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Published: The Voice of Fashion, July 31, 2018 as “Sunny Leone’s Business Calendar

Sunny Leone, Canadian-born Indian-American actress, model, entrepreneur and former porn star represents the intriguing sexual freedom that Indians lack. Today, 37-year-old Leone—who gave up her adult film career in 2013, a year after her Bollywood debut with Pooja Bhatt’s erotic thriller Jism 2—has a string of brand endorsements, splashed across buses, billboards, dailies, television channels and going viral on the Internet. She is the star of her autobiographical web series, Karenjit Kaur – The Untold Story of Sunny Leone which released last month on Zee5. Overt sexuality has always had a tenuous relationship with Indian society. In a country where sex is considered entertainment—albeit behind closed doors, or bawdy and obscene when explored in public—there is a vicarious pleasure in watching, being associated with and fantasising about someone who is willing to bare it all. But is that all there is?

The face of causes
The anti-smoking ad film, 11 Minutes (2016) captures Leone’s appeal in India through the last wish of a man (theatre actor Deepak Dobriyal) dying of the consequences of cigarette smoking. He wants to be with a woman: Leone arrives like an oft-rendered caricature of a coy village bride. The public-service campaign—which uses stereotypes to engage, and set the stage for the anti-climax—crossed one million views on YouTube in 48 hours, reaching two million views in three days, as reported on media and advertising news site, Afaqs!. And that is not surprising, given that Leone—who incidentally doesn’t smoke—has been, on more than one occasion, the most Google-searched person in India.

The female bosom forms the story behind Leone’s public service campaign #DetectToDefeat (2016) by digital media channel Aur Dikhao, to promote breast cancer awareness. The ad captures the deeply uncomfortable male gaze in India, ending with a, presumably, topless Leone looking into the mirror, saying: “If we women paid as much attention to our breasts as men do, breast cancer cases would reduce to half.”

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Leone has been associated for almost six years with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India. Her 2017 campaign has her, with musician-husband Daniel Weber, in what has been described on the PETA site as “wearing little more than high heels and tattoos between them,” advocating “Ink Not Mink.” On the effectiveness of Leone as an endorser, Sachin Bangera, associate director of celebrity and public relations, PETA India, says: “Calls and emails started pouring in after (Sunny) Leone’s campaign on the adoption of homeless dogs and cats, asking us about the procedure to do so. Close to 15,000 people joined the online campaign to help ailing elephant Gajraj after Leone shared his condition on social media. Gajraj has since been rescued.”

The power of titillation
While Leone’s persona drives the public service campaigns, it is the interest and controversies sparked over her Manforce condom ads playing on objectification of the female body, which fuel her power as a headline-grabber. On the Manforce condoms’ official YouTube channel, Leone’s popularity is on the rise: their 2014 dotted condoms ad with Leone shows over 3.1 million views in four years, while their flavoured condoms ad, Man Kyun Behka, from last year clocked over 2.2 million views in one year alone.

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Besides being an entrepreneur and the face for her own line of clothes, perfume (Lust) and makeup (Star Struck launched March 2018 and is PETA-certified), Leone has endorsed a wide range of products that include Chase mobile phones, Iarra sunglasses, Dholpur Fresh desi ghee, energy drinks like Gold Fogg by R Z International and XXX by Viiking Ventures, online jewellery portal Jewelsouk.com, Big Boy Toyz pre-owned sports and luxury cars, and Mehak Kesar Shilajit pan masala. The “A” grade luxury brands may not touch her with a pole but new FMCG brands evidently find her attractive.

Veteran celebrity photographer, Dabboo Ratnani, who has worked with Sunny Leone, regularly gets requests from people asking for an introduction to her. “Leone’s endorsement creates a strong image change for the brand—she effectively challenges the status quo, immediately creating a buzz,” says Ratnani. Speaking about the Gold Fogg energy drink campaign, Rahul Vinakiya, managing director, R Z International, has said on Afaqs!, “We opted for (Sunny) Leone as our brand ambassador as she perfectly suits our brand tagline ‘Live Your Way’. She completely believes in living life on her terms.” Says Leone in an article in the Indian Express this year, “I don’t think I have ever done my work worrying about people judging me.”

Leone who has grown up playing street hockey with the boys and is, as of last year, the co-owner and brand ambassador of Premier Futsal franchise Kerala Cobras, puts her game face on for Torque Pharmaceuticals’ JAL mineral water. In the ad film, a clean-faced, pony-tailed Leone is described by a male voice-over as, “a diva, a fighter, on the top of her game.” The video ends with a camera focusing on ever-so-bouncy breasts in the background and the bottle in the foreground with Leone saying: “Kyunki, jal hi jeevan hai” (Because water is life).

Veteran image guru, Dilip Cherian, finds that Leone checks all the three boxes to be a successful brand endorser: ‘Risqué’ value, resonance and reach. “Leone is someone who has confronted the reality of who she is. Her risqué factor is 9.8—there is nothing further to be revealed, and therefore the downside is zero. Her name has resonance and her reach is global and immense.” But above all, in an era where the smartphone has brought porn into every home, Leone represents the new reality of openness in Indian society. He says, “She is a woman to boldly go where no man has gone.” As Leone notes, in her web series, in response to the question about how some Indians can’t differentiate between a prostitute and a porn star, “There is one similarity…guts.”

The girl next door
Leone—who is admittedly bisexual—is a girl you can take home to your mother. Shocking as that may sound, keeping her fair, chiselled face and the in-your-face augmented breasts aside, probably a part of her appeal, locally, lies in her easy “next-doorness”. Her web series suggests that she is just another girl, ridiculed in school, who made a tough—and unorthodox—choice. With 13.9 million followers on her Instagram, what you gauge from Leone’s posts is a girl who separates her work life from her personal life. There are stuffed toys, pink roses for Valentine’s Day, goofy moments, and gym snapshots. She demystifies her work life, by capturing the steamy visuals with little jokes: a behind-the-scenes picture of her in a bathtub from the shoot of the reality survival show Man vs Wild, has the tongue-in-cheek caption: “Just lying around at work”. Her styling has mass appeal, she is not a star with sharp dance moves or serious acting chops, but her aura—a “good” girl who knows when and how to be “bad”—circumvents it all, and allows her to reign in the over-a-crore-price-tag endorsement category.

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Leone, born Karenjit Kaur Vohra, married Weber in 2011. She posts photos of them as a regular couple, often remarking on how “handsome” he is, or how he is the “sweetest man” she knows. In March 2018, she posted a photo of them in blue jeans and a white tee—a classic all-American family—with their three children, including the newly-born-via-surrogacy twins. At the time of this story, Leone is unable to respond because, as informed by her agent, she has “taken some time off from everything” to be with the children.

We tend to gravitate towards authenticity and Leone’s life, even while rife with Hindu immorality, is real, exciting and aspirational. Not because everyone wants to be a porn star, rather, because she is, like Vinakiya said, living life on her own terms. In a society that imposes restrictions on everything from food to marriage, Leone represents that elusive freedom, all the while being the girl a man would perhaps aspire to have…next door.