Priyanka Chopra Jonas: 'Lockdown gave me the time to access my failures and rejections'

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Imposters
Imposters

“I’m scared. I’m insecure. I’m feeling crazy,” Priyanka Chopra Jonas says, describing what a “down day” looks like for a woman who’s starred in more than 60 films, been named one of Time magazine 100 most influential people and was last week announced as one of Victoria’s Secret’s new recruits. “But I always talk to someone if I’m feeling low. And I’ll say it out loud, because it takes away the power somehow.”

It’s hard to imagine someone like Chopra Jonas feeling anything but, well, a little smug. Actress, producer, singer, model, philanthropist, author – at the age of 38, hers is a CV the likes of which most of us can only dream.

And yet, as we talk over Zoom – her in front of an open fire in the Notting Hill house where she is living while filming in London – it becomes clear that being a Bollywood turned Hollywood star doesn’t make you any less immune to self doubt.

We are speaking for my Telegraph podcast, Imposters, which challenges successful women to open up about their experiences of imposter syndrome - the feeling that you don’t deserve to be where you are and could be found out at any moment. You can listen to our conversation using the audio player above.

Chopra Jonas might not, at first glance, seem like a natural fit. Hers is a career that started with winning Miss World in 2000 and has seen her transition into the A-list. She this year announced the list of Academy Award nominees alongside her husband, pop star Nick Jonas, with whom she is often pictured in clinches on Instagram to the delight of her 63.4 million followers. Jonas, for his part, has 30.4 million and even the couple’s dog, Diana, boasts 166,000 – not for nothing have they been called one of the platform’s most influential couples. In Britain, she is probably best known for her critically acclaimed role in the recent Netflix film The White Tiger, which she also executive produced.

Chopra Jonas’s success hasn’t been plain sailing, though – she’s recently laid bare in her memoir Unfinished, which she wrote during the first lockdown. “I had the quiet time to look inside of me and really access my feelings, my failures, my rejections,” she says. She writes honestly about her peripatetic childhood in India as the daughter of military doctors; about being “abandoned” at boarding school aged seven; and her first taste of racism, after deciding to live with her aunt in the US as a teenager (“Go back to your country on the elephant you came on,” she recalls), which became so bad that she ended up moving back to India.

“Bullying is an abuse of power,” she says, when I ask her about this upsetting time. “And racism is just basic stupidity. It’s medieval, almost... it’s crazy to me.”

And if she could have a conversation with those school bullies now? “In my 20s, I would have probably been like ‘look how far I’ve come, b----’,” she laughs. “But now, in my 30s, a more mature person, I would probably be like ‘let’s sit down for a cup of coffee’... Now I would get beneath the surface.”

Not long after returning home, she won Miss India and then Miss World, abandoning her engineering studies to push at the doors it opened. Film roles followed – one of which led a then barely out of her teens Chopra Jonas to walk off set after overhearing the director say: “I should be able to see her panties, otherwise who’s going to come and watch the movie?” It was just degrading, she says, “that I was reduced to that – it made me feel bad about who I was”.

Her parents, she reflects, were always there to pick her up. I can see that closeness in the tattoo on her right hand, which reads “Daddy’s lil girl” in her father’s handwriting, inked after his cancer diagnosis. He died in 2013 and, in Unfinished, she admits to subsequently falling into a slump for almost two years.

She refused therapy but found it impossible to shake off her grief, going through “most of my days and nights as a zombie”. Her childhood asthma worsened, she was constantly ill and unable to sleep – yet she won’t categorise what she went through as clinical depression, instead describing it as a “pause in my life”. Eventually, she began making an effort to see friends again and encountered Jonas soon after, when he messaged her on Twitter saying “I’ve been hearing from a few people that we should meet”. She replied with her mobile number.

At the same time, Chopra Jonas moved to Hollywood – and became a nobody, arriving at industry soirées to find all the A-listers on one side of the room and the unknowns, herself included, consigned to the other. She would not let imposter syndrome win, though, and got her break in 2015, starring as an FBI agent in thriller Quantico – the first South Asian actress to lead an American series. Supporting film roles followed: A Kid Like Jake, opposite Claire Danes, and Isn’t It Romantic with Rebel Wilson, but it was The White Tiger – adapted from the novel by Aravind Adiga – which won over the critics earlier this year.

“I never expected to rest on my laurels,” she says in the wake of its success. “Just because I have had a hit film doesn’t mean I should expect that next movie, and that the next movie will be loved by everyone.” And a “lot of breaking down doors” is still required, because “I don’t think it’s in people’s consciousness to see a brown person being the lead of a mainstream TV show or a movie.” After years of hard graft, “I’m just about starting to do the kind of work that I was looking for when I came to America all those years ago.”

Priyanka Chopra Jonas and husband Nick - Invision/AP
Priyanka Chopra Jonas and husband Nick - Invision/AP

In April Chopra Jonas and her husband launched an online fundraiser for the Covid effort in India, raising more than £1m to date. Chopra Jonas is also a UN Goodwill Ambassador for girl’s education, a role which chimes with the interests of her friend Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. The pair met at a 2016 dinner where they discovered their shared passion to “change the narrative”. Chopra Jonas was a guest at the royal wedding in 2018, and Harry and Meghan were invited to her nuptials – which took place over three days in a Jodhpur palace and counted Indian prime minister Narendra Modi among the guests – but which they didn’t attend reportedly as Meghan was pregnant.

For now, Chopra Jonas remains on the other side of the Atlantic to her friend, as filming for romantic drama Text For You, with Russell Tovey, and thriller series Citadel alongside Richard Madden will keep her in Britain for most of the year. She is also dabbling in more production, having signed a multi-million dollar Amazon deal last year and as the head of her own production company, Purple Pebble Pictures, in India. And, of course, there will be more publicity for her book.

Having put so much of herself out there, is there anything she doesn’t want the world to know?

“There’s a lot I keep to myself. People who have known me and my trajectory so far, may think that they know me, but [they] don’t. And I will always protect that side of me,” she says.

“I’m not for public consumption, just because my job is public. But it’s the part and parcel of making the deal with the devil, I guess.”

Unfinished by Priyanka Chopra Jonas (RRP £20). Buy now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514

Listen to Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s full interview for free on Claire Cohen’s Imposters podcast using the player at the top of this article, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app