21 Jul 2016

What it's like to be a Shortland Street lookalike

11:20 am on 21 July 2016

Resembling someone on TV is a much bigger, more annoying deal than you might think, says Vanessa Ellingham.

We've already forgotten who's who.

We've already forgotten who's who. Photo: Michael Greenfield

‘What it’s like’ is a weekly Wireless series. For more, click here.

The same week I got new glasses, Shortland Street character Jasmine Cooper got a new haircut. The stars had aligned: we now had identical mousey brown bobs with thick fringes and rectangular nerd glasses.

Just like that, I had become a doppelgänger.

I hadn’t watched Shorty since about 1998, so I had no idea I had just become someone’s lookalike until I came home from uni one evening to find my flatmates squealing, demanding that I sit not in front of the TV but right next to it and wait until Jasmine came back on so they could compare our faces. It was a match. 

You know you’re really famous when your fans call you by your character’s name.

I was doubtful people would ‘recognise’ me on the street, but it turned out this girl was famous. Famous enough that I soon had teenage girls following me around Westfield St Lukes calling me Jasmine. That’s when you know you’re really famous: when your fans call you by your character’s name.

Except I wasn’t really famous. I was a 20-year-old journalism student, not a sulky 14-year-old school girl. The age difference grated a bit. I responded to these teens by fast-walking towards a side exit, calling over my shoulder, “I’m not who you think I am!” This did not have the intended effect.

The most frustrating part of all this was that the actress, Pearl McGlashan, probably didn’t even get recognised as her character. Her glasses were only for the show – without them we’re not so much alike. So while I went around being Jasmine, she could fly right under the radar as herself.

One time a fellow student asked me, “How do you get it all done? Filming and study – it must be really intense!” It was tempting to go along with the buzz. Another guy in my class eventually admitted he had also thought I was the actress, but hadn’t wanted to bother me about it because it must be really tough being that famous. It kind of was.

But it became too creepy when Jasmine was forced to skip her school’s swimming day because of her heart defect. “Hey, don’t you have a heart defect?” one of my flatmates asked. There was no denying it: Shortland Street writers were ripping off my life.

I didn’t enjoy watching Shortland Street, but when on-screen me began organising séances to contact the hospital’s dead patients, it soon seemed safer to get a heads-up on the activities for which I would be judged, rather than hearing about them second-hand. You know those TV actors who play killers and get harassed by viewers in the street? If Jasmine was dabbling in the supernatural, I probably needed to know about it.

In just a few months, Jasmine became a staple on the show, and didn’t look to be getting killed off any time soon. There was only one thing for me to do: leave the country. I moved to Europe hoping that by the time I got back to New Zealand, it would’ve all blown over.

When I returned home two and a half years later, I’d totally forgotten about my faux celebrity status. But apparently not everyone in Auckland had. Last January I was sitting at a burger bar with my boyfriend, when he whispered, “Some girls are pointing at you. Are you still famous here?”

I read online that Jasmine had exited the Shortland Street community by going on an overseas study exchange – just like me. So now I was ‘That girl who used to be on Shortland Street.’ It didn’t feel great, being a has-been.

And it didn’t sit well knowing that someone else would be judged for my holiday indulgences. Trashy magazine headlines flashed before my eyes: “Jasmine goes to Burger Burger and actually EATS something!” “Jasmine buys her nail polish at the $2 Shop. Stars, they’re just like us!”

So here’s my apology to Pearl McGlashan, the actress who once played Jasmine. I am not the kind of woman you’d want to be mistaken for, or have mistaken for you. I talk loudly. I blow my nose a lot. I eat in public, something that may or may not work for your media persona. When I watched My Girl as a kid, I related less to Vada and more to Thomas J. You know, the boy who was stung to death by bees? I am an allergies/asthma/eczema kind of person, not the kind of stuff that garners Positive Media Attention.

Pearl, I’ve never met you, but I’m sorry for anything I may have done that could have reflected badly on you. I don’t know if I’m your evil twin or if you are mine, but we need to be rid of each other. After four and a half years, I’ve finally saved up for a new pair of glasses and moved overseas permanently. I think that’s best for the both of us.