There is a sliver of road on London's Park Lane, just after the Esso garage and before the Qatari Sheikh’s place at number 100, that will forever belong to Priyanka Chopra Jonas. It is home to the Grosvenor House hotel, scene of a thousand corporate awards ceremonies and, for the best part of 20 years, host to Miss World contestants who travelled from across the globe to take part in the behemoth of beauty pageants in London. When she talks about it, a smile breaks out across the wide planes of Priyanka’s face. It is a million-pound smile, literally, and one that was made famous right there at 90 Park Lane. She may be one of South Asia’s most recognisable faces, and well on her way to becoming one of the Western world’s, too, but at the turn of the millennium, she was an 18-year-old woman-child with big hair, a royal wave and a face that looked as though it had been dreamed up by Pixar. She had also just been crowned Miss World 2000.
For most women, winning Miss World is the pinnacle of their lives. It doesn’t get any better than being told you’re the most beautiful in the world, even if the judges are Lulu, Stephanie Beacham and the lead singer of Hot Chocolate. I grew up on Miss World – devoured it, in fact – and can name every winner from 1984 to 1995. But can I tell you where most of those glittering dolls are now? Not one. For many, winning Miss World is the whole story. For Priyanka, it was a footnote on a single page of her life.
Because in the 20 years since she swept around the Millennium Dome, Priyanka Chopra Jonas hasn’t stopped. She has become the queen of Bollywood (52 films and counting); released an album, set up a charity, scandalised India, conquered America, accumulated almost 60 million Instagram followers, found the love of her life in the form of a Jonas Brother, set up a production company with three films due out before 2022 and produced one of the juiciest memoirs in years from the confines of lockdown.
It is a Friday afternoon in late winter when we meet. In what’s becoming an ever-more-rare occurrence for journalists, Priyanka has invited me to her house in west London. It’s in a fashionable corner of the capital – one of those stucco-fronted piles that looks like a giant wedge of wedding cake. A smiling assistant beckons me in from the cold and sets me on a wide velvet sofa. It’s exactly as you would expect the inside of a house to be in this part of London. Extravagant art lines the walls, piles of pristine coffee-table books abound and there’s a polished baby grand piano by the window. Rumour has it, this very house belonged to one of the music industry’s most famous singers back in the day. It certainly feels it. It’s not, however, the sort of place you’d expect to find one of Hollywood’s most down-to-earth stars spending their days.
As it turns out, it’s a rental; somewhere for her to bed down for the next year or so while she gets comfy in London. After all, she’ll be here for most of 2021, filming two projects almost back-to-back. Still, she’s brought the entire crew with her, by the looks of things. Mum is over from Mumbai, so is husband Nick (Jonas) from LA, and, judging by the little Goyard dog bag by the door, so too is her rescue mini dog Diana, possibly fashion’s greatest unsung style muse (follow @diariesofdiana to see the evidence).
‘Farrah! What strange times!’ A deep husk of a voice emerges from the corner of the room. I look over and there she is, dramatic in a silk Chloé lounge suit, what looks like Bottega Veneta house slippers and a mask that covers almost the whole of her face. Her eyes narrow and I can see she is about to break into laughter at the absurdity of the situation. (I am similarly covered, and have shown proof of a negative Covid test taken that morning in order to meet with her.)
In an odd way, she has a lot to thank Covid for. This is the first time she’s stood still in years. ‘I’ve been in hotels, rentals, Airbnbs for almost a decade,’ she says, wearily. ‘As soon as I settled into my house in Mumbai, I moved to America for Quantico (the ABC drama series of which she was the star). As soon as I settled into my house in New York, I moved to LA. I’ve always been very nomadic, but lockdown sort of gave me that time. I would never have had six months at home, ever. I haven’t had that in 20 years! For the first 15 years of my career, I [just worked]... on birthdays, Diwali, New Years, it didn’t matter. I did five movies a year [and] was always on location. I didn’t have a day off. So for the first couple of weeks, I was like, “Yeah! Staycation! A break!” But, after that, as someone who’s always on the go, I just put all my focus into the book.’
