Who is the real Malini Agarwal? Tell us 5 things about you
Malini: Oh my god! If you find out, please let me know. But okay I guess 5 things – I am an enthucutlet, as I like to tell everyone, I have a lot of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) which is what I am powered by, that and Redbull. I am a great optimist, I am actually an optimist to the degree that when I know for sure something is going wrong, I will make up a story that it isn’t and convince myself that that story’s is actually real. You know if you just believe it and you want something badly enough the universe conspires to make it happen. I am actually a really shy public speaker, most people don’t know this about me. Nowshad and Mike can tell you how I am a complete mess like an hour before I have to go on stage in front of the camera. Everyone laughs at me later that how can you be so camera shy, you are so used to the camera now, but public speaking on stage is like still a nightmare for me. I like to play pool, I like to go dancing with my friends, I am a very social person. And I like to match-make people, I pride myself on that. At least I’ve tried to match-make literally everyone single that I know, that’s another thing everyone jokes with me about. I think that’s 5.
You have said that you started the blog as a hobby and not as a serious business but it’s become this huge thing now. You don’t get this far without a plan so when did that aha moment happen for you?
I think the reason it actually took off is because it was never planned as a business.
So I started it really as a hobby while I was doing various other things. And somewhere along the way I really just wanted to document the things that were happening in India, which I thought were amazing, everything from a cool artist I saw or a cool nightclub I went to and everything else. It was a total hobby from 2008 to 2009 – 2010. My husband, we were dating at that time and he went off to Harvard Business School and while we were doing long distance I started the blog. When he came back he was like you know blogs are really big business internationally, people have made big careers out of it, look at Perez Hilton, Just Jared. Meanwhile I had met Mike Melli who is my co-founder and CRO and we would sit on my sofa and work and you know that was our office. I used to get all these incoming requests to come and cover something or write about something and I would never be able to field enough of it myself, so he was sort of managing me he was my business manager at that time and that’s how we ran the operations at the time.
Mike: When I first met Malini it was a couple of years before we started talking about business and that was the early years when she had started the blog, it was just another cool aspect of Malini. You know she was this life of the party, people just gravitate towards her and then once the blog really started having a loyal readership and especially once brands started reaching out, I think that’s when we really started thinking about it. It was very gradual. I think the first thing I tried to encourage Malini with was to put a value on her time. So that’s when we started to say okay lets talk about how this could actually be a business? We had role models from the west in the USA and saw how a hobby blog or a passion project turned into a business.
Malini: In 2011 when Nowshad came back, we said okay well he’s going to support us, we weren’t making any money, so we said let’s give this a year I’ll quit all my other jobs, he’ll support us and we’ll see what happens and we’ll do it more seriously. I think that was sort of the turning point and in 2012 we raised our first round of funding,
And you know little aha moments happen, like in Bollywood your aha moments are when you hit upon a piece of gossip that no one else has.
So the fact that we broke the story about Katrina and Ranbir was a big aha moment for us
because we didn’t realize it would be such a big story to get covered by all the other press. And the way that I found that out was a huge serendipitous moment, a friend of mine happened to be flying first class on Lufthansa and he was sitting in the row across from Katrina. So he’s telling me the story very casually over dinner at BlueFrog and I was like, ‘what do you mean she was sitting with Ranbir Kapoor? What do you mean they were like holding hands?’ I wrote it and the next thing you knew it blew up and it was just the craziest thing and at that point no one would believe it, but I was like I can tell you what seat they were sitting on the flight.
I want to ask you (Mike) a question; I’ve never asked him that, what made you want to do this?
Mike: You. You know you draw on to people. The first people that started to work with Oprah or the people that you just know that whatever they are going to touch is going to turn into something amazing because of the personality and the talent but also because of the dedication and the hard work.
When I read MissMalini.com, to me even the news that you break, Bollywood news, it’s never mean gossip. Does that come from the way you are? Is that a conscious call?
Malini: Absolutely. Couple of things happened that made me realize this. Initially I did write gossip pieces back in the day and then I realized that when I had written the pieces and I would run into that celebrity at an event, I would try not to catch their eye or I’d be worried they’d come and say something to me. So then I thought, well if I am so concerned about something I have written, maybe I have done something wrong. Because
if I don’t have the balls to say it to their face then maybe I shouldn’t say it at all.
