In Discussion with Milan Mathew
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Last week on our #Trending column we featured Milan Mathew’s viral #HotSeat TikTok. Since the, social media has crowned Milan the reigning ‘“Queen of TikTok”. We wanted to do a deep dive with Milan and touch bases on topics that we try to highlight on our platform. We reached out to interview her this week, where we talked about everything from TikToks to Desi culture to colorism.
Tell me a little about yourself. When you’re not posting TikToks or taking part in stunning photoshoots, what are you up to?
I’m a graphic designer. My full-time job is designing apps. A lot of people think that social media is my full-time job, but I do both.
What made you decide to celebrate your desi heritage on your platforms?
It was a combination of things: I like showing that (the desi) part of me and also at the time it was cool to see people incorporate their culture. I wanted to bring a piece of me in my photoshoots, so that’s where it started and then I started doing that in my everyday life. In this way, I started not only naturally put myself out there, but also putting my desi heritage out there.
What inspired your viral #HotSeat challenge video and what was your reaction when it blew up?
The trend already existed before I started doing it. At the time you would sit down and change your clothes. I remember seeing people on my “for you” page transition from their PJs to streetwear. My TikTok was already streetwear and Indian clothes, so I thought why not show both my American side and my Indian side. I genuinely didn’t expect the response to be that crazy and for me to go viral.
I'm sure a lot of people have reached out to you after the viral TikTok.Were there any specific messages from the viewers that resonated with you?
There were so many! I always keep the messages. They’re not something I read and forget. Even if I don’t remember the words, I remember how I felt at the moment reading them. I’m also always surprised that someone took their time to write such a sweet message - especially the ones from my younger audience. They’ll message me “I’m so much prouder to be Indian” or “I’m not going to shy away from my heritage” or “when I wear my Indian clothes I want to feel as empowered as you.” Growing up I didn’t have that representation, so with social media and other bloggers showing off their respective culture, I feel proud that kids don’t shy away from their heritage or don’t feel pressured to act “more Indian” or “more American.”
I feel proud that kids don’t shy away from their heritage or don’t feel pressured to act “more Indian” or “more American.”
For me, it’s also not only about being Indian. I love being Indian, but I also never see any Malayali representation or South Indian representation so I also hold messages from the Malayali community close to my heart.
Were you raised very traditionally growing up or did you learn to adopt South Asian culture as you got older?
I learned about it as I got older. My parents are from Kerala, but I was born in Oman and then moved to North Carolina. Growing up we used to move a lot, I think I changed schools maybe 13-14 times. In school, I wasn’t too keen on friendships, since I’d move about every 3 months. When I moved to North Carolina, I was the only Asian person at my school, so I didn’t realise the effects Asian culture had on me till I moved to Texas, which is so diverse. It was a tug-of-war situation. At home I spoke my native language, I’d speak to my relatives in India, I would visit my family in India and my parents were very strong on traditions, but going to school your parents aren’t there - you automatically start to differentiate between "your" culture and "American" culture. There were so many negative things that I’d do to fit in, which I regret doing but there was no one there at the time to tell me otherwise.
Last week we featured your NylonMag interview and our favorite TikToks that you have created. Has any other exciting opportunity presented itself to you since then?
I have an upcoming interview with Dazed magazine and a few more like Brut America! Definitely, a lot of interviews are being lined up. The rest is just about growing my platform. I’ve had crazy growth just this past week on my Instagram and TikTok and now I’m just trying to keep up with the demand and hopefully, people will stay and like my content.
What made you feel connected to your culture the most growing up?
My parents definitely play a role. They've had a crazy life. My mom has 11 siblings and my dad had 14 siblings. My dad passed away 2 years ago and now I just have my mom. Both from my mom’s side and dad’s side of the family they were the only ones that made it to America. Both of them grew up super poor - it was to the point that even with 11 siblings on my Mom’s side if they had one pencil they would have to cut it up and share. To think about how hard they worked to come to America is something I can’t even imagine. Their story inspires me, not just in the sense of hard work and dedication, but also culturally. They had that determination from their land and they wanted to bring their culture to America. It just makes me more proud to say that my parents are Indian and that I’m Indian.
