by We Are Sikhs — October 28, 2020
“When people see someone doing something they love, they get inspired to do their own thing.”
Sukhman Gill chatted with us about his work as a model, actor, and influencer, his phenomenal video, “How to Tie a Turban | Why Sikhs Wear Turbans,” and his advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.
This post has been edited down for brevity.
You are one of the biggest Sikh influencers on Instagram. Was this always something you wanted to do?
This was never something I dreamed of doing. It was never something I wanted to become. When I was younger, I was not into Sikhi. I had cut hair. It was not a thing for me. When I was in middle school I started asking questions and learning more about Sikhi. As I learned more, I became more proud of faith. I stopped cutting my hair and became committed to being different. I tried to think of ways I could stand out. I considered basketball. I wanted to join the NBA. My parents also put me in speech competitions, and I started loving talking and standing in front of people.
Even then, I never imagined pursuing this. It was not a career path offered to anyone, especially in the South Asian community. Most parents encouraged becoming a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. My parents never forced me to become any one thing. They told me to go after what I was passionate about, but there was still pressure to make it something they could be proud of me for doing. There was still the idea that their sons and daughters would have degrees.
How did you get to where you are today?
Looking back, I realize I always was drawn to the arts, especially in high school. I loved my music classes. I was part of the band. I used to love drama. I used to love my art classes, and I was pretty good. I took my passion for drawing and became an architect. A lot of people I meet don’t realize that I still work full time as an architect.
But when I started working full time, I still had this passion to connect with people. I was always asking myself how I could connect with people and have them actually take in what I am saying. The best way I could imagine was to entertain them. I never thought I wanted a following or followers, but it is like a family. I see them as my friends and I try to talk to as many of them as I can. And I talk to other actors and models about this. Most of the time they agree that they feel like they are a regular person who is just doing something they love. When people see someone doing something they love they get inspired to do their own thing.
How did you start modeling and acting?
Modeling started with Instagram. I saw this space where there were not many Sikhs. I decided that was where I wanted to go. I put my first Instagram post up and for the first year, nothing happened. I knew it wouldn’t blow up overnight. It never really works out that way.
It has taken a long time and consistent posting just to make some sort of name for myself and I am still in the minor leagues. It takes a really long time, but the passion carries you forward and keeps you going regularly. And when people send you lovely messages on YouTube or Instagram saying how you might have helped them or how they were proud to see a Singh on the screen, it just adds to the fire and you want to keep going.
You mentioned there was a year without much traction. That seems hard to believe with how popular you are today. What advice do you have for people who are in that place and aren’t getting much traction?
Intentionality is so important to anything you do. When people ask me how to get big on social media or how I got commercials or got into tv shows, my first question is always, “why do you want to do this?” They usually can’t answer that question because they have never thought about it. They just see people getting a lot of likes and they want that. It is a very temporary goal. I am trying to think long term, but most people don’t. They just want to make some money or get some free stuff or they want people to know them. That’s why I ask them why they want people to know them? Are you going to provide inspiration? Is this a business thing? Or are you just looking for temporary fame?
You were talking about the need to have a lot of drive to do what you are doing. It seems like a big part of your drive is representing Sikhi. Can you talk about that?
100%. I wouldn't be here if I wasn’t a proud Sikh. If I didn’t have my dastar, I would not be here. Sikhi is a religion, but it is more a way of life and instructions on how you should treat each other; earn an honest living, meditate, and be a san-sapi (a soldier and a saint).
When I chose to keep my faith in middle school I knew I wanted to be different. At that time, I wanted to be the first Singh in the NBA. I knew I did not have a poster of an NBA player with a dastar. I wanted to be that person to look up to for other Sikh kids, even while I was a kid.
What would your advice be to younger people who are just starting out and want to pursue what you did in fashion, be an influencer, or build their brand?
In the last year, I began speaking a lot more, going to schools and panels and seminars, and speaking about different topics. At these events I started doing, what I call, the “I Am Project.” My social media name is @iamSukhmanGill. That is who I am. This can also be a quality like “I am great” or “I am positive.” These can be great affirmations, but a lot of time people don’t know what they want. So, I have this project where I ask them who they are, what they want to do, why they want to do it, how they will do it, and how they can get there.
A lot of times, we don’t do that. Even as adults, we don’t sit back and think. Anyone who is trying to be on social media or in the entertainment industry needs to know why they are doing this. Is this your passion?
Drake’s quote, “YOLO,” gets used very loosely, but the idea that you only live once is huge. You only get to be this “you” once. If you know something you want to achieve (and it will make you happy), you need to go for it. Happiness can’t be bought and I can’t teach you how to be happy. That comes from within. If you are doing something you love every day, you will be more positive.
Being around positive people also helps. Surround yourself with people that are like minded and want to achieve more. They don’t just want to be mediocre people. They want to be more than that.
Could you talk about the popular video you did on the turban?
That project was something that people had asked me to make for a while. I would get questions about my turban or requests to share information about it. I kept putting off making the video because I wanted to make it something different. I didn’t want to make a video of me in my room tying my dastar, because it is more than that. It is my crown. Without this, I am nothing.
I wanted to make a video that could be very educational for any person to understand at a basic level. I didn’t want to deep dive into Sikhi. I wanted to keep it high level and just talk about how it came about, how we wear it, and answer questions like “how do kids wear it” and “can women wear one?” I also wanted to show my hair and the whole process, while speaking to the people.
I also wanted to make this video because I would receive messages accusing me of not wearing the right kind of turban, or not being a real Singh. One thing I mention in that video is how it doesn’t matter what color or size turban you choose to wear. It represents Singh and Kaur values; it is your relationship with God. It is your relationship with Sikhi. It is your relationship with yourself. I feel like sometimes there are people who are too strict, and it pushes people away from Sikhi.
Those people sending the negative replies are the ones I want to respond to each and every time, because those are the people who I can educate or who can educate me. Maybe we can have a conversation.
Is there anything else you want to share?
I just have one more point. No one person can make a change. One person can have a big influence, but we all do it together. If we all pursue and help each other out, instead of knocking each other down, we can be stronger as a community.