Shilpa Shetty: Spice girl

Shilpa Shetty was little known in this country until an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother became a national scandal. Here, she tells Deborah Ross how tabloid fame became a spingboard for her success. Portrait by Dan Burn-Forti
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The Independent Online

I meet Shilpa Shetty at a London hotel where she arrives carrying a sumptuous, tasselled Gucci bag and wearing a glittering Rolex the size of a dinner plate. "It's a Yacht-Master," she explains, helpfully. She loves to shop. "Clothes, shoes, bags. Clothes, shoes, bags. Clothes, shoes, bags ... honestly, it's a criminal waste of money." She has just been shopping for two new tops from Karen Millen (known sniffily as "Sharon Millen" in some quarters, but I don't think she needs to know that). One is a little gold blouse and the other is a skimpy, hot-pink number. She has a lot of photo-shoots today "and I can't wear the same for everyone". The tops are tiny, size six, and there is every chance neither would even make it up my leg. She says she'll just nip up to her room to change. "I'll be 10 minutes, tops," she exclaims, with a swish of that gorgeous, shiny hair. Seriously, she is beyond ravishing, with the hair and the pooled, dark eyes and the glossy, caramel – not racist! – skin. That said, the leaping eyebrows do scare me a little. Where are they planning to leap to, and by when?

Anyway, she returns 20 minutes later with a chap, Raj, producer of the musical stage show she is currently starring in, Miss Bollywood. "We've just done nine shows in Berlin, then we came here. It's a touring show. We have to go to Manchester, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Glasgow. We are doing shows in all these places. Glasgow. Did I say Glasgow?" The tour has been going very well. Of the nine performances thus far: "We got a standing ovation for every one". She sings, she acts, she dances. It's a good chance for her, she says, "to show the UK what I can do and to showcase India". It is not uncommon for her to lapse into beauty-pageant speak like this. She is fond of destiny, too. "I believe it is all destined, Deborah; that everything is written."

Whatever, it has certainly been go, go, go since winning Celebrity Big Brother, and, I think it's fair to say, she has loved every minute of it, bar the fame. Such a drag. Only kidding! She loves the fame. "I love it. I love it when people look at me. I'm surprised when they don't. Why would you be in this business if you didn't want to be famous?" So, no dark glasses and screwed-down baseball cap for Shilpa Shetty, then? "I never understood that," she says. "Never."

She plays the good sport during our photo session, giggling wildly when the vast pile of cushions she is propped against takes a tumble. "What are you trying to do to me, Deborah?" she laughs. "Are you trying to kill me?" She is keen, I think, to exhibit a sense of humour; may even have been destined to do so. Once the tumbling and laughing is over, I ask if she is in touch with any of her fellow Celebrity Big Brother contestants. She says not. "Not even Duck?" I ask. (I did love the way she always pronounced Dirk Benedict's name as "Duck", as in: "Oh, Duck, why do they all hate me so?") No, she says, "not even Duck. We didn't even exchange phone numbers." We talk about the racism hoo-ha, of course. I tell her I'm still trying to work it out, that maybe Jade and Danielle and Jo weren't racist.

Maybe it didn't have anything to do with Shilpa being Indian. Maybe they just didn't like Shilpa and didn't know how to express it except in language they were too ignorant to know was loaded. As for Jade's mother, Jackiey, well. How could she be expected to get Shilpa's name right when, as is obvious, she can't even spell her own? On the other hand, what is racism if not ignorance? I don't know. It does my head in. I ask Shilpa what she thinks. She thinks, she says, that it wasn't racism. She says, "They felt inferior to me, because I'm much more privileged than them, and offence became their best kind of defence." I'm not sure she cares about racism, one way or the other. I'm not sure she's even clocked that being disliked for herself rather than for being Indian is also something to think about. She does care that we all know where to go for information on Miss Bollywood.

"There is a website where you can find out more information. It is www.missbollywood. com," she says. No, says Raj. She is wrong. "It is""Oh no," she shrieks. " I've been saying it without the 'musical'." This seems to bother her considerably more.

We settle and order tea. I say, truthfully, that I have always longed to go to India. She says I must go. "Go to a spa, get relaxed, chill out, get tanned. I'll give you the address of this place where I did my yoga DVD, Deborah. I come from India and I was amazed at this place; so beautiful." What's it called? "Shilpa's Yoga." I was thinking more of the place, but there you have it. She continues with: "It's released on Boxing Day. I just saw the lay-out two days ago and I was so happy, Deborah."

There is something, perhaps, rather too contrived and striving about this "Deborah" business. I can't put my finger on it at first, but later it occurs to me that she's acting as girlfriends might, rather than do; that maybe friendship isn't her thing. I ask if she has any good women friends. She says: "Not very many. I joined the industry when I was 17, Deborah, so, at the time you actually make your friends, I was too busy working. But I do have my sister and my mother."

