Poonam Pandey first started tweeting in February 2011. She was 20 and had been a model for three-odd years. In the first few weeks/months, she tweeted links to wallpaper versions of her on Santabanta.com – India’s favorite source for glossy desi celebrity desktop wallpapers. Then, for the next few months, she tweeted corny jokes, riddles and images from her bikini shoots – dedicating the pictures to her “tweethearts”, the name she says she coined for her Twitter followers and fans.
In September of 2011, Pandey first tweeted a selfie – one in a black, full-sleeved, V-neck t-shirt that displayed some cleavage with a caption that said, “Love Clicking Myself.. :P”. However, experts might only recognize the one that came a month later as a true selfie. By definition, if both your hands are in the picture and it’s not a mirror shot, technically, it’s not a selfie – it’s a portrait. Today, the selfies or other pictures that she tweets don’t have the finishing touches of a professional photoshoot but the intimacy that only the faux-high resolution of a phone camera, bad lighting and a lack of framing can provide.
Over the last three years, Pandey’s selfies have been a particular combination of cheek and circumspection, and the subject of much conversation and social memes – from her World Cup campaign promising to go nude for the Indian cricket team if they won to her tweet welcoming the PMO to Twitter. By 2012, she was arguably one of the first people in India to crack the social media celebrity angle – armed with the power of selfies and the wit to caption them. “Selfies aur mera toh jaise janmo-janmo ka rishta hai… [Selfies and I have had a relationship for several lifetimes…]” Pandey says. She has a big, open laugh and is wearing a short yellow dress on the afternoon that I meet her. She swivels from side to side on an executive chair at her publicist’s office, her leopard print handbag on one side of the desk between us and her iPhone lying screen down on the other. Phones can never be too far from selfie-lovers, like the daemons that belong to the children in The Golden Compass. As Pandey likes to say, “Even on a shoot, phones distract a lot but for selfies I am toh set – no matter where I am.” I ask her which was the first phone she owned. “I have lost like more than 10 phones although I know I have been using the iPhone for the longest.”
Vipin Medhekar, her publicist who was also sitting in on the interview, reminds her, “Was it the first iPhone?” He walks in and out of the cabin Pandey and I are sitting in (to take work calls) and add a word or two every now and then to the conversation. Medhekar’s Twitter profile contains a mashed-up quote from Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator: “A manipulator I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie, cheat, bribe, and connive My Brands and abuse my understanding of the Internet to do it. Trust Me, I’m Lying.”
“I don’t think so,” says Pandey.
A couple of popular brand names pop up before Medhekar says with confidence, “Bold. It was the Bold.”
“Yes… Bold.” An unsure Pandey agrees.
“The Blackberry Bold?” I check again.
“Yes.” Both of them say together.
Pandey has 642,000 followers on Twitter. This after having started on Twitter as a non-famous person; Poonam Pandey is a social media celebrity in the true sense and she knows it. To place this in context, Sunny Leone started on Twitter a good two years before Pandey. She had already been an adult entertainment star, director and producer in the US; she’s played the lead in a Bollywood film three times and has been a participant on Bigg Boss, a primetime reality TV show. Leone has around 840,000 followers.
“After the first cricket controversy, everybody on social networking had heard of Poonam Pandey. They might not know who I am or how I look, but they had heard of a Poonam Pandey.” She believes social media can make anybody a celebrity and says you don’t have to be the “ribbon-cutting” type to be one. “People are not on Twitter to follow celebrities only. They will start following you if you’re putting the right things, your pictures are…” She coughs theatrically. “And your words are funny toh phir aap apne aap mein celebrity ho, banne ki koi zaroorat hi nahin hai [then you’re a celebrity in yourself, no need to become one].”
Whenever Pandey breaks into Hindi – which happens more and more frequently as the conversation progresses – one is reminded of how much of a Mumbai girl she is. Her English sounds like that of a Russian model on a middling American TV show. “There are lots of accounts on Twitter with huge amounts of followers. They’re normal people who are online celebrities because people like them and their sense of humour is good.”
It hasn’t been easy getting hold of Pandey, even to talk to her about what she calls her “favorite pastime” – taking selfies. Pandey has been in Hyderabad, shooting for a Telugu flick for the Manisha Films banner. This is her second film after Nasha, which one may refer to as a film of the hot-for-teacher-lite genre. She checks with Medhekar before she tells me about the Telugu film. “It’s a very performance-oriented role,” she says. Her character may or may not have action scenes. (Medhekar adds that the director Viru K is “huge in the Telugu industry” and calls Manisha Films “the YRF of the South.”) Since we spoke, Pandey has become the face of Brexelant breast cream – which promises to make your breasts bigger, firmer, tighter.
Pandey is “really very busy” these days. So much so that she doesn’t have time to be herself. “I am different when I am shooting.” Being herself, she says, is finding time to spend with her tweethearts. “Now that I am back from the shoot, I am back to being Poonam Pandey.” When she is being Poonam Pandey, she tweets Vines of her singing along on a drive, or perhaps pictures of herself during festival activities, like going shopping for Eid or eating Diwali kaju katli.
