June 4, 2023

For Richie Shazam, becoming a Bollywood princess was not a manifestation. It was a realization.

The model, photographer and director think the term “manifestation” has become a buzzword that takes away responsibility, she explained at Ludlow House, a social club on the Lower East Side, between puffs of her turquoise vapor.

“You could say, ‘I created something,'” she said, “but what are you actually doing to make it happen?”

Growing up, she spent hours watching Bollywood movies in her bedroom in the Jamaica section of Queens, marveling at actresses like Kajol. “Seeing that rich brown skin and looking at the beautiful Bollywood icons really allowed me to embody an identity behind closed doors,” she said, remembering saying to herself, “‘One day I will be this person can be.'”

On Friday she will release ‘Shazam’, a book with 190 self-portraits shot on film. In a series of portraits, she’s the Bollywood royalty she dreamed she’d become: dolled up in bits of an orange sari, intricate gold South Asian jewelery and a custom orange wig designed by stylist Jimmy Paul.

She had been talking about putting out a photo diary for years, but it wasn’t until November that she started putting it together. The images that appear in the book are the result of 50 shoots she planned over six months, in between other projects, including runway shows.

Almost all photos were taken in her studio on Bowery. She invited friends and old collaborators to every shoot. Shazam, 32, wore many different hats, including creative director and photographer.

She shot four or five looks in one day.

“My recipe is to create a world that looks so otherworldly, but make it with nothing, within a limited space,” said Shazam. Briana Andalore, who styled the self-portraits in the book, used fabric scraps and glued them to Shazam’s body, experimenting with arrangements and silhouettes. It was about taking risks, Shazam said.

She shares the studio with her “family crew,” which includes her best friends, Mrs. Andalore and Julia Fox.

Shazam and Ms. Fox met when they were about 15 at an after party. “Our eyes were locked and we had an instant connection,” recalled Shazam. The two tore up New York City nightlife together as teenagers. When Shazam was not welcome in her house, Mrs. Fox let her stay with her.

Shazam asked Ms. Fox, who appears in some of the portraits, to write the foreword. In it, Ms. Fox writes that Shazam carried a digital camera on their nightlife adventures. The next day, their group of friends would wait for her to post the photos on Facebook.

“I’ve always had an obsession with capturing the moment because we were lit up, and that roll of film was really the night,” said Shazam. “Like, what the hell happened?”

She said she never saw her love of photography and “making people feel sexy” as a viable career due to her academically focused childhood. She attended Brooklyn Friends prep school and then Trinity College in Connecticut. She is thankful for her academic background, she said, because it allowed her to “think pluralistically.” But it was her chosen family, like Mrs. Fox, that pushed her to cultivate her vision.

She was born Richie Shazam Khan to Guyanese immigrant parents. Her mother died when she was in high school, and her relationship with her father fizzled out as she tapped into her strange identity, she said. She eventually found her safe haven with her friends in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan.

Her father worked seven days a week and her mother was blind for a few years before she died. Shazam told vivid stories to her mother. “I’ve always been a storyteller,” she said. “She had to live vicariously through me and in my images. There’s a part of me that allows her to look up.’

The portraits were only slightly retouched, she said, because she wanted to show her skin in its true form. “It was about creating a composition that was raw, but still saw the fantasy of the makeup,” she said.

She said the book is for her community and she hoped it would inspire people to express themselves authentically through her trans joy. But above all, this book is for herself, she said. She doesn’t care how people see her anymore. Instead, she has harnessed the innate fear and anxiety of how she is perceived. “In every image you can see that I am in full charge,” she said. “It’s about owning who I am and having fun.”

Given Shazam’s love of the city, it’s fitting that the last portrait in the book tells a story about New York. In it, she wears a voluminous sage dress with spiky green hair, reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, and stands next to a pile of trash. As Shazam said, “We built the world we want to live in.”

“That New York City grit and heel stomping,” she said, “I own it. I’m really trying to prove that I’m a New York legend.”