Belleboss Series – Ami Desai

1) Please give an introduction to yourself?  
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
 
Ami Desai …some people on social media think it’s Amira because my handle is my first, middle & last name combined. Back when Instagram started I thought it’d be a way to differentiate myself because I knew so many Gujarati Ami Desai’s, but which I would’ve just stuck with @AmiDesai! I’m 36 and listing my exact occupation or job has always been a tricky one for me, and now more than ever.
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
I’ve worn many hats including producer, makeup artist, host, stay-at-home mom & influencer, but I’d best describe myself as a mompreneur in the making. I have SO many plans for myself in the years to come. I was born in Houston, Texas and moved to Cali soon after and have called LA, more specifically Manhattan Beach, my home since. I grew up in a very loving, traditional Gujarati family with a major focus on education. My parents were both engineers and worked together and my mom was a very strong figure in our home so I definitely got my sense of self from her. I have an older brother who I adore and still look up to – we even live in the same neighbourhood today!
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
 I always knew growing up I did not want to be a doctor, engineer or lawyer. I was always the friend that had appointments to do everyone’s hair and makeup for school dances.
I even had a grand master plan to one day open up my own salon called one-stop-shop where clients could get there hair, makeup and nails done.To think if I just would’ve stuck with that then! I also knew back in the early 2000’s when I was entering college that was a tough topic to bring up because there was no real outlet or social media platform that proved Indian women could be successful outside of a career that was deemed to be worthy of representing our culture of working hard and in the end, making money doing it.
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
 
2) You started your career at E! Network and Hollywood.com. Could you tell us more about how you started your media career and what was your highlight moment?

I have to set up the time for you of when I started in my career. It was 2001 and I was applying for internships and blindly dropping resumes to big media companies because I just knew I had to be in the entertainment world. Like many other South Asian women I felt a huge void within an industry I felt so passionate about. Back then, we didn’t have Priyanka Chopra or Mindy Kaling on network TV.

I was so ecstatic when I landed at E! and thought that was it- the start of my career as a broadcaster!

First off, I was working in the Business & Legal department – far from glamorous. But I did have the chance to work some live events like the Golden Globes and Oscars and I fell in love. I went on to get my Masters in Journalism because I was still trying to earn my parents respect and approval for choosing a path less travelled. I worked at CNN and fell even harder for the TV world and just creating content for others to see.

 

Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network

My personal life led me back to California where I got married and started producing for the veteran news magazine show, Inside Edition. I soon realized I was 27 and wanted more. This was at the height of 24-hour news so I was on-call for crazy news and non-news stories around the clock.

I went back to my passion for beauty and started my own makeup company that catered specifically to the South Asian demographic. I had just gotten married and was so saddened by the lack of artists that knew how to work with brown skin. I did that for a few years and was led back to the TV world as a producer and host for a travel series called Lux Lifestyles.

I travelled to India for 8 weeks and got to explore it in ways I never could have dreamt – and I used to go almost every 2-3 years growing up.

Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network

Soon after, I hit a big crossroads in my life and had to decide if I was going to really pursue this career or stop and prioritize having a family, which was very important to me. I had my first baby in 2012 and 6 months later the OWN network came knocking. Talk about a dream of your lifetime!

I was cast as a premier host for Oprah.com’s very first digital show! We did weekly shows that aired daily and I had the honour of travelling with Oprah for her 8-week The Life You Want Tour. I interviewed Deepak Chopra, Elizabeth Gilbert and many other inspiring people on a weekly basis. The biggest highlight was having my parents come to a show to see me in action and later meet Oprah herself. Talk about a proud moment!

 

Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network

In this time working at OWN, I also had my second baby in 2014 and when OWN Show ended I took some time to be Mom. It was also when digital media, specifically social media platforms like Instagram, were imploding. I would go on casting calls and agents would ask “what’s your following? what’s your tagline? what’s your brand?

I realized quickly that in order for anyone to see me or believe in my potential, I had to create that myself. I couldn’t rely on my reel that showed my hard work as a producer or host for the prestigious OWN Network.

I had to put in the sweat and hard work to demonstrate that there is a demographic that needs a voice like mine and I am doing exactly that now. 2017 was my year to establish myself as what I like to call a “modern mom influencer”.

Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network

 

And I crafted that tagline carefully because there are several South Asian women now creating content in beauty, fashion and lifestyle, but I feel like I bring a distinct voice as a young mom who tries to prioritize her family and herself all at once. I want to change how women of a certain age are viewed not only by others but by themselves. 

And as for what’s to come, I have such HUGE dreams that I am trying to put into effect starting in 2018, hence mompreneur in the making!
2) I believe it was during your showreel you stated that growing up you wanted to be known as American not necessarily for being Indian. What changed? 
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
I’m starting to see a large number of WOC, even South Asian women, talk about how they wished to be lighter, or blonde or have blue or green eyes when they were younger. It’s something I had a hard time with growing up. From the food, I ate every evening (dahl bhat, a typical Gujarati dinner), to my name (everyone wanted to say Amy instead of Ami), to my bushy brows (which I now am grateful for).
I just felt out of the ordinary, which at a young age makes you feel out of place or not included.Whereas now I look at that as something to embrace and really appreciate, especially when it comes to beauty and my features.
I love this quote from the great makeup artist, Kevyn Aucoin, who said “Perfection is boring. If a face doesn’t have mistakes, it’s nothing.” That resonates with me on so many levels. I used to hate that I had sharp features and a long nose. It wasn’t the typical round face and button nose I grew up with all around me.

