territory academically and critically in our local context and the power dynamics involved are very different. I was thrilled to see it being received so warmly, especially as a woman of colour. We have international-calibre talent in our island; with resources and opportunities, I think we can take the world by storm. We are certainly a destination for many productions but more often than not, it involves purely international teams. This achievement is one of many examples where I claim that we are more than a location and more than a logistical provider; we can and should be involved in it A-Z, wherever feasible.
Any tips for aspiring models?
Learn your craft; there’s a wealth of information out there that can be accessed for free.
Get yourself adequate representation if you are working as a professional model with a long-term career objective.
In a digital age, personal branding is key. The future of modelling – especially in fashion – will be purpose driven. Read up on issues surrounding media, fashion, and representation.
Your Halloween photoshoot to portray the dangers of plastic received a lot of shares. Where did this idea develop from and what are your thoughts on marine pollution?
On a personal capacity, I have been learning and unlearning habits over the past few years towards leading a more environmentally conscious life. I met up with Trash Talk last year following an invitation from them with the aim of engaging those with media presence, and the idea of wearing your daily trash for a campaign on consumption was put forth by me. However, I hadn’t been able to find a team to execute it and when Yadushika independently contacted me with her proposition, I jumped onboard without a moment’s hesitation. It was serendipitous but the executed concept is Yadushika’s and all credit lies with her and the team that brought it to life.
Take a walk on Wellawatte beach or look a little beyond the “manmade” pristine stretch at Mount Lavinia and you will see numerous single-use plastic items washing up on shore or circulating in the tide. Speak to the fishermen that gut fish, especially the larger ones, and you will understand that it is very much a present reality that our environment is heavily polluted.
The ocean is the largest ecosystem in the world producing almost half of the oxygen we breathe. A healthy ocean system is vital for our survival, especially as an island nation that depends on it for its economy and for its easily accessible protein sources.
What do you hope people took away from the photos and videos?
The primary source of marine pollution is poor waste management and 80% of debris found in the ocean is plastic. Most single-use items we buy end up in a landfill or in the ocean. Each consumer has the power to change their behaviour. The shoot was released for Halloween because one does not need to look far for a scare; our day-to-day existence is horrifying in terms of consumption for the most part.
We see that you are interested in photography too. What is your favourite thing to shoot and why?
The sets I work on inspire me and offer a lot of opportunity to capture imagery behind the scenes. I thoroughly enjoy telling stories that are not seen in the finished product.
I have also moved around a lot in the past 16 years. Various countries, cities, and changing landscapes have made me appreciate what makes a home and have propelled me towards capturing narratives that are unique to a particular place. I am especially cognisant of developing cities. Colombo is changing and I have been taking a lot of pictures of people and places that won’t be around in another five years.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
In Sri Lanka. Hopefully with a space I call home and a business that not only aligns with my core beliefs, but one which creates opportunities for many others; especially women.
PHOTOS Anushka Fernando, Nick Saglimbeni, Calvin Chinthaka, Yadushika Radhakrishnan, Korea Model Association, Jehan D. Adahan