Priyanka Chopra Jonas Opens Up About Racist Bullying in High School: 'It Starts Gnawing at You'
Priyanka Chopra Jonas has a lot of love for her life and career in the U.S. — but America hasn't always been so welcoming to her.
In her candid new memoir, Unfinished, out Feb. 9, Chopra Jonas, who was born in India, details the racist bullying she experienced while attending an American high school when she was 15 years old. The torment was so bad, she writes, that Chopra Jonas ultimately returned to India to finish out her schooling.
"I took it very personally. Deep inside, it starts gnawing at you," says the Citadel star, 38, in an exclusive interview featured in this week's issue of PEOPLE.
"I went into a shell. I was like, 'Don't look at me. I just want to be invisible,' " continues Chopra Jonas, who celebrated her two-year wedding anniversary with husband Nick Jonas in December. "My confidence was stripped. I've always considered myself a confident person, but I was very unsure of where I stood, of who I was."
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Chopra Jonas — the Bollywood star who has earned accolades in Hollywood since she landed the lead role in Quantico in 2015 — was raised by her army physician parents, Ashok and Madhu Chopra, in India until she decided to move to the U.S. to live with extended family when she was 12. For three years, she stayed with relatives, moving to New York City, Indianapolis and then Newton, Massachusetts, where things took a turn for the worse.
In Unfinished, Chopra Jonas explains that other teenage girls would yell insults like, "Brownie, go back to your country!" and "Go back on the elephant you came on" as she walked down the hall. The actress writes that she tried to ignore the bullies and sought refuge with a close group of friends. She even reached out to the guidance counselor for help, to no avail.
"I don't even blame the city, honestly. I just think it was girls who, at that age, just want to say something that'll hurt," explains Chopra Jonas. "Now, at the other side of 35, I can say that it probably comes from a place of them being insecure. But at that time, I took it very personally."
During this tumultuous period in her life, Chopra Jonas says she "broke up with America." After one phone call with her mother and father, she decided to go back home. It was there that the soon-to-be Miss World gained her confidence back with the support of her parents and her school.
"I was so blessed that when I went back to India, I was surrounded by so much love and admiration for who I was," she says. "Going back to India healed me after that experience in high school."
Following her dad's advice, Chopra Jonas says she decided to "leave my baggage behind."
"In America, I was trying not to be different. Right? I was trying to fit in and I wanted to be invisible," she says. "When I went to India, I chose to be different."
She caught back up in school and started participating in extracurriculars and appearing on the school stage.
"People were like, 'Oh my gosh, you're so good at this,' " the star remembers. "[That] built my confidence, having made new friends who were amazing and loving and doing actual teenage things. Going to parties, having crushes, dating, all the things, the normal stuff. It just built me up."
With her newfound confidence, Chopra Jonas went on to dominate Bollywood and won over millions of American fans after her debut on U.S. screens in 2015. Since then, she's starred in and produced both Hollywood and Indian projects and married her true love, Nick, in 2018. She is now in London for a year to continue shooting the highly anticipated Citadel with Richard Madden.
By writing her memoir, Chopra Jonas hopes that her story can encourage others who have been bullied or are battling the resulting "sadness" and low self-esteem that she experienced.
"Insecurity becomes small as soon as you talk about it with someone you trust: A therapist, a counselor," she says. "I feel like a lot of people spend their time when they're feeling dark [in isolation]. That's the worst thing to do, is to feel sad alone."
"Sadness is very seductive," she continues. "It sucks you in and you want to just wallow in it because it feels comfortable and warm — and light is harsh sometimes. [But] you have to look at it, you squint. [The light is] a lot, but it gives you life. It gives you joy. We have the choice, most of the time, to step out of the darkness ourselves. The best way I've found of doing it is talking to people who care."
Unfinished hits bookshelves on Feb. 9.
To learn more about how you can identify bullying and stand up to it safely, or to get help, go to stopbullying.gov.
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