"It's racism, for sure. But if anyone can handle it, Meghan can." Ellie Austin of The Times interview Priyanka Chopra.
Britain has been slow to catch on to Priyanka Chopra. She has appeared in more than 50 films in India, where she has surpassed conventional celebrity status to become a national icon who enjoys audiences with the country's top politicians. In America, her adopted home, she has made history as the first Indian woman to play the lead role in a primetime network drama and was included in Time magazine's list of the world's most influential people.
Today, Chopra, 36, can't change her clothes without the British press taking note, and when she visited London earlier this year she was trailed by paparazzi. The reason for this change? Two incredibly high-profile weddings that were, in their different ways, beamed around the world and pored over by millions.
The first was the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle a year ago. Chopra, a close friend of the former actress, now Duchess of Sussex, was a key player in the starry Hollywood cohort that descended on Windsor Castle last May. They initially met at a women-in-television dinner a few years ago, where they bonded over their mutual desire to "change the narrative". Over long conversations about activism, feminism and race, the two would plot how best to use their public platforms to make a difference. Now they are at the heart of the Princess Power Posse: a glamorous set of "woke" warriors that includes the fellow royal wedding invitees Serena Williams and Amal Clooney, who use their celebrity to advocate for education and women's rights.
The second wedding to elevate Chopra's international profile was her own. In December, she married the pop star and former teen heartthrob Nick Jonas, who is 10 years her junior. The couple's combined 64m Instagram followers — Chopra has 40m, Jonas 24m — were kept up to speed via a flurry of sun-kissed photos and glitzy video clips from the wedding party. Celebrations took place over three days at a Disney-style palace in Rajasthan that made Meghan's royal nuptials look positively low-key. As well as two ceremonies — one Hindu, one Christian — there was a 75ft veil and an evening of song and dance (known as a sangeet) where both families staged performances worthy of a blockbuster Broadway musical. Guests included the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner (who is married to Jonas's brother Joe).
I meet Chopra for lunch at Soho House in New York. She is dressed head to toe in white, with a neon yellow bumbag slung over her shoulder, and speaks in an accent that combines a soft Indian lilt with an American twang. She is warm, funny and confident in a way that suggests she knows all eyes are on her but doesn't really mind. One minute she's talking in teenage text slang — "brb!" [be right back] she chirps, dashing to the ladies to call Jonas — the next, she's discussing women's rights with steely poise. She is clearly driven, and refreshingly unapologetic about her ambitions.
"I would love to run for prime minister of India," she declares over butternut squash soup and a prawn salad. She has aspirations for her husband, too. "I would love Nick to run for president. I don't like the things associated with politics … but I know that both of us really want to make a change. Never say never."
To put Chopra's dreams for her new husband in context, Jonas rose to fame a decade ago as one third of the Jonas Brothers, a sugary, clean-cut boyband known for appearing on the Disney Channel and wearing purity rings. But I suppose when your close friend has just married Prince Harry, anything seems possible.
As we talk, the Indian election season is in full swing, marred by violence and voter intimidation. In a few days' time Chopra will fly home to vote. Which way will she go? "I've tried to be apolitical all my life because I like to cheer for humanity," she says in a statement worthy of Miss World — a title she won in 2000.
"As a woman of the world, I see violence everywhere," she says gravely. "My hope for the world is that every country has its own culture and we can be proud of it. I feel global. I can go to any country in the world and identify with someone because I'm human."
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It's the kind of well-meaning but simplistic approach to social issues that saw her friend Meghan write inspirational messages to sex workers on bananas earlier this year. For some, it was a thoughtful gesture of solidarity; for others, the empty sentimentalism of a generation who conflate hashtags and motivational quotes with real change. Yet among Chopra's self-help-style declarations, she has flashes of insight. Although she admits that her "utopian" world view is "super-naive", she has encountered harsh reality on her assignments as a Unicef goodwill ambassador over the past nine years.
"I went to a refugee camp recently, and kids were talking about wanting to be astronauts, dentists and doctors. I was sitting there thinking, I don't think you can be any of these because you won't have a formal education. How easy is it for someone to put a gun in their hands when they're 19 and say, 'Did the world give a shit about you? Go kill them.' Isn't it the responsibility of the privileged to care about this?"
