Priyanka Chopra on Overcoming Racism, Sexism and Adversity (Exclusive)
Priyanka Chopra Jonas has gone through a lot to get to where she is today. The 38-year-old actress, whose memoir, Unfinished, is out now, tells ET’s Rachel Smith about the obstacles she faced, including bullying, racism and sexism, and how overcoming them led to her success.
As a child in India, Priyanka writes in her book that she was jokingly called out by her uncle for her skin color, which was darker than that of her family members. That, along with the “premium put on light skin in Indian society,” led Priyanka to want to lighten her skin tone, something she began attempting at age 13.
Later, when she attended high school in the U.S., her peers told her to “go back to your country,” which left her unable to maintain her “sense of self-worth.”
As her film career in India grew, the racism didn’t fade and new challenges arose. Priyanka reveals in her book that her father, Ashok, forbade her from going to meetings alone or at night during that time, in an effort to prevent her from falling victim to the type of stories heard amid the #MeToo movement.
“At that time, it made no sense to me. I was like, ‘Why [are] you trying to clip my wings? I’m my own woman. I’m 18!'” Priyanka tells ET. “Daddy was like, ‘No… Whatever you wanna do is great, but while you live under my roof, you’re not taking meetings at night. Daytime meetings. One of us will be there. Your manager will be there.'”
Her dad’s rule, Priyanka believes, “really protected” her from “so many experiences that girls have had in the business of entertainment.” Should she find herself in a situation like that today, Priyanka says, she’d “be very quick to shut that down, and not in a way that’s appeasing.”
“I’m not polite about shutting something down that I’m not comfortable about,” she tells ET. “… So many amazing, formidable women have been put in situations like that, so I can’t save it. I wouldn’t be taken aback by it, but I think I would definitely be in a very confident place of being like, ‘Honey, no.'”
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Despite her confidence today and her dad’s rule then, Priyanka still found herself in uncomfortable situations. In Unfinished, she writes about requesting a raise when she found out she was being paid 10 percent less than a man for a similarly sized role. In response, a producer told her she was “interchangeable” with any other actress.
Around the same time, Priyanka writes, she quit one of her earliest films when a director demanded that her “panties should be seen” in a scene.
“[I] walked away from that project because of how he spoke about me or spoke to me. He didn’t see me as an artist bringing something to the table. He saw me as an object for titillation, that’s it,” Priyanka tells ET. “That’s all I was there for. It just makes you feel small.”
Though she’s proud of herself for walking away from the film, she regrets not doing more.
“I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t say anything about it, ’cause I had to work within the system,” she says. “I put my head down and I worked within the system, and I think, ‘Why did I do that?’ Because I had insecurities. I was scared. I was trying to make a career at that point. I didn’t want it to be taken away from me.”
“Girls, we’re told that you don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention. You don’t want to be hard to work with. You’ve got to smile and [act like] everything’s all right. I did that for a really long time, because I was insecure,” Priyanka continues. “… As much as we can, we should try and walk towards what is right for your heart, and what is right for your soul. It’s OK to be insecure through it.”
Another of Priyanka’s “most profound regrets” came after her Indian film career was a success, and she signed on to promote a beauty brand that lightened her skin tone in ads.
“All I could think of was how I’d felt as a teenage girl using store-bought and homemade fairness concoctions because I believed my skin color made me unattractive,” she writes. “… I was now promoting the destructive messages that had so eaten away at my sense of self-worth when I was growing up, and I knew the only person I could blame was myself.”
When Priyanka’s career transitioned to the U.S., the racism continued. This is perhaps most evident when her song was chosen for a Thursday Night Football promo and the hateful comments that poured in “completely destroyed” the excitement of her accomplishment.
“[There was] a storm of explicitly racist hate mail and tweets… ‘What’s a brown terrorist doing promoting an all-American game?’ and ‘Go back to the Middle East and put your burka on’ and — years later it’s still hard to write this — ‘Go back to your country and get gang-raped,'” she writes. “… The assault was shocking in its swiftness and brutality; I had not been prepared to be so publicly attacked on my very first artistic foray in America.”‘
Priyanka tells ET that she was “terrified” after receiving the racist and hateful messages.
“I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t know where it was coming from. I didn’t think it was warranted. I was just making music, you know?” she says. “I was like, ‘It’s so innocent. It was just a song.’ It’s like, ‘Just because I am a public person…do I deserve that?'”
In her book, Priyanka writes that the “venom-filled speech,” “biting remarks” and “casually cruel conversations” affected her.
“The doors had been flung wide open on to an open-forum display of hostility directed at one person — me — for something I could not change: my ethnicity,” she writes.
That was in 2012. The comments Priyanka got then, she tells ET, are akin to the ones she still gets today.
“I’ve been working in America now for about 10 years, acting just about five, so it’s so recent too, and it blows my mind,” she says. “It’s not two decades ago or something, it’s now! It’s crazy.”
Despite the ongoing struggle for equality in the U.S., Priyanka, who writes that “the virtual spewing of hatred toward those who are different is a lowly form of cowardice,” is encouraged by some factors, including the recent inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris.
“It’s so important… When we were watching Vice President Kamala Harris being sworn in, my nieces were watching it and all these little girls [were] posting pictures of what it meant for them,” she says. “… I hope that this is the beginning of that. It’s so wonderful to see in various facets, in entertainment, in American politics now, just such a diversity.”
Being a figure of representation and inclusivity is something Priyanka experienced “in a very small way” when she starred on ABC’s Quantico.
“I remember just thinking about it. When I was 15, 16, studying in America at that point, I felt so isolated. I felt like I was so different. I felt like I really didn’t see a lot of people in my school that looked like me,” she tells ET. “If I had seen someone… who looked like me playing a lead role, kicking a**, and doing mainstream entertainment, selling shampoo or whatever the thing is… the normalization of what I look like would’ve been so important to my 15-year-old self at that point.”
“It shouldn’t be so hard. If you look around America, there are so many different kinds of people that make it up. It’s not one kind of person that makes up America,” she continues. “That’s the beauty of this country. As my adopted country, I love the idea that anyone from anywhere can have a dream in America. That’s what it stands for.”
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