Open Chest Power Series
A Story Of A Phenomenon Part 2
In part one of my two-part conversation with pop culture icon and adult entertainment star turned Bollywood icon, Sunny Leone, we chatted about her upbringing in rural Sarnia, her teenage years in California and her early adult years as popular onscreen adult entertainment star. In case you missed it, click HERE.
In part two, we discuss the strategy behind the move to India to join the Big Boss cast which lead to her becoming one to the most Googled stars in India!
Read on . . .
Sunny, the most adventurous step that I feel you’ve taken so far in your career is not entering the adult entertainment industry as talent, because that was a career decision, but rather, the fact that you decided to take on India, especially with its opinions on women being so restrictive when it comes to alternative career paths and lifestyles. I mean, girl, I gotta tell you, that was massive for me!
As a woman, absolutely!!! That’s the moment that you got my attention and clearly millions of others also. Albeit, I had known of you going back to the early 2000s when everyone in the North American South Asian community was talking about the Indian girl doing porn. It was at that time when you ventured to India that I felt that there’s something special and something different about this woman — something very courageous and admirable.
Oh whoa! Why?
Because you gave the middle finger to that notion of expressing your sexuality as a South Asian woman being marginalized as second class if not worse. Did you realize that you were doing this or was it just you being Sunny?
I never see myself like that at all. I just thought, “If I step one foot inside that door and they kick me out, then I’d say mission accomplished.” I didn’t think I’d sit there for six weeks, tortured in isolation (Laughs).
I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for you, but what an amazing platform right, to set up your career path the way you did — debuting in India on the country’s number one show, hosted by heavyweight Salman Khan and getting your first Bollywood movie offered to you in front of millions of people by the legendary Mahesh Bhatt himself?
Yeah, right? It all happened so quickly.
Why did you agree to participating in Big Boss?
I think they said it was in twenty-six different countries and it reached like 100 million people. They would reach an insane 25 million people a night. And, every single night it was something brand new and that fascinated me more than the actual show.
And that’s the story that’s important to me! People look at you from the outside and have their perspective on who they think you are, many viewing you as no more than a fantasy — the fantasy. When I look at you, I have a very different trajectory of you.
I see this hardcore business woman who, to me, appears to know what she’s doing.
I’ve always been strategic.
So let’s explore that. Let’s look at your journey up to the point when you did Big Boss.
You were a self-professed shy girl while growing up. An image which conjures up words like closeted, covered up and hidden away even perhaps. Then you went on to becoming what popular opinion would dictate as being the exact opposite — a woman baring all as an adult entertainment star. Do you feel that the transformation from one to the other, whether it be organic or strategic or both, has helped you become the woman that you needed to become before taking on the massive cultural perception of women that dominates Indian society — that women are either a virgin or a vixen with no middle ground?
What happened was that I went from this really shy girl to signing a contract with Penthouse magazine which changed everything.
I went on interviews, I did TV shows, I did other photo shoots for big magazines, I’d talk to people on radio channels. This was training for me.
We call it the refinement process! (laughs) When someone comes into the entertainment industry and they are brand new, they don’t know how to give an interview, they don’t know how to speak to people, they don’t know shit.
Right! Repartee doesn’t come easy to everyone.
Yes! They don’t know how to form their sentences properly. I did all that before I got to India. But you know, I think it was also that I didn’t play a victim. I’m not a victim. I had a really great experience in that world.
The fact that it built your confidence?
Yeah, of course! I mean, the thing is that I don’t know how to explain it. Like when you’re doing interviews, you naturally start becoming a different person or being able to express yourself properly. Before that I didn’t know how to express myself or have proper conversation.
We’re not taught that as part of the school curriculum unfortunately. In fact, we’re not taught any of the truly important skills in school, like how to financial manage your life or rear children.
Exactly! And also, I don’t always think that a parent can properly do that. I know a lot of people don’t consider acting class as something for kids especially in our culture, but I do think a kid taking an acting class is important for life because it teaches you how to express yourself. It might bring on some negatives also like most things so.
Like if they are really good actors (Laughs), you’re like, “dang, you’re a good actor, you totally tricked me!” But I do think there’s certain things that parents can do to make their kids more confident and be able to express themselves properly, and that’s probably one of them. Being forced into standing in front of people and speaking or acting out a silly little scene or being able to read out loud properly are important skills I feel everyone should seek by stepping out of their comfort zone. I was not that kid that could read out loud.
You were so shy.
Yeah I was so shy. I had to read a speech. You know, we all had to do those speeches in school right?
It was winter time and my laces were undone. On my way up to the podium, my laces from one shoe got hooked into the other shoe and I was tripping all the way up the front of the class (Laughs). After that moment, everything went downhill. I think about those times and I go, “alright now I can stand up in front of people and I can give a speech if I needed to or I can talk business or I can talk about different things or walk in front of hundreds of people.”
