culture

Ayesha Malik: Why I Spoke Up About Priyanka Chopra’s Contradictory Statements

Ayesha Malik

When entrepreneur and beauty influencer Ayesha Malik recently asked actress Priyanka Chopra a pointed question at Beautycon their interaction was catapulted into a frenzied online discourse. Earlier in the year Chopra had Tweeted “Jai Hind #IndianArmedForces”, which could be translated to “Long Live India” potentially implying she was in favor of Pakistan and India going to war. Speaking from the audience via microphone Malik called Chopra out on her tweet saying that as a UNICEF ambassador she should be advocating for peace rather than creating more tension between the neighboring countries.

To this Chopra answered that she had Pakistani friends and that she had just been trying to walk a middle ground while being patriotic. She ended with “We’re all here for love. Don’t yell. Don’t embarrass yourself. But we all walk that middle ground, but thank you for your enthusiasm and your question and your voice.” Many perceived her statement as evasive and condescending while others came out in favor of Chopra and pinpointed Malik as an instigator.

Since their conversation going viral, Malik has been on the receiving end of both online praise and harassment. I spoke to Malik about how she’s dealing with the online attention, what drove her to speak up that day and how she wants to use her voice for good.

How are you? How have the last two weeks been for you?
Ayesha Malik: I’m good but of, course, it’s been a tough time for me in terms of online harassment [since the confrontation with Priyanka Chopra at Beautycon]. The only harassment I get is from Indian nationalists and they are such a minority, however since they are a population of 1.4 billion, that still ends up being a lot of people. I have to remind myself that not every Indian thinks this way, just like not every American has the same beliefs as a white nationalist. They’ve hit me pretty hard online — if I turned on my notifications, I would be getting a message every five seconds. There’s a lot of colorism and misogyny in the comments. Also, some are saying that since I’m a Muslim I should be wearing a burka and every comment is supporting genocide. That’s what makes it easy to ignore these comments because they are coming from fanatics.

Forgive me but you mentioned colorism, complexion-wise you seem quite similar to Priyanka Chopra. What’s that about?
If anything, I might be a shade lighter than her. Colorism is a huge issue in South Asia and there a lot of beauty products to lighten your skin. It’s in the mentality to be superior with lighter skin. I can’t see these people because they don’t talk to me through their real accounts but I can’t help but think that they are most likely darker than me.

When you attended Beautycon, how did your day lead up to your question with Priyanka? I don’t think you went there with the intent to address her, correct?
Oh hell no, if I had the intent I would have been all the way in the front not in general admission section and I would have been way more eloquent. I was at one of my friends meet and greets, she’s an influencer, and I walked across the convention to get to my other friend who was also having a meet and greet. I walked by the big screen and heard Priyanka Chopra say “we need to love our neighbors” and that triggered me. I didn’t listen to the full talk I only listened to 20 minutes and that’s why there is so much emotion in my voice, because for 20 minutes she was lying to the crowd putting on a front that she was this humanitarian. She was putting on this Miss World pageant voice, everything she said was so rehearsed. When she was speaking to me, she didn’t have a PR team behind her, that was the raw Priyanka. A lot of people who had previously worked with her reached out to me and said that’s exactly how she is.

Ayesha Malik

How would you describe Priyanka’s reaction to you?
She was deflecting. Instead of focusing on the question at hand she wanted to focus on my voice and tone policing. You can hear three girls in the back clap for her and she goes “thanks, girls.” I thought that was so weird that she needed that validation that so badly. I know she only cares about that title of Miss World because a couple months ago she announced she would like Nick Jonas to be president and she would like to run for prime minister of India. If that doesn’t show you how much she likes titles, then I don’t know what does. Neither her nor Nick Jonas have any experience whatsoever. I feel like all she cares about is reputation.

How is her response not aligned with her role as a UNICEF ambassador?
When she tweeted that back in February, a lot of people came after her saying this doesn’t align with your role at the UN and she went radio silent. It’s frustrating because it felt like it was being swept under the rug. In that moment at Beautycon I felt like I had to address it because if no one asked her then it was never going to happen.

