I had the opportunity of sitting and chatting at length with the phenomenon known as Sunny Leone during a recent trip to the U.S., where she walked as the first Bollywood actress at New York Fashion Week for ace couturier Archana Kochhar. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt with very little makeup, she was a far cry from the Bollywood siren we all know and love (or hate depending on who you ask), when we met for our interview, and for me, a breath of fresh air to see the woman behind India’s most provocative brand.
In part one of this two-part series on the Canadian-born Sikh girl who rose to being India’s most Googled celebrity, I structured my questions in the hopes that she would direct the flow of the conversation so I could tap into the mindset of one of the most progressive South Asian women of our time. THAT’s the story I wanted to tell and THAT’s the story she told!
Read on . . .
Sunny, my interview with you today will be about living your truth to success. I think that you’re a really empowered woman and I sincerely believe in what you’ve accomplished because you’ve done it your way. THAT’s the story I want to talk about. Everything else about you, people can continue to Google, as I don’t have an interest in regurgitating or have you explain yourself as if you’ve done something wrong.
It’s not that interesting anymore Raj (laughs).
To enquiring minds, it is and will remain to be but that’s because they themselves cannot comprehend the decisions you’ve made in your life due to their subjective perspectives of life.
So let’s begin. The greatest achievement in life from my perspective and what I’ve learned along the way, both in my own experiences and also as an observer of others, is that living your truth, no matter what that is, is the greatest accomplishment one can manifest. The heroes of this world that we look up to are usually those who have forged a path rather than walked one already cemented. People like Guru Nanak or Gandhi; even Ravan or Hitler, if we are completely honest with ourselves, lived their truth, whether we agree with what that was or not.
That’s an interesting way of looking at it Raj!
One worth pondering too. So with that in mind, I want to tell you that I feel that that’s the fundamental reason why you’re iconized today. You’re one of those people, I feel, that have challenged the historical ideology and definition of what it means to be an Indian woman today.
So as to preface our conversation, to me, living your truth is about being empowered and being empowered is the ultimate journey of life. An integral part of that is to talk about identity versus being identified with/of. I want to talk about your thought on your identity, as we all already know the mixed bag of thoughts people have about you.
To figure that out, I want to walk with you through your life from the very beginning.
Who were you as a child when you were growing up in Sarnia. Who was that girl?
I was really shy. I was a shy little Indian girl. I played a lot of sports because that’s what kids did in the city that I lived in. My brother and I were the only Indian kids in this school. The rest were predominantly white and there might have been a couple other races and cultures in there but that was about it. Also, we went to Gurdwara every Sunday and sometimes even Saturday. My mother made us do kirtan.
Yes! With this aunty that we had to practice with during the week. (Laughs).
And how was it?
It was horrible.
It was horrible because all the other kids were outside playing and we were stuck inside.
I see, I can understand that. And home life in general?
Well, my father was an engineer and he owned a steel factory. Sarnia had a really small Indian community and I don’t think I was liked because I wasn’t like the other kids.
I used to play street hockey with the guys and I’d build forts instead of building castles with Barbie dolls (laughs). I would jump off my couch while watching wrestling and beat up my brother. Maybe all kids are like that, but as far as you know, I wasn’t like other girls. (Pause). My parents really tried to create the balance between being western and also carrying our culture, traditions and religion through our childhood.
Do you feel that you were more western, more Indian, or an amalgamation of both?
I do believe it’s a mix of both. When you’re younger and living in a society where there’s no Diwali and there’s no Holi — THERE’S NO HOLI! (laughs) — you grow up more western than Indian because your culture is living with all the white kids on the street.
So you identified more as a white kid then?
Yeah. I wasn’t very cool. I wasn’t one of the cool kids like a cheerleader or anything.
The hyper-successful people in this world tend not to be those who peak early.
I’m not exactly sure, but that’s what I’ve heard as well. I was like the kid wearing the bright, pink, fluffy jacket that I think my parents thought was funny to dress me up in (laughs). I was the only kid walking through the winter time in Sarnia, Ontario, where there’s nothing but white and all the kids are like playing in their cool jackets and I come walking in with this big, fluffy pink jacket. It was so embarrassing. I probably have a picture of it somewhere.
Sounds hilarious! (Laughs).
Yeah, I think it was hilarious for my parents. (Laughs).
I’m guessing that’s probably why you have a great sense of humor adopted from your parents in order to get you through the ups and downs of life. I’ve noticed watching some of your interviews that there’s a lot of things you just don’t take as seriously as a lot of other people would. It’s like you seem to just brush it off rather than taking it in. Am I correct?
