"I grew up in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto. Our neighbourhood was mainly Italian and Portuguese, and we were the only non-white family so “Where are you from again?” was a question I got a lot growing up. I used to get really perturbed because they would sometimes assume that I was either Italian or Portuguese like my neighbours, because my looks were so adaptable – which I guess has become a hallmark of my life to this day. I used to get really defiant and say, “No, I am Indian!”
I was always more aligned with my Indian side, although my mum was Polish and I grew up speaking Polish. So I grew up with these eclectic influences of Polish nursery rhymes and jinga maach – my dad would cook Bengali food on the weekend and we would go for Durga Puja and all of that. My mum was always very conscious of eating right and wellness and all these things way before it became a trend. When I was little she bought me these little gum boots which I would wear while traipsing around after her in the fields, harvesting vegetables; that’s something I really enjoyed doing up until I became a surly teenager.
I think what happened then is that adventure, and the world, beckoned. I always had a very strong relationship with India that I couldn’t explain or articulate – my parents were very puzzled by it too, because my father left when he was about 20 and while he is very proud of his culture, he’s more like a pukka Englishman. (Laughs) He couldn’t understand why his only child felt this great pull, almost like a calling towards it.
So I made a deal with my parents, saying that if I finished high school a year early, which I did, then I would take a year off to travel. At the end of that year, my parents joined me in India and we spent a few months in Bombay. One day somebody approached me and said, “Have you ever thought about modeling?” I said, “Sure, why not. Let’s try it out.” So they set me up with Maureen Wadia of Bombay Dyeing.
I still remember my first meeting with Maureen; it wasn’t very auspicious! As I was approaching the long winding road to her house I backed into one of her dogs, a Rottweiler, who bit me – you know, right in the behind. (Laughs) It was only a minor wound, thankfully. Eventually, she asked me again if I’d like to take some pictures and I said yes; so I landed up at Ashok Salian’s studio.
Ashok is magnificent. He has this crazy hair and these great John Lennon glasses. He always had a lit cigarette between his fingers as he was taking pictures, and he had the most extraordinary, resounding laugh. I had never met anyone like this in Toronto, and I was enthralled. I think I really did come alive in front of the camera because I was essentially pretty introverted by nature. I continued shooting for Maureen and then we left India, after which I was supposed to begin university in Canada that fall.
But my family and I were involved in a car accident in Canada that August and that derailed a lot of things for me. My mother was very seriously injured and even though she survived, I felt like I had lost her in a way. It was a very difficult time and frankly I think that I’m still healing from that. The irony is that while all of this was going on, my pictures were released in India and I had apparently become an overnight sensation – but how would you know, in those days, if you had suddenly become famous on the other side of the world?
All of a sudden, I started getting these very strange phone calls in the middle of the night from Bollywood producers who were trying to track down “Miz Lizza Ray”. It was just bizarre. Then Maureen contacted me and she found out what had happened with my mother and she flew all the way to Canada to meet me at my mum’s hospital bed. That really touched me. At a time like that, you remember those gestures.
My mother had stabilized by then, and Maureen suggested I take a break and come to India to model for a bit. She offered to have me stay with her and be my guardian. I was also at a lost end and I was still very emotionally wounded and fragile from what had happened, so it did sound like a great idea, and my parents agreed, and that’s how I ended up in Bombay. So there I was, all of 16, with a career and an image – and because I had posed in this red hot bathing suit, something I didn’t think twice about, I was suddenly a sex symbol. I ended up staying for 12 years, from 1991 to 2002.
It’s been a caravan of experiences. They’ve been so varied and rich; it’s cemented my relationship with India, and not just professionally. This country is home. I was privileged to be a part of the figures that were heading the charge to open up this industry creatively. Photographers like Farrokh Chothia or designers like Wendell (Rodricks) and Hemant (Trivedi), Tarun (Tahiliani) and Rohit (Bal) – they all started then. It was a completely new, fresh concept, to organize fashion.
It was during a period of time when models were considered stars, although we didn’t want that much to do with Bollywood. It might be hard to conceive today, but I’ve said no more often than I’ve said yes. I started getting Bollywood offers right from the get go but I just couldn’t see myself being a part of that cinematic language. I really wanted to be a part of indie cinema, but that wasn’t happening in India. It was always very mainstream – and great money and probably a great career move, but I just couldn’t. I stand by that decision. You have to create your own career path and somewhere along the way, I tried to experiment with the idea of living your values, even professionally, which is a very tricky territory. (Laughs) But to hell with it, I thought. I’m going to end up in cinema at some point for sure.