Not hundreds of people lady, try millions of people around the world! That same, shy girl! That in and by itself is a huge step forward and makes what you do in the public eye even the more outstanding, especially the courage to put yourself out there in terms of the adult entertainment world.
You’re welcome! You know Sunny, having that kind of confidence within yourself when you knew you never had it I would imagine has been the bigger journey for you than the career highlights right?
Yeah of course. I couldn’t have done what I have if I didn’t have confidence.
Who are you today based on all of this?
A really good business person. A patient person. (Pause) And having a really good business partner has been a big part of it all. Daniel (Weber, husband) is really the reason I am able to function.
He gives me the ability to be Sunny Leone.
And who is she? What is that brand that is Sunny Leone?
Well, she’s a brand that I’ve built for a long time; a very long time. (Pause) I sometimes sit there and analyze it. She’s like some sort of alter-ego.
As soon as I’m in front of a camera or in front of people, I naturally start changing. It’s like a natural human reaction for me to be her. Especially when I’m around people and I’m entertaining or talking to them or on stage or dancing. If you asked me to dance right now in front of people, I’d be like, “you’re out of your effing mind! (Laughs) No, I’m not doing that, that’s crazy!” I have to mentally prepare for that, you know?
Yes, I get it.
So I’m still shy. (Pause) I’m still shy. (Pause) I’m still conservative.
Having met Karanjeet here, I believe you. Your demeanor is so girl-next-door that I’m amazed at the largeness of your alter ego, Sunny.
(Laughs) I know! It’s really hard for people to believe that I’m both of these personalities.
Having met Sunny and Karan now, I get what you’re saying. I get that you know who you are as Karen and that you get who you are as the Sunny brand that you’ve created. How are you able to keep that clear distinction between the two in a country like India where Bollywood stars are idol worshipped to the level that even the Bollywood stars think that they are gods (Laughs)?
Unfortunately, it is the brand that I’ve created that is how people see me, and when they meet me, I’m a completely different person then who they think I should be because they’ve Googled my name and they have seen things that don’t match the person they meet when they meet me.
Well, I don’t blame them. You’re an Indian girl who has been a successful adult entertainment star. Even I Googled you to see the breadth of your portfolio, so I get it (laughs). Beyond the obvious, what do you think is the fascination the masses have with you in regards to your adult star status?
I believe that adult material reaches a place in someone that is emotional. It’s an emotion that nothing else will ever replicate.
Because you are hitting this emotion with somebody and it’s a very personal emotion, that translates over to why people feel bonded to me or anyone for that matter, on some level. It’s as if there’s no barrier between me and them as there is between them and other female stars in India. Because of that, people see me a certain way you know, which is fine, but then they meet me and then they’re like, “okay I don’t understand.” (Laughs).
They don’t get you.
Yeah, it’s like, “I don’t get it” (Laughs). It takes time to change people’s perceptions.
Are you okay with that?
Yeah, I’m okay with it. As long as you know how to spell my name in Google, I’m good. (Laughs)
(Laughs) I love it!
So, it’s a process. It’s a process in India.
And how’s that process been like for you?
Well, it’s a natural human reaction to judge somebody right, because that’s what we do? You know, you meet anybody in life and they’re like, “oh, I’ve already formed my judgements about you”, and you haven’t even said a word yet.
And that’s irrespective of who you are or what you do, but magnified when they know what your history has been. What next for you? Are you thinking of perhaps following in the footsteps of Priyanka and Deepika and trying your hand at Hollywood since you’ve reached A-List status in Bollywood now? I feel like that would be the natural next step for you, especially since you’re more western than them, which warrants your fitting into the status quo as opposed to them, who fill the diversity quotient that Hollywood is heavily leaning on now to serve up inclusivity.
Yeah, we (she and Daniel) think about it all the time. If it organically happens, great. If not, I’m so happy with where I am because I’m not trying to get anywhere.
What do you mean?
I sign movies and Daniel books work, and we do so many different things that if it happens in Hollywood, great. If it doesn’t, great.
Exactly. From where to where we’ve come. It’s been a crazy journey. You know, we have plans for other businesses we want to open up in America and we focus on those things more, like, “let’s think, if this all ended today, what are we going to do?”
And that’s always been the plan.
Now that your brand is such a commodity, I see that you have an app called Teen Patti and a perfume called Lust. Tell me more about this.
I have Lust by Sunny Leone and we started working on that, what, two years ago (looking at her husband, who just joined us)?
Daniel: Yeah, the launch was in February 2014.
Sunny: Yeah so now it’s in India everywhere and we’re looking at different international distribution and everything. We do sell Lust from my site too, so that’s something that if someone wanted to buy today in America, they can buy it and we’d ship it over.
Quite forward thinking of you doing the app, which Bollywood stars haven’t cottoned onto yet the way Hollywood stars have.
Sunny: Well, people in Bollywood don’t have plans on how they want to grow their brand, whereas Daniel and I (more Daniel actually), really try and focus on the full circle. It can’t just be about movies.
