It’s a balmy Mumbai afternoon (probably) as I carpool back from the ELLE shoot with Sunny Leone and her husband, Daniel Weber, to their apartment in the suburbs. I am tense with apparent nonchalance as we chit-chat about what a quiet neighbourhood this is, why their fridge broke down that morning and how long-haul flights (Weber’s just come off a 23-hour one from LA) are the worst. It’s like they’ve never had sex on camera for money.
By the time we pull up to a skyscraper – yellow and impersonally posh – I’m doing my old trick of pretending to be taking notes for my soon-to-be-published memoir so that everything feels a bit less unusual.
Porn star rues her last batch of Panchgani strawberries, which the October heat has claimed, as we ride up the 15 floors to the house where she and hyper-tattooed husband have set up a new, non-porny life.
Enter flat. Bare, with unattractive, expensive-looking furniture, lots of natural light, great view of the sea. Subtext: Set-like, of the small-budget variety.
Waiting alone in the living room. Porn star and husband in the kitchen, behind closed door. Are they...? No, they are not, you paranoid prude.
Leone comes out just as I’m putting my constantly buzzing cell phone (“What is she doing now?” “What is she wearing?” “Send me a picture, if you value our friendship”) on silent. She’s brought me a big mug of her favourite Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, which Weber has carted here from LA along with a Make Up For Ever consignment and large-sized garbage bags. “Most husbands are instructed to buy gold and diamonds. I have it easy,” he quips. Weber, also his wife’s manager, sits himself down at the dining table on the far side of the room, industriously not listening in.
I’m worried, and just slightly hopeful, that she’s only going to want to talk about her Bollywood career – which is coming along quite well, actually. Kaizad Gustad’s Goa thriller, Jackpot, in which she plays a devious femme fatale, releases this month. She’s shooting for Tina and Lolo, a girl-power action caper, and will soon go on a promotional tour for the long-pending horror film, Ragini MMS 2.
In the middle of it all, reports of Leone’s inconvenient new ‘no exposure’ clause have been doing the rounds in the papers. “They’re 100 per cent bullsh*t,” she says. Practically fantasy fiction, I realise, the more we speak. This unexpectedly short, jumpsuit-clad business powerhouse with the strikingly mannish gait would never pretend her past didn’t happen – no, that would be passing up her ace. “I’m under no illusions about what my selling point is, so there is no question of embarrassment or regret,” she says. “I can’t change my past or erase the internet. I don’t want to. India wouldn’t know who I am if it wasn’t for what I used to do.”
As anxious as she is to now be the kind of entertainer who can be discussed freely at family dinners, she knows that a story about a wholesome, hardworking Bollywood star just won’t cut it. So she doesn’t even bother taking offence when I keep circling back to her American career and the beginning of Sunny Leone.
Karenjit Kaur Vohra, an Orange County tomboy more likely to be found playing street hockey than buying nail polish, had always been an entrepreneur. “I was the kid who set up the lemonade stand in summer, sold cookies and rounded up my brother and the other kids to shovel snow from the neighbourhood driveways for a dollar each,” Leone remembers. The daughter of conservative Sikh Punjabi immigrants to Canada and later America, her weekends were for visits to the gurudwara in traditional Indian clothes; her hemlines during the rest of the week were not to rise above her knee, and she always set the table. But the Vohras always knew there was something immutable about their daughter – that as she grew older, the odd salwar kameez would be just about all the influence they’d have if she set her mind to something.
So when she decided she wanted to be a paediatric nurse, they didn’t object. They couldn’t have guessed the change of heart she was about to have.
Leone was introduced to an adult film agent by a classmate. He offered to pay her a ridiculous (ridiculous to an 18-year-old trainee nurse, that is) sum of money to star in “one of those late-night type movies, nothing too... you know?” She ended up making more money in one week of filming than she had in the entire year. “I don’t know about you, but the dollar signs went off in my head,” she laughs.
There is no sordid tale of coercion, drugs or exploitation to be had here, Leone assures – she wasn’t part of the Future Business Leaders of America club in high school for nothing (“I was a complete dork”). Once she had decided to quit school and go the whole hog, she quickly set about building brand Sunny Leone. “How to turn a quarter into a dollar, that’s what I’m good at,” she says. She started online marketing for her softcore offerings and prepared to run a high-traffic website by attending business seminars, working on HTML and learning how to edit photos and make videos. And like any smart entrepreneur, she identified her audience’s needs and customised her services accordingly: “There’s a huge viewership in the adult industry that will watch only to, well, get off on it. Couples and women, they tend to like a little romance and a story they can follow.”
When she finally told her parents (both of whom passed away, in the last five years, of critical illnesses) about her work – “I wanted to let them know first, before that phone call: ‘Do you know what your daughter is doing?’” – they knew resistance would be futile. And they saw that she was successful. “My mom was upset, but she got over it. My dad said, ‘You’re going to do this anyway, you obviously didn’t feel the need to consult us. But be safe and be the best at it.’” She breaks off to add, “They were good parents, really good parents.”
