Published: Verve Magazine, Dec 2013 (18th year anniversary issue)
Photograph by: Dabboo Ratnani
Priyanka Chopra has had to take leaps and become an adult when her peers were bunking school. She’s tumbled into several coming-of-age moments; ones that define her and some that continue to plague her. The top-rung Hindi film actor and experimental singer opens up about her self-esteem issues, growing up, making mistakes and finding herself
She’s sexy, glamorous and unbelievably graceful. As she walks into the cover shoot, every single head turns. And if you catch her eye, the look can be distant or it can pierce your soul, entirely dependent upon how interested she may be in knowing you. She’s warm but has her personal space and boundaries clearly defined. Her husky voice is muted, as she remains engrossed in long, involved conversations with her Verve cover co-stars, Karan Johar and Ekta Kapoor. Later, you struggle to reconcile the raw vulnerability of the girl to the exterior of this poised and spirited woman, as she reveals the moments of the past that define her today….
JUST INTO THE AWKWARD TEENS, I WAS VERY CONSCIOUS OF THE WAY I LOOKED. I was very dusky and skinny to my Punjabi family’s fair, fat and pretty. I always felt left out. With all those insecurities in mind, I landed up in America in high school (ninth grade), which took a big toll on me as a teenager.
TO BE IN HIGH SCHOOL IN AMERICA IS JUST LIKE MEAN GIRLS, THE MOVIE. I came from Bareilly, didn’t understand anything and had so many emotional and self-esteem issues; and around me the girls looked so grown-up. I looked 12 to their 16. They were dressed up, developed, wore make-up, had blow-dried hair, and I was in pigtails. I realised that grooming is the only thing that will make you look the best that you can be and I started learning how to take care of myself.
THE WAY YOU LOOK, UNFORTUNATELY, MAKES YOU FEEL A CERTAIN WAY. Everybody doesn’t like certain things about themselves and as soon as you start accepting yourself for who you are, or be the best that you can be then you start feeling confident. It is something I still do. I have improved upon my skin, my looks. There is nothing wrong with that skin tone; in fact, I photograph really well because of it. But my skin, unlike Smita Patil’s beautiful duskiness, for instance, used to be an unclear dusky. I started taking care of it, which gave me a much clearer complexion; being more active and getting toned up so my body started developing the way I wanted it to; and I began wearing the right kind of clothes.
THE UGLY DUCKLING USED TO BE MY FAVOURITE STORY, BECAUSE THAT WAS MY STORY. In high school, in four years, from 13 to 17 I changed from that gawky teenager to Miss World. And yet, even as Miss World, I didn’t feel like a pari. I had major self-esteem issues because it was in my head.
I CAUGHT A TV SHOW, JUST THIS MORNING, WHERE THEY TALKED ABOUT ‘PLASTIC CHOPRA’ about how my body, face and hair have changed over the years. My knees were circled in one picture pointing out that they had more gradation in skin colour (2005) and they circled my knees now, saying ‘knees pe plastic surgery karvaiyi hai, colour badal gaya hai unka! (She’s had plastic surgery on her knees, their colour has changed.)’ It hurts me so much, because it’s taken so much of me to go from that ugly duckling to be who I am today, to be in the movie business. For all the young girls out there – moisturise every day and watch your skin become smoother and it will start glowing. It’s the little things and I learnt that over time. There was no one to teach me….
WHEN I BECAME MISS WORLD THAT WAS A BIG COMING-OF-AGE MOMENT FOR ME. Suddenly from a school uniform in the 12th standard I went to talking about the economy of Zimbabwe to the press of the world. How am I supposed to know that at 17? I had to grow up instantly.
THE MOVIE INDUSTRY IS A HARD PLACE TO BE IN WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A MENTOR OR A BOYFRIEND, SOMEONE WHO IS PROTECTING YOU. At the ages of 18-20 I had to deal with people the way an adult would, and in the movie business you meet a lot of strange people. I had my mom with me, and even though she didn’t know the ways of the industry either, we both knew how to live life on our terms.
I HAVE NEVER BEEN FORCED OR COERCED INTO DOING SOMETHING. I know how to protect myself as a woman. Even if it’s a big film, I know how to say no if I feel uncomfortable. Every movie that I have done has been an experience in making me the actor that I am today. Sometimes it’s hard, because it’s a male-dominated world. But nothing in life is worth your self-respect or your dignity.
I HAVE MY VALUES VERY INTACT. I HAVE A LOT OF COURAGE OF CONVICTION. EVEN IF I MAKE MISTAKES, THEY ARE MINE. I stand by them and I will take the lynching and the shooting and stand in front of the squad and say, ‘I did this. Now shoot me. I am not a saint. I haven’t come here to be one, and no one can be.’ I am someone who is happiest when I make people happy.
I HAVE A REALLY FIERCE SENSE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, WHICH DOESN’T MEAN THAT I DRAW LINES AND STAY WITHIN THE PARAMETERS OF WHAT IS SAFE. I won’t say, ‘Yeh laxman rekha hai, and I won’t cross it.’ I am adventurous in life and I have done so many things out of my comfort zone whether it is my career or my personal life. But I stand by them. I don’t feel like I regret even the bad phases of my life. I may have wanted them not to happen. But I have never been ashamed of anything I have done.
I AM MOST UNCOMFORTABLE WHEN I AM IN GREY SITUATIONS. I am a very black-and-white kind of person. I need to make parallels and flow charts. I need to know life is headed a particular way; I need to know what is going to happen; I need to be prepared. But life is not like that, it throws googlies at you regularly…and I get thrown off. I am a very sensitive person, hugely emotional. Every time life throws a googly at me, I come of age. I grow up a little bit more.
THE ONE THING I MISSED OUT ON IS COLLEGE LIFE; MY MOM FEELS THAT THAT IS HER BIGGEST REGRET FOR ME. Bunking classes and running off with your friends. I never had that. I feel like I am regressing now, though. I am also a private, shy person. With my work I take all the risks, but with my personal life I am afraid to take the leap.
I’M LETTING LIFE PASS ME BY BECAUSE I ADORE MY JOB. It gives me the greatest joy, but maybe ten years down the line I will think, ‘I wish I had taken that holiday….’ I haven’t taken a holiday in 16 years. This phase – as you are talking to me – is a coming-of-age phase. I am happy and content professionally; I am blazing my own trail…whether it’s the wrong path, failure-ridden path, successful path…I don’t know. But at least it’s my own. I’m not following norms. It’s more fun that way. I always like running…or flying! I don’t ever want to take any steps back for any reason.
MY DAD’S GOING MADE ME GROW UP A LITTLE BIT. It’s too soon so I haven’t dealt with it in a way, but that changed me a lot. I’m still processing it. I will always remember my post 20s beginning like that.
MY 20S WERE VERY TURBULENT. I didn’t know who I was, what I wanted to be…not that I know now, but I am a little closer to understanding it. I know what I don’t want. You start living with an acceptance of who you are.