Sunny Leone excitedly takes her phone out to show me a recent video of her daughter, Nisha. “This is the first time I’ve dressed her in a fairy costume. She’s so adorable,” she says, as we watch Nisha in a pink dress with wings on her back, a wand in her little hand, as she runs around the house. Motherhood, as Leone’s husband, Daniel Weber, describes it, is just “Sunny, Version 3.0”. “She’s just the girl next door, but she’s also a cultural phenomenon and now she’s a mom, too,” he says, as we watch Leone fielding questions from journalists all afternoon in their office in Juhu.
From the time she first burst on to the Indian scene in Bigg Boss in 2011, Sunny Leone remains a contentious name. Last year, she was one of BBC’s 100 Women, joining the likes of musician Alicia Keys, Olympian Simone Biles, and British novelist Jeanette Winterson, among others. The fresh-faced 36-year-old we meet feels like a far cry from the buxom femme fatale known for her item numbers on the screen. So who is Sunny Leone really? Is she the sassy host of MTV’s Splitsvilla, offering bits of advice to sobbing contestants? Or the woman frequently accused of tarnishing Indian culture, but who continues to be the most Googled personality in India for the third year in a row? How about the protagonist of Dileep Mehta’s documentary, Mostly Sunny, that charted how Karenjit Kaur Vohra became a smart, intrepid entrepreneur, who created her own brand in Los Angeles’s adult entertainment industry by the time she was 28 years old?
The thousands of people who swarm around her whenever she makes a public appearance in India don’t care about such things. They want to see the woman who is in complete charge of her body, who can sell a fantasy faster than you can dream it; who doesn’t threaten to subvert any notions of a woman’s place in a man’s world. But Leone is a rebel girl in her own right. “I don’t like the word ‘feminist’ or ‘feminism’, because I think we should just be good people. But I guess I am one, and I believe each woman should make her own decisions for her own life, and do what she needs to do for her future, as long as she’s not doing anything hurtful or illegal,” says Leone during the interview.
After five years in Bollywood, with a mixed bag of hits and misses, one thing is certain, Leone is here to stay. Will motherhood slow things down? Unlikely, as she’s got a slew of projects lined up in Bollywood, in Telugu films, and will soon make her Marathi film debut, with an item number. In a candid interview, Leone talks about her journey in India’s entertainment industry, motherhood, and how Karenjit and Sunny are two sides of the same coin. Excerpts:
Let’s talk about that photo from Kochi.
Oh my god, I didn’t know that’s what it looked like! Sitting inside my car, I couldn’t see how deep the crowds were, or how many rows of people were there. It took us a little while to get to the venue and I was just thinking, ‘Oh this is awesome, there’s lots of people here.’ Later that day, when we were heading back, I saw that photo and realised that it was my car. I was shocked.
I remember I got up on the stage, which was really small compared to how many people there were. And it wasn’t just men, but women and kids.
In those situations, you don’t know what to do — do you cry because it is so overwhelming to see that many people so happy to see you? I don’t know anybody who is mentally prepared to see lakhs and lakhs of people show up for them — maybe Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan or Amitabh Bachchan’s teams. But not me. I fought back tears and I just smiled, waved and told them I love them.
What I have noticed about south India from my travels there is that they are excited to see me and they’re going crazy, too, but not in a negative, violent way. They are respectful of your space.
You’ve worked in the south — done songs in Telugu films. What’s been your experience working there vis-à-vis Bollywood?
The work ethic is different there. When it’s a break, it’s a break. You show up at 9 am, and they’ll leave you exactly at 9 pm, even if it isn’t all done. It’s professional in a different way. Bollywood is a dog-eat-dog world. You have to be on top of things because somebody right behind you is going to come and take your job.
You’re on the big screen, almost every time before a movie, with the Manforce advertisements, between the ‘Tobacco will kill you’ ads and Swachh Bharat ones. How do you feel when you watch yourself on the big screen?
Haha, and then you have to stand up for the national anthem! I always find that bit funny. But I haven’t been to the movies here in a long time.
What does a project have to have for you to say yes?
It’s everything from the production house to the director. Obviously, the story matters. You don’t know what’s going to work at the box office. So, it has to be something personal that the director and producer will go about executing exactly the way they say they are going to. The most difficult thing in Bollywood is that you meet people and they sell you the moon, the stars and the sun, and when you start shooting, you’re disappointed.
My last few films didn’t do so great. I’ve had to evaluate things, recently, and ask myself, “What are my weaknesses?” I have to make sure that production houses are okay to hold workshops for a few weeks, minimum, before a project begins. I don’t consider myself the best actress, but at least we can try and do better. I don’t like language to be an issue on set, so I put in my time. The only thing that bothers me on a set is disorganisation.
Do you feel you have been treated unfairly by the industry?
I don’t think so. There have been occasions when things were not pleasant but I have to be gracious because that’s all I’ve got in my court. There have been times when people have been strange about money and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe they really need it for their family, or something important’, and let it go. I think it’s all about picking and choosing my battles. I have to sit down and think, ‘Is this going to affect my life?’ Of course, it affects how I feel about somebody, but it’s not going to make or break me.
Let’s talk about your daughter. The news of the adoption came out of the blue (She adopted in July this year).
Yes, it was very sudden. But I knew I wanted to adopt a child since the time I was very young. I think that the hardest thing about adopting a child is finding the right partner who will take that journey with you.
