Viewpoint: How India's first Playboy model Sherlyn Chopra defied convention

Sherlyn Chopra

Bollywood starlet Sherlyn Chopra is the first Indian to model nude for Playboy magazine, attracting a barrage of abuse on social networking sites. Writer Soumya Bhattacharya talks to Chopra about what it is that drives her to defy convention and looks at what may lie ahead.

This is a story about Sherlyn Chopra, the 25-year-old who has become the first Indian to model for Playboy magazine. But this is not a story merely about Sherlyn Chopra.

This is a story about ambition forged on the anvil of desperation. This is a story of a woman putting out on the social networking site, Twitter, naked photographs of herself frolicking in the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles and attracting a barrage of abuse in a country that sent into exile one of its greatest modern artists for depicting a Hindu goddess in the nude in one of his paintings.

This is a story that stands at the confluence of an India at odds with itself, torn between hypocrisy and its opposite.

'A diva'

When I meet Sherlyn Chopra in the suite of a hotel in the western city of Mumbai, she is in a black top, ripped jeans, and suede boots with pencil heels. A Louis Vuitton belt with an oversized buckle cinches her waist.

I ask her how shooting for Playboy was different from other shoots she has done. "We would start at 10:30am after some Jack Daniels and vodka. Never have I done a shoot with such confidence and joy."

The confidence, she says, was engendered by the stylist of the mighty magazine praising her breasts before the shoot got under way. "When I took off my robe, she went wow. These aren't real, you know, I told her. But she said my breasts were beautiful. After that, once I had put on my body make up, I felt like a diva."

She met Hugh Hefner, the 86-year-old founder of Playboy, the day after she arrived at the Mansion.

Image caption Sherlyn Chopra has acted in a few Bollywood films

When Sherlyn talks about Mr Hefner, her tone turns reverential.

"I was told that Mr Hefner likes to see a woman dressed in the most feminine way possible."

This must presumably be when Mr 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 (£3) on the table on my behalf. And I lost." It sounds like a terrible betrayal.

Appearing in Playboy has been on Sherlyn's mind over the years.

In 2009, she had sent her photographs to the magazine.

She says she was 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? Was desperation added to ambition to take inhibition out of the equation?

'Daddy's girl'

"Earlier I was fearful of my folks in Hyderabad. About what other people would say… Something changed after Big Boss [the Indian reality TV show modelled on Big Brother 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 people on Twitter are asking you: "You are a whore. How much do you charge per night?"

How does she feel about this? "If total freedom comes with the perceived notion of being a whore, then so be it."

Today, she is famous. But famous is something she has wanted to be for many years.

She grew up amid a great deal of domestic violence.

Her parents finally separated. She was, she says, "always a daddy's girl".

Her father - a paediatrician - 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? "The last I spoke to her was on 7 May." She went to Los Angeles for the shoot on 2 July.

Her sister, a disc jockey in Hyderabad, is thrilled. "She always encouraged me to be a go-getter."

Which is what she tried to be in her first, struggling years in Mumbai.

There is no count of the Bollywood hopefuls 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.

"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."

'Power from money'

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.

Image caption Chopra will appear in Playboy's November issue

Sherlyn is neither a Playboy Bunny nor 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.

So this, for Sherlyn, may well be the beginning of a rather different career from the one she envisaged when she arrived in Mumbai.

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. He is the author, most recently, of the fatherhood memoir, Dad's the Word.

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