She is unexpectedly willing to discuss her friendship with Meghan. "We just connected on how we see the world and as girls," she says of their time "hanging out" in Canada, where they were both filming.
"Meghan is such a progressive, modern girl. She's what the world is today — a self-made woman who looks like each one of us. I mean, she's stunning," she laughs, "but she is so completely herself."
Is Chopra aware of the way in which the British press relentlessly picks her friend apart. "I've seen that and it's really unfortunate. But if there's anyone who can handle it, it's her."
Does she think it's rooted in the inability of some to accept a biracial woman at the heart of the monarchy?
"For sure, 100 per cent," she responds without a beat. "Of course it has to do with racism, it's an obvious reason. But the beauty of Meg is that she's been herself through all of this. A lot of people got to know her after everything [once she started dating Harry], but I knew her before and she's the same chick. Now that she's got a real platform, she talks about the same things she always did. We spent hours speaking about the difference that influence and dialogue can make to the world before this whole thing happened, so what you see now is authentically her. She's always been the girl wanting to move the needle."
Chopra attributes her own liberalism to her parents, both of whom were doctors in the Indian army and eschewed gender stereotypes.
"My dad refused to let me into the kitchen," she says, smiling. "He'd say, 'Where are your books?' It was my brother, Siddarth, who graduated in hospitality while I wanted to be an engineer. We were raised in a very progressive family."
At 12, she went to stay with relatives in Iowa and discovered make-up, fashion and rap music. She begged her parents to let her stay in America for high school and spent the next few years moving between relatives and schools in New York, Indiana and Massachusetts. It was a time of discovery, but also intense insecurity.
"I had no self-esteem," she says. "I couldn't control my frizzy hair and I was called 'brownie' and 'curry'. I didn't know what being Indian meant as a teenager in Boston. I knew that I was different and was super-conscious of my clothes."
Asian immigrants have a long history of exclusion in America, despite their vital role in the country's economy. According to a recent survey, 61 per cent of Asian-Americans believe they are still discriminated against. Harvard University is awaiting the verdict of a racial bias suit over claims that its application procedure holds Asian-American students to higher standards than candidates from other ethnic groups. Asian-Americans make up 23 per cent of the university's first-year cohort, but if academic results alone dictated entry, this figure would rise to 43 per cent. Grades are combined with a rating for personal traits such as likeability, courage and kindness, which Harvard is accused of scoring with intentional bias. Does Chopra think that the push for diversity, particularly across the media and entertainment industries, is making a difference for her community?
"I'm going to get in trouble for saying this," she says, pausing for a good 10 seconds as she weighs up whether to continue. "Somehow, when I was in America going to school, for a lot of my Indian-American friends the subliminal message was: 'Be invisible, don't get into trouble, do your work.' Our parents came here and worked really hard and the only way they survived the move was because they put their heads down. Now my generation is, like, 'No, I have aspirations and I want to have a voice.' It's only now that we're talking about female and black representation in films, with big movies like Wonder Woman and Black Panther doing well. But in all of that, where do you see brown people?"
Chopra moved back home when she was 17 and her mother submitted photos of her to the Miss India 2000 competition. She came second, then went on to be crowned Miss World later that year. While the West now views such pageants as vapid and outdated, she has said that she's proud of her beauty queen years: in India, successful candidates often go on to careers in medicine or politics.
After her win, she was inundated with Bollywood film offers and she quickly became one of India's highest-paid actresses. In 2015, she crossed over into the American market when she was cast as the FBI recruit Alex Parrish in the TV series Quantico.
"When ABC came to me for Quantico, I specifically said, 'I'm not going to do a big fat Indian wedding kind of part because I know you're expecting that of me," she says firmly. "As someone from south Asia, we're always put in the box of speaking with an amped accent, wearing the jewellery or being the exotic pretty girl. When I started in the US, I took the conscious decision to play ethnically ambiguous characters so that I wouldn't be as alien to American audiences."
Chopra describes herself as "bicontinental", frequently flying back and forth between India and America. She has recently invested in Bumble, a female-first dating app that enables women to meet potential partners, new friends and business colleagues via their smartphones, and she advised the company ahead of its launch in India last year. It's a particularly radical concept for a country where almost nine out of 10 marriages are arranged and society is firmly stratified by caste.
