In a predominantly white entertainment industry, this was virtually unheard of, yet fast forward to the current day, and Kaling's statement is just as monumental in a biz that's still behind in fairly representing women from diverse backgrounds. As this month marks the 10-year anniversary of The Mindy Project, viewers across the world continue to binge and quote lines from the six-season comedy drama.
There are are many elements that contribute to the show's popularity and success — witty writing, clever casting, and of course a brown woman leading the charge and calling the shots on her personal and professional life on mainstream TV. However, for many viewers, and particularly South Asian women, it's the wardrobe of Kaling's character Mindy Lahiri that epitomises the enduring appeal of the show, not only making them feel seen and heard on screen, but impacting their personal confidence and style choices.
As an American obstetrician/gynaecologist, the daughter of Indian immigrants and a curvy woman, Lahiri ignored societal expectations of how women should dress in and out of the workplace, instead choosing to embrace her body and her appetite for bright tweed coats, bold floral dresses and unapologetically loud accessories. Kaling recruited the expertise of acclaimed costume designer Salvador Perez, who created Lahiri's look with a combination of designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Oscar de la Renta and Gucci, and smaller designers he found on Etsy.
"Fashion was a huge part of The Mindy Project. I wanted Mindy Lahiri to look fabulous and eye-catching," Kaling wrote on Instagram earlier this week, emphasising that "subtlety" was rarely showcased through her outfits. "Of all her personality flaws, feeling insecure about her body was never one of her issues, and I wanted our show to communicate that stylishness transcended size."
Sydney-based Fatima shares that growing up as a larger South Asian woman in a western country was tough. Not only did she feel caught between two cultures, but she struggled to find any mid- and plus-sized fashion role models — until Mindy Lahiri.
"To this day, my family and extended family friends happily fat shame me (out of 'love or concern') and I’ve always been told, implicitly and explicitly, that I was too much," the 41-year-old tells Refinery29 Australia. "I was too loud, too big, my clothes were garish and my very presence needed to be toned down to be palatable. Mindy represented the very antithesis of that."
Fatima says that not only was Lahiri's style "unabashedly loud and colourful," but she made it her own. "Like most second-gen people, she wasn't afraid to pick the parts of either culture that fit in the moment." Ultimately, seeing the TV character in form-fitting clothes made Fatima believe she could also embrace her body and express herself through fashion.
"Most of all, what I loved was seeing a curvy woman of colour that looked like me embracing her gorgeous curves," she recalls.
South Asian-Australian actor Yasmin Kassim feels the same way. "Growing up, I had major body dysmorphia and felt so insecure in tight things," says the 29-year-old, who will star in season 2 of the TV show Sex Lives of College Girls, also created by Mindy Kaling. "Watching her just be confident in body-hugging clothes was something I really aspired to."
Mindy Lahiri is to South Asian girls as Carrie Bradshaw is to white girls.
Another fan of the show, Ritika Purang, didn't start watching the show until her early 20s. The 31-year-old now living in Perth says her confidence took a hit after she was continuously called "fat" and made fun of when she was younger.
"As a child, that does a lot to your confidence, but as an adult that sticks with you," says Ritika. "I grew up thinking that being skinny and fair-skinned was the ideal and I was neither, but seeing Mindy gave me confidence to just be who I am, how I am. When I was in Dr Mindy Lahiri’s world for those few minutes or hours, I could just be me."
In fact, seeing Lahiri's style gave Ritika the confidence to wear brighter colours and sport a glowing tan with confidence at her wedding four-and-a-half years ago.
"It sounds bizarre at first, but if anyone knows anything about Indian weddings, it’s a lot. And to be able to stand up for myself and put my foot down in choosing what I wanted... it was because of my constant bingeing of The Mindy Project."
While Lahiri's fashion inspired Ritika on her wedding day, it has also had a significant impact on how many women express themselves in the workplace.
Many women, including myself, have often shied away from vibrant, quirky looks in the office in a society that has led us to believe it will make employers take us less seriously. But Lahiri is a doctor who fearlessly struts into her consulting rooms wearing a Dolce & Gabbana lemon-print dress, a Barbie- pink suit, and a plaid skirt and polka-dot blouse with a Chanel bag on her arm, all with equal aplomb.
