Well, I thought to myself as the car swung into the drive of the Juhu hotel in which I was scheduled to meet my interviewee, well, this is unprecedented.
I have written about all kinds of people, you see, from Nobel Prize winners to champion sportsmen, from criminals to beauty queens, but never have I written about someone who has modelled for Playboy magazine. Moreover, I have never first made acquaintance with someone’s unclothed photographs on the internet, and only then met that someone in person for the first time.
But this is a unique interviewee in all sorts of ways. Sherlyn Chopra, 25, is the first Indian to have modelled naked for Playboy. She is the first Indian to have put out on the social networking site, twitter, naked photos that show her frolicking at the Playboy Mansion in the company of the mighty mag’s formidable team of stylists, photographer and creative directors. A week after I meet her, she will become the first person I know of to hold a press conference, in the packed auditorium of a five-star hotel, to proclaim how comfortable she is in her skin, and how she will be the first Indian to grace the magazine’s cover. (Playboy officially neither confirms nor denies the bit about the cover, while conceding that it was a “delight” to work with her.)
In this unfolding real-time reality show, the role of the internet in general, and twitter in particular, cannot be overemphasised. Twitter is where – as we know – Sherlyn first posted her pictures. Twitter is the platform she is using to converse with people. And it is where she is being subjected to a barrage of abuse.
In the brief time that the pictures were on twitter (Playboy asked her to take them down), hindustantimes.com managed to get them and put them up on the website. The photos went viral.
The evening before I met Sherlyn, two things happened. Another nude photo leaked on twitter. Questions were raised about whether this was the picture she had sent to Playboy as part of her portfolio. And Hugh Hefner, the 86-year-old founder of Playboy, tweeted: ‘Bollywood starlet Sherlyn Chopra will be the first Indian to appear nude in Playboy, in the November issue.’ Ah, confirmation.
When we meet in the hotel suite, Sherlyn is in a black top, ripped jeans, and suede boots with pencil heels. A YSL belt with an oversized buckle cinches her waist.
Once our photo shoot is over, I ask her about how shooting for Playboy was different from – apart from in the most obvious way – other shoots she has done. “Oh, it was the most fun time I have had in my life. We would start at 10.30am after some Jack Daniels and vodka. Never have I done a shoot with such confidence and joy. The atmosphere made me feel comfortable.” Our shoot was rather less adventurous, and, manifestly much less fun.
Before the interview, I had reread in Martin Amis’s The Moronic Inferno the essays on Hefner and Hefnerland. “The man-made, bloodheat rockpool, the jacuzzi -infested grotto, the mini-zoos with their hunched, peanut-addict monkeys…“ Like other interviewers, , Amis points out that Hefner never rises before mid-afternoon. “No,” Sherlyn says. “No. I saw him once in the morning?” She has acquired – or has always had, like many young, urban Indians – the Valley Girl lilt, the imperative to turn a statement into a question. When she talks about Hefner, her tone turns reverential.
She met Hefner the day after she arrived at the Mansion. “I was told that Mr Hefner likes to see a woman dressed in the most feminine way possible.” This must presumably be when Hefner formally meets them in person for the first time, because, by all accounts, he prefers them undressed and splayed in as many ways possible in his magazine and DVDs. “I wanted to wear a jumpsuit, but it was suggested that I wear a short dress or an evening gown.”
She decided on the short dress. Then they played dominoes. “We all had to put money on the table for the game? Mr Hefner put $5 on the table on my behalf. And I lost.” It sounds like a terrible betrayal of confidence.
Playboy, and appearing in it, has been much on Sherlyn’s mind over the years. In 2009, she had sent the magazine her photographs. She had been asked to show up for a trial. “I panicked and didn’t go. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it, if I’d be able to come back and live here in this country.”
So what changed in the intervening three years? Was desperation added to ambition to take inhibition out of the equation? She thinks for a long time about how to phrase her answer. “Earlier I was fearful of my folks in Hyderabad? About what other people would say… Something changed after Big Boss [the reality TV show that she entered and was evicted from in 2009]. I stopped worrying about people; I started thinking that I would be answerable only to myself.”
