MOVE OVER BIG TED:

meet Kiruna Stamell, Play School’s new pre­sen­ter

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

In the warm, fuzzy world of Big Ted and friends, cruel on­line trolling is not the usual re­sponse to a new Play School pre­sen­ter. Yet that’s what greeted multi-tal­ented en­ter­tainer Kiruna Stamell when the ABC an­nounced her de­but on Aus­tralia’s much-loved and long­est run­ning chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion show. Vi­cious com­ments about her ap­pear­ance, slurs on her abil­ity and crit­i­cism of “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect” pro­duc­ers who chose the bub­bly 37-year-old to “come in­side” the ABC’s preschool icon.

Sadly none of this came as a sur­prise to Kiruna, who has been fol­lowed all her life by stares and whis­pers. Shame­less gaw­pers chase her down the road to snatch pho­to­graphs or video grabs, not be­cause she’s fa­mous for her Moulin Rouge! movie role or tap danc­ing at the Syd­ney Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony, but be­cause she has a rare form of dwarfism.

“Want to know about un­so­licited ha­rass­ment? Talk to any­one who has a vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence or im­pair­ment,” she says, wryly mat­ter-of-fact. “Be­ing a lit­tle lady out and about is the most awe­some preparation for on­line trolling. People have said worse to my face on the street.” Ask the feisty ac­tor, dancer and dis­abil­ity ac­tivist what abuse she cops, and Kiruna half chuck­les: “I have al­ways promised my­self not to re­peat it. But I do tell ev­ery­one to imag­ine the most of­fen­sive things you could pos­si­bly say to me, and people will have said them. That’s why, strangely, I value pub­lic trolling. It ac­tu­ally re­veals the truth of what people are think­ing in pri­vate. When they ex­pose their dark­est in­ner thoughts, we can nip them in the bud. Not ev­ery­one out there is kind and awe­some, and we need to deal with that.”

It all seemed so dif­fer­ent when Kiruna first fell in love with Play School as a bub­bly blonde mop­pet, born and bred in Syd­ney’s beach­side Bondi. “I think it had a big influence on why I wanted to per­form,” she re­flects. “Wow, it was so great! I wanted to be in that world.”

Back then, as now, the pro­gram cre­ated “a kind of child­hood Utopia” where adults played joy­ous games and dared to be silly, like her favourite pre­sen­ters, John Ham­blin and Noni Ha­zle­hurst.

Who knew re­al­ity wasn’t just the same? Kiruna’s par­ents, Ge­orge and

Kerry Stamell, both teachers turned IT pro­fes­sion­als, raised their old­est child – and her twin sisters Peta and Me­lanie, who also have dwarfism – to be­lieve they were equal to anything and any­one. Cru­sad­ing Kiruna re­cently took Bri­tain’s Post Of­fice to court for dis­crim­i­na­tion and won, af­ter find­ing its EFTPOS pay­ment ma­chines were fixed too high for her to reach. She has dom­i­nated on stage at Lon­don’s ac­claimed Na­tional Theatre, worked with some of the world’s lead­ing chore­og­ra­phers and scored sought-af­ter roles in UK tele­vi­sion favourites Father Brown, Holby City, EastEn­ders and Life’s Too Short with Ricky Ger­vais.

Most dra­mat­i­cally, per­haps, Kiruna also saved her hus­band of six years, Bri­tish co­me­dian, ac­tor and for­mer Coro­na­tion Street star Gareth Ber­liner, when com­pli­ca­tions of chronic Crohn’s dis­ease al­most killed him on three oc­ca­sions. Is there anything this smart, de­ter­mined, funny in­di­vid­ual can’t do?

“Well, I’ve killed a lot of plants over the years with my pur­ple thumbs, and I can’t sew,” she grins, kick­ing back at the cou­ple’s cosy loft-style apart­ment in Birm­ing­ham, Eng­land, to dis­cuss work, love and life. Kiruna – named af­ter a Swedish town where her back­pack­ing par­ents saw the North­ern Lights – takes re­la­tion­ships, ca­reer and causes se­ri­ously. Her­self, not so much.