Another thing that happened was that I had found these pictures of Rajnikant without his hair and makeup and I blogged them and I got flamed for it. People were so upset with me; they said how could you do that? Why would you make him look so bad? The thing about Bollywood and its fans is that we love our stars, we want to put them on a pedestal and for a large part they are our heroes, so why rip them apart? I realized there is a whole other side to celebrities and no one is showing you that fun side. No one is playing charades with Shah Rukh Khan and we’ve done that and it’s so fun to see how he would act out a movie or do things like going to Farhan’s house and asking him to sing a song that he wrote. Things that make them more real and relatable that has kind of been the conscious effort because that’s really what connects all of us at some level.
It used to be you could make friends with people like in Mean Girls where you can all say something mean together about someone else and that bonds people, but actually you can change that and maybe say something nice to someone else. There’s two things I realized, one
I used to sit at Fashion Week and everyone would be saying something terrible about the show and I wanted to say something nice but I would hesitate, oh what if I sound stupid and I was like why do I sound stupid saying something nice
and they sound okay saying something mean and I started to apply that. I would unabashedly say I loved it, you don’t have to love it, but I loved it and what gives you the authority to hate it and not gives me the authority to love it?
Is that what you did differently from the traditional gossip columns and film zines to Page 3? Being a space that was upbeat positive where people could come make friends be in touch with things and just feel happy about themselves?
Malini: I think the main thing was I felt there was no one place that was talking to me with a personality or a voice and the Internet really thrives on individuals and personalities. That is why you have YouTube stars, because people connect with the person. And
I think what resonated with people was one, definitely the happy shiny, two, it felt like there was a real person as invested in them as they were in me.
And even though now Miss Malini is not just about me, I have a joke, I’m Mrs. Malini now, there’re a lot of millennial little Malini’s everywhere now and they all have personalities. I’m very proud of the fact that people will watch Priyam’s videos and they’ll meet her in Delhi and say, ‘oh my god I love you’ or see Natasha my beauty blogger and be like you really make me feel much more comfortable wearing my braces. I think it’s really about being real and having a personality that really is a simple thing. Also, one of the things I realized was that all the fashion magazines, glossies while are lovely and I still love reading them, but for a lot of people they are very intimidating. So you might open a magazine and see stuff written about Fashion Week but you’ll have no idea what it means to you, it feels a little disconnected and you don’t really know how to translate it and it makes you feel a little weary.
What we try to do is be that digital BFF, in between.
I’ll sit at Fashion Week, I’ll watch what happens at the show, I’ll show monochrome and laces on the runway, but I’ll also help understand what that could mean for you. That could mean, hey you could go to this store and buy these lace shorts with this monochrome top and put that together and this is how it means something for you as opposed to being something unattainable. Basically hospitality and customer service in an entertainment way.
You guys always seem to know the pulse on what young people across the country are interested in. How do you know what they want to read or what they want to hear?
Malini: We’ve hired all the people that read to write the content.
Nowshad: To be fair we get way too much credit for the content. We try to set the vision and mediate, but a lot of the digging on the ground is by our team. And our team is primarily 20-25 year olds. Very social media savvy, very pop culture savvy and they know more than we do.
Mike: Malini’s obviously our guiding light, but together the three of us, we are the conductors and they are the orchestra. All the content that everyone loves and follows, we are not writing that. Malini started writing all of it; she still loves to write and does when she has some time.
Malini: We noticed what I write is like 0.6% on the blog
When I see you I see someone very hard working, honestly. But do you sometimes feel it’s a challenge because of the way people perceive you, especially in certain roles or certain industries. Do you ever feel like it’s a challenge when some people perceive you as a party girl?
Malini: I do, but I have to say two things about this, one
I am definitely a party girl, lets put that aside, I am happy doing that.