It has to be a 360-degree approach right?
You’re pushing the app a lot I see.
Daniel: Yes and we’re doing an app version of the store, which will give people access to everything on the website, everything that is Sunny Leone from a merchandise perspective.
Sunny: So you know it’s about being able to tap into the Indian market, but how do we successfully tap into that market and create revenue from it, because Indian’s don’t like to spend money (laughs).
Daniel: The traffic is massive.
Sunny: Yeah, we see hundreds of thousands of visitors daily. Daniel just did a test on our Facebook page by linking the new website we built to it crashed and crashes every time we do this. There is so much traffic that we have to buy a dedicated server for ourselves!
And that’s why I was saying that Hollywood almost seems like the natural next step for you, especially since you have and incredible social media following from India, which Hollywood is courting right now. Hollywood wants the Indian market which is why they have Bollywood stars like Priyanka and Deepika in strategic positions. The discussions I have had with U.S. based networks and production companies is that they are looking right now, for people with your profile in terms of being able to bring the India market to their viewership more indelibly. You should meet with them if you haven’t already, and tell them the power of you.
Daniel: Well, we just had a meeting regarding all of this, but it just has to make sense, which is the thing. The way Deepika jumped in and did what she did is her thing.
With the Sunny brand, it’s not just about being an actress though and that’s the interesting twist in all of this, for me at least, as an onlooker.
Daniel: It’s longevity we think about in the decisions that we make.
Smart! So that brings me to a fundamental question: How do you define success? What does that word mean to you?
Sunny: Are you talking about financially?
I’m talking about anything.
Sunny: The way that I see it is if this month is better than last month, then that’s great. If our numbers are better this year than they were last year, even if it’s by 1 point, or 1 dollar, or 1 rupee, we did better.
Sunny: Like, yesterday, yesterday was success for me. Yesterday was, excuse my language, my “F U!” moment. I was that little girl growing up that always looked at those models on the catwalk. I’m 5’4″ so I’m not tall. I’m more commercial, I’m not fashion. I cannot do catalogue work because I’m too short. I might even be too fat, or too curvy, you know what I mean? Like all these different things, that were told to me since I was very very little.
And you defied it! And by the way, you’re NOT fat, because if you’re fat, then I’m a behemoth, as is pretty much 80 per cent of the world’s female population (Laughs).
Sunny: No you’re not!
Thank you! So, please continue.
Sunny: OK, so yesterday I was at New York Fashion Week walking on the runway. I’m going to start to cry!
Oh gosh, me too!
Sunny: I was with all those models, thinking, “you know, it wasn’t like I was paid millions of dollars to come here. It wasn’t that we were given anything to be here, but this beautiful woman, Archana Kochhar, took a chance and said “do you want to walk for me in New York Fashion week because of the relationship we’ve built?” Because of India, because of everything I did to get to India, of course I would do this. So, I’m freaking in New York, walking New York Fashion Week for Ace Couturier Archana Kochhar!
It’s surreal! I don’t think people would believe that someone has actually lived the life that you have, especially since you’re South Asian. People don’t go from Sarnia to India. Like that just doesn’t happen! That is not a story that’s been documented yet, not fully anyhow. (Pause). I want to ask you, what is your greatest life lesson so far, something to share with all those girls who are always told that they are “less than,” because they are a certain colour or a certain culture, or that they are too fat or they’re not pretty enough. What’s that life lesson that you’d like to share with those 80 per cent of the world’s girl population?
Sunny: If someone tells you that you can’t do it, I tell you, you that can do it. Stop freaking thinking about it and just go for it! Be professional, know your craft, don’t stop working at being even better, ever! Teach yourself how to do whatever it is that you want to do. If somebody doesn’t teach you, or you can’t afford to go to school, then figure out how to get those grants, or those loans, or whatever it is that you want. But, be focused. Know your path, know where you want to get to. You might not know how to get there, but you have to be able to visualize where you need to be. And, you have to work hard and don’t get caught up in the nonsense that happens around you.
Well, you have conquered one of the most difficult markets in the world when it comes to beating the status quo of societal expectations of women. You broke that glass ceiling. It seemed easy as an outsider looking in. Was it?
Daniel: India was a lot harder than I thought. India is a lot harder than most people think. There’s a lot of walls. We know so many people that have come from abroad and have been like, “this is just not right, it’s too much, like why?” But we don’t because we’ve seen the bigger picture. Look, every place is good and bad. We’ve seen enough, but we trust and keep going.
Sunny: There’s one piece of advice that this woman gave to me when I worked at an accounting firm.
Sunny: “It’s okay for you to be a bitch” (Laughs).
Yes! The bitches are the most attractive women anyhow (Laughs).
Sunny: (Laughs) But what I mean by bitches is that it’s okay for you to be stern. It’s okay for you to move forward and not care about what you’ve left behind. It doesn’t mean be shady, it just means be strong and push forward and don’t worry about the rest of them because they’ll figure out where they are going, or not.