- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
When I was younger, I would fight with my older sister over copies of our favorite teen magazines. We would hoard them in our room to reference the latest fashion trends, pin up the hottest musicians or take relationship pop quizzes — not that we were even really dating as pre-teens. The magazines were technically verboten in our traditional Indian household, and in true little sister fashion, I did get my big sis in trouble when I left them out one day, easily discovered by our parents. (I’m still sorry, Jaya.)
But as fun and fascinating as those magazines were, they rarely — if ever — featured cover stars who looked like us, two Indian-American girls born and raised in central Louisiana. They represented what was mainstream Americana in the ‘90s and early 2000s, a very narrow definition that often didn’t include us, or anyone outside of a very specific, slender, white paradigm. If I could go back in time and tell my younger self that one day I would be the first South Asian editor-in-chief of one of those beloved magazines and that my first cover would feature another young woman of South Asian descent front and center, those days of feeling like I didn’t belong might have been a little easier to stomach. (If I had added that this cover star would be photographed surrounded by books — but make it fashion — my younger self, a stereotypical spelling bee nerd who got made fun of at school, would certainly feel extra vindication.)
That level of representation just didn’t feel possible, within reach, or accessible. I still have to pinch myself a little bit now to believe that this is all real. But here we are: it’s August 2021, and 19-year-old Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the star of the hit Netflix show Never Have I Ever, is our cover star. Maitreyi is only the second person of South Asian descent to get her own solo Teen Vogue cover, and I couldn’t be prouder of making that happen. She is a Tamil-Canadian actress who wants you to learn to pronounce her name properly; as she said in a conversation with us last week, “20 letters long, 20 letters strong.”
When it was announced in May that I would be the next editor-in-chief, many publications used a headshot of mine in which I am wearing my mangal sutra, a traditional Indian necklace (it translates to “an auspicious thread”) that brides wear after getting married. It’s basically the Indian version of a wedding ring. It wasn’t a conscious decision of mine to wear it that day; I wear it often because I love it — it’s a connection to my Indian heritage and like all mangal sutras, it has a beautiful design. What I couldn’t have predicted is how other people would react to it. After the announcement, my inbox was flooded with messages from other Indian women who told me they loved that I was wearing it in the headshot. Just this one small bit of representation — a necklace that many people may not have even noticed — meant something to them, because they were seeing themselves, in a way that is still uncommon. (There was also a small debate about whether or not I was representing a patriarchal tradition by wearing it, which is a column for another time; suffice to say for now that I am unabashedly feminist and pro-smashing the patriarchy.)
And this is what Maitreyi is doing for brown girls everywhere, and one reason why I’m so excited to have her on this cover: she’s allowing us to see ourselves in a way that hasn’t really been depicted before. The burden of representation is not an easy one; there’s a lot of unrealistic and unfair pressure to be wholly inclusive when that’s just not possible, given the wide range of South Asian identities and experiences out there (something that applies to all communities). But Maitreyi shoulders that burden with aplomb and thoughtful awareness, something that comes through clearly in our cover story, written by Aamina Khan, a Pakistani American writer. One of my favorite quotes from Maitreyi in the interview: “We can't just keep relying on Mindy Kaling to keep making all these shows. I want her to keep making more. But I need more people with her.”
In the show, Maitreyi plays Devi Vishwakumar, a teenager trying to make it through high school and navigate life after a deeply personal loss. There are moments straight out of my own bicultural upbringing — praying to Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom; delicious family dinners, eating with our hands; going to local Indian community functions and dealing with auntie-talk, a lifelong ritual that becomes more entertaining with age. Growing up, I never saw these moments on American television, only in specialty theaters playing Bollywood movies.
We’ve made a lot of progress since I was a teenager — the mainstream success of shows like Never Have I Ever is a major sign of that — but we’ve got a ways to go. The same day that I was announced EIC, a nonprofit organization called Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change published a study showing that 42% of Americans could not name a prominent Asian American. Forty-two percent of respondents polled in the spring answered “I don’t know,” followed by Hong Kong actor and martial artist Jackie Chan at 11% and the Asian American actor and martial artist Bruce Lee at 9%. The most frequently mentioned Asian American woman was Lucy Liu, at 5%. The study said only 2% of Americans cited Kamala Harris, the country’s first woman, first Black American, and first Asian American vice president.
Mindy, Maitreyi, and I are just a few of the people working to change that. We’re not alone. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll have more features on rising South Asian and Asian American stars, in the worlds of entertainment, fashion, beauty, politics, and more.
My mission for Teen Vogue is to continue to be as inclusive and representative as possible, to champion and celebrate all kinds of diversity, to be a guide and resource for young people who want to change the world for the better, and to remember to have fun and find joy while doing it. My hope is that you’ll join us for this ride, learn something yourself along the way and help educate others who need it. And maybe by this time next year, those survey results will look completely different.
At the very least, I want to make a difference for any young person sitting at home, feeling left out or othered. I see you, I hear you, and I know you have so much to contribute to the world. We can work at it together.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue