Like all Bollywood stars, Priyanka Chopra Jonas is a triple threat — she can act, she can dance, she can sing. But in her case, that suite of skills barely begins to cover all that she embraces with her mad work drive and love of competition.
“You’re not just a triple threat, you’re a quintuple threat,” Tina Brown exclaimed, as the two engaged in a lively conversation onstage at the 10th annual Women in the World summit in New York.
Chopra Jonas made a very successful crossover from Bollywood to Hollywood in 2015, when she earned the lead role of Alex Parrish in the television series Quantico — becoming the first South Asian woman to headline an American network series. “I think there is a little problem when it comes to the casting of South Asians in Hollywood, a little problem,” Chopra Jonas sarcastically told Brown. In fact, she says, she decided on arriving in the U.S. that she would need to play ethnically ambiguous parts to get ahead in mainstream pop culture.
Chopra Jonas opened up to the Women in the World Founder and CEO on Thursday on a broad range of topics — from the #MeToo movement to the merit of beauty pageants, why her marriage works, and all the projects that she plans to apply her apparently supranatural energy to in the coming year.
And for a woman with avid social media followers in the tens of millions, fixed on her every move, Chopra Jonas was still full of surprises. Challenged by Brown on how her empowered upbringing in a “matriarchal family” dovetails with her history as a Miss India and Miss World contestant, Chopra Jonas didn’t falter. “Feminism is all about choices, right? And every individual woman — individual choice.”
Chopra Jonas was 17 when she entered Miss India, despite never having modeled. “I was extremely awkward, but I like winning,” she said, laughing. “It is my greatest friend and greatest joy.”
“I think that the pageant world has a very bad reputation in the U.S., whereas In India, the pageant world is very cohesive to the entire personality of a woman: What you look like, how you speak, especially how much you know — there was a lot of attention that was placed on the substance, even for Miss World.”
She thinks of it as one of the greatest experiences of her life, she says. “It prepared me to sit in front of a thousand people like this, and not be afraid. It prepared me to have conversations with dignitaries and heads of state, and kids in a school. At 17, it set a foundation that made me extremely worldly-wise.”
No degree of acquired composure, however, could keep her safe from harassment, which she laments had until recently really become normalized everywhere, excused with a “boys will be boys” mentality. The difference the #MeToo movement has made, she says, is the strength in numbers that women are newly enjoying. “We always had a voice,” she says. “Just nobody heard us. Now because of the support we’re giving each other, nobody can shut us down. And that’s an incredibly powerful thing to see.
“Now if I have a story I don’t feel I’m alone anymore — and I’m not ashamed of it.”
Chopra Jonas’s drive and success has led to a bevy of other opportunities, including producing regional movies in India. “Each state has its own localized culture, and every culture has storytellers,” she explained. She’s also helping to bring the Bumble app to India, is writing a book, producing films in India and the U.S., and developing and writing for television. “I really believe ideas are the currency of the present,” she says. “Allow your brain to have ideas, and think about how you can make them real.”
Not that she is a planner. Oh, no. “Opportunity strikes when you don’t expect it,” she reasons. “The smarter thing is to recognize opportunity than to work so hard trying to create it.”
It’s this aspect of her character that she suspects makes her new marriage to recording artist Nick Jonas so successful. “I call him Old Man Jonas. Thats my name for him — OMJ,” she says, laughing. “He’s such an old soul, extremely smart, extremely good for me because he grounds me so much. I’m a wild child — I do whatever I want, whenever I want. And he always supports me.”
Individually, they have deep engagements in philanthropy, and have talked since getting together about what sort of good work they’ll undertake as a couple. “It’s our favorite phrase,” she says, “that we want to change the world in whatever way we can.”
Her focus to date has been largely on children’s rights and education, as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. “If we don’t give them a pen in their hand, and the world doesn’t care about the children of the future, how vulnerable are they to violence? How vulnerable are they to someone putting a gun in their hand and saying the world didn’t care about you — Why should you care about the world?
“If we target the kids and give them a place where they feel wanted, they have the ability to take their futures into their own hands,” she reasons. “It will really change the mindset of the world, and that is so good.”
Watch the conversation and all the highlights below.
Additional reporting by Karen Compton.