Super blogger, business woman and brand, Malini Agarwal is one of India’s most well known female entrepreneurs and a top global lifestyle influencer. She even jokingly calls herself a social media Jedi. Others call her red carpet royalty and CNBC calls her one of India’s 2016 Women of Tomorrow.
In the early 2000’s a young and irrepressibly optimistic Malini Agarwal was happily bouncing from Delhi to Mumbai and one glittery entertainment industry job to another. She was a back-up dancer, radio DJ, had a gig at MTV India and worked her way up to lead the digital content department for a major Indian TV network. In her “spare” time she also dashed off columns for a Mumbai tabloid on her two passions, fashion and film. All in all it was a joyous but unlikely path for a young woman from a distinguished diplomatic family (her father was ambassador to countries such as Lebanon, Germany and Ivory Coast).
“Several times my mom suggested I might get a ‘real job’,” Agarwal says with a good humor that seems to permeate everything she does. “At the time,” she says reminiscing about her path to success, “I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew I would do something and I wanted it to be extraordinary.” It would be extraordinary indeed, but no one imagined that this young woman, who describes her trajectory as “serendipitous”, would be India’s first and most popular celebrity, fashion and lifestyle blogger and, founder of a company that would be a major player in India’s new media world.
In 2008 when she kicked off missmalini.com, a blog about all things Bollywood, she was a pioneer. Blogging was new in India. Agarwal’s style was chatty and warm, and because of her work in entertainment media she had the right connections to get scoops and be invited to glamour-infused events. Her positive tone and anecdotal style resonated with the public. The blog took off. If you wanted to know what Priyanka Chopra (Quantico) was wearing when she got off the plane in New Delhi or were curious about what Irrfan Khan’s (Jurassic World) next role, you checked out the site. The hobby blog grew exponentially.
India’s appetite for news about their favorite stars is huge. Fascination with their century-old film industry is woven into the fabric of the country and cuts across class lines. Today Agarwal’s blog has four million unique visitors a month. She now has her own media company, MissMalini Publishing (with husband Nowshad Rizwanullah) a TV series for TLC India, a popular YouTube channel and a blog that has expanded to cover international trends, travel, entertainment and events. Agarwal, a self proclaimed geek (if an accidental one) is considered a leader in the digital media industry. She is already imagining new platforms for her storytelling including, she says, virtual reality. “I am always about adopting new tools, looking for new ways in the digital space to tell the story.”
The story she wants to tell, in comparison to the Slumdog Millionaire take on India, is about a different India, one that is modern and global. While the other sort of story exists, she admits, and needs to be heard, there are also a good news stories. “I just talk about things I like,” she explains. “I am playing in social media curation.” Her type of whimsical pop culture pieces, especially those about Bollywood, have a sizeable audience, especially among young upwardly mobile Indians both in and out of the country. In fact, she says forty percent of her followers are international, and she has even opened an office in Dubai with more international offices on the drawing board.
The sheer scale of her subject matter and audience keeps her working almost constantly. She spends her days blogging, doing interviews and having business meetings. At night even a dinner out at a new restaurant with her husband is a subject for her blog. Then there are movie previews and red carpet events where she now often finds herself the subject of celebrity adulation especially when it comes to fashion. “My style is girly and comfy and I like off-the-beaten track designers,” she says. And lucky are the couturiers that get chosen by Agarwal because her likes in fashion (and lifestyle products) often provide a boost for the product and its creator. But being admired isn’t what occupies her at these public events. Phone in hand, she tweets, takes photos and posts all while greeting people and making each one feel she or he is the only one in the room.
Making well-to-do and famous people feel good she readily admits won’t put food on the table of India’s poor. “My blog isn’t out to save the world and I get blasted by people who say ‘Why not do more for society?’” She responds to that critique saying, she is trying to do just that by using her reach, social media savvy, celebrity contacts and huge following to support important causes. She has worked on campaigns spreading awareness on child sexual abuse, promoted helpline phone numbers and mobilized her followers and celebrity contacts to support Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s Childrens Foundation which works to prevent child labor. Lately she has taken on issues of mental health, encouraging celebrities to talk about their own mental health issues as a way to encourage the blog’s followers to go for help if they need it. “As we grow,” she says, “we want to increasingly use our social media real estate to help organizations do this good work and organize their campaigns.”
With a reality show on TLC India, a foray into e-commerce and a fast growing new media company, Agarwal is often asked if she ever feels over-socialized or burnt out. Her rejoinder is characteristically uncomplainingly cheerful. “Luckily my husband is the CEO of both the company and my heart so he joins me going out to all these events. My job is just so much fun!” As for that elusive work/life balance everyone dreams about? She bursts into laughter saying, “My work life balance is terrible. I do something like five exercise classes and never go back.” In the end how refreshing to know that this soon-to-be media magnate, red carpet party person with an online posse of millions is just like the rest of us.