We had donated to St Catherine’s here in Mumbai and gone and visited the girls. They take in a lot of children who have been trafficked or born of mothers who were trafficked, or are HIV positive; they give them an education and teach them skills. So, one of the times we went, I thought, why can’t we just adopt a little girl? Daniel and I had conversations about adoption before, in passing, but it wasn’t a serious conversation till we were leaving the home and we’d seen these babies.
Take me through the months preceding adoption.
We started the process almost two years ago. In the beginning, we were informed that we were going to be sent three pictures of babies and we’d decide which one we’d like to meet. But the rules changed and we received one photo. And then, it just happens in a second. You look at the picture and think, ‘Oh, hopefully this is going to be my baby.’ I flew to Latur, where they also have an orphanage, to meet her and she was just adorable. She’s such a ham, so playful.
How old is she now? What’s your parenting style?
She’s 22 months. We’re really hands on, Daniel and I. You know how it is in the US, you cook your own food, do your own laundry, maintain your own house. We have help, but that’s how we live in India, too.
We’re the first people she sees in the morning and the last people she sees before she goes to bed at night. We change her diapers, sit and watch TV together, play games. Daniel takes her to the park multiple times a day. She understands Marathi and Hindi, and we’re teaching her English now. She knows 20 words, and every time she says a new word, I write it down. She knows ‘apple’, ‘bubble’ and ‘banana’, ‘hello, goodbye’, ‘1-2-3’. Daniel and I follow a very American style of raising our daughter, where we promote independence — she has her own room, her own space and she loves that.
Going back to you now. Many people don’t know that your real name is Karenjit Kaur Vohra. Are Karenjit and Sunny two distinct people? When are you Karenjit and when are you Sunny?
I’m Karen when I’m at home, or even here, in this interview, where I don’t have to be loud or overtly anything. I’m really quiet. I don’t watch a lot of TV; I read, I paint, I do crafts and I enjoy my time.
It’s not like I apply make-up and turn into Sunny, that would be a bit schizophrenic. But there are no distinct lines, or a switch. It’s when I have to perform and play pretend. There’s a camera in front of me, so then I’ll be a bit louder.
There was a time, so long ago, when I had been ‘Sunny’ for so long, that nobody had called me Karen or Karenjit, barring my parents, in ages. But there was a moment when somebody said ‘Karen’ to me three times, and I didn’t hear them. That was a moment of reckoning for me; it was a wake-up call. I was maybe 23 or 24, and I had to decide who I wanted to be.
There were some rather unkind comments when you adopted your daughter about how a former adult star would raise a child and such. Did you know about those comments?
I didn’t see those comments at the time because I was busy doing what any mother does — taking care of her child. I don’t think that it would affect me in any way, because they’re not living in my house or my head. They don’t know of my intentions in my life, or towards my daughter. If anything, they should be happy that a child was going into a loving and safe home, and maybe we should take care of millions of other kids who are looking for a home. I’ll say this again, I am no one.
Do you think people don’t see you as a person, just this persona? And which battles are you willing to fight?
That’s what you get when you get into the entertainment industry. I’ll fight the serious battles — legal stuff, if somebody comes after me with something that is absurd, then I don’t have a choice, I have to speak up. I’m not going to attack another person, but if somebody is coming after me because they’re insecure or crazy, I just want to say, ‘Shouldn’t you worry about real problems?’ Anything but me! I am nobody on the scale of life.
How good is your bullshit radar?
I’ve been in the industry properly now for five years. Usually, I can tell in a meeting if a person is being serious or not. But I want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. In order for me to work with anybody, I have to believe that they are sincere and they want to make an amazing product. There have been a few times where I’ve had negative feelings, but when so many people disappoint you, you get to a point where you think everybody is going to do it. But you have to reset, to be able to work.
A lot of the work you get in Bollywood is song sequences. What script would you want to be written for you?
If I were a writer, I’d tell you what to do. But I’m not, and I love that a story and a character comes from somebody else’s mind. Here’s the thing, I love everything I do — the films, the songs, the commercials, the appearances — the entire circle. I love that I can sit and strategise something. I would be bored just doing films, I want to do more things. For example, we have a cosmetics line coming up this year, called Starstruck, and a perfume line. It’s all vegan.
Are you comfortable talking about Mostly Sunny, the Dileep Mehta documentary that is out on Netflix?
I don’t like the way it was handled and the way it was released. When I first signed, I was told that adult material wasn’t going to be the focus, but it became the director’s focus. Breach of contract doesn’t actually exist in India; by the time you want to do something, it’s already out, and then it’s not worth your time.
What the filmmakers lost out on was me promoting the documentary. People are loving the documentary and that’s great, I’m happy about that. But what I wanted was something a teenager could have watched; somebody who is on the verge of being independent, and who wants to pursue something she wants, as long as it is not cheating or killing or illegal. While I was in the adult entertainment industry, it was part of my journey, that is not who I am. I didn’t want something that made that industry look so dark and dingy, which it was not. Or make it seem like that was my big, bad secret, which, again, it was not. I didn’t like the interviewing style in some scenes. I wanted the message to be one that told young people, or anybody watching the documentary, that with hard work and a little struggle, you can be anybody you want to be. It’s a disappointment, but what am I going to do? I never even saw a copy of the film before it released. In such a case, the paperwork means absolutely nothing when it’s the director’s call to make the film they want.
How would you have told your story?
I know there’s definitely some curiosity about certain details of my life but I actually don’t know how I would tell my story.