Lisa Ray is in her own world right now. The acclaimed Canadian actress appears faraway from the photographer, videographer and stylists that have formed a tight circle around her. Even the intense stare of studio lights can’t assuage her green gaze as she ironically sways to the orchestral sound of Arcade Fire’s Empty Room. Wearing Christian Louboutin shoes on her feet, a white silk-chiffon Réva Mivasagar dress on her body and the lyrics When I'm by myself, I can be myself on her face, Ray’s angelic feathers are as unrufﬂ ed as it gets.
With a self-assurance and practiced poise that’s poetically performed, you would never guess that the spirited 39-year-old considers herself an introvert. “I need time alone. I’m quite shy at my core and at my being and I don’t really invite attention,” says Ray. That’s not the case, however, when the red light is ﬂashing. “I enjoy being in front of the camera, and in a weird way that’s a way of deﬂecting attention. It doesn’t sound like it obviously would be, but it is, because you’re actually just interacting with the camera,” she adds. A resident of Toronto’s Beaches, her mellow vibe and sunny disposition are radiant.
An admirer of iconic Italian movie stars Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren, Ray bears a surreal resemblance to the latter Old Hollywood heroine. Aside from both being lauded for their natural beauty, the ‘two women’ actually have a lot in common. In many ways, Ray’s life is evidence that there are lessons to be learned everywhere, reﬂ ecting a similar sentiment to a famous Loren quote: “It’s a mistake to think that once you’re done with school you need never learn anything new.”
Referring to herself as an “accidental actress,” Ray was discovered by a fashion magazine at 16 while vacationing in India with her Bengali father and Polish mother. Practically overnight, she torpedoed into a successful career as a model, with her face strewn across magazine covers and her name inscribed in
several publications, including a Times of India poll, which named her the ninth most beautiful woman of the
millennium. “Through a combination of circumstances and twists and turns, I thought I’d maybe model for about six months in India, and that turned into a decade,” says Ray, who had aspirations of becoming a journalist at the time. Having shot to superstardom in India, Ray eventually made the next natural
career move and starred in the ﬁlm Kasoor in 2000, followed by Bollywood/Hollywood. “In a weird way, acting and the profession I’m in is almost out of default … I mean, I love acting, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not
as terriﬁ ed of failing at it as I would be at writing,” she says.
After getting her feet wet, Ray stepped onto a global platform, starring in Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated ﬁlm Water in 2005. Despite receiving critical acclaim for her social-politically driven portrayal of an oppressed widow in 1930s India, she believes her best role was actually in a South African movie called The World
Unseen, in which she plays a married mother who falls in love with a woman at the onset of apartheid. “I was just so much more in control of my craft by then and you can just feel the difference as an actor. I kind of know how it was ﬂowing and how authentic it was for me,” she says.
As genuine as her performance might have been, some would say that Ray’s most signiﬁcant role is actually her most recent one, as a real-life “cancer graduate.” Her life took a turn from actress to activist shortly after she was told in 2009 that she had multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer. Horrifying words for anyone to absorb, but in another series of twists and turns, Ray had a chance dress rehearsal prior
to her doctor’s daunting diagnosis.
While taking her dad up to India's mountains for a 10-day meditation retreat to heal after the death of her mother, she spontaneously decided to enroll in whatever course was concurrently running. The enlightening
topic turned out to be death and dying. “It was fascinating … We actually did a visualization where we’d talk through the scenario where you enter the doctor’s ofﬁ ce, you sit down and the doctor says, ‘Listen, bad news, you have six months,’ and then you try to ﬁgure out what you’re going to do with those six months,” says Ray, still surprised by the serendipitous circumstance.
Instead of dwelling over her subsequent diagnosis, Ray began a witty, cerebral blog called The Yellow Diaries, where she discussed her near-daily experiences with multiple myeloma and the chemotherapy, steroids and stem cell transplant that coincided. In an excerpt called “Mane Tamer” from an entry
dated Nov. 23, 2009, she writes about her liberating decision to shave her head before side effects shackled her freedom of choice: ‘My stem cell procedure begins on Monday. Tomorrow. So I donned a disciple’s robe and surrendered my hair … I can transcend now. A reinvention. A puriﬁcation. And a transformation. From the inside out.’
Her site attracted attention from all corners of the globe, with a comment board that howled heartfelt support
of all forms, from poems to video montages. Her blog became something much more than a personal outlet of expression. “It was a big breakthrough for me because a lot of my life has been spent on the road and it’s been a very solitary life and now at this phase of my life I’m understanding the power of community and support and reaching out,” she says.
Now cancer-free, Ray credits her stem cell transplant as a saviour and has become a major advocate and
philanthropic force for what she believes is, “going to be the next big leap or big wave.” A globetrotter for awareness, she’s not only a face but a voice for stem cell technology in India and Canada, and recently completed the national Make Myeloma Matter media tour.
In addition to her charitable endeavours, Ray is currently in the process of penning her ﬁrst book,
and she’ll be stepping onto the stage again in June with Luminato’s Taj , around the same time Toronto
plays host to the International Indian Film Academy conference. She’s also transformed her passion
for yoga, which she tributes as a fundamental part of her healing process, into a business by
partnering up to launch Moksha Yoga Brampton. “This gives me the opportunity to share and give
back something that I feel strongly about,” she says.
Back at the photo shoot, you would never guess that Ray is someone who recently had a life-threatening illness That is, you would never guess, unless you knew – in which case, you’d understand – that the 5-foot-4 ﬁrecracker, perched in a warrior yoga pose, is exactly who she is today because of her experience
with cancer. “It is very powerful because it changes you on every level … It’s just sort of a renewed engagement with life now.”
Like words written with sparklers in the air, lyrics to another Arcade Fire song leave a lasting impression:
“My mind is open wide, and now I'm ready to start.”
(Source: City Life Magazine June-July 2011)
(Photos: Dean West)