Priyanka Chopra Jonas talks beauty pageants, her infamous nose op, racist bullies and lockdown with husband Nick Jonas
Even on a Zoom call Priyanka Chopra Jonas looks every inch the Bollywood/Hollywood star – oozing class, from her royal blue and black leopard-print silk shirt to her warm, intelligent conversation.
She has so many strings to her bow, it’s difficult to know where to start – former Miss World, actor and producer, social media sensation, Unicef goodwill ambassador and humanitarian, named as one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women.
She was also a guest at Meghan Markle’s wedding to Prince Harry, but I’ve been instructed not to ask about that today.
And, of course, as fans will know, she’s also the wife of singer-songwriter and actor Nick Jonas. Last year, lockdown enabled the couple to settle into their new home in Los Angeles and spend five months together.
“We got a new dog, and it was almost like nesting. It’s time I don’t think I would have had with my husband because my career is insane, as is his,” she explains.
The couple met via social media in 2016 – he direct messaged her on Twitter after seeing her starring in the TV series Quantico – and they finally met in person at the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party in 2017, marrying in a lavish three-day celebration in Jodhpur in 2018, featuring both Hindu and Christian ceremonies.
“My husband is a very calming influence on me,” she says. “He is a very mature, introspective man. He makes me feel a sense of strength because he always pushes me to be more, to be ambitious – and I haven’t experienced that before except with my parents.”
She has lived a superstar lifestyle for so long, was it strange hunkering down like the rest of us in lockdown?
“Lockdown made me start caring about my wellness, working out and eating great. There was a lot of streaming movies, comfy clothes and ordering in great food from various places.”
Spending those months together, what did they learn about each other?
“That he’s very neat and I’m not, that he loves to eat at the dining table, and I don’t,” she says wryly. “But we are totally compatible. A lot of people have had adverse effects of being stuck together for a long time, but we still really like each other.”
For now, though, she’s living in a rented house in Notting Hill, London for a year, while filming the rom-com Text For You and Citadel, a thriller series with Richard Madden.
Work takes her around the world although she spends much of her time between Mumbai, where her family and friends live, and LA, the marital home and the first she has bought in 15 years.
During lockdown, she also finished her autobiography, Unfinished, charting her life, from her peripatetic childhood in India to her teenage years of education in the US and her return to India, where she entered the world of beauty pageants, winning Miss India, then Miss World, which opened doors for her in the movie world. To date, she has appeared in more than 60 films produced in India and the US.
The daughter of military doctors whose work often took them away, Priyanka spent some of her teens being educated in the US, where she fell victim to racist bullies in one school, who yelled taunts of, ‘Brownie, go back to your country!’ and ‘Go back on the elephant you came on’.
“I remember the feeling when those girls looked at me. I didn’t want them to see me. I wanted to be invisible, which is so opposite to who I am by nature. I love being the centre of attention. It killed my spirit, my confidence. It made me a shell of myself,” she recalls now.
“The racist comments made me so aware of my ethnicity, something I didn’t even think about. I was always just trying to live my best life. It made me acutely aware of the fact that I was different.”
As a result of the experience, she returned to her family in India, then two months before her 17th birthday won a local beauty pageant, which she entered largely to escape the pressure of her forthcoming exams. So began her road to success, first as Miss India and later as Miss World.
“It changed my life completely,” she explains. “I grew up really quickly. I went from being this high school girl with dusty knees from a small town in India to wearing a crown and talking to heads of state and having an opinion on the world that matters at 18.
“I recognised that this opportunity was a gateway to a career. I saw that it could open doors for me.”
Bollywood came calling but, she explains in Unfinished, her acting career was almost stopped in its tracks when sinus and breathing problems led her to have a polyp removed from her nasal cavity in what was supposed to be a routine operation, but which led to disaster when the bridge of her nose collapsed.
When the bandages were removed, she was horrified, she recalls.
“My original nose was gone. My face looked completely different. I wasn’t me anymore. I felt devastated and hopeless,” she writes, although she didn’t come out about it publicly at the time, feeling it was a private matter.
Following the polypectomy she had several corrective surgeries, garnering accusations of ‘Plastic Chopra’ in newspaper articles.
Today, she confesses: “It’s terrifying to even talk about it to you right now. I have been teased and heckled and written about so much my entire career without people knowing why. With the book, I try to tell my version of that.
“Maybe all of the people who have referred to me with really vile names, maybe they’ll see the humanity behind how traumatic it actually was, specifically when you are in a profession where your job pretty much is about your face and physical appearance.”
She was dropped from two big movies – her first acting jobs that were to have launched her career – after the producers heard rumours that she looked different post-surgery. The producer of a third movie she’d been signed up for changed her role to a supporting one.
“I’d had these gates of heaven opened for me, then slammed in my face,” she recalls. “I didn’t look in the mirror for days. I wouldn’t want to. I felt helpless, I felt the permanence and burden of it, and the opportunity that dazzled in front of me was now gone – and not for something I did.
“It was terrifying. Thankfully both my parents were doctors, thankfully my dad was a surgeon, thankfully he knew what to do and got alternative measures, thankfully I kept a little bit of good work and people still took a chance on me.”
Over time, she got used to her new appearance and made peace with herself.
“Now I’m on the other side of 35, as a woman I have reached a place where I’m content with who I am. I have the ground beneath my feet. I feel strong and stable and have confidence in what I bring to the table. And it only took 20 years to get there!” she says, laughing.
Today, she says she wants to further hone her skills as an actor and producer, and to use her public profile to be a platform for a variety of causes. She’s been a Unicef goodwill ambassador for 10 years, is a strong advocate of multiculturalism and runs her own education foundation.
She has made no secret of the fact that she and Jonas, who is 10 years her junior, want children. At 38, does she feel the biological clock ticking?
“No, because we live in a great time. I’m a believer in destiny and I don’t like to challenge it. I’ve always been fond of children and I would love for it to be a big chapter in my life, but if you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans. I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed and be grateful for whatever we get.”
Unfinished by Priyanka Chopra Jonas is published by Michael Joseph on February 11, priced £20 hardback.