Meet one of the first Indians who turned their blog into a multi-million rupee business: Celeb Confidante Malini Agarwal
Malini Agarwal has done the impossible – make a conversation with millions sound like a cosy natter among friends.
While a crowd of millions tune in to catch their favourite radio jockey, Miss Malini’s breathy voice transforms a broadcast into an intimate conversation. While a sea of scribes ravenously waits for a celebrity to slip up at a press conference, Miss Malini is that friendly face that is not looking to turn anyone’s vulnerabilities into a click farm. And, while there is a deluge of the gossip online breeding voyeurism and trolling, MissMalini.com has striven to be a fun-filled oasis.
No wonder Miss Malini — and Malini Agarwal, the woman behind the online persona — remains so very relevant and endearing to readers, viewers and listeners year after year. Here’s the story of how that blogger found her way into millions of heart.
Agarwal’s father was in the foreign service — which meant that she was a ward of the world. Born in Allahabad, she came to live in Somalia, Greece, Lebanon, Germany, Ivory Coast and Bulgaria. “That’s why I have this funny accent!” says the “diplobrat.”
Her father was to retire in 1998, so, the family chose to return to their roots and settle in Delhi in 1995. She procured her Bachelors in English Literature from Maitreyi College, Delhi University, following which, for five years — from 1995 to 2000 — she was part of the ‘Ronica Jacob & The Planets’ dance crew as a professional dancer. She travelled the world performing as a backup dancer in those Indie pop videos from the 90s, for artists such as Sukhbir, Anamika, Shibani Kashyap, Penaz Masani and Shaan.
“My best friend at the time had moved to Bombay to pursue advertising, and I came to visit her. It was raining, and I took one of those Fiat kaali-peelis — something which was expensive and not safe in Delhi. There were neon lights everywhere. It felt very filmy — like an actress driving away from her old life and into her new one. I realised I had to move,” she says.
While her parents were open-minded, they were apprehensive. But, she convinced them. With the Rs.40,000 she had saved up, two suitcases and a pigeon that would haunt their tiny apartment in which six people lived, Agarwal felt like she had landed straight into one of those coming-of-age sagas. “I was terrified that the pigeon would hit the fan someday and I will be covered in its blood — so I would sleep covered head to toe in my blanket and think to myself, ‘I have to make something of myself so I can get out of here!” she says.
A dream of sorts for Agarwal was to be a VJ — but the she couldn’t stop rolling her Rs in auditions and ended up bungling most of them, she tells us, wryly.
In 2000, she got a job with Activ8 Technologies as a project manager — where her key responsibility was creating the content framework for the Mid-Day website — then called “ChaloMumbai.com.” And by 2001, she was roped in by MTV India as their channel head for Romance & Sexuality, responsible for the “love and relationship content” on the site.
After a fruitful two years in TV, 2003 flagged off her dream run — her nine-year stint in radio. A serendipitous encounter with her friend — an associate of seasoned radio personality Aditya Patwardhan, the programming director at WIN 94.6 — during what she calls “the best lunch break” she ever took — led her from an audition to signing on the dotted line in no time. One of the first commercial radio jockeys in the country, first with WIN 94.6 and then Go 92.5 FM, which is now known as Radio One, she hosted several shows — namely 225, their flagship evening drive show Horn Ok Please, and a late night show called Malini till Midnight. She went on to become the programming director.
During her time there, she also started writing a gossip column in the Mid-Day called Malini’s Mumbai, about all the things she saw, did or ate in the city. “I always tell people – if they don’t know what they want to do yet, that’s fine. Work multiple jobs, burn the midnight oil, weekends, and experiment until you find your calling,” she says.
An excerpt from her book, To The Moon – How I Blogged My Way to Bollywood, published by Harper Collins in 2017, explains that she learnt her most important lesson during her time in radio. It influenced her work later as a journalist, writer and blogger. “Tariq Ansari, then managing director of Mid-Day, taught me that radio is an intimate experience. Your show might be broadcast to millions of people, (but) imagine that you are speaking to just one person. In fact, imagine (them as) your best friend. Miss Malini’s identity follows the same logic,” she says.
Agarwal was always distraught that her newspaper column was snipped and chopped, until it was reduced to who came with whom and who left with whom. When she was venting about it to a friend, Karan Wadhera, he suggested she start blogging. Portals such as Perez Hilton in the US were then breaking into the mainstream. “My response to him literally was, ‘what’s a blog?’”
He immediately signed her up on WordPress. On the very next day, on May 5, 2008, Agarwal wrote her first blog headlined “So Cheesy!” It was a sneaky photo she had clicked of Saif Ali Khan’s former girlfriend Rosa at Olive, posing with a piece of cheese.
She parted ways with radio in 2009, to work for Channel [V] as their digital content head. But, Agarwal would rush home after work and blog into the wee hours of the morning. By now, both her full-time job and her part-time passion made it amply clear where the party was — it was on social media!
