A chance encounter transforms a girl from a poor Mumbai neighborhood into a teen model and internet influencer. | ET REALITY

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MUMBAI (Reuters) – Three years ago, a curious American tourist walked into a seafront slum in Mumbai and met a small, smiling girl.

Maleesha Kharwa is now 15 years old, still small and with the same winning smile, and her family still has a cabin on a garbage-strewn coast, but now they also rent a one-bedroom apartment, with its own bathroom and running water, to short distance far distance.

In March, an Indian luxury cosmetics brand, Forest Essentials, chose Maleesha as the face of its Yuvati campaign celebrating young Indian women.

Before that, she shared a cover of Cosmopolitan India magazine that carried the tagline: “Guts! Guts! Guts!”

Maleesha hopes these successes will be the springboard to a career as a model or dancer, although she intends to focus on her studies until she finishes school.

“I feel good because I look different on camera and in real life,” Maleesha told a Reuters photographer in her home, surrounded by walls covered with posters.

“Now a lot of people recognize me and click photos. I feel very proud of myself at that moment,” she said, before adding that some days she feels like people take too many photos.

His story has drawn comparisons to the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire set in Mumbai.

And its progress reflects gradually changing attitudes in a country where advertising, popular culture and Bollywood films glorify light skin as a beauty ideal.

Forest Essentials must have seen something similar to what Robert Hoffman saw, when the American actor and choreographer posted videos on Instagram and YouTube of the time he spent with the girl and her family in 2020.

Cheeky and polite, Maleesha speaks with a voice that bursts with happiness, belying the hardships she has known, having lost her mother at a young age, leaving her father juggling his daily job while raising her two children.

Knowing the power of the Internet, Hoffman helped her launch the “Go Fund Me” campaign.

Maleesha has since become a social media influencer and uses the hashtag ‘slum princess’ in some of her posts. At last count, her Instagram account had 367,000 followers and counting.

Report by Hemanshi Kamani, written by Tanvi Mehta; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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