The blue-eyed tea vendor became an overnight sensation but little is known about the man in the photo that took social media by storm. In an exclusive editorial shoot and interview with Destinations, Arshad Khan shows a side of him that’s rarely been highlighted before

Photographer : RIZWAN-UL-HAQ
Transportation : Daewoo Cab

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From Oprah Winfrey to Tom Cruise, Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth to our very own Sultan Rahi, the rags-to-riches stories of those who rose from humble beginnings to super stardom are a constant reminder that for all its faults, entertainment industries around the world remain great equalizers. Whether you’re a rich kid such as Paris Hilton or a small-town girl escaping abuse ala Kangana Ranaut, your social class, education and economic background don’t have to serve as barriers to your success.

That brings us to the curious case of Arshad Khan in Pakistan. A few months ago, social media went into a frenzy as photos of the blue-eyed and irresistibly good looking tea-seller at a dhaba in Islamabad went viral not just in Pakistan, but in neighbouring India as well, prompting everyone from CNN and the BBC to The Guardian and The Telegraph to feature the “hot-tea”, as he was gleefully referred to by swooning fans.

As modelling offers poured in, some dismissed the hype as Khan’s five minutes of fame, brought on by social media’s insatiable need to discover trending new content every day. Others spoke of “reverse sexism” in the objectification of the man. Guest appearances on morning shows did little to reveal the man behind the meme, the TV hosts resorting to typically insensitive questions and reinforcing class stereotypes about the “chai-wallah”. We were left wondering who Arshad Khan really was.

Here’s the truth: Arshad Khan is no different from the millions of Pakistanis around us – humble, honest and hardworking. He’s a 17-year-old who’s had to grow up too fast. Like countless youngsters his age, he was working two jobs to make ends meet and support his parents and 18 siblings when ‘that’ photo was taken. His family hails from Mardan but moved to Islamabad where Arshad was born. His father works as a labourer loading tractors at building sites and one older brother works at a vegetable stall.

He speaks measuredly, without guile and with an honesty that is as refreshing as it is endearing. The interview takes place at a rented apartment in the capital’s E-11 sector, a small and functional space that Arshad shares with his manager. His family still live in their home in a village on the outskirts of Islamabad where Arshad was born. His newfound career as a fashion model has certainly led to changes in his appearance – his moustache is trimmed neatly and his hair sports caramel highlights – but it’s unclear whether there’s been much improvement in his family’s lifestyle. “One should never forget where one comes from,” he remarks sagely at one point during the conversation.Ask him about his childhood and he’s matter-of-fact. “I liked to play with my friends, but childhood only lasted till I was 8 years old. After that, I started ‘mazdoori’ like my two elder brothers in order to support my family.” His brief stint at school – lasting but a day – is illustrative of why so many young children drop out of primary school in Pakistan. “I attended school for one day and after classes were over, the teacher started playing ‘pithoo gol garam’ with us. We were excited but he had one condition: no one should hit him with the ball. Obviously that was impossible and when I accidently hit him, he started beating me up. It was only a game; I was only a child. After that horrible experience, I never returned.”

Arshad’s rise to fame makes him wish he had continued his education. “As I am illiterate, it gets difficult for me to remember names of people that I meet or brands that I work for,” he admits. “I must have met many famous people, actors and models and photographs, but I apologize as I don’t always remember their names.”

In Arshad’s case, however, it’s not just a case of remembering names. For someone who has shouldered immense responsibilities since childhood, he says he never had the time or the opportunity to catch a movie or a drama serial as his other friends sometimes did, hence he can’t recognize the people that he’s now rubbing shoulders with. “But Shahid Afridi I know as I’ve always been his big fan,” he adds with a bashful smile.

These past few months, he’s been making up for lost time and watching all the films and television serials he can get his hands on. The two stars who’ve made an impression on him are – no surprises here – Shahrukh Khan and Fawad Khan. He’s set to follow in the latter’s footsteps, his manager tells us, as he’s about to sign a movie project in the UK.

As modelling and acting offers come pouring in, it seems Arshad Khan cannot be written off as a one-hit wonder. While it may be true that there are men out there who are better looking and more ‘model material’, there is an undeniable spark here, a raw talent, that can be honed to perfection. Acclaimed hair and makeup stylist and image consultant Nabila certainly believes so.

When Destinations contacted her to make over Arshad for our editorial shoot, she insisted on styling him herself, which is a rarity these days as her team of accomplished stylists usually handles work on her behalf. “I had been itching to get my hands on him,” she told us. “Working with him today, I realized he’s such a genuine sweetheart and I would really like to help groom him and give him more work.

He’s such a quick learner, he’s stable and he’s extremely switched on. I am very excited for him for I can see that he definitely has the potential.”“Larkay mein kuch hai (The boy has something),” agreed photographer Rizwan-ul-Haq as the photoshoot progressed and Arshad continued to impress everyone with his instinctive reaction to the camera

Designer Ismail Farid, who had provided the wardrobe for the shoot, recalled that he had initially been apprehensive about Arshad’s ability to carry off the sleek suits but felt he had been proven wrong. “There are some things that are just inborn and I see that he has them, things such as catching the light or remembering a continuity shot. Obviously he still needs a lot of grooming but given that he’s only 17, age is on his side and he can do well for himself.”

All three agree, however, that given the dearth of training institutions in Pakistan, what Arshad needs is a mentor to not only groom him but also give him the right advice when it comes to picking and choosing projects.

Arshad Khan had no control over his instant rise to fame; but now that he’s been catapulted into the spotlight, it’s easy to see that he’s enjoying the attention, just like any normal 17-year-old would. He might have been pushed into the entertainment industry without his volition, but he wants to make it clear that he’s staying because of his own free will. “There were rumours circulating recently that I had left the industry because my family does not like this new work but that is not true at all. I am enjoying myself immensely and my family members are happy for me. One day I’m in Lahore, the next in Karachi and then Islamabad; what’s not to like? People have given me so much love. I definitely am not quitting.”

As for the dhaba where it all began, Arshad says he likes to visit it occasionally but whenever he goes, the small lanes of the bazaar get so crowded that shopkeepers can’t work. “It’s bad for business, so I’ve decided not to go any longer.” Here’s hoping he displays the same astuteness when it comes to his own career and becomes a lasting success story. If anybody deserves it, it’s him.