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Just a pinch of spice
Lisa Ray's exoticism is her signature and her passport, writes LIAM LACEY. First it brought a career in modelling, then it landed her the lead in Deepa Mehta's new comedy

By LIAM LACEY, The Globe and Mail
September 12, 2002

'I'm sweet and salty," sings the heroine, Sue, in one of the Bollywood-style production numbers in Deepa Mehta's new musical romance, Bollywood/Hollywood. Sue is the beautiful and smart escort who turns the head of a young millionaire in Mehta's comedy about Indians living in Toronto, learning to leave behind the old world and embrace the new.

Mehta says it would have been difficult to find an Indian woman to play the role, at least to get the salty part right: "The whole Indian body language is different, more demure. We needed someone who moved with assertiveness to be Sue."

Lisa Ray
Ray: 'I don't have any bone to pick with the beauty business, though I wouldn't really recommend it to young girls.'
The casting choice went to Indian supermodel Lisa Ray, who, it so happens, grew up in Toronto. Ray, whose image graces the billboard next to the Cumberland Theatre during this year's Toronto International Film Festival, hadn't done much acting. Mehta had watched Ray in her one previous film, and could tell "she was obviously very beautiful and comfortable in front of the camera.

"It wasn't until we'd cast her, Mehta added, "that I found out she can really act."

Acting, as it happens, is all that Ray wants to do these days. She moved to London recently, and has left the modelling career behind her. She's been described as the most popular model on the Internet and there are more than 10,000 sites dedicated to her, most of which show her with lips parted, eyes smouldering at the camera, in various body-clinging outfits.

In person, she's a different story. Dressed in a conservative grey turtleneck, slacks and block-heeled pumps, she's warm and down-to-earth, with a disarming play of laughter in her light green eyes.

She grew up in Etobicoke in the west end of Toronto, the child of an Indian father and a Polish mother. She wasn't particularly involved in Indian culture "though we'd go down to Gerrard Street [Toronto's Little India] for a meal sometimes." She was academically serious, racing through five years of high school in four years. She also managed to attend three high schools, Etobicoke, Richview and Silverthorne, just because, she says, she was curious about them. "It's kind of the story of my life, always going off on tangents like that."

At 16 (roughly 10 years ago), she headed to India with her family for a vacation. In the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), she was approached by a modelling scout. Her father checked out the company and gave his consent. The result was a hugely successful advertisement for the clothing company, Bombay Dyeing. She returned home, ready to go to university, with a possible career in journalism in mind. There was family car accident in which her mother was seriously injured and Ray missed her first term at university.

Instead, she headed back to India and took up modelling again, posed on the cover of Glad Rags in a red Baywatch-style swimsuit, which created a national sensation. In India, this kind of magazine cover was something new.

"To me, it wasn't so strange. In Canada, if it's hot, you put on a swimsuit and sit by the pool. I guess in India it was a kind of. . . ." She searches for the word.

"A cultural moment?"

"Yeah, a 'moment,' " she laughs. "Now it's pretty common."

Ray appeared on more magazine covers, including Elle, and served as a spokesperson for numerous products. Her exoticism -- the auburn hair, green eyes -- were her signature, but she was versatile, capable of looking sexy and Western or regally Indian. She also appeared in a music video and became host of her own show-business program. A Times of India poll declared her the "ninth most beautiful woman of the millennium," and the only model in the top 10.

Ray was often ambivalent about the beauty business. In the late nineties, taking a year off to paint and write, she returned to India, where she became more popular than ever. She was published in Cosmopolitan and The Indian Express, took on a television show and finally agreed to do an Indian movie, a thriller in which she played a lawyer. (Indian reviewers seemed particularly impressed by her short skirts.) As well as Mehta's Bollywood/Hollywood, she also has done a Tamil movie and another English-language feature, The Arrangement, set in Texas, which is due out next year.

She has no interest in returning to modelling: "I don't have any bone to pick with the beauty business, though I wouldn't really recommend it to young girls. They have a lot of illusions and don't really see the murky stuff that goes on underneath. It's not good if you're too young and I think I probably was."

She has never been that fascinated with the art and business of making a beautiful impression. She's an avid reader, and used to dream of being a novelist. Acting, she hopes, will provide a similar creative satisfaction.

"I'm hoping to play all kinds of different parts, not necessarily Asian. I'm fortunate that people can't pigeonhole me too easily. They really don't know where I'm from."

She's been asked about her origins all her life, she says, noting it used to bother her, but that moving to India put it in perspective. "In Canada, people ask where you're from and it's really just friendly interest. In India, it's a very serious question."

For a woman who went to three high schools, and now calls three countries home, the fun is in keeping people guessing.

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