"While she’s obviously a doctor and chose a sensible, serious career (which is fairly predictable), her clothes are anything but," says Fatima. "Mindy [Lahiri] wears atrociously high heels to work, pulling out all the stops -- sequins, coords and clashing prints."
Mindy’s representation as this clumsy, romance-obsessed, incredibly smart brown woman who just happens to have the most fire, out-there style is something I truly appreciate.
Lahiri didn't subscribe to society's rules (particularly those imposed on curvy women) and it's the confidence with which she wore these experimental outfits that only amplified her impact on viewers.
"Mindy’s style has impacted me to make choices that are not 'common' so to speak, and who wants to be common?" says Kirrin Singh-Bajwa, who lives in Woolgoolga, a town on the mid north Coast of NSW.
"I've showed up to work in a pair of printed silk pyjamas and had co-workers walk up to me and say, 'Only you could pull that off'... to which I say, 'You absolutely can... just be confident!'."
Unsurprisingly, Kirrin's favourite Mindy looks include her Bedhead pineapple PJs as well as any knitted jumper with graphic prints. She says that adopting the confidence of the TV character allows her to push the style boundaries at work as "seeing Mindy dress the way she does is permission to be bold, be you and be colourful".
Melbourne woman Subee Bista has similarly brought the "bright pinks and oranges, glitter, floral prints and brightness" of Lahiri's wardrobe to her workplace.
"Like Mindy, I also feel I choose my clothes based on how I am feeling," says the 33-year-old. "I was definitely a more conservative dresser in my earlier corporate days but now I feel so comfortable rocking my bright pink heels or bold statement earrings.
"The more you see this represented in mainstream media, and that too by a South Asian woman, the more this has an impact on us. It certainly has on me."
Sydney-based stylist Tina Abeysekara couldn't agree more, explaining that what she loves most about Lahiri is that she’s a fiercely intelligent doctor with an incredible wardrobe who just happens to be brown. Her cultural heritage isn't tokenised for the sake of entertainment, yet her identity isn't ignored. Plus, her style choices remind other South Asian women that they can experiment with fashion no matter their shape, size or skin shade.
The founder of Trash to Treasured says that Lahiri helped normalise bright colours on darker complexions, which is a game-changer in South Asian culture that has historically supported colourism, where lighter skin tones are favoured over darker ones.
"Growing up, I was always told I shouldn’t wear certain (often bright) colours, as it will make me look darker," says Tina.
"I’m so glad I could take cues from Mindy’s wardrobe choices and see how fabulous colour looks on darker skin. I’ve actually just released my own collection full of bright colours, so I’m very happy I broke out of that mentality."
Tina's experience certainly isn't unique, with 21-year-old Yasmin from Brisbane saying that as a young brown woman she's also been told that certain colours don't "suit or complement" her skin. She says women of colour are often asked to tone down their style, so Mindy breaking that status quo has been monumental.
"Mindy’s representation as this clumsy, romance-obsessed, incredibly smart brown woman who just happens to have the most fire, out-there style is something I truly appreciate," she explains.
"For so long, we only saw white women be the front-runners in dressing in these exuberant ways because that is palatable. White women are given the freedom to switch between aesthetics and be expressive with their style, but women of colour were not afforded that luxury."
Actor Kassim describes Mindy's impact with a clever pop culture comparison: "Mindy Lahiri is to South Asian girls as Carrie Bradshaw is to white girls".
When I was looking for South Asian Australian women to speak to about the fashion on The Mindy Project, I was inundated with responses, so much so that I heard more incredibly touching stories than I was able to publish here. It's testament to the fact that Lahiri is more than just a brown girl's version of the Sex & The City fashionista. She's a representation of fearless self-expression through style when we don't subscribe to society's ideals revolving around race, gender and size. She's a mirror of what more leading ladies in TV and film should look like, and a reminder that South Asian women can be who they want to be — with or without the designer clothes.
Note: Interviews have been edited for clarity.