She’s the multi-award winning, multi-talented, actress, producer, singer, and all-round global superstar. But, here, we draw back the curtain to speak candidly about anxiety, vulnerability, and the unstoppable force of change...
She doesn’t know whether it was a bug, something she ate, or anxiety, but one night – when Priyanka Chopra Jonas was just eight years old, having recently started at boarding school – she vomited in her bed. Not wanting to disturb the peace, she lay next to the puddle until, late at night when everyone was asleep, she crept out to wash the sheets. She hung them up to dry, slept on an unmade bed, and then remade her bed with damp sheets early in the morning, before anyone woke up.
It’s a startlingly intimate snapshot of the now globally famous, endlessly glamorous star, and receiver of countless accolades – including Miss World in 2000, a spot on Time magazine’s 2016 list of most influential people, two National Film Awards, two People’s Choice Awards, six IIFA awards, eight Screen Awards, and the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice, to name only a selection – but it’s one of many that she chose to share in her memoir, Unfinished. As we chat over Zoom I wonder, is pulling back the curtain intimidating? Priyanka laughs in response.
“I was bored with what I was reading when I wasn’t open,” she says, candidly. “Eventually, I think it was very healing for me. I’ve been dinner table conversation for the public for a very long time, but then the pandemic happened and I think, like everyone, I was feeling overwhelmed, so when I started writing, it just poured out of me, and I didn’t stop myself.”
Although she still doesn’t know what it was that caused her upset stomach that night when she was eight, anxiety is something that Priyanka does have some experience with.
"If I talk to someone – friends, family, therapists – about what I’m feeling, it takes away the power of the anxiety"
“I think all of us do, don’t we?” She ponders. “We internalise feelings, and that’s what turns into anxiety. But, over time, what I learned is that if I talk to someone – friends, family, therapists – about what I’m feeling, it takes away the power of the anxiety.”
As she reflects on her experiences, Priyanka’s tone is calm, even, and thoughtful.
“I feel it has a lot more control over me when I’m alone – when I choose to incubate or when I choose to deal with what I’m feeling myself, because I’m self-sufficient, self-reliant; I’m strong, I’m tough,” she says playfully, with a blend of irony. “When I do that, it’s my pride that fans the flame of anxiety.
“I’ve realised that I don’t want to be solitary in my sorrow,” Priyanka declares. “Sadness is seductive. It feels like a warm blanket. But that eventually starts eating away at your spirit, and changes who you are. You become a liability to yourself, you can’t get out of your own way. I’ve had anxiety, of course, but now I have the tools in my toolbox to deal with it better than I did as a kid.”
Her main tool is conversation, speaking to people she trusts about the things that are going on inside. But it wasn’t until she reached her 30s that she was able to really articulate what she was going through. As Priyanka talks me through the things she does for self-care (“A couple of hours’ chit-chat, being able to have a laugh, talk about silly things – and do silly things!”), I’m picking up on a vibrant, loving, and supportive social life.
But it hasn’t always been that way. While she gushes about the nurturing backing of her parents, when she was a young teenager, Priyanka moved to America and experienced racially charged bullying while at school – to the point where she had to return to India – and she notes similar experiences as an adult.
Though it was to a lesser extent, Priyanka recognised the patterns when she went back to America to start doing work as an actor.
“I blamed myself for a very long time, and then I reached a point where I realised it wasn’t my fault, and there was nothing that I did or that is wrong with me,” Priyanka says.
A 2014 study by King’s College London found that the mental health effects of childhood bullying are still evident up to 40 years later – but, for Priyanka, this is a point on character. “I think everything really boils down to creating a strong relationship with yourself, and then if someone treats you badly, or you don’t get the job, or you’re having a really shitty day, it doesn’t matter.”
It’s relevant for all of us, but it’s clear to see how resilience is a vital instrument for a woman in Priyanka’s vocation. In her memoir, she recalls a moment, early on in her career, where she met with a producer who instructed her to stand up, spin around, and then listed all the things she would need to change about her body before she was able to become a successful actor – even recommending a surgeon who could make it happen.
It’s a striking, disempowering scene but, when I query how one even begins to build resilience to that kind of encounter, Priyanka is quick to note how this single instance is merely a product of a much bigger problem.
“Women deal with critique of their physical self on an everyday basis – not just by a singular person, but by society. We are constantly told how we could be better. That’s what builds resilience. It’s not one person who has had a tough conversation with you, it’s the narrative that we all live with,” Priyanka explains. “I could have very easily fallen to those insecurities, I just don’t like surgery. I had self-esteem issues, of course I did, but I don’t think you can make one person the villain of it, it’s a larger narrative.”
I float the idea of ‘body neutrality’ with Priyanka – the idea of creating a neutral relationship with your body, moving away from negativity, while acknowledging that ‘self-love’ isn’t achievable all of the time – an approach that feels more forgiving when faced with the forces that Priyanka describes.
“That’s a great way of articulating that, and it’s exactly what I mean,” Priyanka says. “Your body is forever changing, your face forever changes – everyone, men and women alike. We’ve got to wake up in the morning and be like, ‘Well, hi, you’re here!’ And be able to be OK with the changes, because the changes will come.
“Change is the most constant thing in life, and it’s futile to chase consistent happiness, consistent success, or consistent anything, because it’ll always come and go,” she continues. “I feel like confidence is not something you need all the time. Confidence should be your greatest tool. You put it in your backpack, and it comes out when you need it. When you don’t need it, it’s OK to be vulnerable, and it’s OK to feel all the feelings, and it’s OK to be sad and tell yourself that: ‘I don’t need to be confident. I need to strip myself of the burden of being confident, and be vulnerable,’ and allow yourself to grieve, fail, and feel.
“When you walk out of that door after you’ve felt everything, that’s when you pick up your confidence and show the world what you’re going to do.”
Our time is up and, as I click ‘leave meeting’ on our Zoom call, I’m left reflecting on that idea of ‘change’. It’s now been a year since lockdown in the UK began and it often feels as though time has stood still, or that our lives have been on hold. That said, in this period, many of us – not unlike Priyanka – have been reflecting on the things that have made us who we are today, and the things that bring us comfort, promise, and joy. And there’s something to be said for the hope to be found in that fact that our stories are, as yet, unfinished.
'Unfinished' by Priyanka Chopra Jonas is published by Michael Joseph.
If you're experiencing anxiety or would like some support in building your self-esteem, connect with a counsellor by visiting counselling-directory.org.uk