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‘I was never meek’: Priyanka Chopra Jonas on Miss World, Modi and misogyny

  • ‘I was never meek’: Priyanka Chopra Jonas on Miss World, Modi and misogyny
    Priyanka Chopra Jonas ‘I was never meek’: Priyanka Chopra Jonas on Miss World, Modi and misogyny
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By The Guardian
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She has conquered Bollywood, broken Hollywood, married a pop superstar, gained millions of followers – and now she is publishing a memoir of life in the spotlight

Priyanka Chopra Jonas looks flawless – perfect skin, gorgeous face, utterly serene and wearing the most immaculately steamed silk shirt I’ve ever seen. In the background, a fire roars invitingly; to her side, out of sight of Zoom, her mother, Madhu, lies on the floor exercising. This is life as an idyll.

The former Miss World and Bollywood turned Hollywood star is talking about her memoir, Unfinished. And she is quick to point out that there is so much unfinished business. In many ways, she says, at 38 years old, she has barely started. Chopra Jonas has her fingers in so many pies. How would she describe herself? “I’m an entertainer, and that bifurcates into being an actor, producer, author, entrepreneur. And I dabble in tech. I would say I’m a multi-hyphenate, professionally.”

And there are few people multi-hyphenating quite like Chopra. As well as being a film star, she has produced Indian and American films; invested in Bumble, the dating app where women make the first move; launched a vegan haircare range; started the Priyanka Chopra Foundation for Health and Education, to support disadvantaged children in India; and, in 2016, been appointed a Unicef goodwill ambassador.

Home is normally Mumbai and Los Angeles, but in 2021 she is living in London, where she is making a couple of films and an Amazon Studios TV series, Citadel, in which she plays a “really cool superspy”. We are joined on Zoom by Dana, her US publicist, and Tory, her book publicist. Tory explains that they are just here to help – and to jump in, if necessary.

Chopra Jonas tells me she is having second thoughts about the book. In Unfinished, she says, she has bared her soul. “This is not a memoir of: ‘Here is me and my laurels and achievements.’ This book is me dissecting my failures, my vulnerabilities, my emotions, the times I went back to my room and cried on my pillow. That surprised me. I never discuss this stuff. I don’t even discuss it with my family and here I am discussing it with the world, so I’m terrified, Simon. I’m terrified.” She laughs, as she often does at the end of a sentence. “It’s all just so personal. It’s shocking to me. Ah, I’m going to pull it back. Hahahaha!”

It is true; she does reveal a lot about herself. Chopra Jonas writes about being disparaged when she was young because her skin was dark – and how it made her try to lighten her complexion. There is the racist abuse she experienced when living in the US as a teenager with her aunt and the misogyny she faced in Bollywood, where she was told female actors are 10 a rupee and all that mattered to one director was that he got a shot of her in her underwear. She examines her doomed attempt to establish herself as a pop star in the US; the relationships that failed because she subjugated herself to make boyfriends happy; and the deep depression she experienced after the death of her father.

But Unfinished is not quite as bleak or as exposing as she thinks. She finds plenty of room for the achievements. Chopra Jonas has triumphed through a mix of talent and extraordinary drive. Despite disdainful directors, she starred in numerous Bollywood hits, such as Fashion (in which she played ruthless supermodel Meghna), 7 Khoon Maaf (serial killer Susanna) and Barfi! (autistic heiress Jhilmil), to name but three. Eventually, she found love with American pop royalty – Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, whom she married at a star-studded wedding in 2018.

Despite the US’s early reluctance to embrace her, she became the first Indian actor to lead an American network TV series (Quantico on ABC) and now stars in blockbusters such as the upcoming sci-fi sequel The Matrix 4. In her latest film, The White Tiger, which she also produced, she is pitch perfect as Pinky, a liberal New Yorker undone by her privilege and hypocrisy. The film, she has noted on social media, is now in Netflix’s Top 10 list in 64 countries.

Unfinished is also a love letter to her mother and father, who were doctors in the Indian military. She tells funny stories about being a daddy’s girl – she was so desperate for his attention that she once stuck a beetle down his ear when he was asleep (he needed surgery to get it out), and so keen to be a mini-me that she decided to shave her face and ended up needing eight stitches. Has she still got the scar? She points to a thin white line on her chin. What did her mother do when she found out? Chopra Jonas interrupts Madhu’s exercise to ask.

“I laughed,” says Madhu. “Then we took her to hospital.”

“See, this is the parenting I’ve had!” Chopra Jonas says.

She is charming, funny and open, when we are on message – discussing a life where little is planned and everything happens by serendipity. She is less so when we veer off.

What emerges clearly from the book is her ferocious ambition, I say. She nods. “I had an ambition for winning. Everybody likes winning, but I only liked winning. I wanted to be the one doing the thing nobody else was doing.” At the age of seven, she was sent to boarding school. She hated it initially, then thrived. “I was never meek, I was never shy. I was always the one who had my hand up, always the one volunteering for debates, elocution, dancing, stage shows, to be a monitor – whatever. I just wanted to stand out and not be part of a group, not part of everyone.”

Chopra Jonas planned to be an aeronautical engineer. Then, when she was 17, her younger brother suggested she enter a beauty contest (he was keen she waltz off so he could inherit her bedroom). Chopra Jonas says she was insecure about her looks when she won Miss India in 2000. Later that year, she won Miss World.

“It was not a goal – it wasn’t even a thought in my head. I thought there was no way I would win, definitely not for beauty. The girls who participated that year were truly the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen.” So why did she win? “I thought my strengths were my eloquence, the way I think, confidence. I can talk to anyone. Beauty never was.”

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Does she think beauty contests are demeaning? “What pageants stand for in general, yes, I agree that women shouldn’t be judged purely on their looks. But Miss World was very clear about beauty with a purpose. It was a lot about your opinions, how you speak, how you can connect with people, your compassion. All those things were at the fore instead of tweezing your eyebrows or wearing your best gown.”

In the book, she says one of the biggest “missteps” in her career was doing a series of adverts for skin-lightening cream. “I can’t go back and change what I did, but I can apologise, and I do so sincerely,” she writes. Chopra Jonas has not always been so open about her relationship with skin-lightening products. Last year, an old interview emerged in which she said: “I am very proud to be dusky myself. I would never go round saying you need to become fair and that’s the only way you’ll be beautiful, because I don’t endorse that.” A video of the interview was cut with her Ponds and Garnier adverts and critics on social media called her a hypocrite.

The Ponds commercial showed her as a dark-skinned woman who loses her man to a lighter-skinned woman. She starts to use the cream, her skin whitens and she wins back her man. How did she feel when she first saw it? “I felt sad, actually. I saw myself through my 13-year-old eyes when I was making concoctions in my bathroom trying to lighten my skin tone.” Eventually, she walked away from both brands.

 

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by Simon Hattenstone