Her tweethearts notice her absence. “No pictures these days. You have forgotten us.” They tweet to her to remind her. When she notices a rise in these plaintive tweets, she finds the time and posts a quick selfie. Pandey is well aware of the nature of her relationship with her tweethearts. “I post pictures as my fans order me to. Today whatever I am, I am because of my selfies, because of my social networking site. I have to follow my tweethearts’ orders, they’re like gods to me.” Pandey’s romance with selfies and her love for her tweethearts feed into each other. “Honestly, I don’t click selfies for my own sake. I have never clicked any picture just for me. I have never done it. I take selfies because I love to read the comments. That is my favorite pastime.”
“Most of my selfies capture me and who I am because I click 50 selfies before I post one. I click them because it is my passion and not my homework.” Whatever Time magazine has to say about the greatness of the invention, Pandey has never considered a selfie-stick. “My hand is good so that I get all the angles, properly.” On film sets, where directors don’t normally allow phones or cameras, Pandey takes selfies in her vanity van. Sometimes while on set, Pandey says she finds the crucial moments right before a take when the director is giving out last-minute directions to the crew, quickly pulls her phone out and “thik thik thik” takes machine-gun selfies before sneaking her phone away.
She takes all her selfies herself – there is rarely any planning involved and most of them are spontaneous. Unless, of course, there’s a campaign on (like the recent ice bucket challenge series of tweets), or “if I am doing it in a bigger way, say if we plan a concept.” A ‘concept’ is when there is a theme to a series of pictures or videos like the ones she tweeted – bedroom secrets, bathroom secrets, mirror acts – in 2011. Or, if they’re “doing a controversy”. In either cases, there’s a full professional team behind it.
She says, “I haven’t had any time to do any controversies” Doing a controversy – a phrase that so brilliantly captures the phenomenon of Poonam Pandey. Hearing it left me, embryonic culture critic, in a rather nothing to do here state.
She tells me that she has a “big something” planned for her soon-to-be-launched website. Her eyes go large as she speaks of it. Her website has been stuck in the “coming soon!!!” stage for a while now because in her words: “This is like the water receding before the first tsunami wave hits.” I nudge her a little more about her plans for the website. Eventually, she says that the website will have selfie-esque videos. All her tweethearts remember the Dirty Holi video. Or the more recent series of Vines she posted when she had a “drink with you” – in a white bra, with hair loose, as she teased the mouth of a beer bottle.
If only Narcissus had had a smartphone, he wouldn’t have been cursed into being a flower by a pond for centuries to come. Pandey knows that more than Narcissus did. “Selfies are mirrors. When you look in the mirror, you purposely keep that angle or make that expression in the mirror, which looks good. With selfies, you learn what about you looks good – like what profile, what kind of pout. For example, Kareena does that pout thing in her selfies, which works for her. It is about looking good. There is nothing like the personal realization that comes from selfies.”
Pandey remembers all her selfies. “My first must have been in my school days – just silly pictures, ugly pictures.” She laughs so hard that she doubles over. “Well, ugly wouldn’t be the right word. After getting into modelling, then you actually know how to pose and all that stuff. It makes you camera conscious. Those pictures though were more for memories and all that stuff.” In the next sentence she makes clear what she thinks of sentimentality. “I don’t have them [the early selfies]. My friends from then might though. They must be giving their final year exams right now and I’m giving this interview. Those group selfies are more to look back and say, kya din thhe yaar.”
Sometimes, friends from those days drunk-text her. She’ll only acknowledge this coyly and not without sounding apologetic for them. “Ever since I started posting selfies, I did start getting texts from old friends. I remember getting one text a long time back from a friend who commented on how I used to look then – I had short hair, I was more into sports, just not glamorous at all, and very skinny – and how much I have changed all of a sudden. I was like c’mon, I was a kid those days, now I’m a grown up kid.”
“I was born and brought up in Mulund [a suburb on the central line in Mumbai].” Pandey says she was a different person then – an athlete who used to run relay races and long jumps. These days, she doesn’t find time to follow any of the sports she enjoyed so much those days. “If I am not working, I am on Twitter and other social networking sites, talking to my fans.” But she doesn’t miss sports or that life much. “Those days… that was a good life. These days this is the life.” Pandey and her family have now moved to Goregaon (a suburb on the western line)
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Whenever Pandey speaks of her pictures that are “revealing”, her hands grab the handles of the chair and she swivels from left to right. But her eyes don’t look at you. “In most of my pictures, my face is not seen.” She laughs. “You know what I’m trying to say. Those are my favorite kind of pictures. If I put normal or decent pictures, my tweethearts write comments like, ‘C’mon Poonam, do you really expect us to look at your face and recognize you?’” She cheerfully and rather quickly acknowledges, “That’s weird.”