I think as much as you might say as a woman has it been hard for me, actually when I started out I had the opposite experience. It was very easy for me to push by the sweaty guys with big cameras and be like excuse me can I go and take one picture please and they’d be like okay bachchi hai let her go, so that worked in my favour. Over the years I have actually come to see that a lot of people have a lot of love respect and you know they are aware of what I do. In some cases though people still have that perception of oh, she’s a girl and because I am in this industry of Bollywood and fashion and all of that, you know they’ll ask stupid questions like have you had a crush on a celebrity? I’m like have YOU had a crush on a celebrity? And they don’t even put it that nicely. So I think it’s hard for women in all spaces, but I don’t think it’s specifically been that difficult for me. I haven’t faced any huge amount of sexism in that sense. I’ve seen it recently and surprisingly so.
And that was?
Malini: I was speaking at a conference and I did this half an hour thing about brand building and storytelling and did a whole presentation that Mike and I spent days grueling over and made it look beautiful and at the end of it there was a Q&A with me. The first question was like I heard you are very expensive, I was like okay whatever that is. And then he was like, ‘oh I have to ask you a very important question’ and
I thought here it is, he’s going to ask me about what our business model is and how it’s going to be in the future and what the future of digital is and I’m like ready for it. He goes, ‘how have you resisted the urge to have an extramarital affair in Bollywood?’
I was just stunned! And now in hindsight I can think of so many great comebacks. All I wanted to say were two things one, would you have asked a man this question and I wish I’d said that right on stage and two, when you have someone, and I am very proud to say we recently won Most Influential Woman in India in Media, Marketing & Advertising, and you have the opportunity to ask her one question, that is what you choose to ask?
Where do you see MissMalini.com going in the future?
For us it’s really about building something big and meaningful that’s going to last and have an impact so it’s not really about making a quick buck and exiting, although that would be nice laughs. It’s about being first to do something in a particular way, it’s about changing mindsets about how media should be, how brands speak to their audiences. I think if we had to break it down to pieces, for us the next step is really now in taking this English language publication and expanding the appeal to more audiences. Thinking about what do audiences want outside the English metros?
Again the premise of this company is that traditional media as powerful as they are, they don’t speak the same language as today’s new audiences.
So creating media that millennial India can truly identify with and feel like it’s their own and represents them authentically I think is an aspiration we share.
Mike: How big it can get you know there’s the business side of that and we absolutely believe it’s going to be a 500 million dollar company in the future. But I think what’s equally if not more exciting about what that means is the kind of impact that can make, what kind of change that can help foster. How many people’s lives has you know Oprah changed or you know what kind of social movement did Ellen DeGeneres launch in the US.
So I think as your microphone gets bigger and bigger and your audience gets bigger and bigger then you can do a lot more good.
Even on a CSR stand point we try and help as many causes as we can.
Malini: And the thing is there is this audience that is so interesting right? It’s not like they are these lost lambs, they are very aware. So when you want to communicate something to them, while having an entertaining space to do it, they are much more willing to listen to you and believe you just as they would believe a friend, who would say, ‘listen I signed up for this campaign will you sign up with me’, as opposed to being preachy.
Like I would love to be the place that encourages people to find the right leadership or do things for the LGBT community.
We are showing them make up artists or stylists, people who are from that community, showing them how well they are doing and maybe inspiring someone who is afraid to come out of the closet, because they don’t know how people will react to them. It makes a big difference to lives.
Watch what Team MissMalini has to say to budding entrepreneurs
It’s so much of a group effort, how do the three of you work so well together? Do you ever get into each other’s hair?
Mike: Everyone has cranky days, obviously. Whenever there’s any kind of stress on the company I think we all take that personally and that comes out sometimes. So yea ofcourse there’s fights, ofcourse there’s bad days.
I think it’s the shared passion of what we are trying to do and what we know we are going to achieve that trumps everything. What trumps that is that we are all friends first.
You always get those warnings about don’t go into business with your friends, and you know in some ways it is good advise. But you know it’s tough and we make it work.
Malini: I am definitely the moody one, he (Nowshad) is the voice of reason. So Mike and I would get really riled up about something, which is rightfully so and be like, ‘we should call this out and they shouldn’t have done that’ and Nowshad is like calm down guys, sleep on it. So yea.
