Interview: Lisa Haydon / by Tara Kaushal

April 2014: Riding high on the success of Queen, golden girl of the moment Lisa Haydon talks about her journey from supermodel to actress.

The cover of  Harper's Bazaar .

The cover of Harper's Bazaar.

She appears at the table just after the cover shoot, plonks herself in to a chair, and greets me with a warm, “Hi, I’m Lisa. Will you eat?”—No—“Do you mind if I eat while we chat?” She is make-up-free, wearing a white, layered hakoba ruffle top and jeans, and is absolutely breath taking with her flawless raven skin, collarbones to die for and unreal body. We chat as she munches through her lunch, and I appreciate that this “Indian version of Angeline Jolie” (the words of her first booking agent, not mine) isn’t just uniquely beautiful, but fun and free-spirited, mature and oh-so-smart.

The success of Queen “feels really, really good.” In this coming-of-age travel-comedy-drama, she plays Vijay Lakshmi, a liberal hotel maid and single mother, the catalyst for the introspective journey that Rani, played by Kangana Ranaut, undergoes during her single honeymoon. “I didn't think about it too much when I signed this project with Vikas (Bahl, the director). I just loved my character so much that I wanted to play her.”

For the raving urban masses and praising critics, Queen gets it right, placing its women in shades of grey and not slotting them in to binaries of good/evil, and ending on a progressive, feministic note. “There’s this one verse from the Bible—‘Unto the pure all things are pure’—that my mum used to read to me growing up,” she tells me. Considering we’ve heard nary a bad word about the film, we agree that the audience forgets to judge Vijay Lakshmi because she’s authentic and natural, and comes from an honest place. “There are no pretences about the way women are. Rani’s character is just letting loose, discovering life and learning from Vijay Lakshmi—who burps, snorts when she laughs, is a single mom, drinks, smokes, has a lot of sex… And none of these things makes her a bad person.”

I prod Lisa about the similarities she admits to sharing with Vijay Lakshmi. “Our lifestyles are very different, she’s a little more carefree in the way she executes her life, but the heart and soul might be the same. Playing her was a bit of a catharsis—for two-three months shooting in Paris and Amsterdam, I became her, drinking, smoking, sitting with my legs wide open. When I returned, I quit drinking, I’ve stopped going out and I ran the marathon; I felt like I needed to cleanse the wildness out of me.”

She credits Vikas for many things—for a “comfortable and interactive” experience and for recognising her uniqueness. For his part, Vikas pays her a huge personal compliment by saying he auditioned her five times for the character he had originally written, but soon realised she was “ten times wilder and more free-spirited” than the character he was creating. “Inspired by the way she is, her body language, how comfortable she is with her body in any environment, I actually rewrote the character to make her exactly like the spirit of Lisa in real life.”

The  Harper's Bazaar  cover story.

The Harper's Bazaar cover story.

The real life Lisa was born in Chennai to a Malayali father and Australian mother. She lived in Australia and the US before moving back to India in 2007 to be a model. “It just kind-of happened. I was working as a waitress in Sydney and wanted to make extra cash, and my sister (Mumbai-based model Mallika Haydon) told me to try modelling. I know somewhere deep down I must have always wanted to be a model, not because I wanted to model but because I wanted the lifestyle. Not a wealthy one, but a travelling, bohemian life, full of experiences.” Armed with photos shot by a neighbour against the white wall in her bathroom, she was signed by her first booking agent. In India visiting family during Fashion Week 2007, Mallika, who she calls her “trailblazer”, pushed her to meet Marc Robinson and give it a shot. “It all just started snowballing from there, with magazine covers, endorsements and TV commercials. I was travelling, doing all the things that I wanted to do but wouldn't have been doing in Australia.” She went back, packed up her apartment and has been in Mumbai since. “I didn't look back.” She’s recently single, having called off her engagement to long-term beau DJ Karan Bhojwani.

As a supermodel in the Indian film industry, she has faced her own challenges: “The main one is that I know I’m a deep thinker and not just a pretty person, but because you model you have to put yourself in that box in some ways. It’s hard to deconstruct that opinion, it takes time, and the only way you can is by being given an opportunity.” She’s taken it slow, starting with a small role in Aisha (2010) as Aarti Menon, a New York-returned yuppie, after being spotted in a coffee shop by Anil Kapoor; then dancing to raunchy beats wearing hair-extensions, falsies and skimpy clothes in Rascals (2011) made her feel like a misfit in the industry and almost made her quit. “I recognised that if I do too much of this I’m going to get caught in a rut and not be able to showcase what I want to, or be taken seriously as an actor. So I waited for the right script to come along. Everything happens in its own time.”

In the meantime, she designed clothes for Sher Singh, a licensing association she is no longer pursuing. And has started an organic skincare line called Naked. “You know how they say you are gifted or have certain talents. I think this might be my gift, because, though I haven’t studied too much about it, the recipes come my mind. I get them lab-tested and somehow they always work.” She uses only her own products on her gorgeous skin, and wears no make-up on a regular day. “For a day meeting I’ll put on some under-eye concealer, mascara and a little blush. In the evening I like to go a bit deeper, using brown that has purple tones, something a little more glamorous but still nothing too much. I think less is more in many areas of life.” 

She continues to balance her modelling and acting careers, and is fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani’s campaign girl for the year “because of looks but more so because of the spirit and values she embodies,” he says. He is thrilled she has been acclaimed in Queen. “Lisa is a true ‘it’ girl for me, modern of spirit and effervescence, with an honest spontaneity and a dusky sexiness that is so India Modern.” I ask about her personal style for this summer, and she says she’s going white. “I like the subtlety of an androgynous look, and mix-and-match my clothes.”

Always, and especially now, after Queen, Lisa doesn’t see the things that set her apart from others in the film industry as hindrances but as USPs. She knows that improving her Hindi is going to be an ongoing process, but “at the end of the day, I don't give in to any of the things that people would consider weaknesses—the fact that I'm tall, or that I have raven skin, or that I have this accent. They are my specialness.” As urban Hindi films begin to portray the cross-cultural diaspora of our metro-going-on-cosmopolitan cities, she feels there is space for someone like her right now. “I think that in this day and age there are many people like me who feel they are Indian—I’ve spent most of my life in this country—despite their ethnicity or where they grew up. And I know there will be people like me in our films.” This is not to say that she wants to always play this character or get stereotyped; and she intends to work on things that are not her strong suits in order to play varied roles.

She doesn’t know when her next film with Viacom 18 will be out, and she hasn’t signed anything since Queen. “I’m waiting for something worth my salt.” On going over our conversation, I realise that biding her time is a recurring motif in the journey of this inspiring woman who wants to do good work on her own terms. “This is now the beginning of the Lisa Moment,” says Tahiliani.

An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Harper's Bazaar in April 2014.