Every so often, a simple photograph can change the course of a person’s entire existence. And that’s precisely what happened to 18-year-old Arshad Khan, a tea-seller from Islamabad. Khan didn’t even own a cell phone and was completely out of the social media circle, but when his photo went viral his world was turned upside down.
In October 2016 Khan was working at an outlet called the Sunday Bazaar as a “chai wala” – a tea merchant. He had only been selling tea for a few months, having previously made a living by vending food and second-hand clothes. But his small stand turned out to be very much the right place at the right time.
On this particular October day, Khan was going about his work as usual when a woman walked past with a camera. She took a picture of the young man and then continued on her way. This woman was Jiah Ali, an Islamabad-based freelance photographer who snapped interesting scenes and posted them on Instagram.
Ali posted this picture online on October 14. She added the caption “Hot Tea” and a wink emoji: a sly nod to the fact that Khan was undoubtedly a very good-looking man. However, neither photographer nor subject were prepared for what happened next.
At first, there were just a handful of ladies expressing their approval at such an attractive man. But then that handful turned into hundreds, which turned into thousands. And then Ali’s picture of Khan went viral – very viral.
Indeed, the photograph quickly became a hot topic in Pakistan. Then it went from India to London and back again, accompanied by the hashtag “#ChaiWala” and creating an ever-growing trail of admirers. Some people even began hijacking the photo and the hashtag and using them to illustrate a political point.
“Pakistan has #ChaiWala looking like this. Please don’t bomb it, thanks,” wrote one Indian Twitterer, for example, referencing the tensions between India and Pakistan. “Surgical Strikes on Indian girls though Pak #ChaiWala. Do we really need to unleash our other weapons?” said another.
But Khan, who didn’t use social media, had no way of knowing how famous he had become. He was about to find out, though. Over the coming days, in fact, his tea stall was suddenly crowded with female admirers and people trying to take selfies with him. And at first, he was terrified.
Khan assumed he had done something wrong – incorrectly, of course. He’d simply managed to become an international sex symbol in under a week! And when his friends and family told him the real reasons for the crowds, he was stunned.
Ali then took to Facebook to keep Khan’s many admirers updated on their pin-up. “He’s very confused right now and is overwhelmed with all the attention,” she wrote. “He’s confused, scared and happy all at the same time.” She also described the handsome young man as “shy.”
Who would be the first to sign Khan up for his first proper modeling job? Well, that honor ended up going to Islamabad-based clothing company Fitin. “Chai wala is no more chai wala, now he is fashion wala,” Fitin proudly announced on its website.
Khan also hired a team of managers, as people often do when catapulted to sudden fame. And one of them, Rizwan Kazmi, said that he would teach him English and get him set up on social media. He told Indian newspaper Mid Day, “In a few months from now, you will see a new Arshad Khan, who walks and talks like a true star.”
And this new Khan was introduced to the world on the talk show Good Morning Pakistan. He was asked about his life prior to stardom, including his tea-making techniques. Then – even though he looked pretty good anyway – he was whisked off for a makeover.
In particular, Khan was given a haircut and a bit of grooming. But there was no way anyone needed to do anything to his eyes. These beautiful, vivid baby-blues are arguably his best feature, and they were part of what had made the original Instagram picture so striking.
What’s more, with his hair cut into a trendy style and with the help of a fashionable suit, Khan now looked like he could easily compete with the world’s most popular male models. And he modeled both the suit and a sherwani for the viewers of the show.
Indeed, Khan looked absolutely amazing as he posed with professional female models and treated the camera to that same piercing gaze that helped make him famous. But questions remained: how would fame treat him? And what would he do with it?
Actually, it seems clear that Arshad Khan is a very humble, and very sweet, person. He grew up in poverty, without an education, but now that he’s had a tremendously lucky break he wants to help other people get the things he was once denied.
“I am not an educated person and cannot claim that I will become a doctor or a judge,” he said in an interview with Associated Press. “All I want to say is that I will help those children who are deprived of education. If I get enough money, I will set up schools for children.”
Khan also wants to help his family – he’s one of 18 children – get out of poverty. And now he may soon have the ability to do that. “My mother often used to tell me that one day you will become a famous man. I always thought it was a wish and nothing else,” he continued.
“But now I feel it is due to my mother’s prayers that I have become a model from a tea seller.” And so while Khan may be only 18 and unaccustomed to fame, it’s very likely indeed that both Pakistan and the world will see great things from him in the future.