"India is probably the most diverse country in the world right now," she says. "Every hundred miles, women have different languages, outfits, family structures. The one thing that brings many of them together is the amalgamation of modernity and tradition. India is at a precipice where women are owning their space. In a country that was pretty patriarchal, and still is, it's an amazing moment."
Alongside acting, Chopra runs her own production company and is currently working on "a reality show with biracial couples from around the world" inspired by what she describes as "the cultural cross-pollination" that happened at her wedding. Like many modern love stories, Chopra and Jonas's relationship began online. He made the first move, messaging Chopra on Twitter in 2016. Over the next couple of years they bumped into each other at A-list parties, but it wasn't until last May that loved-up photos started appearing on their respective Instagram pages, complete with soppy captions. Seven months later, they were married.
The couple, who refer to themselves as #Jopra, received criticism for sharing so much of their wedding on their social media channels. "If I wasn't a famous person and I'd just got married, don't you think my Insta would have photos of me and my husband?" Chopra says. "Just because I'm famous, don't I have the ability to be proud of being a newlywed without people saying that I'm using my marriage? I gave up my right to privacy when I became a public person, it's the deal you make with the devil. But trust me, there are lots of things I still keep personal."
One particularly nasty comment piece on the Cut, New York magazine's female lifestyle website, called Chopra "a global scam artist" who had conned Jonas into marrying her to further her career. Outrage erupted over the article's perceived racist and sexist undertones and it was swiftly taken down.
"I didn't comment on it at the time," Chopra says breezily. "But I went up to the hotel room to find Nick, Joe [Jonas], Sophie [Turner] and my mum furiously responding to the article on their phones. They were like, 'These bastards! How dare they?' I thought, 'I'm having a great moment, nothing is going to burst my bubble.' "
The challenge when interviewing most celebrities is to get them to talk about their love life, but it's hard getting Chopra to stop. Her phone screen shows a photo of her and Jonas nuzzling and she mentions him at every opportunity.
"I married a feminist," she proclaims completely unprompted. "He's not afraid to use the word and I love that. One of the big moments when I thought, 'Oh, this guy is different,' was early on when we were on a boat with friends. I had a meeting to go to and kept saying, 'If someone gives me a reason to cancel, I will.' He pulled me aside and said, 'Listen, I see that you want me to tell you to cancel, but I won't. You've worked hard to be where you are. I'll take our friends for dinner and wait for you. When you're finished, come back and join us.' "
It was the first time Chopra had met a man who valued her career as much as she did.
"I don't think I've ever been with someone who is self-assured enough for me to be in the spotlight and for him to be OK with it," she says. "As women, we're normally the ones who have to say, 'Yeah, I can move that appointment,' or 'What you did at work today was amazing.' That's what made Nick so different."
She shows me the edge of her right palm, which is tattooed with the words "Daddy's lil girl …" in her father's handwriting. He died of cancer in 2013, triggering a difficult couple of years when she buried herself in work to the detriment of her mental health. "I didn't talk to a lot of people and it wasn't the healthiest," she reflects. "I went back to work four days after he died because the sets were up for a movie I was working on. My actions dictate the lives of everyone working on the film. You cry in your trailer and then you get on and do your work. Don't do the job if you don't know what it takes."
Her considerable work ethic is now balanced by a contented personal life. Children are very much on the cards, too. Can she see a time when she and Jonas are on the campaign trail with baby #Jopras in tow? She crumples with laughter. "It's too far ahead to know, but both of us really want to make a change … My life has always been full of surprises. Whatever opportunity comes my way, I jump at it."
How to make it into the Princess Power Posse
• Direct line to the Duchess of Sussex
• Self-made, glamorous and unapologetically ambitious
• Famous husband (invariably described as "the biggest feminist I know")
• Huge Instagram following
• Fluent in motivational quotes and "hashtivism"
• Woke ambassador for women's rights, racial diversity and "changing the narrative"
• Self-identifies as a "multicultural, bicontinental woman of the world", "human" and "Soho House member
Written by: Ellie Austin
© The Times of London