WORDS: MICHAEL MCGEARY
PICTURES: CHRIS BOOTH
She’s lit up Bollywood and now has her sights set on conquering Hollywood, but self-proclaimed “northern lass” Preeti Desai loves nothing more than coming back home for a hike up Roseberry Topping and to snack on a Greggs pasty.
The Middlesbrough-born former beauty queen enjoys a glamorous life in Los Angeles, filming, modelling and mixing with the stars at Oscars’ night parties.
Whenever her busy schedule allows it, though, she returns to her beloved Teesside to be with her family and friends – and you’ll often find her slaving behind the counter of her mum and dad’s busy fireworks shop.
Preeti shot to national prominence in 2007 when the reigning Miss Cleveland was crowned Miss Great Britain in a public vote after the original winner was disqualified over an undeclared relationship with one of the judges.
She was the first woman of colour to win the prestigious title – and soon top Bollywood agents and casting directors were beating a path to the door of her Guisborough home.
“Anyone who knows me will say I’m not a typical beauty pageant kind of girl,” she laughs disarmingly when we meet at Middlesbrough’s Artizan cocktail bar during her latest trip home. “But winning the title put me on a platform and I received all kinds of offers from India.
“I hadn’t even thought of getting into film. I thought, ‘Can I even act?’ But I took a risk and went to Bombay.
You’ve got to be brave sometimes. I signed with one of the biggest agents and spent three months doing acting classes and learning Hindi.
“My first assignment was modelling on the cover of L’Officiel, a huge international magazine. The next two years were crazy. I walked for all the fashion designers and did campaigns, shoots and endorsements around the world. It was a huge jump from working in a nine-to-five job.”
Preeti grew up in Coulby Newham, where dad Jitu and mum Hema ran two corner shops. She left Nunthorpe School at the age of 16 without knowing what she wanted to do with her life. “I wasn’t great at school, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and really struggled to concentrate,” she says.
She undertook a beauty course at Kirby College in Middlesbrough – often popping into the nearby Linthorpe pub after lessons – before working in Isis, within Psyche, where she did everything from massages and facials to nails and waxing, while dreaming of opening her own salon.
“I loved it because I loved my clients,” she beams. “But there was always something inside me thinking ‘This can’t be it’. I stopped working and spent a year trying to work out what I wanted to do and it was then that Miss GB happened.”
Life would never be the same again. She made her feature film debut in 2011 thriller Shor In The City, earning rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, and then in 2014 she landed her first leading role, in One by Two, opposite Indian superstar Abhay Deol, at that time her real-life boyfriend. She was soon a familiar face and was named in the Times of India’s 50 Most Desirable Women.
“Living in Bombay changes you and opens your eyes,” says Preeti.
“I started working as soon as I arrived and it was constant. But by 2015 I had the seven-year itch. My agent in LA said it would be good for me to be there and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I believe that if the universe is pushing you in a certain direction, you should just go for it.”
She has recently been busy shooting Netflix miniseries Gods and Secrets as well as feature films The Bachelor Next Door, The Work Wife and Expectant Mother.
“I’ve no idea when they’re coming out,” she says. “You finish shooting and move on to your next project.
“Living in LA’s lovely – you can’t beat the sunshine. I go on amazing hiking trails, the beach and mountains are just around the corner.
“If I’m not making films, a lot of my work is commercials and product endorsements, which is a lot of fun.
“It’s a very healthy city, you meet friends and have a shot of green energy drink. I spent the summer in New York and everyone’s in the pub, it’s more like being back in England!”
She is currently single and says: “I’ve been in long relationships ever since I was 17 and this is the first time I’ve been able to do my own thing – and I’m loving it.”
Her family run G2 fireworks in Borough Road, Middlesbrough, and no matter where she is in the world, Preeti is expected to fly back to help out during busy periods.
“I wasn’t able to fly back for Bonfire Night because I was shooting, but otherwise I’ll be there, grafting,” says Preeti. “It keeps me grounded!”
That may be why Preeti comes across as a genuinely warm and down-to-earth person who is unlikely to allow success to change her. While she loves her glamorous new life, she is happiest of all surrounded by the people she knows best.
“There’s something about northerners I love, they’re just so friendly,” she says. “This is the place I grew up and a lot of who I am today is because of Middlesbrough. For me, it’s home.
“I’ve lost touch with a lot of friends but I was a little weirdo growing up anyway, a socially awkward kid. I bonded with my Yorkshire terrier, Charlie, and stayed in and watched a lot of films. I absolutely love all animals – I need me-time away from people, but I could spend all day with animals.
“Sadly, Charlie died recently and I just feel bad that I was unable to be there. He gave us so many good years together and was part of the family. It’s the worst thing – your best friend, little brother, son and guardian angel all passing away at once.
“When I’m here, I want to go back to being a little kid. I love to lounge and sometimes I keep my pyjamas on for days! I miss having a pasty, so I’ll go to Greggs and get a steak bake and a sausage roll, and I miss my stodgy Brit food – shepherd’s pie, mince and dumplings, Sunday roasts and good old Yorkshire puddings – and my mum does a mean curry.
“Suggit’s in Great Ayton make the best ice cream in the world and there are also so many nice new places opening up around Teesside. I didn’t go walking much when I was younger – it’s too bloody cold – but now we live near Roseberry Topping, so it’s more appealing.”
Preeti is now back in the States training for a new film that’s set to be her biggest yet – “I can’t talk about it now because it’s so hush-hush, but it’s very exciting,” she says.
But until she gets the chance to come back home again, she’ll continue in her role as Teesside’s unofficial ambassador to Hollywood.
“I love our Middlesbrough accent,” she says. “My sister, Anjlee, who is now a singer-songwriter in London, still has hers. Mine’s a mish-mash but if I run into someone from home, my accent quickly comes back.
“I still like to stay me, even in LA. I’m proud of being a northern girl – everyone knows I’m a northern lass!”