Priyanka’s American Debut
Priyanka Chopra is a household name in India. But, she is a relative unknown in America where she spent a part of her childhood. She hopes that being the new face of Guess will change that.
LOS ANGELES — Priyanka Chopra had a problem: what to do with the light.
The actress, singer and latest in a long line of bombshell models for the clothing line Guess was standing in a walk-in closet in the penthouse suite of the Beverly Wilshire hotel, preparing for a photo shoot. “Maybe if we shot it like this,” she said, pushing sheer curtains aside and posing, Bond-girl like, in the sheet of sunlight that streamed through a floor-to-ceiling window (yes, the closet had a window; it also was bigger than some bedrooms).
“Good lighting is something that I know now, out of experience,” she said with a shrug.
Ms. Chopra, 31, tall and sultry, has been photographed and filmed enough times, appearing in more than 40 Bollywood movies since 2002, that such tricks of the trade have become second nature. She travels with an entourage (“When we walk into a room, it’s like ‘Ocean’s Twelve,’ ” she said of “Team P.C.”) and knows, without the aid of a mirror, when her dark, lustrous hair has been teased to just the right height.
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Paper magazine’s party for Priyanka Chopra, who is modeling for Guess. Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times
And yet, while Ms. Chopra is one of India’s biggest stars, she can eat lunch on a busy Los Angeles sidewalk and not be approached by a single selfie-seeking fan. This may be about to change, though.
“I knew instantly that I wanted to photograph her for Guess,” Paul Marciano, a founder of the company, wrote in an email, referring to his first meeting with Ms. Chopra last spring. “Priyanka is extremely talented and accomplished, and her wonderful personality comes through in her photographs.”
She also represents a major market that she and many of her collaborators believe is ripe for a pop-culture idol of its own. “Apart from her natural charisma,” Mr. Marciano wrote, “she’s one of the most recognized and celebrated talents in India and international cinema,” which factored into Guess’s decision to cast her in its campaign.
Ms. Chopra said: “For me, the proudest thing about it was being someone of ethnicity to break the quintessential bombshell mode. That girl has changed. She can be from anywhere.”
In addition to the Guess campaign, which she celebrated at a Paper magazine party with the designer Prabal Gurung last month, Ms. Chopra is also making a pop music album with RedOne, a producer who’s worked with Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj.
Already, she’s put out “Exotic,” a Miami Beach-appropriate ditty with the rapper Pitbull. The music video, in which Ms. Chopra shimmies and shakes in a half-dozen sequined, strappy outfits, has been viewed more than 30 million times on YouTube.
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A portrait of Ms. Chopra at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Annie Tritt for The New York Times
Her first single, “In My City,” was the theme song for the 2013 season of the NFL Network’s Thursday-night games; her next is an electronic-music remake of the Bonnie Raitt ballad “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
“No one from my country has ever done pop music internationally,” Ms. Chopra said. “I want to do things that haven’t been done before, I want to create opportunities for people to come after me and say, ‘O.K., now we can do this too.’ ”
Trailblazing, a word Ms. Chopra is fond of, usually includes navigating rough terrain.
“In one part of the world, I’m one of the top actors in the country, and in another part of the world, I’m a complete newcomer,” she said. “That’s scary for me.”
As a child, she said, she and her family moved all over India because her father was a surgeon in the army, and she found herself having to make new friends every two years. Her father also pushed her to take singing lessons, which she began when she was 3.
“In school, I was the one they sent on stage when they wanted to win an award,” she said.
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Ms. Chopra with the designer Prabal Gurung, whose dress she is wearing. Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times
House hunting in … Quebec
What you get for … $450,000
Spacious luxury on the shore of Lake Geneva
At 13, Ms. Chopra visited her mother’s sister in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and fell in love with American culture. A guidance counselor at her cousin’s high school persuaded her to stay and enroll there while her mom returned home. To hear Ms. Chopra tell the story, it’s as if she were deciding whether to go to the grocery store. “It was a whim,” she said.
High school was not as easy as Ms. Chopra imagined. (She compares it to the movie “Mean Girls.”)
“I would pick up a packet of chips and go to the bathroom and eat because I was so afraid to go to the cafeteria, where everyone had their own friends and cliques,” she said.
After traveling around the United States with her mother’s family, she returned to India at 17 and was planning a career in aeronautical engineering when her mother sent a few glamour shots to the Miss India beauty pageant. Ms. Chopra went on to win the Miss World title in 2000.
“I was petrified,” she said of her pageant experience (though a grainy YouTube video suggests otherwise). “I didn’t know how to walk in heels and wear a massive gown. I just wanted it to be over.”
But Bollywood movie offers and product endorsement deals began flooding in, and, as Ms. Chopra put it, “I went from being a geek to a geek’s fantasy.”
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The Guess look book with Ms. Chopra on the cover. Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times
She easily warmed to acting; cross-disciplinary pop stardom was another matter. Anjula Acharia-Bath, a founder of DesiHits, a media company that caters to the South Asian market, said that she “totally had to stalk” Ms. Chopra to let her know that she and Jimmy Iovine, a founder of Interscope records who has helped develop the careers of such stars as Lady Gaga and Eminem, were interested in making an album with her.
Ms. Acharia-Bath said she was drawn to Ms. Chopra’s western sensibility, with a predilection for top-40 hits and 1990s hip-hop, and the fact that she could sing didn’t hurt.
“I was trying to call her for months,” Ms. Acharia-Bath said. “She told me she was filming in the middle of some jungle, and I thought that was her way of pushing me off.”
For a woman who never coveted international stardom, Ms. Chopra appears entirely comfortable on its cusp. At a January recording studio session with Nick Cannon, she bopped around in a leather miniskirt and black stilettos, unselfconsciously singing along to a hip-hop beat, showing no signs of a migraine that she said had confined her to bed for most of the day.
And she displayed a spirit of saucy, old Hollywood glamour. Talking about the Indian paparazzi’s interest in her personal life, she said, “I make sure I don’t have too much to hide.” She added conspiratorially, “And if I do, I make sure I hide it really well,” throwing her head back with a throaty laugh.
Beneath Ms. Chopra’s confident, cool exterior, though, there are doubts, she says. She admitted that it’s hard to build a western fan base while persuading her Indian supporters that she is not abandoning them. (With many Bollywood films in the works, she sometimes toggles between Hindi and English when tweeting to her 5.5 million followers.) In making her album, she said, she struggles with the fear of: “What if I don’t get it right away? Can I make mistakes?”
“I know director-speak, I know film-speak, but music, I have to learn,” she said. “It’s like I’m a kid again in another profession.”
An old show business trope came to mind. “I can’t say I have an endgame plan, but I believe in: ‘Aim for the stars. If you fall short, you’ll fall on the moon,’ ” Ms. Chopra said.
She smiled wryly. “I mean, the moon’s pretty good, too.”