Ah yes, the book – about which we are here to ostensibly talk about. It’s called Unfinished, a nod to the fact that, at 38, she is only partway through her life. But for Priyanka, that’s 20 years of business. Twenty years of shuttling back and forth, skilfully straddling a hugely successful career in India with a burgeoning one in the US. Twenty years of sheer, unrelenting graft. It’s a sort of warts-and-all, though Priyanka is lucky in that the warts have been fairly small, given she ascended through the beauty pageant world, then segued seamlessly into the corridors of both Bollywood and Hollywood. ‘You know, I was thrown into the deep end from 17. You’ve just got to learn how to swim and I did,’ she says. ‘There were times I couldn’t, by the way, so there were successes but also there were failures... But predominantly the trajectory was upwards and that’s a lot of work to keep it that way.’
It feels like work is her natural setting. Even her relatively new marriage to musician Nick Jonas sounds like a lesson in diary gymnastics as she explains the intricate organisational matrices involved just to get them face to face.
‘We see each other every three weeks,’ she explains, matter-of-factly. ‘Wherever we are in the world, we fly to each other at least once a month for a couple of days. It was our rule when we first got married. Otherwise we’d never see each other. Our teams also had to get married!’ she laughs. She’s joking. (I think.) ‘They have to talk to each other like, “I am scheduling her here. No, we can’t do it... This is when we’re free... We have to move this.” It’s like a big marriage. It’s not just us but our families and teams, too.’
She explains that it will be their two-year anniversary soon. ‘It feels like so long but it also feels like a snap of a moment, too. I can’t explain. It’s so weird... I feel like I don’t remember what life was before I met him.’ The book is eye-openingly honest about their courtship, with Nick – the younger by 10 years – mounting something of a full-scale cross-continental seduction over a couple of years. She charts how they met occasionally at parties and events across the US, barely spending an entire week together. And yet, within two months of officially dating, they became engaged.
‘I didn’t expect the proposal at that point... It was two months!’ she laughs. ‘I thought it would happen, but it was still a complete shock. [But] I relinquished control and I just went with it. We were just sporadically meeting for about two years. We were texting and stuff, and there may have been a part of me that wanted something serious. But I was taking a hiatus from guys at that point. I didn’t want anyone romantically. But there’s always been something about Nick, which is why we always ended up staying in touch, no matter where we were. One thing to know about my husband is that when he makes up his mind, he’ll get what he wants! When he knows, he knows. There’s such a sublime confidence to it that you can’t help but be like, “OK.”’
The match seems one of perfectly equal powers. He arguably has the greater fame in the US (though not for long), while he must play second fiddle in India. ‘India loves Nick and Nick loves India,’ she says. ‘He’s called “national jiju”, which means brother-in-law. And before he goes onstage he listens to Bollywood music. It’s his hype music!’ She wears small, almost imperceptible tattoos of a box and a tick behind the soft undulations of each ear, based on something Jonas said early on in their relationship. ‘When we got engaged, Nick told me I checked all his boxes. So on the one-year anniversary of our engagement, we got matching tattoos to celebrate that: mine behind my ears, his on his arm – it’s a check on one side and a box on the other.’
She says the book is a kind of 'in between' interviews book, filling in the holes of everything she has already given to the press. (And, in her native India, that’s a lot.) She talks at length about the devastation of losing her father, as well as the racism she suffered when she moved to the US. (She’s had two stints in America, the first as a teenager to attend high school in Massachusetts, Iowa and New York, and a second that started a few years ago when she began her US career.)
There’s little varnish. She speaks candidly, skilfully, side-stepping the sanctimony that permeates the celebrity memoir. There is a scene in the book that is remarkable, not only for what it reveals about Hollywood, but for what it reveals about Priyanka. She is 33 years of age and at an industry party. The room is divided into two, with top tier talent and players on one side and everyone else on the other. Priyanka, at that point one of the biggest stars in the world, finds herself on the lesser-known side. No one knows her name. No one really cares. It is a lesson in humility.
‘The process of auditioning was taboo in India at that point, [especially] when you become a big actor,’ she explains. ‘Now, it’s changed a lot but 10 years ago, auditioning wasn’t something you did. But [in Hollywood] it was the culture, so I had to learn that. I learned that I can’t rest on my laurels and that I had to walk into a room and introduce myself to people and not feel entitled. Just because a huge part of the world may know me, that [doesn’t mean] everyone should. I want to get there like everyone does. It was hard when I started in Bollywood, too,’ she continues. ‘It’s always hard when starting a new career. And I completely treated [moving to America] as a new career. If you think about it, I’ve only been an actor in the US for five years. I’ve just about started doing the work that I really want. It takes time in every career.’
