Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar

“Trolls tell me to leave Australia’s most famous street”

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Ihave been looked at differentl­y for as long as I can remember. There was no-one else like me at school. was criticised for the way I spoke English, I wasn’t invited to parties, I was the last one picked for activities and boys didn’t ask me out because they were scared of being judged for being with the “brown” girl.

I’m a third generation Australian of Indian heritage yet racism has been a constant part of my life. As a child it was hard to understand and I tried to talk to my parents, but their overarchin­g suffering as immigrants paled in comparison and they told me to stay quiet to fit in. They threatened to disown me if I pursued a career in acting. So while studying to be a lawyer, I attended acting classes in secret. While I thought my law career was purely a “back-up”, the reality was that it took me 10 years to break into the acting industry.

Every aspect of acting was a challenge. Agents told me they couldn’t represent me as there was no work for “people like me”. They were right. It wasn’t just auditions that didn’t exist. I was on the outer of the acting community – I didn’t have the contacts, I wasn’t privy to nepotism and I wasn’t invited into the inner circle. It was like I wasn’t supposed to be there.

After a decade of heartbreak, I lost hope and gave up on my acting dream. I moved from Melbourne to Sydney for a fresh start and 18 months later I got the call for Neighbours. After a long audition process, I was cast. I was in disbelief and waiting for something to go wrong because it didn’t feel real until the day I stepped foot on set.

When I arrived on Neighbours, albeit feeling like an imposter, I was pleasantly surprised. There was a young female producer in charge and an Asian actor on set who formed one half of a gay couple. Diversity at last! My presence as a person

“Diversity on screen is slowly changing and with the rise of greater awareness, I’m encouraged”

of full Indian heritage was huge, and forming part of an interracia­l relationsh­ip with interracia­l children was a first.

Despite these positive developmen­ts, I came to understand that I couldn’t escape racism, not even on Australia’s most famous street. I’m incessantl­y trolled on social media and sometimes even in public, with people saying things like “go back to your country” and “you and your filthy children need to leave Ramsay Street”. They also harass my family, including my non-actor husband after he did me a favour and stood in for a cast member for intimate scenes during the pandemic.

There’s a long way to go when it comes to representa­tion on Australian screens and in our media. There have been many times when I’ve felt the inadequate considerat­ion made to the intricacie­s of representi­ng people of diverse background­s. I feel exhausted and have unwittingl­y become somewhat of a flag-bearer in championin­g these communitie­s. Yet we must persevere. I often feel alone as an actor and as someone who advocates for positive change, and witness all too often the bystander phenomenon – when people say they want to help but stay silent when injustice occurs in front of them.

I want the balance to shift, for this to be the exception rather than the norm, and for our actions to reflect what our society could be. Diversity on screen in Australia is slowly progressin­g and with the rise of greater global awareness, I’m encouraged. To allies and those doing the work, I thank you. To those in my shoes, I hope the courage that I and the people before me have shown makes the road easier for you to travel. Sharon Johal stars in Neighbours,

6.30pm weeknights on 10 Peach.

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