“I can’t sew but I am re­ally good at spot­ting clothes and see­ing how they can be tai­lored to fit by my fab­u­lous dress­mak­ers,” she ex­plains. “I can buy a women’s size six or eight and then get it al­tered ... I can buy a coat or jumper in a child’s size 12 or 13, as long as there’s room for my boobs.”

In­evitably there are dif­fi­cul­ties in­volved in be­ing hip height to most adults. Some are huge, like over­com­ing prej­u­dice and stereo­types. Oth­ers, like fit­ting ad­justable kitchen bench tops, are much smaller and sim­pler.

Kiruna re­fuses to let dwarfism hand­i­cap her. Among the first wave of dis­abled stu­dents ad­mit­ted to main­stream NSW pub­lic schools, she liked de­bat­ing and rel­ished the chance to run as­sem­blies. She also played touch foot­ball and loved to dance, win­ning the pres­ti­gious Sil­ver Star Tap com­pe­ti­tion at the age of 14.

That marked a turn­ing point. “The chore­og­ra­phy for all com­peti­tors was the same and it was a process of elim­i­na­tion over hours. Ev­ery round more people were elim­i­nated,” she re­mem­bers. “I think win­ning gave me con­fi­dence that if I kept work­ing, people could see my tal­ent.” There was cu­rios­ity but lit­tle bul­ly­ing at school. Al­ways ahead of her time, mother Kerry fore­saw po­ten­tial prob­lems and ran aware­ness work­shops for staff and stu­dents be­fore Kiruna was en­rolled. But strangers tended to stare rudely when the young per­former was out with friends.

“Back then we used to jeer and tell them to take a pic­ture, be­cause it lasted longer,” sighs Kiruna. “Now ev­ery­body’s got a cam­era phone, they do! Some­times I con­front them, if I have time. I get out my phone and film them back, then put on my best school­teacher voice and ask what mo­ti­vates them to be so cruel.”

She learned to cul­ti­vate a thick skin and a ready wit, and they have taken her far. Baz Luhrmann adored her. When Kiruna turned up for ex­tra work on Moulin Rouge!, the di­rec­tor rapidly gave her an ex­panded cameo as La Petite Princesse. It seemed she was well on the way to achiev­ing her dream of be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional ac­tor and dancer. Then the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Dra­matic Art re­jected her ap­pli­ca­tion. Qui­etly, she was told it wasn’t worth train­ing some­one such as her, since she would never get any work.

Dev­as­tated, Kiruna left Aus­tralia and en­rolled to study at the highly-re­garded Lon­don Academy of Mu­sic & Dra­matic Art. In the UK she dis­cov­ered a level of ac­cep­tance, in­clu­sion and op­por­tu­nity greater than she had ever found be­fore.

She also met Gareth, now 46, through a mu­tual friend. Both of them were over ro­mance, sick of people dat­ing them for the wrong rea­sons. “They wanted to help us or save us or find them­selves, and then it would all go tits up,” grins Kiruna. “Once we started see­ing each other it was the most re­laxed we’d ever been. We just started hang­ing out, and it’s never ended.”

Gareth pro­posed in Ber­lin – “like his sur­name” – and they hon­ey­mooned in the

“So­ci­ety needs dif­fer­ence and for the dif­fer­ence to be made or­di­nary.”

bride’s name­sake Arc­tic town of Kiruna, fol­low­ing a ro­man­tic 2012 farm wed­ding in the lush Dorset coun­try­side.

Deeply in love, there is only one draw­back to their mar­riage, but it’s a big one. Be­cause of his ill­ness, Gareth has to be fed in­tra­venously ev­ery second day with par­enteral nu­tri­tion. It is repet­i­tive, un­pleas­ant and car­ries a risk of in­fec­tion. It is also so costly that he can­not get per­mis­sion to set­tle per­ma­nently in Aus­tralia.

“It’s an amaz­ing, won­der­ful coun­try, but I can’t bring the man that I love home to live with me,” Kiruna says pas­sion­ately. “People are shocked when I ex­plain the rea­son Gareth can’t em­i­grate. They don’t re­alise there’s a ceil­ing on med­i­cal ex­penses. This is why I am a lit­tle bit po­lit­i­cal, be­cause our ex­pe­ri­ence makes you re­alise how bu­reau­cracy in­volves it­self in people’s lives.”

Don’t mis­un­der­stand: Kiruna, now a Bri­tish cit­i­zen, is grate­ful for her happy, ful­fill­ing life in the UK. Still, she’s homesick for Aus­tralia when she’s away. Ask what she misses most and there’s a quick-fire litany: “The good cof­fee. Mum and Dad’s lit­tle dog Pip­pin, be­cause she can’t un­der­stand Skype. The cul­ture and the people. I love the way the thun­der and rain pelt down in Aus­tralia. When it rains it rains. Eng­land is driz­zly. I miss the di­rect­ness of Aus­tralians. I miss Aussie Na­tional Parks and go­ing for pic­nics in them. I miss gum trees be­cause they are beau­ti­ful. I miss the colours and the bright light in Aus­tralian skies. Beaches with white sand. You have more per­sonal space in Oz, too. People are more spread out. The food in Aus­tralia. I miss the NSW State Li­brary. It’s a cool place to sit and get stuff done. I miss the beau­ti­ful land­scape. I miss the signs that say ‘Wrong Way Go Back’ ...”

No won­der she comes home as of­ten as she can with a self-im­posed mis­sion, “to try to help make Aus­tralia the coun­try it de­serves to be.” And that, of course, in­cludes work­ing on Play School.

“Pro­duc­ers first ap­proached me af­ter I was fea­tured on Aus­tralian Story a cou­ple of years ago, but be­cause I live in Eng­land it was dif­fi­cult. Due to bud­get cuts, the ABC can’t fly me over to do the show, but when­ever I have a workre­lated rea­son for be­ing in Aus­tralia, I film Play School as much as is fea­si­ble.”

As far as Kiruna is con­cerned, it’s a bonus that her ap­point­ment proved con­tro­ver­sial. “It was ac­tu­ally quite use­ful that nasty people ex­posed them­selves on­line, be­cause it high­lights to my al­lies – those who are open-minded and want a kinder world – the im­por­tance of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It re­minded ev­ery­one how much so­ci­ety needs dif­fer­ence and for the dif­fer­ence to be made or­di­nary on our stages and screens.”

The hate cam­paign against Kiruna had a very brief run com­pared to the 52 years that Play School has en­ter­tained, in­formed and de­lighted Aus­tralian kids look­ing through its round, square, arched and di­a­mond-shaped win­dows. “Com­ments against my cast­ing had a run for about 24 hours, trolls invit­ing other trolls to be nasty,” says Kiruna, who wrote a spir­ited open letter to ABC par­ents – friend and foe – on her web­site. “Then there was a glo­ri­ous mo­ment when good people be­gan call­ing them out, kind and loving par­ents shared their pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes.

“They showed sup­port for me and for di­ver­sity! These beau­ti­ful people be­came the ma­jor­ity and shifted the whole mood,” Kiruna says with a wide smile. “So much so that the trolls be­gan delet­ing their own com­ments and have now mostly van­ished. They re­alised people weren’t re­act­ing to their stir­ring. People weren’t bit­ing. In­stead, won­der­ful people were shar­ing their loving thoughts and ideas and drown­ing out the neg­a­tiv­ity with sup­port.”

Clockwise from above: Kiruna as a child; with hus­band Gareth Ber­liner on their wed­ding day; per­form­ing in a pan­tomime in the UK.

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