She wanted to make Miss Malini her full-time job, but there wasn’t much money coming in from it as yet. Her husband, however, reassured her that his job in finance will support them for a year, and that she should definitely give blogging a shot.
So, by 2010, she took that step. “It was the most satisfying moment in my career. I went home, opened my laptop, and felt, ‘This is it!’ But for a year it was just us and my sofa. I remember joking, ‘One day, I’ll have a huge pink sofa in my office,’” she says.
Cut to six years later, that sofa finally arrived. In fact, it was so large that they had to saw its legs to make it fit through the doorway! The sofa now graces the eccentric studio where she conducts all her interviews for The Girl Tribe.
Even while blogging was on the ‘wait list’, ‘Miss Malini’ was on the guest list for everything that happened around the city, thanks to the network she had built through her column in the Mid-Day. At the same time, she vividly remembers going to parties not knowing what to wear or do with herself, standing awkwardly at a corner — but she always managed to get her ‘intimaterviews.’“What helped is that I didn’t look like the ‘press’ — no big cameras, not shoving people around for a quote. Reporters were always looking for that one headline, that one clickbait title, so celebrities were wary. But I never asked anything too personal, and established two core rules — one, I wouldn’t write anything about someone that I can’t say to their face and, two, when people leave my feed, they should feel better than when they came. I was there in my personal capacity — even the name of my brand, ‘Miss Malini’ felt like the name of a person and not an organisation. Celebs started to open up — but I never abused that. Eighty per cent of the things I know, I never can or would write about,” she says.
Soon, she started getting offers from brands — international ones too. Her first was from a company called One Drop Foundation, which offered to send her a free flip video camera if she did a post on them. Levi’s also offered to send her a pair of jeans if she wrote about them. This opened up a whole new avenue for Agarwal, of being an ‘influencer.’
It wasn’t long before someone offered to buy out a sizeable percentage of her brand. “I didn’t even think of it as a business then — I had barely trademarked the name. My partners — my friend Mike Melli and husband Nowshad Rizwanullah, whom I met at an event I organised, who joined Miss Malini as the CEO in 2011— both said, ‘Don’t give up on it yet — let’s do this together, for the long haul’. So, we moved into a small 100-150 sq ft office in Khar, paid Rs.30,000 rent out of the little money we were making. In 2012, we finally agreed to accept seed money from Rajan Anandan,” she says.
They moved four offices till they finally found their current space that houses a 60-plus team, seated across two floors and a terrace.
While the model at the beginning was to focus on digital-only content, that thinking changed by 2014, more than two years after they got funding. They saw that while digital advertising was growing, television still held a lion’s share of ad-spend. To tap into a larger millennial audience, they produced five shows in-house; their first fully self-produced (and self-sponsored!) being two seasons of Miss Malini’s World on TLC, two seasons of Inside Access with Miss Malini on VH1 and one season of Kya Scene Hai on Zoom.
Agarwal also launched an ‘influencer marketing’ practice. “We’re a digital match-maker of sorts!” she quips. They identify the rising stars on social media, vet them for brands, and make sure the perfect influencer is roped in to advertise a product. In 2017, they also branched out into mainline advertising and successfully rolled out five national ad campaigns, including their most recent one with Urban Clap.
Since their pre-Series A round of $1.4 million from Orios Venture Partners and National Enterprise Associates (NEA) in the end of 2017, they have grown nearly 5x while their revenue is poised to double by the end of this fiscal. In FY17, the revenue was Rs.61 million, according to Zauba Corp. MissMalini’s combined reach through their website and social media is 40 million people a month, and they have eight million subscribers across their pages.
Agarwal came to sweep award shows recognising women thought leaders. Ironically enough, while she was on stage collecting one such honour, a media veteran offended her with a comment. “He said to me, ‘Malini, I’ve heard you’re ‘expensive’ referring, I assume, to some rumour about the cost of a tweet on @MissMalini. He then proceeded to ask me, ‘jokingly’, ‘So I’ve always wanted to ask you this one question, how have you resisted the urge to have an extra-marital affair with a Bollywood star?’ At the time, I didn’t know how to react or the implications if I did, so I uncomfortably laughed it off — as we are conditioned to do, sadly,” she says.
However, roughly a year later, when Agarwal found herself in a similar situation, she was ready to flip the script and embarrass the man instead. “I decided to call him out… it was extremely empowering,” she says, adding, “I think the big difference between the two situations was my ability and confidence in speaking up for myself. I no longer allow anyone to diminish what I have accomplished, just to make a sexist joke.”
Agarwal’s awakening translated into the refining of the social conscience of MissMalini.com. She launched The Girl Tribe in March 2018, a Facebook community that started as a small group of 100 girls, which has now blossomed into a 17,000-strong network. “I believe the next wave on social media is community. When you create a space with no scope for trolling and sexist comments, women can do wonders,” she says.
“If you were to imagine Oprah creating her media imprint in today’s day and age, I believe this is how she would have done it! Miss Malini Entertainment takes a cue from Oprah, Ellen and Ryan Seacrest in its design and ambition,” she says.