Which desi icons do you look up to?
I feel like I don’t follow any A-list celebrities that much. Social media-wise, there are tons of bloggers and influencers like Cas Jerome and Sruthi Jayedevan. Everyone does their own thing but they’re also proud to be Indian, so it’s nice to see that representation.
It’s also great because there are other South Asian women with platforms that don’t feel like sharing their culture as much, maybe because they’re focused on other things - some of them are actors.
What’s something that’s on your bucket list?
One of my goals in life, even if it sounds impossible, is that if I get rich I want to adopt kids from ages 10 and above and give them a foundation to start an education or to pursue whatever they want in life. I feel very strongly about adoption, so even if I’m not rich I’ll be adopting.
Teenagers lose hope and especially being that age and not being adopted they go through a lot. I can’t imagine not having anyone, so I’d love to start a school or foundation for kids that want to do more with their lives but don’t have the opportunity.
What is the most important social issue you think we need to be talking more about?
There’s so many that I don’t even know where to start. Outside my community, the #BLM movement matters a lot to me and I want to start these discussions within my own community.
There’s a lot of remarks and microaggressions within our community that contribute to racism. As I grow my platform, I want to have talks in my community where I gather the younger generation and have open talks about race and racism in our households and help them navigate their way. When I moved to America, the brown communities would say things like “fear black people” or “don’t do this with black people.” They were singling out this community, which has never made sense to me, and so I'm fighting this ingrained perception.
Beyond racism, let’s talk about colorism. So many times aunties and uncles would comment things like “you got dark” or “you should stay inside more.” From their comments, you can tell they think dark isn’t beautiful, which is the stupidest thing in my head. I would have thought as time moves on and people get older that these prejudices would go away, but it seems like it truly is ingrained. I’m always fighting these issues in my community.
You briefly touched on colorism. Are there any specific issues that you encountered growing up?
Because I kept moving I never felt like I experienced any issues at school. I probably experienced it the most in my community. They didn’t want me to be more tan or if we were at a wedding I’d heard micro-aggressions like “she’s pretty but she’s dark-skinned” or even my friends would make remarks about standing in the shade [to prevent tanning]. The adults I looked up to believed fairer meant prettier.
Even in Malayali movies, you’d barely see anyone with a darker/medium skin tone. They would all be super fair - which is beautiful too but has always left me wanting more representation.
Despite all the remarks and microaggressions, how did you learn to accept yourself?
I never believed it. I don’t remember feeling like I need to be lighter. I like how I glow under the sun. The way that I would talk about myself even before I had a platform, a lot of my friends would say “I should be thinking like that too.” It’s a matter of surrounding yourself with the right people. I’m not dark-skinned; I’m considered ‘medium’ in the spectrum, but me liking my skin colour makes others feel like it's something they feel comfortable with too.
It starts with positive affirmations and belief. It can be hard when you're growing up, my parents didn’t make me feel bad but other people would. It’s a lot harder when people are projecting onto you, but I would just say remember who you are. You are beautiful even if you gain weight, lose weight, make-up, no-make-up, dark skin, light skin. We’re all going to be wrinkly one day. The inside is what matters.
Lastly, what direction do you think representation is going in America? What would you like to see more of?
It’s going in a positive direction - even just looking back to 5 years ago.
I’d love to see more Malayalis - or just more South Asian representation in general! A cool thing about the #HotSeat Challenge video is that I also got to learn more about other cultures. Seeing people’s traditional dresses and cultures in a quick second was like a new flash of knowledge that I loved. I’d love to see more of that and also see more of smaller cultures that aren’t as prevalent in the media right now.
You can find Milan on the following platforms: