“Women are shamed all the time, for everything. For what they might wear or say. For what they should be doing, where they’re going...” Priyanka Chopra is explaining her decision to wear black on January 7, the day that women around the world were urged to shun colourful clothing in a movement spearheaded by the attendees of the Golden Globes awards. In solidarity with the Time’s Up campaign – calling time on sexual assault and discrimination in the workplace – the hashtag #WhyWeWearBlack was amplified by everyone from Angelina Jolie to Oprah. “Wearing black on that day was all the women in the world coming together and saying ‘we stand by each other’ and it was a sign of sisterhood, which was beautiful to see,” Priyanka tells Bazaar on the set of the February cover shoot in New York, where the 35-year-old is currently filming the third season of Quantico, the US television drama in which she plays FBI recruit Alex Parrish.
Priyanka is a force of nature. Unapologetically physical, her pillowy lips may semaphore seduction but what comes out of them is a stream of straight-up, souped-up girl power.
“Why is there a word called feminism? Why is there no manism?” Priyanka challenges, right off the bat. “Because men have never needed it. Because for hundreds and hundreds of years, women have been told what we should dress like, what jobs are good for us, what we can do, what a good girl is.” She relishes the global conversation that is now in full force, challenging the powers that restrict, diminish and abuse women. “Feminism is women standing up for themselves and saying ‘Give me the freedom to make my own choices without judging me.’ It is not superiority. It is not hating or berating men. It is just saying, ‘Let me make my decisions without shaming me or trolling me. Give me those opportunities that men have enjoyed for such a long time.’”
When she was a child she remembers that her mother Madhu – a successful physician – would turn down invitations that arrived addressed to ‘Dr and Mrs Ashok Chopra’. “If it was written in my dad’s name, like my mom was just dismissed, she would never go to a party. She would have to be individually invited. I was raised in a house where my mom had her own personality and standing. She was never a plus one. So I am that person. Nobody’s identity can be just a plus one.”
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It’s something she felt strongly enough about to call out a Vanity Fair cover story on her friend Meghan Markle which, Priyanka felt, dwelt too heavily on the Suits star’s relationship with the UK’s Prince Harry and glossed over Meghan’s own achievements. “It’s natural for people to be like, ‘Oh that’s Prince Harry’s girlfriend, but she’s a lot more as well,” she says of Meghan. Rumours that Priyanka will be among the bridal party for the couple’s May 19 wedding remain just that. “If you see me there, you’ll know,” she teases. Bridesmaid speculation aside, Priyanka is clearly thrilled that her friend has found love, and what the marriage means for modernising a centuries-old institution. “I don’t think anybody else would be able to do it the way she will. She’s just right for it,” she says of the future Duchess. “She’s an icon, truly, that girls can look up to, that women can look up to. She’s normal, she’s sweet, she’s nice, she thinks about the world, wants to change it and this was even before any of this happened,” Priyanka smiles. “So I do think Meghan being a part of the royal family is a big step in the direction of so many things; of women, of feminism, of diversity, of race, of the monarchy versus everyone else. It’s a beautiful step in the right direction.”
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Priyanka herself is recently out of a relationship and ready to reveal what it will take to win her heart. “I’m going to be serious about this because I’m single right now after a really long time, so I’m going to give you a really real answer,” she promises. “I like to be given attention, not like creeper-worthy attention, that would freak me out. But I like to be pursued and wooed. And if he’s not cerebral, if he’s not smart and cannot engage me, then it cannot happen. That’s the biggest, most important thing for me,” she says, adding, “I’m very mushy, I love romance.”
Seeing her friend Meghan become engaged and prepare to walk down the aisle, does Priyanka harbour the same aspiration? “Marriage and kids are a big goal for me. I’m a big believer in the institution of marriage and in family, and in kids, I want to have a lot of them, if God allows. The only problem is, I don’t know who I’ll do it with,” she laughs. At 35 she is at an age where interviewers start asking potentially problematic questions about biological clocks and the perils of prioritising career over family. The kinds of questions that male actors would never face. Priyanka breezes past the issue. “I feel like I’m fortunate to live in the 21st century, where science helps women in a big way to not feel those pressures, so I don’t,” she says. “My family doesn’t feel those pressures either. I would rather spend my life with the right person than feel pressured and make a mistake.”
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That said, she acknowledges the fundamental differences between the sexes that result in 35-year-old women constantly getting asked when they are going to settle down. “Men and women are not equal. We’re not supposed to be equal, but we’re supposed to be given equal opportunities, that’s important,” she stresses. “We are physiologically different. We are physically different. We are mentally different. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. There’s no way we’ll ever be the same people and we shouldn’t want to be. We should celebrate the fact that men and women are so different.”
Biology aside, Priyanka – whom Forbes named the 8th highest paid TV actress in 2017 (she’s 18th, if you factor men in too) with estimated annual earnings of $10 million – is not afraid to challenge inequality in pay. “The pay disparity is a big conversation definitely and it doesn’t just happen in the movie business, where it’s tremendous, where the boys of course get paid, like, crazy more than the girls do. It’s in every business. It’s a global thing. If you look at CEOs and you compare salaries in general, you’ll always see there’s a big disparity between men and women in the same area. That’s a big conversation and as people are calling it out, going forward it will change.”
As with all forms of gender-based inequality, from pay to sexual abuse, the entertainment industry is forging a trail of awareness that the rest of the world is poised to benefit from. “Because this is the entertainment business, it’s written about so much,” Priyanka explains of the movement that started with the Weinstein allegations and continues under the Time’s Up umbrella. “Men who have abused their power over the years are being called out finally. People are believing the women, and women are standing with each other... It will create a revolution for the next generation,” she says. “It’s like a cleansing and I just hope that this sets an example for all other industries; that powerful men take a second before they abuse their power now they’re afraid that power may be taken away. The entertainment industry has become pioneers in actually bringing up and having conversations which are supposed to be quiet, which are supposed to be behind shut doors, which are supposed to be swept under the rug. I hope this sets a standard because it’ll save so many women.”
And while the focus has been on Hollywood, Priyanka admits that Bollywood is not immune. “It’s the same thing everywhere. Whether it happens in America, whether it happens in India,” she says, adding of her home country, “There’s not been a lot of calling out of sexual harassment but there has been harassment. Abuse of power doesn’t only have to be sexual, it can be verbal, emotional. Like, I was kicked out of a few movies because someone’s girlfriend was recommended. That is also an abuse of power. I was new and those were important films for me.”
Blazer, Dhs30,300; trousers, Dhs2,400; boots, Dhs21,700; belt, Dhs3,200; earrings, Dhs1,300; hat, Dhs2,400, all Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Camisole, stylist’s own
Priyanka now works between the US and India, where she began her career. She currently has seven movies in production in India and is developing three projects in the US as a producer. On top of that, this year sees the third season of Quantico hit television screens and the release of two American movies: A Kid Like Jake, in which she stars alongside Claire Danes and Octavia Spencer, and Isn’t It Romantic with Rebel Wilson and Liam Hemsworth. Her casting as Alex Parrish, the all-American lead of all-American prime time drama Quantico is the stuff of TV legend; a chance encounter with network executive Keli Lee of ABC led to Priyanka signing to the network, which has made a priority of promoting diversity in talent.
“I’m an actor before I’m anything else. Before my ethnicity, before where I came from. My job is to be able to convince America every Sunday that I’m an American girl.” She draws parallels with her role in 2014’s Hindi movie Mary Kom, for which Priyanka trained for four hours a day to play the world champion boxer. “I’m not a boxer, but I convinced the world I was, right?” she says. “So, the same way, I trained my dialect, understanding what Alex as an American girl would be. What she thinks, what her aspirations as a young American are.
She’s a tough girl and no one can affect her but yet she does get affected. She doesn’t let anyone see it. So, I wanted to create Alex as this person instead of an ethnicity.” In a similar vein, her casting as the villain in last year’s Baywatch movie – also blind to Priyanka’s South Asian heritage – ignores ethnic stereotypes. It’s about time, she believes. “South Asian people are one fifth of the world’s population.
American entertainment is global entertainment. Do you see that kind of representation on film and television for South Asians? No you don’t. You see one Aziz [Ansari], one Mindy [Kaling], one Priyanka, one Kal [Penn], maybe Riz Ahmed, that’s it. Like five or six people that you see out there and most of those people had to write their own parts to get them. So we don’t even have our foot in the door right now, we need to pound on the door.”
Importantly, Quantico’s Alex Parrish is American through and through, created free from the clichés often attached to casting non-Western actors. “Parts are always written for us that are stereotypical. It’s a surprise when you see a South Asian person playing a normal American FBI agent. Why? Why not? There are such incredible, courageous people who are breaking the door down and not settling for the normal parts any more. I hope that changes it for the next generation,” Priyanka says.
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She equates the challenge faced by South Asian actors with that encountered by actors from the Middle East; both subject to typecasting due to the colour of their skin. “The biggest problem with Middle Eastern actors is that’s exactly the box that they are put into too; the terrorist, the extremist. It was really hard for me, being brown skinned, to play an American hero. Of course, a Middle Eastern actress can completely play the part that I play in Quantico, absolutely. But it’ll take fighting. I put my foot down and I said, ‘I don’t want to play the stereotype and if you only have that, I don’t want to do it.’”
Redefining the global protagonist and what she looks like is crucial, Priyanka believes, to allow everyone to feel their worth. “There is not one type of person in the world,” she explains, “We have to start highlighting the beauty in every individual instead of a false, unrealistic mirage of what beauty should be. We are born with the colour of our skin. We are born with the colour of our eyes and there’s got to be beauty in that. We shouldn’t want to change it.”
While she is sympathetic to mankind’s quest for aesthetic ideals – “We tend to like pretty things. We like diamonds, we like a nice car. As human beings we gravitate towards pretty things” – she takes issue with the narrow parameters that set a stifling standard of beauty. “Society has such a quest for perfection in terms of human beings that we forget to see beauty which may not be the standard of what magazines tell us. That bothers me. I find flaws very sexy. I find imperfections hot. Perfect is boring.” The former Miss World understands the irony when she says that, “I’m the biggest example of this.” Explaining, “It takes a lot of grooming yourself to become the best version of yourself. I wasn’t the prettiest girl at all growing up. I looked pretty cringe-worthy sometimes. But I figured out what works for me the most. The best thing that I have ever worn is my confidence. You walk into a room feeling great about yourself, people will look. You don’t have to be the perfect form of pretty. Some people are lucky to have it. But for the rest of us who are all right, we can become extraordinary by becoming the best version of ourselves.” Of course, the glam squad helps too, “I literally have a team of 10 people to do it for me,” she laughs.
Priyanka’s career began when she competed in Miss India at the age of 17, winning Miss World in 2000. As a staunch feminist, her beauty pageant beginnings may sit uncomfortably for some. “I had to defend it a lot. But it’s not hypocritical to me. I was very empowered when I did Miss India and when I won Miss World. I was a girl from a small town and I lived an entire year like a queen. I got to do so much good for the world. It made me stronger and more articulate. It made me an orator, it made me confident. I think it set me up actually as a powerful woman.” She also credits her mother for furnishing her with the tools to take on not just Miss World, but the world. “I started working when I was such a baby, I was 17 years old. She really taught me confidence. She knew my insecurities and how nervous and shy I was. She pulled me out of my shell and said, ‘You will be a tough girl, you will not succumb to the world scaring you.’”
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As an actor who found fame during the rise of social media, such inner confidence stands her in good stead for the onslaught of trolling that having 21 million followers on Instagram inevitably brings. “There’s no way I would have had an almost 20-year career if I was sensitive to people’s opinions,” Priyanka shrugs. “I live my life for myself and for the people I care about. I learned very early in my career there is no way in the world you will be able to please everyone. So why bother?” She bluntly refuses to let internet bullying dint her shine. “It’s somebody sitting behind the anonymity of their computer and having an opinion. How does it matter? I love social media, I put whatever I want out there, but I don’t take people’s opinions seriously because if I started doing that, I wouldn’t be able to live life at all.”
Thus, the former pageant girl who is now a global megastar passionately defends her right to exist on her own terms. “The way I see it is, feminism stands for my choice to live my life without being judged. Now, whether I as a woman want to feel sexy, whether I don’t want to feel sexy. Whether I want to have a voice, whether I want to be meek. Whatever a woman’s individuality is, that needs to be appreciated,” she says.