I’m so happy to have seen a lot of my friends grow in the industry. I remember Anaita (Shroff Adajania, fashion director, Vogue India) started off when there was no concept of styling. We’d all hang out and talk about our dreams and aspirations. But it’s a double edged sword, never having to look for work – you think you’ll give it 2 years and move on to something else, but it gets very tempting to stay on. In 2002 I felt like I had hit a ceiling for myself, and I moved to London to study acting.
The years after London were interesting for me – I moved to Paris, New York, Milan – still continuing that nomadic lifestyle and exposing myself to things that I’d wanted to do but still not paying much attention to myself. So my excuse for never getting a physical or a blood test was, “I’m too busy, I’m always on a plane.” I had no fixed address for six or seven years. I was working in indie films and I was really happy, but I completely overrode my health.
So what happened was I started getting really fatigued. I remember if I were on a set, my eyes would close after lunch. So I started experimenting with my diet – maybe I should avoid eating this or that – but no dice. It just continued and I ignored it. Finally it got to a point where I couldn’t ignore it any further. I had come back to Canada in 2009 from a retreat in Kerala where I had collapsed on the floor. When I went into the doctor’s office, I remember she stood up from behind her desk and said, “How are you even standing?” Because my red blood cell count was so low. From that initial meeting to getting diagnosed with multiple myeloma was about five months, but I think I’d been living with it for about a year. I started treatment in July or August 2009 and it ended with my stem cell transplant, which was in December of the same year.
There are stages of acknowledgement when you receive shocking news, and I was definitely in denial for a while because I continued functioning like nothing was happening. I really considered it an inconvenience. “Oh, it’s like pneumonia, I’ll get over it.” It didn’t quite compute. I continued normal life – going to events, buying a house and renovating it, all after I was diagnosed. That was my pattern to date; it was always about keeping as busy as possible.
But there comes a point in everyone’s life when you have to look at your own patterns and behaviours and try to decode it – not for anyone else, but for yourself. It’s about understanding yourself on a deeper level, and we all have different habits. This was my pattern – keep busy, keep moving and don’t let things catch up with you. There were certain traumas that I think I had never dealt with, like my mum, for instance. She passed away in 2008, and that’s what brought me back to Canada – I had no plans of moving back– but then I couldn’t leave, because I was unwell. So it was kind of like a predestined situation.
I think for a while I saw it as an adventure, but there was something very deep at the core of me – which is ironic because we’re talking about bone marrow cancer, something that affects the innermost part of you – but something in my innermost self that knew that I was going to be OK. I also knew that it was not going to be easy. So I kept myself open and did a lot of what I’d been experimenting with anyway – exploring and expressing myself through writing. It was an interesting time for me – I was fragile but very open. I’d never allowed myself to go to certain places before, which was a hallmark of my nomadic lifestyle. I was essentially running away from myself for many years but cancer was a huge reset button. It made me stop and face myself in my most vulnerable, truest, rawest self possible, shorn of everything and all the props that we have in our lives that we use to define ourselves.
It was a catalyst for change for me, and allowed me to make the changes in my life that I had instinctively known that I had to make for many years. I was fearful, but it was a big, hot air balloon of fear, and one that’s very primal – the fear of dying. It occupied me and it made all the other fears in my life dissolve into nothingness, and that served a purpose because when I got through everything with liberal doses of faith and medication, I found that those old fears had permanently disappeared.
It was the start of a cleaning out. Something like this makes you reexamine everything in your life, all of your choices – whether they’re relationship or lifestyle choices, even if it’s something like the products you put on your skin and what you surround yourself with. Everything changed dramatically after that.
It was also an opportunity to meld my private self with my more public persona. When you’re a public figure, what people see of you is very one-dimensional; people make assumptions of you, and that made me very resentful. And being part of this whole red carpet culture has really gained momentum in the last few years and I was a part of it too, when I had to promote my films – and I thought, “Why wouldn’t I appear on the red carpet 40 pounds overweight due to my steroids, bloated and in a very different avatar but still essentially the same person on the inside?” So I decided to go public at the Toronto Film Festival and use that opportunity to talk about issues that were important to me. I think that was the first time that I took control.
In this business if you are a model or an actor you’re basically used to sell something, your job is to show up and look great and talk about something. And here I was able to use the media to talk about things that I really cared about and do it in a significant way. It’s something I’d always wanted to do but never really found the opportunity to.
What I would love to see, and I think we are increasingly seeing it, is a true, authentic message embedded in fashion and beauty. I still love beauty – I’m passionate about art and I love beautiful clothes and makeup and images, it’s what’s always driven me. But I think it’s possible to have a strong value system and an intention behind what you do, and hopefully the people that are ready to get it will get it."
As told to Komal Basith.
Lisa Ray photographed by Komal Basith in Bangalore. Images 1-4, 8 © Komal Basith
Images 5, 6, courtesy Lisa Ray.