The extended family weren’t quite as supportive, and stopped talking to her. She hadn’t heard from most of them for 13 years, until her U-rated Bollywood career surfaced three years ago. It hurt, she admits, “It was so strange, I just didn’t get why people would act like this.” She’s not playing at weepy ingénue, I don’t think. The moral code she lives by is just that simple, almost childlike: “Don’t hurt anybody, don’t steal, be a good person.” That her relatives, or anybody really, should object to what she chooses to do with her own body genuinely threw her. And she hadn’t even got to hard-core porn yet.
She was chaperoned into it by American adult entertainment juggernaut Vivid Entertainment at 25. By this time, Leone, who’d had four years to sharpen those business chops, along with a large and loyal fanbase, was able to wrangle some uncommon allowances: She would only do lesbian films for the first four years and would star exclusively with her then-fiancé (they later broke up) when she did hetero films. At 27, she started her own production company, SunLust Pictures, with Weber, whom she had met a year earlier through a common friend. She’d fallen in love with him after some relentless pursuing on his part: “No matter where I was, roses would show up for me. It was so sweet.” She began writing, directing and starring in her own adult films, a number of them featuring sex with Weber.
Karenjit Kaur Vohra had made a success of herself. She had built a flourishing business from scratch, she was now one of North America’s biggest adult stars – heck, she’d even found true love. And she couldn’t tell anybody about it. “In America, it was never okay to talk about Sunny Leone. It was never okay to talk about who I was – you tell your friends and they’re like ‘Ugh, you’re disgusting,’” she says, smiling brightly, brittle.
But that was before Bigg Boss came along and changed her life. For the fifth season, the show’s producers got in touch with Leone (after painstaking research, one imagines) – they wanted to raise the stakes and crank up the shock value. Who better than a Sikh-Punjabi porn actor to send the nation into a righteous frenzy? “I was terrified, porn isn’t even legal in India. I thought I’d be lynched,” she says. There was news of a bomb threat the day Leone was to fly in, her effigies were reliably burnt in the streets, she was even blamed for causing rape.
And then an inexplicable thing happened. In a nation known for its relentless moral policing, where sex is treated as something that happens to other people, she was accepted into the fold. We got over ourselves, realised she was a nice enough girl who thought nothing of taking a mop to the floor and was not totally crazy (a feat when you’re a Bigg Boss contestant). Even the incorrigible chief of India’s Press Council, Justice Markandey Katju of “90 per cent of Indians are idiots” fame, batted for Leone, helpfully reminding us that even Jesus and Buddha had accepted ‘fallen women’ who turned their lives around.
India, of all places, had been able to separate the girl from the porn star. “The day after I left the Bigg Boss house, I was at a restaurant and this man came up to me and asked if his teenage daughter could take a picture with me. Then the mom came, and the aunties and grandma, and it’s now this family portrait. It was the weirdest feeling ever and I’m thinking, ‘This is so wrong, but thank you!’” she grins.
A porn star and a nationwide sensation? Mahesh Bhatt couldn’t be far. Even before she was through with her final goodbyes on the show, she had a movie offer to play – what else – a porn star for the erotic thriller Jism 2 . Another crossroads: Keep making sex movies in America you can’t talk about for good sums of money, or make sexualised movies that everyone can talk about for great sums of money. Doesn’t take a business shark to figure it out (and Leone even is one). She gave up acting in pornography two years ago and has largely handed over the reins of SunLust Pictures to Weber. Besides, to the girl who grew up on a steady diet of Hindi films, thanks to her Bollywood-loving parents, it had always been about the plot. “I always liked the story part,” she says, almost shyly. Her only focus now is building a career in mainstream entertainment, and she’s already speaking better Hindi than me. “I’m really thankful that people want to hire me in movies here. This would not be possible anywhere else. It’s surreal for me at times,” she says.
It’s got to be frustrating that the very thing that sets you free holds you captive. “The sexy-sexy thing can get tiring,” she admits. “Sometimes I think, enough already. Just Google me, it’s all there. Then come back and watch me act.” Apart from Jism 2’s Izna, Jackpot has her play a hyper-sexualised conwoman, the teaser for Ragini MMS 2 tells us to ‘grab a bite of Sunny’ and Tina and Lolo stills have a distinct Barb Wire flavour. “It takes time to change how people see you, how they want to see you.” She says she has a dedicated base of hate-watchers and undecideds too, and she’s fine with that, so long as they’re watching.
And this is what I decide is my favourite thing about Sunny Leone: She’s a balls-to-the-wall feminist without even having to think about it. She’s unselfconscious about her relentless ambition, possesses her sexuality with a nimble confidence and has skin like a peaches-and-pink rhino. Besides, compulsive offence-taking is not good for business, while working your butt off is. “One by one,” she says, “I’ll change everybody’s mind.”
Photographs: Joy Datta; Styling: Daniel Franklin; Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar; Make-up: Shailesh Kadam; Hair: Rajni Rajpakshe
This interview appeared in the December 2013 edition of ELLE India