Priyanka shoots down the notion that Indian culture is more conservative than that of the West. “We’re from the land of Kama Sutra. We taught the world how to have babies, so sexy comes naturally to us, especially Indian women,” she laughs. “Indian culture is not conservative, it’s not submissive, it’s actually very empowering of women. There is a seductiveness to Indian women. The long hair, the kohl in the eyes, the long sari, the waist. It’s all sexy.”
That said, there is a divergence between Eastern and Western attitudes to romance that Priyanka, as a global star, has to navigate. While a love scene in her native India will be framed sensually, in America it is more physical. “Neither is wrong, it’s just a different perspective on the same emotion. It’s hard to straddle. But you know what? I’m a girl who has a career in two countries. Just have to deal,” she shrugs.
Dividing her time between India and the US means that when she’s in New York Priyanka flies in her home comforts. “My cook is here, my family flies in, my friends fly in,” she smiles. And while it’s her second home, Priyanka – who studied in the States as a teenager – has readily absorbed the spirit of the USA. “I love the freedom of America.
I love that if you have stars in your dreams and hustle in your bag, you can get anywhere,” she says. “What I hate about it is the political situation at the moment, it’s really annoying,” she laments of her adopted home. Casting around for an alternative to the current administration, she sighs, “Who should be President? Anybody will do at this point.”
While Donald Trump is proving to be a less than admirable father figure for the US, Priyanka’s own father, who died from cancer in 2013, was a guiding light in her life. On her right wrist is a tattoo reading ‘Daddy’s lil girl…’ inked in her father’s handwriting. “I was very close to my father and losing my dad changed me in a big way,” she says.
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“It created a space in my heart which is empty and it’s always going to be. My dad was my biggest fan, my biggest supporter,” she smiles. Four days after he passed away Priyanka began filming the intensely physical Mary Kom, which proved to be a cathartic outlet. “I used to be angry with him after he died. I felt abandoned. But I’ve realised that grief becomes your companion. It doesn’t ever go away, you just get used to it.”
A longside her family, Priyanka says that Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, “is one of the most important relationships in my life”. She has worked with the organisation for 12 years, becoming a global goodwill ambassador in 2016. “I’ve seen so much hope and strength in places where there should be none. In children that have lost everything but they still laugh and smile and want to play football.”
She has also encountered harrowing moments. “When I was in Zimbabwe, I remember a one-day-old baby girl was raped by her father, and she died of course, because a witch doctor told him that his illness would be cured.” In Jordan, she met a woman in a refugee camp, the pair of Prada sunglasses perched on her head incongruous among the squalor. “She told me, ‘The only thing I grabbed was my bag’ and she’s lived in a refugee camp now for seven years. She says, ‘Life as I knew it: my home, seven rooms, my cars – my kids have none of that.’” It’s a poignant reminder that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. As Priyanka says, “Each one of us, individually, has to have social responsibility because no matter where you are in the world, somebody will be worse off than you. And if you think like that, you will always have the mind-set to give back because you have so much.”
Among the heartbreak there are stories of hope, such as the 14-year-old Indian girl denied an education because her sick parents could only afford to send one child to school, a privilege granted to their son. “She taught herself how to sew and started a little business from her cottage sewing blouses and clothes for her village. With that money, she used to take evening classes and go to school and take care of her parents and her family,” Priyanka recalls, adding, “These are extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”
With a compassion that defies boundaries, Priyanka Chopra is a global citizen challenging insularity. “It doesn’t matter which country you’re from,” she counsels, “What is more important is that you are open to different cultures and the world. I adapt and change because life is no fun without evolution.” Just as surely as time is up on gender inequality, Priyanka’s own time is undoubtedly now.
Photography: David Slijper
Fashion director: Sarah Gore Reeves
Stylist’s assistants: David Taveras and Martha Chery
Photographer’s assistants: Stephen McGinn and Sloan Laurits
Make-up: Yumi Mori at The Wall Group using Chanel
Hair: Owen Goulde at The Wall Group using Bumble + Bumble
Manicurist: Gina Edwards at Kate Ryan Inc using La Prairie
Digital tech: Becky Siegel
Production: Cezar Greif for Cool Hunt Inc.
Editorial producer: Emily Baxter