Of the few naysayers you find on any of the threads of her tweets, there are usually two kinds – the angry misogynist and the hater. I ask her what she thinks of them. Pandey says she doesn’t care. She insists that she doesn’t have many naysayers among her followers, not even the moral police. “I get 95 percent good replies to my tweets. I don’t get bad replies. I am surprised and it is strange that girls are writing good things to me.” Thepeople who do send her the bad replies are just attention-seekers, she says. “They write shit to me so that if I reply to them, everyone will focus on them, and that’s what they want. It is silly to even read such responses.”
Pandey is on social media for herself. She doesn’t follow a lot of people or current affairs on social media. “I find it distracting. It makes me forget what I am trying to do online.” She makes an exception for other famous selfie queens. She loves to follow Kim Kardashian and Rihanna. “The way they click selfies, that’s the best.” While she doesn’t find the time to keep up with the Kardashians, she is admittedly a Kim Kardashian fan. “I like her because she is hot.”
Immediately I ask Medhekar, who was working on his laptop at the desk next to ours, to search for the recent Kim Kardashian Paper magazine cover shoot that boasted a desire to break the Internet. As soon as it loaded, Pandey wheeled her chair closer to the screen and leaned in. The tip of her forefinger touched the bottom of her lower lip as she admired it wide-eyed. “This is nice.” Pause. “Wow. Oh wow.” A shorter pause. “She is like a beauty with a brain.”
Pandey doesn’t care much about Rihanna’s Instagram nipple controversy. When pushed to take a stand, she manages to argue on both sides of the debate. In support of Rihanna, she says, “If she has no problems doing something, why are people having problems? If she is happy, everyone should be happy.” She also believes that, “Instagram had the right to do whatever they did. Just like on Facebook, you’re not allowed to post some kind of pictures.” What if Twitter decided to censor her pictures, I ask. “If Twitter was to take down any of my pictures, I wouldn’t react harshly. If they’re pulling it down, there has to be a good reason for that.”
I am aware that we’ve entered the philosophical territory of our conversation. Pandey speaks a little softer and a little slower. The chair-shaking laughter vanishes from the conversation. “The sensible thing is that I don’t post some shit out there – there is no nudity. Though you will see things, you will not see things. As long as you’re entertaining people, that is okay.”
“After all I am a girl and that too an Indian girl. I come from a family background and I stay with my family.” She tries to laugh, but it doesn’t have the same ring as it did earlier. “I know this is funny to say because I am saying that but I think that aap jitna dikhaake jitna chhupaaoge uss mein jyaada mazaa hota hai. Mutthi bandh hi honi chahiye, khul jaati hai toh aapke paas koi patte hi nahin phenkne ke liye saamne [when you show some while you cover some, it is more fun than showing all. Once the fist opens up and everyone can see your hand, you don’t have any cards to play] so I’d say, play safe.”
Pandey’s ability (like the critic TG Vaidyanathan) to both love umbrellas and to love getting wet in the rain makes her online personality a particularly Indian one. The model who made it on social media before Pandey even arrived was Sherlyn Chopra –she was tweeting images with full frontal nudity before she stopped being active on Twitter in 2010.
Meanwhile, Pandey has continued playing the very particular role that she knows her fans want her to play. She is the one who is in control in this never-ending conversation with her tweethearts, while creating the illusion of subservience.
While Pandey’s older brother and younger sister understand where she comes from, her mother isn’t a huge fan. Whenever she posts a provocative picture, the dinner table conversation with her mum is a bit awkward, she says. “She will be like, ‘You did it again! You did it again, Poonam, I saw! I told you not to do that! Kabhi sudhroge?’ They have to accept the fact that yeh ladki kabhi nahin sudharne waali.” Pandey doesn’t think that she crosses any moral lines to deserve being reprimanded like that. But if she did manage to explain her moral line of no-nudity and entertainment to her mother, “toh gaaliyaan aur zyaada badh jaayegi!” Quoting her mum is one of the few times she refers to herself by her first name – otherwise, it is usually the first person pronoun or ‘Poonam Pandey’.
“You keep quiet, they will calm down and then do it again and phir drama. Stick to the plan and keep quiet, is my motto.” When at home, she prefers to keep the entertainer Poonam Pandey and the family Poonam Pandey separate, and soon enough, she thinks, the drama will recede and her family will get used to it. “I think it’s okay to be living in this duality. After all, it is your family. What your profession is should be kept separate, you can’t put family and profession together.”
I return to the subject of her selfies, and ask her if she thinks she becomes a different person when she clicks them. She is quick to say, “I am the same way everywhere. I don’t know why I said I’m a different person at home.” The only place where she admits to being a different person is when she is shooting.
We wrap up the interview. I pack my notepad and Dictaphone and turn to leave. She hasn’t had anything to eat all day and asks Medhekar to get her lunch as she pushes back into the chair and tilts it back and forth.