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The Daily Dish The Real Housewives of New York City

"My Family Is My Story": Who Are Jessel Taank's Famous Photographer Uncles?

Jessel opened up to the other Housewives in Anguilla about how her uncles, Max and Nitin Vadukul, helped her launch her fashion career.

By Caitlin Schunn

To understand Jessel Taank, you have to first understand her uncles.

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While this may be an unpopular take with the other ‘Wives on The Real Housewives of New York City, who asked Jessel to share more on her childhood during a trip to Anguilla, to Jessel, it’s all part of her own story.

“I talk about my uncles a lot because without them, I wouldn’t be here,” she told The Daily Dish in a new interview.

But just who are Jessel’s uncles?

“They were forced out of their homes in east Africa because there was a lot of political unrest,” Jessel shared with the ‘Wives in Anguilla. “And they had it super tough. Like brutal. My mom’s two brothers decided that they wanted to become photographers, and so they moved to Paris, and were sleeping on park benches. They were eating scraps and they were basically homeless. My Uncle Max basically was discovered by Yohji Yamamoto.”

Who Is Jessel's uncle Max Vadukul?

Max Vadukul is the oldest of Jessel’s famous photographer uncles on her mother’s side. He was born with the name Mradukant.

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“So, you think I’m Max Vadukul,” he said in a documentary about himself called Self Portrait that was produced by National Geographic in 2000. “Not really. It’s a big lie. I’m really Mradukant Vadukul. I’ve had to become a Max. I had to kill Mradukant.”

As Jessel described to the Housewives in Anguilla, he was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1961 to Indian parents that were part of the Gujarati diaspora, according to his website bio.

Jessel was born in England, following the upheaval over Kenya’s independence, which forced her parents, and uncles, to move to England.

But the memories of his time in England are not some of Max’s best. He described his rough childhood growing up as an Indian boy in England and the bullying he endured in school.

“I mean there were some terrible fights,” he told the cameras in the National Geographic documentary. “I remember once being pegged by four [white boys] in a corner and they beat the living s--t out of me. They were huge, these guys, and I talked back to them.”

His family also endured harassment while living in England.

“You see we’d get all these firecrackers in here,” Max said while showing documentary cameramen the front door of his childhood home. “Firebombs. You can’t believe the stupidity of human beings, it’s just unbelievable.”

Max remembered a happy childhood in Kenya but said moving to London was different.

“It’s a terrible shock,” he told National Geographic. “You couldn’t speak English. You have to start again. You have a different color skin and that’s not very appropriate is it, because that doesn’t fit in.”

Jessel’s mother, Nilam, played a huge role in Max’s future career.

“I remember buying him his first camera,” she said in the documentary. “I was the one who purchased him his first camera. I started it all. All my earnings used to be for him, to make him happy and successful.”

Faced with an arranged marriage, like Jessel’s parents, Max decided to leave for Paris.

“I was the first one to break the mold,” he said in the documentary. “I just took off.”

Max said he knew being a photographer was his dream when he was a young child, and he had to do everything he could to make it a reality.

“I knew at that stage what I was going to be,” he said in the documentary. “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

He later married Nicoletta Santoro, an Italian fashion editor who worked at places like Conde Nast International and Vogue Italia, and they have twins together, Eloise and Alex.

“We met some 15 years ago on a shoot, and the rest is history,” Max said in the documentary.

How did Max Vadukul become a renowned fashion photographer?

Max Vadukul wearing a scarf and a military jacket at a Photo Walks event at a Brooklyn, NY apple store.

When he was just 22 years old, in 1984, designer Yohji Yamamoto hired Max for several ad campaigns, launching him to stardom, according to his website.

“I was lucky the photographs were noticed,” Max said in the National Geographic documentary. “And I was on my way.”

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His work was featured in French and Italian Vogue, as well as other renowned publications like Rolling Stone, Esquire, W, Town & Country, and The New Yorker. By 1996, he became a staff photographer for The New Yorker, according to his website.

Over his illustrious career, he’s photographed dozens of musicians, politicians and celebrities. One of his most famous photos is a shot of Mother Teresa.

“I got the greatest picture of a person I have ever shot — that one shot was victory for me,” he said in an interview with Gulf News. “I had gone to click her, clouded with criticism, but came back with a completely new [perspective of her]. I found she was a giver, not a taker.”

Max has also photographed celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Mick Jaggar, and Rod Stewart. He even shot one of Aretha Franklin’s album covers.

“She would just sit there, turn her head, and say ‘Take it,’” he told Gulf News. “I started moving all around, taking shots of her stepping up and down from the throne, and got a great picture from a very difficult situation.”

Who is Jessel's uncle Nitin Vadukul?

Photographer Nitin Vadukul holding up a book that shows his photography at the Proud Gallery in Camden, London.

Max Vadukul isn’t the only famous photographer in Jessel’s family. Another uncle, Nitin, became well-known for his hip-hop snapshots.

“New York is a lonely place,” Max said in the National Geographic documentary about his life. “But there’s another person here I can have a laugh with — my brother, who’s also a successful photographer.”

Max’s younger brother, Nitin, was also born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1965. He emigrated with his family to England in 1969, according to The New York Times.

“I love my brother very much, Nitin is his name, and I remember picking him up as a baby when he was 5 years old,” Max said in the documentary. “Sometimes [in New York] we sit together, and we have a drink and we enjoy ourselves and we listen to loud music.”  

He got his start when he began working as an assistant for Ray Massey, an advertising photographer who used special effects, according to The New York Times. Much like his brother, he began doing advertising photography assignments in Paris, shooting ads for companies like Nike and IBM.

By the 1990s, he moved with his brother to New York City.

How did Nitin Vadukul become a famous photographer?

Nitin took portraits that were out of the box and unusual, and he used Adobe Photoshop to his advantage when he started taking photos of hip-hop musicians like LL Cool J, Missy Elliot, Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z.

“Before all of the photographers were using Photoshop, he was certainly a pioneer in manipulating photography digitally,” David Curcurito, a former creative director of The Source, told The New York Times.

He even took a photo of Eminem with a chain saw for the cover of The Source, then the leading hip-hop magazine, according to the Times.

“He understood hip-hop,” Eminem said in an email to The Times. “He was collaborative. He made it fun. Chain saws, blood, a face full of nails … he was in.”

The Source said Nitin Vadukul’s work became so popular, performers began requesting him for shoots. But he also broke out of the hip-hop mold when Newsweek featured his portraits of then-senator Barack Obama in 2004, according to The New York Times. He later directed music videos for musicians in Los Angeles.

Nitin married Marianna Morrison, and the couple had two children together before divorcing, Nitin and Aysha.

He died at the age of 52 in Feb. 2018 of colorectal cancer that spread to the liver, according to The New York Times.

How did Max and Nitin Vadukul help Jessel Taank launch her career?

Jessel has been vocal, both on her website and on RHONY, about how her uncles helped her begin her career. She described on her website how she was “motivated by the drive and ambition of her uncles,” and how she “eventually followed their footsteps to begin her career in the fashion capital of the world.”

“I would never have been given this opportunity to, you know, live in New York,” she said in an interview with The Daily Dish. “I wanted so badly to be a part of this world. I lived with one and worked with the other. I just remember calling them and telling them my plan and they were like, without even blinking, ‘Yes of course. We can help you.’ If they had said no…it would’ve been a very different path for me.”

Jessel admits she was perplexed by the other Housewives’ reactions in Anguilla to her telling of her story about her uncles and how they got their start.

“I was so confused, ‘cause like, my family is my story,” she said to The Daily Dish.

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