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Pop CultureJanuary 18, 2016

Sonia Gray on the public life of a Shortland Street villain

Lotto presenter Sonia Gray first found fame as the conniving Aleesha Cook on Shortland Street. She reflects on life as a soap villain ahead of the iconic show’s return to our screens this week.

As New Zealand prepares itself for the fallout from Ferndale’s first brush with homegrown terrorism, I find myself reflecting on the time it was I who tried to tear apart the social fabric of this sleepy, medically-focused, seaside suburb. It was 1999 and I was Aleesha, a 21-year old femme fatale who terrorised the good people of Shortland Street, leaving a trail of hurt feelings, emptied bank accounts and sabotaged condoms.

When Aleesha was unleashing her worst on the show things got pretty crazy for me in the real world. If I ventured out in public I risked being shoved or spat on or sworn at. I’d walk into a party and feel the vibe go flat. A girl in Foodtown Grey Lynn threatened to give me a hiding and a mum in the mall told me I was ‘teaching young kids it was okay to jump into bed with anyone’. But perhaps the peak of humiliation came when a guy poured a pint of beer over my head from the upstairs bar at a pub. That was the spirit breaker.

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As I saw it, there were two options open to me: leave the country or never leave the house. Neither was viable at that point so I went for a third option, adopting my patented Resting Nice Face. It was Jim Carrey-esque, a smile which never left my face when in public. I looked ridiculous. But try being nasty to someone like that, it’s impossible. That smile said “I know you think you don’t like me, but look at this face! I come in peace”.

Some degree of animosity was understandable I suppose. My character was a little troublesome. To recap: Aleesha arrived at Ferndale and quickly became engaged to Nick Harrison. She then blackmailed the family she had carried a surrogate baby for and was consequently dumped by Nick. She began a sexual relationship with Fergus Kearney and pricked holes in Fergus’ condoms (in an attempt to get pregnant).

She was diagnosed with a heart condition and accused her heart surgeon (falsely) of sexual harassment. She was dumped by Fergus, stole money from the clinic and was fired from her job as receptionist. She had a brief fling with Frank Malone and later revealed she was pregnant but that the parentage was indeterminable. She continued to cause trouble in the clinic until one of the doctors ran her over in his car. She lost the baby and lost so much blood she was forced to have a hysterectomy. All this played out in less than a year.

The upside was that the internet was in its infancy in 1999, and Facebook and Twitter were unimaginable. With great foresight, I chose to play a baddie on a soap before all social media hell (and trolls) broke loose.

It was a very different time in so many ways. As an actor on Shortland Street in 1999, any downtime was spent in the studio’s Green Room, chain-smoking Dunhill Blues (windows always closed, ashtrays always overflowing) and experimenting with the brand new text messaging feature on chunky Nokia phones. Those unfortunate enough to have Alcatels had to sit and watch and wait till 2001. 1999: it was a glamour-less lifetime ago.

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I was working as a model at the time I was offered the role.  No one likes models, particularly actors, so there was no red carpet rolled out when I appeared on set. And fair enough because, like most model-slash-actors, I had no idea what I was doing. I could barely find my mark and remember my lines, let alone search for subtext or think about motivation. They work at break-neck pace on the Street and if you’re not match fit, you have to get there fast.

Fortunately, the basics came pretty quickly. I learned if everyone gets their lines right in a scene you have to ‘move on’, even if your personal performance is abominable; I learned that on-screen kissing is a ‘no-tongue’ affair (learned that too late); and I learned that Shortland Street fans are personally invested in their favourite characters and if you mess with them, they do not like it. Not one bit.

No one was more surprised at Aleesha’s quick descent to the dark side than me. I auditioned for the role, was offered the role, accepted the role and started playing the part – but at no time during this process was I aware she was being set up to be a villain. In fact, the original character breakdown states she is “kind-natured and wants, more than anything, to be liked”. (It also says she is “a charming, needy time-bomb”. I chose to ignore that).

Baddies do not always start out bad. Simon Bennett, Shortland Street’s producer at the time, thinks this was the case with Aleesha. “I don’t remember the exact details, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Aleesha’s villainy grew after she had been introduced – rather than the character having a villainous intent at the outset. It’s often when writers have started to watch a particular actor inhabiting a role, that it becomes clear. Sometimes an actor may have a quality on screen that just radiates ‘villainy’!”

So, possibly (alarmingly?) the writers saw a nefarious quality in me which led them to steer the sail in that direction. Aleesha was definitely at her best when she was at her scheming, vengeful, nostril-flaring worst. I did shock myself at times with the level of malice I was able to summon. But I had complete empathy for Aleesha – it’s impossible not to when you’re in someone’s shoes for 60 hours a week. Sure she slept with a few guys and told a few lies, but she wasn’t a murderer or rapist and she was definitely no Gareth Hutchins. It’s hard to imagine a male character being vilified in the same way for the same behaviour.

Bennett acknowledges that fans treat female villains more harshly than males  “I suspect there may be a sexist double-standard in the way some audience members regard characters: Joey [the Ferndale strangler] was loved despite being responsible for strangling six or seven women characters on the show, whereas Aleesha, like Pania [read more about her experience here] more recently, was loathed for doing far less.”

I could point out here that Aleesha was branded a slapper for sleeping with three consenting adult men. That’s hardly a crime, or even unusual. I could also mention that Nick Harrison – never the sharpest tool – opened up his home and his heart and his bank account to Aleesha, an absolute stranger. I could also tell you that Fergus should have known better than to leave condoms around waiting to have holes poked in them. But none of that matters because, for the alarmingly high percentage of New Zealanders watching the show at the time, Aleesha posed a threat with which they could personally identify. She had the power to steal husbands from women and steal cash and sperm from men. She needed to go down – and she needed to lose her uterus.

“Audiences get very frustrated if they don’t think villainous characters get an appropriate comeuppance,” says Bennett. “But yes, Aleesha’s penalty was very extreme, and these days she would be more likely taken away to some compulsory rest and recuperation.”

Poor old Aleesha. That’s the price you pay for being a part of Shortland Street in the Dark Ages. They took their pound of flesh. Literally.

A sterile Aleesha was wheelchaired out of Ferndale for the last time in mid-2000. A new villain emerged on the show and my life returned to normal. But the recognition has never gone away, failing even to die out in a generation. The standard “I hated you on Shortland Street” has faded to become “my mum hated you on Shortland Street”.  According to Simon Bennett, that means I was a ‘successful villain’. And I’m okay with that. It’s always nice to be good at something, even if you’re just good at being evil.

But what about those actors who bounced out of Ferndale into Hollywood stardom? Are big names like Martin Henderson and Karl Urban ever remembered as Stewart Neilson and the gay ambulance driver? I doubt it. But for a handful of others like me, who haven’t trod the floorboards of the Starship Enterprise or Grey Sloan Memorial hospital, Shortland Street will remain a scarlet letter we wear forever. Like Hotel California, once you’ve checked in, you can never really leave.

Soap fans should check out Shortland Street’s spiritual ancestor, the mighty Days of our Lives, which just turned 50 and screens now on the Spinoff’s TV section sponsor, Lightbox


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