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....
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