• Fri. Oct 22nd, 2021

Nicole Whippy: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Sep 20, 2021

Nicole Whippy is one of New Zealand’s best-loved actors. Famous for roles in Outrageous Fortune and Nothing Trivial, she is currently core cast on Shortland St playing headstrong nurse Cece King. Founder of the popular Pt Chev Drama Club, Nicole is also an acclaimed director and, with sister Sharron, directed the Fiji vignette in the award-winning movie Vai.

I was born in Suva Hospital and spent my early years in Fiji. When I needed to be weaned, because mum had to go back to work, my grandmother used paw paw juice in place of breast milk, and my very first memory is of my grandmother squeezing paw paw juice into my mouth. Then when I was 3 we moved to New Zealand because Dad worked for New Zealand Industrial Gases as a fitter and turner and he got a job here.

We lived in East Auckland, in Buckland’s Beach, where there were no Fijians. There would’ve been more Fijians in Christchurch, but I don’t remember feeling different. I was just a person, although I was entranced by my Barbie who was blonde, and I didn’t really realise I was brown until I went to school. I went to Pigeon Mountain Primary, which was as beautiful and magical as it sounds, and I have really fond memories, although there were a couple of moments that stick out where I sensed I wasn’t like the others.

When I was 7, one of my friends weed on the floor and the teacher made me clean it up. The kids were all looking at me, and we knew it was wrong but no one knew what to do, so I started cleaning, and making jokes, but it was really uncomfortable. I knew enough not to tell Mum and only later, when I was an adult and I unpacked it did I really understand why it happened. Years later, when I told Mum, she fell apart. Another moment, in standard four, I had this friend I adored. She came up to me and said ‘my father says I’m not allowed to play with you anymore because you’re brown’. I reacted by making a joke because that was my defence mechanism. I turned it against her and made her feel bad because that’s how she made me feel.

As a little girl, I found value in performing to cover those sorts of things up. But I was also a really good student, and amazing at sport. I read a lot, I danced. Ialways had this thing that I had to be better than everyone else to get through. Mum instilled that in us, although a couple of times Mum would take on a teacher who she thought was being unjust. Mum was this tiny little lady who fought so hard for us and I was so embarrassed at the time but, looking back, she was amazing and definitely made me the mum I am today.

My first job was at KFC in Pakuranga. My friend Lorraine’s mum was the manager and I started working there when I was 14. It was fun, but KFC also paid amazingly well. You could do tests on things like the potatoes and gravy and get a pay-rise, so I did all the tests and upskilled. When I was 15, I was earning close to $500 a week. I also loved customer service, and I treated the drive-thru like a performance, in my costume with the little visor. It was hard work though. We had to scrub the restaurant down every single night, finishing at midnight, then I’d go to school the next day. But I had my parents’ work ethic -mum had three jobs, including waitressing at Cobb & Co, which I thought was so cool. All the parents back then worked really hard.

Dad worked long hours, or he was at the pub with his mates. To be honest, he wasn’t a great father, he was either absent or abusive. There was a bit of violence, probably a lot, but my older sister sheltered me from most of it. But Dad became a different person when he got Parkinson’s, and during his illness I came to understand him better. His own father was a New Zealand soldier who was stationed in Fiji duringWorld War II, who had a one night stand with my grandmother. He also had a family in Christchurch, with four kids and a pregnant wife. So Dad grew up not knowing his father and in Fiji, because he didn’t look indigenous, he was teased horribly, even though he spoke Fijian and felt Fijian.

When Dad got sick, we did one last story together, for Woman’s Day, to help Dad find his father and, with the fee, we were all going to Fiji together one last time. We got medical permission for him to fly then, the day before we were due to leave, he died. It was so unexpected and I had this moment at Auckland Hospital, in the moments after he passed, when all my anger towards him faded away, and I understood his journey. Three days later the journalist called to say she’d found Dad’s sister. She’d seen the Woman’s Day story, and knew dad was her Fijian half-brother. She told us her story. How when she was young some war office officials had visited and all the kids were made to go to their room, but they listened and heard how their dad had a Fijian son. They heard their mother say they would never speak of him. She’d always wanted to know who her half-brother was, but said it was probably best dad didn’t meet them, as he’d have never been accepted. She gave us some photos of our grandfather. It was good to tell her about Dad, but that was enough and after we’d seen her, it felt like that chapter was closed.

When I was 16, I had to pick between netball and acting, between playing netball for my school in Fiji – I was fiercely competitive – or taking part in The Sheila Winn Shakespeare Festival, and I chose Shakespeare. In my final year of school, I also went completely off the rails, but I still managed to audition for Unitec’s performing arts school.On the morning of my second audition, I’d drunk too much the night before and I ended up in hospital. It was awful. I was meant to be at the recalls, but I couldn’t go and mum had to call them. I thought I’d blown it, but they put me through to the final round anyway. I was the youngest in my class and really naïve but, by the time I graduated, I didn’t make the ceremony because I was already on set for Jacksons Wharf. Drama school is like the school of life, and acting pretty much saved me.

One thing about Shortland Street, I love the work but it only gives you so much, so I really need to find other ways to stay creative. Which is why I’ve used my time out there to take up Te Reo. Learning the language has really connected me to Aotearoa as one of my homes. For a while, there was some conflict and I didn’t know who I was, which really played out in my later teens. But New Zealand is my home, and so is Fiji.

Going back to Fiji to make Vai, to understand the reasons my parents left, to accept the loss of language and home, that really helped me forgive my parents. Learning te reo and te ao Māori has been life-changing, because so much is connected. Aotearoa and Fiji share the same Polynesian roots, and learning the reo has made me feel even more Fijian. I’ve beaten myself up for a long time, trying to navigate two worlds and not quite knowing where I stand, but now I feel this huge acceptance. I’m meant to be here, and here I am.

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