Sunny Leone didn't grow up dreaming of being a porn star. It was the allure of financial independence and the surging popularity of South Asian culture in North America that drew the Punjabi princess to adult entertainment. And despite her conservative heritage, Leone, a former Penthouse Pet of the Year, has her family's support - and no qualms about her career.
"My parents encouraged me to be an extremely independent woman," says Leone, 26. "Throughout my childhood they always told me to never depend on anybody and to make sure that I was secure and didn't have to count on anyone but myself."
Leone's path to fame has been filled with adventure. She was raised in Sarnia, and says she was a typical Indian kid.
"My parents kept us really busy with sports and other activities, so growing up in Canada was a lot of fun," she said.
This carefree upbringing changed, however, at age 13, when her family moved to Michigan.
She moved again a year later. Her father, under pressure from her grandmother, who lived in California, moved the family to Orange County.
It was different there, to say the least. Leone's shyness didn't mesh well with Southern California. "People were less friendly and more stuck up," she says.
That was a far cry from what she had been accustomed to. "In Canada, it's not hard to make lifelong friends on the first day of school. People ask you to have lunch with them."
Not so in California, says Leone, who was shocked that, to some, materialism mattered more than friendship. That took getting used to.
It is from this period that Leone draws her ambition and drive. She wanted to be something. She wanted to own her own business. And she wanted to do it through modelling.
But several obstacles stood between her and a career in mainstream modelling. "Just being desi doesn't help your cause," she says with a sigh. "The lifestyle of a model for Indians doesn't fit what (your) family wants. They want you to be a doctor or do something else that's more stable."
Culture wasn't the only barrier. Although agents appreciated Leone's exotic looks, "I was too short," she says. "I'm five feet four inches and they typically want mainstream models to be taller."
While studying nursing in her early 20s, Leone befriended a classmate who admired her stunning good looks and suggested she try a different kind of modelling.
"She was an exotic dancer and she totally changed my view of people in the adult profession," Leone says.
That friend encouraged Leone to call an agent who specialized in lingerie and Playboy-style photo shoots. She did, and the next day, portfolio in hand, Leone went to visit him.
"He played his cards right," she says. Adult agents usually want to take nude pictures of aspiring models. "But he didn't want any of that. Instead, he wanted me to audition for a B movie the next day. He totally respected me. If he had asked me for the norm, I would have flipped him the bird and walked out of there and that would have been that!"
The director of that movie offered Leone a job, but what really appealed to her was the money she would make: $20,000 to $25,000 (U.S.) for seven days of work. That was what she had been making in a year. She remembered her parents' advice, and made her decision: working in the adult print and film industry just made good business sense.
And what about her family? She didn't tell them right away.
"I felt that they did not need to know until the appropriate time," Leone says. "I was also still feeling out what I was doing."
Since then, Leone says she and her family have found a middle ground that works for them: they respect her, and, well, she doesn't tell them everything.
"They don't know all of the details," she says. "They definitely understand a lot, but we try not to talk about it. They are generally very supportive of me."
Leone's career is on the rise, her wallet fat and career as stable as any family could want.
Many of her fans are Indian men and womenwho are supportive of her choices, which surprised Leone. "The young Indian community between the ages of 18 and 35 thinks that what I do is great," she says.
But even the most charmed careers have challenges. Some members of the South Asian communities don't hesitate to express their disapproval. But when they do, Leone knows what to say.
"I feel like I have to justify my choice. Whenever I do get a (judgmental) email, I tell people that I'm happy and that they have no right to judge me."
Leone is certainly well received outside the South Asian communities, and in 2003, her life changed forever. With the release of movies like Bend it Like Beckham and mainstream chart-topping bhangra hits, like Panjabi MC's "Beware of the Boys," South Asian culture was everywhere. People were flocking to Bollywood dance classes and embracing restaurants that offered Indian cuisine.
Famed adult magazine publisher Bob Guccione took notice. He wanted to feature a young, fresh model in Penthouse magazine. Leone fit the bill, and Guccione chose her to be Penthouse's 2003 Pet of the Year. She is still the only woman of South Asian descent who has held the title.
The position came with a $100,000 (U.S.) contract; Leone knew she would never have to depend on another person again. The magazine sent her around the world for photo shoots, guest appearances, commercials and radio spots, and her popularity shot through the roof.
Penthouse's goal, she says, "is to co-brand you with the company. My name just got more popular and I started a website. It was sort of ripple effect."
Leone's modelling career gave way to a film career - it seemed to be a natural progression - and girl-on-girl films appealed to the bisexual entertainer most.
So she approached Steven Hirsch, co-founder of Vivid Entertainment, one of the industry's top adult film companies.
"I said, 'This is who I am. I have a huge following. I've done all the hard work for you. I'm Indian and I'll be the first in doing any of this,' " says Leone.
Hirsch's marketing and business savvy kicked in. "Sunny has everything we look for in a Vivid girl. She is beautiful, sexual, talented and marketable," he tells Desi Life.
Hirsch signed Leone up for an interactive DVD, which lets viewers select the erotic acts they'd like to see. And his instincts paid off: she is one of Vivid's all-time top sellers.
Leone has received industry praise as well. This year, she won an Adult Video News Award for best interactive DVD (her brother accompanied her to the awards ceremony), renewed her contract with Vivid and will, for the first time, appear in male-female adult films, with her fiancŽ, the vice-president of marketing for a major adult entertainment magazine.
Leone's success even brought Bollywood to her door. She was recently hired to appear in an Indian film, but, whether or not she will appear in the movie remains to be seen.
A week before filming was to start in June, the producers still hadn't sent her an itinerary or ticket. Since then, the producers say various problems, such as monsoon-damaged sets, have delayed filming. "I do not have any hope for this situation," Leone says.
"This would not happen in the adult film industry."
That industry has been good to her, and the people who work in it are very professional, she says. "They respect you. They know why you're there. They pay you. Then you're on your way," she says matter-of-factly.
Leone is the consummate businessperson. Despite an untraditional career, her attitude toward business is anything but. She has employees, but admits to being a micromanager and perfectionist, especially with her websites. She sounds like a veteran marketing executive when she talks about those sites, discussing her target market, hits and branding, only in this case, she's branding herself.
The results of Leone's business acumen and attention to detail are clear: her main website receives nearly 10,000 hits per day. Some months, she says, it gets more hits than the site of fellow adult entertainer Jenna Jameson's.
At the end of the day, Leone just wants people to know she is real. "Work is work," she says, and her goal now is to create a brand in both the adult and mainstream print and film industries. She has created a business. She loves her job and will continue to act after she's married, at least for a while. She craves gobi, but won't eat it while she's preparing for a film. ("I have to watch my weight!" she says.)
And she's busy planning her wedding, next March. Like any bride-to-be, she's in a frenzy making arrangements and getting nervous about all the details. At the traditional Punjabi wedding will be her family, of course, and lots of dancing to bhangra tunes. She can finally eat all the gobi she craves without fretting about extra pounds. And like any bride-to-be, she can't wait.