Now, I embrace my very Indian features and play them up with makeup to show them off.

Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
3) As a minority in the entertainment industry were there any instances where you felt this worked to your disadvantage or even later down in your career? 
Definitely, and it still, unfortunately, holds true today. Although we see diversity growing in many spaces, including beauty, it’s simply not enough.

Yes, we have Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra gracing our TV screens, but they are also the “token” WOC.

We have too large of a demographic to be represented and yet I can count on one hand those that are household names that are truly known. Also, I have a more ethnically ambiguous look as some in casting would call.
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
This means I can pass for Indian, half white, Pacific Islander, mixed, etc etc. Although I would love to showcase different ethnicities it has often been a disadvantage when auditioning or testing for various jobs.

Because I may look mixed I am then up against a larger group of minorities that fit the bill. This is a sad reality that I slowly see changing but I would love to be part of a project because of just me, not because I’m solely Indian or because I look like I can be of a different background.

 
4) Could you tell us more about the makeup company you started and the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur at the time?  
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
I started my hair and makeup business soon after I got married in 2007. I realized there was a need for artists that really understood the various shades of South Asian skin without giving us what they thought Indian brides should look like. Often times I would do a trial with an artist that thought I wanted extreme glamour because that’s what they thought Indian bridal meant and I hated that. I wanted a tv show that you can do traditional Indian looks with a western ethereal flair.
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
Really, I wanted to show there are no “rules” in how you must look on your wedding day – if you don’t like dark red lipstick, we’ll find a shade that you do like. A neutral lip is actually ok- even to my mom’s disbelief!
I also started this business prior to the days of Instagram where every artist could showcase their talents. One of my hardest obstacles as an entrepreneur was being more than 1 place at a time.
I wanted to work at several weddings a weekend but I just couldn’t physically do it. I learned that having a strong team was imperative to grow. A team that you can teach all your tricks too without feeling like they would take them and leave you. You have to be willing to teach others how to think and work like you so you can grow and do even more. I also learned this the hard way when after having my first-born I found myself working less and less on the weekends. I also ended up back on TV so didn’t pursue growing a team, but learned a lot about that.
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
6) If you don’t mind me asking, could you tell us a bit about your love story and how you and your husband have grown and changed as your careers have changed too? 
I would love to. Our moms actually grew up together in India and both moved to the US before having children. As they got settled they grew apart and Veeral (my now husband) and I met at a mutual friend’s house. I was 12 and he was 13. I was a big tomboy and he was super tall and skinny- totally in our awkward teen years. I literally saw him and fell in love. Not sure what it was but I told him that night that I was going to marry him. I was definitely the aggressor in the relationship. Fast forward a few years, and we were in college together. We had kept in touch but it wasn’t until college that we started officially dating and the rest is history.
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
 
 
I can’t believe I’ve been with my husband nearly half my life! We have grown together so much – from college to moving to Boston to be together for grad school, back to LA to start our careers. It’s always been an “us” mentality never just “me.” Which I attribute to being a huge reason as to why we’re still together. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely have argued and fought hard for certain things but at the end of the day “we” together meant more than us apart. So, yes we have had to prioritize our relationship and both have had to sacrifice some for the betterment of us as a unit, but I wouldn’t change anything for the world.  I also have our love story all on a tribute video I made my husband for our 10 yr anniversary which I uploaded to my Youtube page if you want to check that out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJ23ChWT1aA
7) Did becoming a mother change your desires and goals? What was the most unexpected change you saw in yourself when you became a mum? 
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
It did but not in the way I thought. I had this notion that once I became a mother I would be in a minivan wearing mom jeans (the non-cute ones) and just let myself go. I also didn’t think I could sustain a career. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I realized early on that having kids lit a new fire under me and made me want to dream even bigger both personally and professionally. It made me want to take risks and try at something I wasn’t sure I could do. I also realized that I wanted to have an identity of my own, as one day my kids will leave the nest.I’ve seen so many mothers devote their lives to raising their kids, and kudos to them because it is the damn hardest job ever, but I want to have something that I have to call my own when they are grown and don’t need me as much as they do now.
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network
I have never been more efficient with my time when I’m working and my tolerance for BS is very low these days because I know how precious my time is with my family. If you’re going to ask me to take time away from them that was not already allotted it better be for a good reason! Before kids, I would easily oblige but now I have much more at stake and always try to work smarter.
8) If you could pick one happy moment or milestone in your career, what would it be and why? 
Ami Desai - Oprah Winfrey Network

When I was touring with Oprah for her Life You Want Tour, I was able to not only score tickets to one of the shows for my parents, but I was also able to surprise them with meeting Oprah herself.

It was just a taste of what it feels like when as a child you can do things for your parents to repay all the sacrifices they’ve made for you throughout your lifetime.
I hope that was only the beginning and have big plans to provide for my parents the way they did for me, but until then, I’ll never forget how happy and surreal it was for them to meet one of their idols.
   – END OF INTERVIEW –
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