Shilpa's mother, Sunanda, sounds like a tough nut. She has masterminded Shilpa's career since the year dot, travels everywhere with her, and takes all the financial decisions. Shilpa is now 32, yet still lives at home. Doesn't she yearn for some kind of independence? Not at all, she replies. Plus, she'd be useless at the finance stuff. "I really don't have the acumen. I'm quite a sucker for sob stories. That's the reason my mum handles the financial aspect, because I am really bad." I wish, I say, your mum would handle my finances. They're a disaster. She says: "It's great having someone who unconditionally works and take the brunt of everything. The higher you go, the money you are dealing with gets bigger, and if not for my mum I would have to trust someone implicitly. I've had people really give me a raw deal. Learning from that, I think it's best when family look after your financial business."

What about, though, when your mother wears that diamond tiara to breakfast? "What?" she says. Never mind, I say. It was meant to be a joke. "What? " she says. As if your mother was stealing from behind your back? Seriously, it doesn't matter. Forget I said it. Please! She says her mother would never steal from her behind her back. "There are times when I want to shop for something for my mum and I shop and I shop and I shop but I don't know what to buy for her because there is nothing I can buy for her. She wears the same salwar kameezes and saris and there is nothing I can buy for her. Maybe lipsticks and more lipsticks but that's it." Exhibiting a sense of humour may, I guess, be different from having one. (Not racist! Just mean!)

True, she does come from quite a privileged background. The family business – making tamper-proof caps for the pharmaceutical industry – has afforded a luxurious lifestyle with a sprawling apartment in Mumbai equipped with domestic staff: cooks; chauffeurs; a hairdresser; make-up artist and even, I had read, a Man Friday to hold a parasol over Shilpa in the sunshine. I ask her if she'd know how to ... I don't know ... take a bus? "Of course!" she exclaims. "When I went to college I went by bus for a year because my mum wanted me to rough it out. But then my father had a fight with her and refused to send me by bus any more, so I got a chauffeur, and I loved him for it. My mum has always brought us up wanting us to see the hard side of life and that's the way you should bring up your children."

I suspect Shilpa is quite a tough nut, too. She is a black belt in karate. She's made more than 50 Bollywood films and Bollywood is no picnic. You have to be pretty tough to survive. Plus, she hired Max Clifford on her exit from the BB house, which feels like such a hard-faced thing to do. Why Max, Shilpa? He's so squalid. She says it was her mother who hired him while she was still in the house. "It was an international incident and my mum thought: 'Whom do we have for PR and damage control?' Not that I needed damage control. I think the other girls really needed the damage control!"

I wonder how she felt about the fall-out from Celebrity Big Brother, and the vilification of her tormenters. As it was, Danielle was dumped by her fella, Jo had to be put on suicide watch and Jade lost everything, including her own branded perfume (which smelled of what? Chip fat?). How did you feel, Shilpa? "Terrible! Terrible!" she says, "But I didn't feel responsible. I just felt nobody deserved to be viewed so cynically over a reality show." She sighs deeply, then adds brightly that she's just launched her own perfume, too. "It's always been a dream of mine, having my own perfume," she says.

I am beginning to think that, at heart, she may be quite lonely. She likes being wealthy, I know, and not just for herself: "Five years ago I bought my parents a Mercedes because it has always been my mother's dream to have a Mercedes." But is wealth any substitute for companionship or a relationship?

At one point she talks about the watch she received for her 23rd birthday ("a Chopard Happy Diamonds watch," she adds helpfully) and says: "I had just broken up with my boyfriend and it was my birthday and I was all alone and my parents gave me a Chopard Happy Diamonds watch and it just made me so happy." She doesn't seem to have ever had a great deal of joy on the boyfriend front. "I guess it's because I don't really stay in one place for long, and ever since I came out the Big Brother house eight months ago, it's just been one big, rollercoaster ride." Destiny will fix it, she is sure. "My horoscope says I will one day be very happily married."

Meanwhile, though, there have been mutterings in the press about various liaisons with married men but that, she says, is just the press. "It's the crowd mentality. I'm sorry, Deborah, but the media here is like that. I was headline news for two weeks. Even the Iraq war didn't get so much reference. But how much good can you write about Shilpa? So it's: let's do the other side and bring her down." She says she is more concerned when things are written about her parents, particularly the recent accusation that her father tried to extort money from a fellow businessman. "The only thing that really hurts me is when they say rubbish about my parents. I have heard some really mean things which are very, very saddening for me."

Still, she has, and will always have – I think – ambition for company. Hollywood would be good. "That would be a dream come true for two reasons: one, because Hollywood would be the next big thing; and, two, because I really want to make the crossover, to become the first Asian known by face and name there. That would be so amazing. I could reach out to so many more people." We part amicably enough. Kiss, kiss. Kiss, kiss. "I am liking your conversation," she says, as a parting shot. I don't know if I like her or not. In a strange kind of way, I'm not even sure I met anyone at all.

'Miss Bollywood' is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on 12 December (