Yes. With a lot of sarcasm (laughs).
I think it’s important in life and healthy to counteract a challenge with humour.
Well, it’s my defense mechanism.
Of course, as it is many of ours. I want to touch upon the Mostly Sunny documentary that was done on you by Dilip Mehta.
You watched it?
Yeah, the whole thing.
I watched the one that’s going to go into theatrical release. I was given the screener to prepare for my interview with Dilip.
I haven’t seen that one.
Well, the story was beautifully told about you. It showed your strengths, your vulnerabilities, your star power, and it also showed you as the girl next door. I discovered in it that you went to California when you were a teenager with your parents when they emigrated. That must have been a tough transition for you at that coming of age time of life we all typically struggle with. Tell me about that.
Yeah, I was so mad at my parents. I cried for ages. As soon as they said that we’re moving it was waterworks.
I was devastated, thinking that this is just the worst thing that could happen to me in my life. I mean, everything at thirteen or fourteen years old is that dramatic isn’t it? (Laughs).
Of course it is.
I wasn’t happy about moving and making new friends and in California, people are not that nice. They’re not as friendly as they were in Sarnia.
What were some of your challenges?
Starting my second year of high school in California was disturbing for me. I didn’t make friends and my cousin who was going to the same school wasn’t very nice either. She just left me and I thought, “Okay, maybe for a couple of days she might sit with me for lunch or something.” I don’t know but maybe for her I had unrealistic expectations, but for me, it was just family; you know, like expectations. (Pause). Like, you’re my cousin and even though we’ve not spent that much time together, I would do that for her, let’s just say that. So she left me.
How traumatic. New country, new school, no friends AND being a teenager. So what did you do that first week?
The first week I spent in the bathroom eating my lunch. I was too scared and really, really shy. I’d go in the bathroom. It was really sad, and I’d sit in there and eat my lunch. Then I’d wait there until lunch was over. Lunch was the worst thing ever.
I get it. I had a similar experience when my father uprooted us from England to Wales. There were no South Asians, I was a teenager, extremely shy and throughout the rest of my high school days I only had one friend but she was hardly in school so I spent much of my time walking around by myself pretending to be busy to avert attention.
Yes! (Pause) Did it get easier?
I spent the first week in the washroom and then by the end of the week, I met a friend and it grew from there. Eventually, there’s got to be some progress right?
Well sometimes, it’s easier said than done. So the rest of high school?
Throughout the whole school year, it wasn’t a fun experience at all. We moved from Sarnia first to Michigan. We lived in a corner of the city. By lunch time, I had met everybody. I had a group of friends and they were so cool. But then, California was the complete opposite. Their schools had cliques and they’re not as nice, and just a bunch of stuck up bougie kids in Orange County.
Like what they show in the TV show?
Exactly like what you see it on TV is exactly how it is. They’re THAT mean.
Interesting! Did you learn anything from this experience?
It wasn’t a fun experience, but what I learned from it was how to function on my own, how to be independent on my own, how to separate myself from my surroundings and be able to function. I think that’s why I was able to pick up and move to India without a problem. You know, I’ve done a few different moves like that a few times throughout my life.
Give me an example?
Sure! I’ve said, “Okay mom, dad, I’m going to go move to Seattle”, and they’re like, “What, Seattle?”
Really? (Laughs). Why?
Yeah! I went there for a year.
And what did you do there?
There was this online company that was there and I’d been going to so many different webmaster conventions on filming and websites, and I taught myself how to build a TGP website, how to build an affiliate program, how to build websites, and edit photos and videos.
So specifically why Seattle?
I had this moment where an ex-boyfriend was calling my name. He was calling me by my real name, Karen. I was so used to my professional name, Sunny that I didn’t hear him. It was a moment that I’ll never forget because it was like I forgot my real name. I realized that there’s something wrong here so that’s the point where I had this moment of clarity where I needed to change something. I said, “Okay I’ll just stop working for a little while and go to Seattle, work for this company, run my website, and rediscover who I am because for some reason, at 21/22, I forgot my real name.
Wow! So at this young age, you understood that there needed to be a separation between who you are as a brand versus who you are as a woman.
Yes! There HAD to be a separation. (Pause). You know Raj, somewhere between the ages of 19, 20, 21, I was so busy working and going to this and that appearance that I was like, “Whoa!” It all picked up in a year and I won so much money for me at that time.