The interaction really blew up online, how would you describe the feedback you got?
It’s been a very international response, everyone who doesn’t live in India has been giving me a very good response. From an outsider’s perspective it’s like okay here are two superpowers, both have nukes and we don’t want them to go at it. People in South Asia are responding differently. Pakistanis responded nationalistically hailing me as a hero and about me making India look bad rather than me trying to stop a war. It hurts that people even from my own country didn’t hear my message.

What would you say your message was?
I would say that I’m scared and why is she not scared as well? Does she benefit from this war? It’s strange for her to be a leader or a role as a peacemaker but she uses it to divide people more. I would ask her, either drop your duties as an ambassador or build bridges between our countries.

Has your interaction with Priyanka given the political issue more attention?
I’ve been hearing about Kashmir my whole life but I would say yes. I think the reason why this went viral is because of the drama, a lot of these publications have been using this soundbite of me calling her a hypocrite. It’s sad that it had to be this messy situation but the world doesn’t pay attention unless it’s these viral bits like this. If I said it calmly with manners then I don’t this would have gone viral at all.

You’ve received a lot of media coverage through this event but in certain instances, you were reduced to the girl who yelled at Priyanka, although you’ve been an influencer and tastemaker in your own right. Tell me more about your online persona.
I had one photo on Instagram where people said that my hair was fake so I made a few videos to show that it was real and how I style it. After that things went viral, one of my videos has three million views. I only post twice a month; I only have five videos on YouTube so I’m not trying to be famous. I really don’t care about social media. A lot of Indian nationalists are saying I did it for fame and that I’m an attention-seeker but in reality, I am the complete opposite.

Even though you don’t share that much online you have a devoted following. What do you think resonates with your audience?
I think they see that I’m not an influencer, they see that I don’t have #ad or #sponsored every other post. I only have two or three within the last few years. They know that I’m authentic and that I don’t lie to them. The friends I love and meet up with that are also influencers, they’re like me. I’m not saying all influencers lie but quite a few do. I think that’s what’s refreshing for people to see.

What would you like people to know about you outside of what happened at Beautycon?
Since I only spoke at Beautycon for only about 40 seconds I didn’t really get to say what I wanted to say. I want people to know that I’m not just concerned about Pakistan, I’m concerned about India too. The thing I yelled was “I love India as much as I love Pakistan” and Priyanka responded, “girl don’t yell, we’re all here for love.” I feel like no one caught that except for a few people online. Since I’m a diaspora kid and I’m looking at this from the outside from the United States when I meet with people who are Indian, Bengali, and Nepali, I feel like they are my own. I feel like even though we have borders I feel like they are one of my own. That’s actually a quote from a Bollywood film.

Ayesha Malik

You like in Alaska and your family is the only Pakistani family there. What do you like about living in Alaska?
Correct, it’s just us, we’re the only Pakistani family here and there are two Indian families, we’re all really close. We emigrated here in the 90s because my dad started a car dealership and I got my degree in business management at Eastern Washington University. When I came back, I decided to join the car dealership and I’m working here like 80 hours a week. That’s what I’m doing because I’m an entrepreneur and that’s another reason why I don’t post often.

So that’s your focus, not social media or building a beauty brand?
Definitely. People only see the beauty bits, they don’t see me every day at the car dealership. The beauty world, they always talk about diversity but there isn’t much of it, everyone is very conventionally beautiful. Places like Beautycon they talk about inclusivity and diversity, which is ironic because it’s the complete opposite. I like working at the car dealership, I’ve been here since I was seven years old so I’ve been doing it for 20 years. It’s in my blood to sell cars. I do have a degree in religion. Before the car dealership, I was an activist and I encouraged interfaith dialogue. Now that I’ve been thrown into this world of geopolitics, I’m going to use my voice for Kashmir and for the people of South Asia to prevent war. Even though I’m this very small voice, I have a big audience and if I don’t use my voice it’s just going to go to waste.

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