As a high school student in Newton, Massachusetts in the mid-to-late-'90s, Priyanka Chopra's listening habits were the same as tons of suburban teens: the Fugees, Biggie, Tupac. "I wore black to school for ten days after [Tupac] died," Chopra recalled recently, sitting a long way, literally and figuratively, from Newton at a patio table at the Hotel Bel-Air on a cool Los Angeles evening.
As a former Tupac-loving teen, Chopra is fairly typical, but it's probably safe to say that not many teenage Makaveli fans go on to become huge Bollywood stars. One of India's most popular actresses, Chopra, 30, has starred in dozens of blockbuster Bollywood films and won four Filmfare Awards, Bollywood's equivalent of an Oscar. Her official Facebook page has well over three million likes, and her Twitter account has nearly as many followers. Despite that overseas stardom, Chopra is now returning to the U.S.A. in the hopes of pursuing — with the help of some of the music industry's biggest names — a pop career.
The previous evening, Chopra was playing the role of a star-in-waiting at a rooftop music video shoot. Wearing a short sequined dress and high, sparkly heels, she performed take after take of her first single "In My City," a hybrid of Indian beats and Euro-inflected dance pop featuring a guest appearance by will.i.am and produced by the Moroccan-Swedish hitmaker RedOne. The single would eventually premiere in mid-September as the opening song for the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football pre-game show. It doesn't get more American than that.
Sitting down to talk about her career change, Chopra was slightly more subdued. No wonder: if she'd been sitting out in the open in her native India, fans would likely have mobbed her. But here in Los Angeles she went unrecognized. Industry heavy-hitters like Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, whose label is releasing her debut album (tentatively due in early 2013), and Lady Gaga's manager Troy Carter, who is shepherding Chopra's career, are hoping that the anonymity is coming to an end.
But this attempted cultural crossover is nothing new. From Latin songstresses to K-Poppers, plenty of artist have been tagged as the next-big-polyglot-thing. What makes Chopra different? It's a question she brushes aside. "I don’t know if it’s a crossover," she says with a laugh. "I’m not leaving where I was, and I’m not here either. The Indian movie industry has made me who I am. I’m not saying 'That’s done, and I’m here.'" Instead, Chopra suggests, this move toward America and pop music is "organic."
Chopra was born in the Indian state of Bihar, the child of two doctors who worked in the Indian Army. From an early age, this meant a lot of travel as the family went from post to post. When she was thirteen, Chopra traveled to the U.S.A. to stay with her aunt, landing first in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and then Queens, New York, where she got her first taste of American hip-hop and R&B. As her aunt’s family moved, Chopra followed, finally landing in Newton. Hers was a fairly typical American teenage experience full of football games, pep rallies, and drama club productions. Chopra was the pretty, popular girl with perfect grades.
But during her senior year, she decided to return to India. Her mother had submitted her photo to the Miss India pageant. She entered, and came in second place. After that, she entered Miss World, which she won in 2000. Bollywood beckoned shortly after.
It's impossible to predict whether or not Chopra will mirror her prior successes with her move into American pop, but she's looking forward to the challenge. "It would be so cool to be an [Indian] pop star in America," says Chopra. Then she backs off. "I don’t know," she says with a smile, "what this will end up being."