Porn star rides online video wave in India

Summary:Sunny Leone has found a treasure trove, and a few new business models, in a rapidly digitizing India.

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Adult entertainment star Sunny Leone, in just a few short years has become something of a household name in India, her new, adopted country. And she promises to become much more than that if Zenga TV — the leading free live and video-on-demand mobile TV service here — has its way.

Zenga has picked Leone to be the partner for its first official app, which, when downloaded, will give the mobile TV company's 22 million users access to all of the content that Leone has decided to stuff the app with.

Those hoping for easy access to hardcore Sunny may be disappointed — the application on Google Play says that users "will field her travel blogs, her movie experiences, her announcements, and personalized videos announcing winners of various contests that will be planned during 2014". However, those eager for more racy stuff can easily access it off her personal website.

Zenga's choice maybe a bold one, but also clever when you consider Leone's pedigree as one of Maxim's top 12 porn stars in 2010 and Penthouse Pet of the year in 2003. Originally selected as a Penthouse playmate by none other than Bub Guccione (who gave her the name "Leone"), she went on make it big as a contract star for leading adult entertainment company Vivid.

Now, Zenga could have easily picked any of the hot Bollywood stars of today — from bad boy Salman Khan, the Badshah of the box office for the last decade here, to leading actresses Katrina Kaif and Priyanka Chopra, all with massive fan followings, especially in the digital medium. Instead, it chose Leone. What probably attracted Zenga to Leone is her revelation that 80 percent of the traffic on her website and 60 percent of revenues come from India.

This shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Despite its conservative society (or perhaps because of it), Indians are possibly as devoted consumers of pornography as most other citizens of the world. Even its politicians can't seem to get enough of it. Three of them from the socially conservative Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, in the state of Karnataka, were caught enjoying porn clips on their mobile phones while the Assembly was in session, which could perhaps explain many things about the state of the nation. (Amongst the trio was the minister of women and child development.)

If these ministers had a little chutzpah, they could perhaps point out that this is, after all, the land of the Kama Sutra — an ancient Hindu treatise cum manual on erotic love making written in Sanskrit by Vatsyayana. Or, they could point to the temples of Khajuraho in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, built between 950 and 1150 AD, that depict some impossible and unmentionable feats in this realm on its exterior temple walls.

However, those are very distant times. Hindu society today (much like Muslim society here) is a largely conservative one where the purity of the woman is sacrosanct and the vehicle of the family's honour. So much so that elopement in the state of Haryana has often been settled by the local khap or council of village elders sanctioning the hunting down of the girl and the public hanging of her.

It can seem to be a puzzling paradox. On one hand, major Hindu goddesses like Durga, Kali, Saraswati, and Lakshmi enjoy a huge following. We also have a larger preponderance of women leaders: Currently, at least three chief ministers in various Indian states are women, and the region probably boasts of the highest number of former and current demale heads of state than any other — from Indira Gandhi to Benazir Bhutto to the two current, battling Bangladeshi supremos, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. (Of course, many of them inherited their position of power, but hey, so did many men here.) Yet, it is also a place that has one of the highest rates of female foeticide, incidences of rape, revenge killings, and violence against women in general.

Whether pornography exacerbates these horrors by objectifying women or allows hard-up men to channel their frustrations is subject matter for a rigorous, psycho-social analytical study (that has, in all likelihood, been done already). What is relevant today for people like Leone is that the internet is allowing women and men to take matters into their own hands, so to speak.

And nothing is as profitable as the business of selling a little (or a lot of) skin in the digital world. Experts will tell you that the most profitable enterprise on the internet is, after all, pornography. In becoming so, it has eviscerated the industry's bricks-and-mortar world that existed as far back as a decade ago, when the approximately $15 billion industry was at its peak. This Huffington Post article quotes Theo Sapoutzis, the CEO and chairman of Adult Video News (AVN), a trade journal, saying that at least 80 percent of today's adult entertainment companies that existed five years ago have either gone under or are about to, while the industry has also shrunk by a third.

What has flourished during this era has been the Do-It-Yourself operator who can, with the use of an inexpensive DSLR and tripod, or even a webcam, operate without stepping out of the bedroom, thus driving yet another nail into the coffin of the adult entertainment company of yesteryear.

For this new breed of professionals, India is a huge market. Thanks to the rapid rise of the smartphone here, Indians have become some of the most voracious consumers of online video in the world. According to Comscore, the total online video audience in India has grown 74 percent to 54 million viewers in just the last year, with the average viewer watching 18 percent more videos and spending 28 percent more time viewing. No doubt a lot of those are videos of Leone and her colleagues.

You may call this serendipitous or calculating when you hear that Sunny Leone was once Karenjit Kaur Vohra, born to Sikh Punjabi parents in the small town of Sarnia, Ontario, in Canada. While studying as a pediatric nurse, apparently one of her classmates who was making extra money as an exotic dancer ended up putting Leone in touch with a photographer for Penthouse magazine. The rest is porn history.

Since her move to India, Leone has appeared on India's most popular reality TV show, Big Boss, and starred in a number of Indian movies, her first being Jism 2 (it's not what your filthy mind is conjuring up; "jism" means body in Hindi). She is managed by producer-husband Daniel Weber, who co-starred with her in a number of adult movies. Her digital media stats are not too shabby, with over 10 million likes on her Facebook page, and over 550,000 followers on Twitter.

From all accounts, Leone is a thorough professional, a hard worker, and savvy marketer of herself, and has a global as well as local reputation, making her perfectly positioned to benefit from the goldmine that is online video in her parents' homeland.

Not bad for a small-town girl from Ontario, Canada.

Topics: Apps, E-Commerce, India, Mobility

About

Rajiv is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi who is interested in how new technologies, innovation, and disruptive business forces are shaking things up in India. He was most recently a features editor at Business Standard newspaper, and started his career as a reporter with Fortune Magazine in New York in the '90s. He a... Full Bio

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