Photos of Jessica Dhillon courtesy of Joseph Lindstrom. Dhillon’s make-up and hair by Kay Matthews.
You wouldn’t think it to look at her now, but Jessica Dhillon—Vancouver-based model, actor, dancer-choreographer, producer and DJ—was a shy student.
As a youngster she kept her head down, and her nose to the books, terrified to speak in front of her class.
Yet the twenty-something Dhillon seems to have jumped straight in the deep end not long after, and snagged huge projects in every avenue in which she has taken an interest, virtually over night.
Her first gig in film is a US-India co-production involving Bollywood and Hollywood actors. The first producer she interned with had worked with Charlize Theron, her first DJ gig was CityTV New Year’s Eve with Raghav and the first music video she co-produced was Raghav’s ‘Top of the World’.
So just how did the conscientious Dhillon become the quintuple threat to the entertainment industry that she is today?
It was over a decisive few months on holiday in England with her sister, just after she had finished university, that something changed.
Her older sibling’s sisterly scorn for Jessica’s down-to-earth clothing choices (read: sweatpants), and the strutting English fashionistas got her thinking about her attire. Suddenly, she began to wear mascara and dress up a little.
Did it feel weird after her ‘tomboy’ teens?
On the contrary, she says, she was empowered. She even decided to investigate acting classes when she was back in Canada.
“It forced me to come out of my bubble … going through a range of emotions in front of people is terrifying. I actually broke down crying during one of the exercises. As an actor you need to be more emotionally vulnerable.”
So that’s how she came out of her shell. But gaining confidence and landing a handful of beginnings in glowing careers during one’s fledgling twenties are two very different things.
Last year, Jessica was invited to speak the UBC Elite Leadership Conference alongside hockey great Trevor Linden and Paralympian Rick Hansen. So how did she get the guts to get on stage and motivate people herself?
Says Dhillon of her first lessons in presenting a public persona:
“When I was invited to speak at the UBC Elite Leadership Conference, my heart was thumping. But once I started talking about my experiences I realized all these people were there because they wanted to listen to me, there because they were looking for inspiration. And suddenly I was confident.”
Jessica recently gave an impromptu talk at her old high school, and was touched when a student who had a passion for dancing, but had been in an accident, came up to her and thanked her for the inspiration.
“Girls came up afterwards and said ‘Wow … the way you walk in heels! The way you present!'” She laughs.
So what would Jessica have said, had she encountered her high school self in the hallways of her school?
“I would say ‘you are going to become a completely different person, yet still the same person within. But everything’s going to be alright.’ I had tunnel vision then. I was so concerned about the future. All I knew was studying, basketball, volleyball, student council, soccer, volleyball, student council, grad council…I was so sheltered. When I got my first B, it was the biggest heartbreak in my life.”
Does she regret being that sheltered?
“No, because I think you come out pure. And you take things on at the right age. Maybe I’m making up for it now, letting go. In the entertainment industry, there’s a party every day!”
But in a way, her ability to focus has just taken on a different form.
“Instead of running from basketball to student council meeting to grad council meeting to going home to working to get my straight A’s, to scholarship applications, its now going from maybe a magazine interview to a photo shoot, to a production call on the film side, to then working on my DJ set.”
And she has ways of grading herself. She sets goals for each avenue, like putting out a mixed tape that’s going to have a certain number of views, or, say, a successful music video on MuchMusic.
Her first stint in India led to her meeting three of the topmost producers/directors of the industry in Mumbai: Yash Chopra, Karan Johar and Subhash Ghai.
“It would be like going to Hollywood, and right off the bat meeting Steven Speilberg, James Cameron and George Lucas. I met them the day after I arrived in Mumbai.” She says, genuinely pleased at the memory.
I ask her how she keeps her head screwed on so tight considering the reputation of the various industries she’s involved in. Entertainment doesn’t exactly have a rep for treating women respectfully. Dhillon is hard-pressed to think of any situations where she was asked to compromise her integrity. She finally comes up with one: in India, she received what she describes as ‘not a genuine business proposition’.
“I was able to recognize that right away and walk away from it. But otherwise I’ve been lucky I work with great people. I’ve been raised with very strong morals. I had never dated, so that must say a lot! I’m not uptight, but I have certain values.”
“But I am an anomaly in this industry: what you see in magazines does happen very often.” She is careful to add.
Dhillon currently wears all her hats. She just wrapped up her stint as the Vancouver School Board’s artist-in-residence. She’s working on a US-India co-production called Sold that necessitates a lot of travel; she’s got both an acting role in it and the role of Associate Producer. She recently wrapped Party for the Planet with Raghav, opening for Canadian rap rock band Down with Webster. And, of course, she’s modelling here and there.
But above all, Dhillon bides her time as she waits for the sun to come out so she can take her motorbike, a three year-old Kawasaki Ninja, for a spin.
Gayatri is a philosopher-turned-professional-film-fanatic, with East and West in her DNA, and a travel bug in her boot. Follow her @Gaya3b on Twitter.