The timing couldn’t have been better. After all, South Asian representation in Hollywood is remarkably absent. A handful of names have emerged over the past few years – Mindy Kaling, Riz Ahmed, Kumail Nanjiani – but how many others can you name? Even more interesting, Priyanka is the only one of those names who is Indian, as opposed to American-Indian or British-Pakistani. Other Bollywood stars have tried to make the switch, including another Miss World, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who made a few sadly forgettable Hollywood films in the late Nineties. But, for such an enormous industry, few Bollywood stars have made the transition... Apart from Priyanka. Why her, I ask?
‘I’ve tried to understand it myself,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘I wonder what I did differently.’ There’s a silence. ‘I feel like it was a combination of things... There was a large conversation about diversity and inclusion at the time I came here, which is why I was signed for a talent deal by ABC. At that time, they had brought on Sandra Oh, and Kerry Washington was the first Black woman to ever lead a network TV show with Scandal. I was the first ever South Asian woman. At that point, Disney, ABC and probably other networks were trying to bring in [more diverse talent]. Conversations were simmering and, at the same time, I came in. I said, “I don’t mind putting my head down, working, auditioning, learning how to speak in an American accent.” I wanted to play parts. I don’t want to be defined by where I come from. I want to play leads.’
Soon she will do just that, starring alongside Kaling in the first-ever female-led comedy with a completely South Asian cast. It’s interesting to note that Chopra Jonas and Kaling wrote the script, got financing for the project and take the lead parts. ‘I think that there is such a large space for Indian talent,’ she says. ‘But it’s going to require a mobilisation of our community to support each other instead of pulling one another down. Me and Mindy, that’s how this collaboration happened. I was like, “I want to create opportunities as a producer for South Asian people in Hollywood, just like I never had.” I had to fight for it. I had to say, “I don’t want to do the extra Indian accent. If my character was born and brought up in the UK or in the US, why would she speak like that? Why would you wear a bindi?” It’s a silly, stereotypical thing. I defied a lot of that, and now I’m reaching a point in Hollywood where my culture is my asset instead of my definition.’ She is quick to point out that it is because of actors such as Ahmed, Kaling and Hasan Minhaj that this has been possible for her. ‘I believe that lack of opportunity creates resentment, and I think as soon as we create opportunity it brings communities together.’
Does she think the South Asian community needs to shout louder for opportunity, in the way the Black community has? She is reflective, and at pains to make clear this is just her own hypothesis: ‘When I went to school, I was told: “Keep your head down, don’t get into trouble, be invisible,” like most of the community. [The older generation] worked so hard to get where they were, they didn’t want anything to mess with that. Don’t attract attention, let’s get through life – it’s kind of made us meek. As a teenager, I was meeker. Then, as time went by and I started feeling the support of the world, I started coming into my own as a woman. It took a long time to be able to say, “I don’t want to be meek, I want to be bold.”’
Her boldness is perhaps what she’s most famous for – and not always with the most intended outcome. Navigating a career that spans cultures and continents can become, shall we say, complex. She gives an example of a storyline in Quantico, where her character, FBI agent Alex Parrish, uncovered a terror plot by Indian nationalists. Outrage swept the internet. A group calling themselves @HinduAmericans accused her of ‘serving Western masters to bash India’, and there were calls to boycott her films and ambassador projects.
‘My relationship with social media has changed in the past four to five years. I’m definitely a lot more wary now. I don’t interact as much. [Before], if I didn’t sleep or if I was bored in a trailer, I would start a Q&A with fans, or go live on Instagram. I’m a lot more careful [now]. It broke my heart a little bit. The succession of it all, how easy it is to take something trivial and make it so large...’ She trails off. ‘I’m not an elected official. I’m just a girl trying to do a job.’
Still, she confides that she has her own social media support group: a mix of men and women who help to guide her decisions. ‘Ever since I’ve been on Twitter I’ve had these amazing, loyal fans who have been consistent for years, so I DM [them]. I’ll do a quick, “Let’s meet and say hi...” I have done for years. It’s really fun, and they have been there from the beginning. I quietly listen to their suggestions. They’ll say, “Girl, you need to post this picture,” and I’m like, “Oh yeah, OK.” They are my trusted counsel.’
Our time is drawing to an end. Outside, the sky threatens rain. My work for the day is finished. As I leave, I look back at Priyanka. I have a feeling her working day has only just begun... And that’s exactly how she likes it.
Unfinished by Priyanka Chopra Jonas is out February 11.
ELLE's March 2021 issue hits newsstands on February 4, 2021.
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