Nowshad: We have the additional kind of advantage and disadvantage of being married, right , so the advantage is that…
Malini: He cant quit
Nowshad: haha so the disadvantage is that you are always tempted to talk about work or analyse what happened during the day and you know that absence makes the heart grow fonder, I wouldn’t know. But I think more than anything else, because we are in this together, every action I take I know is going to impact her and ofcourse Mike.
Mike: And my wife too I have to say, feels like she is a part of the business as well.
Nowshad: And yea when you are all so closely knit in that sense you take your actions more seriously than if you just had investors’ money or you know that perspective. None of us can walk away from this lets put it that way.
Malini: But I have to say that I cant imagine having a better dream team to do this with. It would never have gotten beyond like a dreamy blog, who likes to write about celebrities and cover happy shiny things, if it wasn’t for these guys.
Malini, we notice that you have your own personal twitter handle now, is it like a conscious decision to separate a little from MissMalini?
Malini: Absolutely, like I said it started off as a personal hobby blog of a girl called Malini, but over time it has grown bigger and this is why
I want to leave a legacy behind. I always say that little anime, she’s going to age a lot better than I will and she’s going to go on and represent the millennial and she no longer is about me as a person.
She as rightly said is like the Barbie, Hannah Montana, the young Oprah and she is represented by this face of this girl who represents this whole millennial set who will dance at their best friend’s wedding to a Bollywood song but loves their Justin Bieber, loves pop culture, loves fashion and all those things and is no longer about one individual and that’s why we have all these voices here, because we want to keep the heart of the business alive and the communication, the voice that you will hear are the real people, but it’s no longer the one voice. I kind of want to move towards writing my book, being a creative director and my personal handles to be more motivational and sort of hone the next generation of bloggers or female entrepreneurs or maybe teach them things. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to detach from something that’s named after you to begin with. But I am very proud that it’s a legacy brand and that it represents so many things and it’s going to scale by doing this.
Mike: Just on that point, I think the funniest thing for us when it first happened and it’s happened many times after that, is that we’ll have a brand or a potential client come in here and we are talking about Miss Malini and the different things we do and then if Malini happens to be in the office she’ll come and introduce herself and they’d be like, ‘oh there’s a Malini?’ That’s when we knew.
Malini: It’s even happened with a celebrity,
Abhishek Bachchan he said, ‘I thought you were just a character, I didn’t know you were a real person.’
So who is the King Khan of partying and socializing?
Oh my god, I have a best friend called Parul and she’s a super mom she has three children and she out parties me every night of the week. I say she’s my role model.
Who is on your interview wishlist?
Amir Khan, I have been in love with him since I was 9 years old, sorry Nowshad.
Your best and most memorable interview till date?
I guess it’s hard to beat a Shah Rukh Khan interview. So I took Nowshad with me and I told him, when we fight can you show him your Raj moves so he can do it for me and he did it, so yea. No one makes you feel better at an interview than Shah Rakh Khan.
What is the most fantastic insane party you have ever been to?
It’s coming up, I’m turning 40 and we’re going on a birthday cruise. And it’s 4 nights on a luxury cruise liner and I’m super excited. And I keep reading all the reviews like, oh the cruise was great but there was this bunch of people who were partying all day and I was like yes that is going to be us.
Taylor Swift has a posse Karan Johar has a gang, who would be in your celebrity squad?
You know my squad will be like how you have celebrity leagues for different sports, my league would be 100% Ranveer Singh ‘cause he’d be so energetic. Priyanka, Deepika, Arjun Kapoor like a bunch of these guys, Kangana for sure ‘cause she would like boss babe it all the way and Karan Johar.
If you were invited to the Met Gala, who would you wear?
I think I would wear Gaurav Gupta cause he has the most amazingly constructed gowns and he also has zip up sarees that look really complicated but you can run in them.
One international digital star you’d really like to collaborate with?
I love a lot of them and I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Superwoman, but one that I the first one I ever watched was iJustin and I used to follow her blog, I still do and she was a life caster and I was so fascinated by what she does. She loves to play Nintendo so I’d love to have like a Nintendo date with her.