It’s still a big deal now what you made then.
Yeah it’s like, hey I just won the lottery! I mean that’s how I felt.
So that’s why I moved to Seattle.
So you moved to Seattle after entering the adult entertainment business, I had no idea about that.
Yeah, a lot of people don’t. I just went there for a year.
So just to kind of re-group and figure out who you need to identify with — Karen or Sunny.
Yes and it was very difficult.
So what was life like during that year?
I was going to school, working for this company and volunteering at the hospital there. I volunteered in the pediatric unit while I was there. I had my own place too, walking distance from Pike Place Market.
And I met a couple of people who I’m still friends with now. I would go out, meet people, get wasted, you know?
You lived life. You were a girl.
Yeah, it was my year. It was the year that I finally enjoyed myself and I was single and it was fun. So that was a really important time as an adult for me, because I loved it there and I won’t forget those moments.
We don’t forget those moments that help us remember who we need to be, right?
Your adult entertainment career is something that I’m not going to regurgitate, as it’s been written about a million times and I don’t have a different question to ask you that hasn’t been asked and answered already. So I want to ask you what I feel hasn’t really been fully explored.
When did you decide that you needed to break away from the adult entertainment business because I feel that was a strategic move on your part considering that you forayed into producing adult films towards the latter part of your career, rather than starring in them?
I asked myself, “What’s your exit strategy Sunny?” So many years had passed by being in that world and when I signed with vivid, I just thought, “Well okay, let’s just take this step by step and see how it goes.” And then I watched how the company grew. I’m still very close to them as my best friend works there. She is Steven Hersh’s sister. Her and I are very, very close. I don’t think I could live without her. So we became really, really good friends and there was a mutual respect because I see myself as a professional where a lot of girls can’t.
Why do you think that is?
I think that’s in any entertainment industry or maybe any job.
Well, there’s those who don’t take it seriously, that mess around, that you know don’t know where they’re going or what they’re doing and I saw a lot of girls like this. They didn’t know what they were doing or didn’t read contracts or would make really silly, stupid decisions, or would get caught up in a group of people and they would party and do all these things where I was like, “No, that’s definitely not the route that I want to go.”
How were you different?
I like being secluded. I like being on my own and not being a part of a group and doing my own thing. I can only count on myself. I can only do things myself. You can count on yourself to be on time or do your job, so a couple of years after I signed with Vivid, I thought that about strategy. I thought producing films is definitely a route I would want to go.
I thought, “You can’t do this forever Sunny, this is insane!” Who thinks they can do it forever? It’s crazy.
That’s because you’re a business woman and perhaps because you’re a Taurus where you think logically about your next step.
Yeah! I just thought that this is my body and it’s not possible to do this forever or even long term for that matter. I don’t care what people say. If you’re on camera working with other people, it takes a piece of you every single time; it has to. Or maybe I’m just too sensitive. I might be completely wrong, but that’s how I see it.
So what was the mind shift for you then?
I didn’t think that this was my end point. I felt that there’s other things to do.
Why this particular business after having been talent all these year? Why not move on completely to new horizons?
I knew everything about the industry. I knew the ins and the outs, how it works, how it functions, so why would I go start a business I knew nothing about?
Understood and very logical.
Makes no sense right?
Right! What kind of success did you have on that side of the business?
I reached every height that I could have. I achieved everything that any person that would want to achieve something could in that business.
You attained nirvana?
Yes! I achieved it! It was like hitting the ceiling. There’s nowhere to go after you get there. I signed with the biggest adult entertainment company, I was Penthouse Pet of the Year in 2003, I had a successful production house, I’d won awards, and my website was doing great!
You were successful!
I was successful, yes! I mean, there was nowhere for me to go or left to do.
So you moved on?
Staying would have meant that I would have been going around in a circle and that makes no sense to me anyways.
So do you feel that when Big Boss and India came calling that it came in divine timing?
Yes, I do. But I didn’t accept it in the beginning. I said “No!”
So what changed?
I did a lot of research.
I see. You planned the move strategically!
Absolutely everything is planned and thought out. (Pause). You know Raj, there’s certain situations or opportunities that you don’t know where they are going to lead, but if you think about the pros and the cons and weigh it all out and it makes sense, then why not go for it?
Stay tuned for part two of this two-part Open Chest Power Series, where I delve into the behind-the-scenes making of Canada’s most sought after import to Indian pop culture!
Feature Photo Credit – Holly Randall