Which is something you had better stick to doing when many people on twitter are asking you: “You are a whore. How much do you charge per night?” Sherlyn started by responding to the abuse. Now she simply lets it be. How does she feel about it? She answers, but later texts back precisely what she had meant when she said what she had said: “If total freedom comes with the perceived notion of being a whore, then so be it.”
Today, she is famous. (OED: ‘famous’– adjective; known about by many people) But famous is something she has wanted to be for many years, and something she has been striving for. When she was young, her parents fought a lot. She grew up amid domestic violence. Then, they separated. She was, she says, “always a daddy’s girl”. Her father passed away in 2005. That is when she left Hyderabad for Mumbai. “I wanted to get away. It wasn’t easy to live with my mother under one roof.”
What has her mother had to say about the turn her life has taken? “I haven’t spoken to her. The last I spoke to her was on May 7.” (She went to Los Angeles for the shoot on July 2.) Her sister, a DJ in Hyderabad, has been supportive. “She always encouraged me to be a go getter.”
Which is what she tried to be in her first, struggling years in Mumbai. It wasn’t easy.
There is no count of the Bollywood aspirers who turn up every week in Mumbai, who turn up in the city of dreams, and keep on dreaming. There is no count either of those who, when their dreams are shattered, turn into husks of themselves. But then, without ambition, without the dreaming, without that stroke of luck to back talent, where would anyone be?
Sherlyn acted in a few low-budget films. She modelled. She put out her own line of merchandise. She got nowhere. She sits back, shuts her eyes and massages her temples when she remembers those times. “It was the most painful part of my life. I was vulnerable. I took whatever work came my way. I got involved in messed up, partially abusive relationships.”
She also got caught in a vicious cycle. “I did B-list films because I couldn’t find A-list ones. And then when I approached A-list directors with the experience I had gained, I was told that it was too late because I had done B-list films.” And the years were slipping by.
Until now. If only time could be frozen at this instant. Unless what is to follow is more remarkable. There is the money, of course. She won’t say how much, but does speak of how much she covets money. “Power derives from money. I always wanted to make a lot of money on my own, to have power from that.” There will be promotions back in Los Angeles, and DVDs and appearances at events.
Writing in 1985, Amis said a Playboy Playmate of the Year at the time got “$100,000, a new car (not a pink Porsche or a crimson Cadillac but a dinky black Jaguar), and the title itself”. Sherlyn is not a Playmate. Hers is one of the series of “celebrity pictorials” – the phrase used by Playboy’s publicity department – the magazine features.
Playboy did not say what appearing in one of those fetches. But as with cricketers who play for India, the real money is not in the one shoot, but the endorsements and promotional work that the shoot engenders. When I got in touch with Playboy’s publicity department last week, I was told that it was too early to quote them on the matter. It seemed as though it would be best that I don’t quote them on not being able to quote them.
Soon after, though, seeing the level of interest in Sherlyn in this part of the world, Playboy’s (money)wise men and women might well have understood that the issue may be worth milking right away. The website put out a promo for Sherlyn: “Coming soon to Playboy Magazine and Playboy.com, a historic nude pictorial of Bollywood sensation Sherlyn Chopra, the first Indian woman to appear in the magazine.”
So this, for Sherlyn, may well be the beginning of a rather different career from the one she envisaged when she arrived in Mumbai. She says that the burlesque artist, Dita Von Teese, is making an adult film, and she has made her interest in the project known. The adult movie industry – lucrative but fragile – may be one way to go. Other options are likely to appear.
In The Post Office Girl, the posthumously published, harrowing masterpiece about the power of money by the Austro-Hungarian author, Stefan Zweig, the novel’s heroine, Christine – a wretchedly impoverished, provincial girl who works in the local post office – travels to urbane Vienna. There, she sees the moneyed people swanning about in expensive shops and restaurants. “They’re the same, she thought. There’s not much between us. There’s a way up somewhere, a little step to climb, you’ve just got to find it.”
Sherlyn has found that way. She has climbed that step. From here, the vista appears full of allure. What she does with those prospects, and what people who are empowered to bring those prospects to fruition do with her, will define the next chapter of her story.
(Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai, and the author, most recently, of the fatherhood memoir, Dad’s the Word. You can reach him on Twitter @soumya1910)