MOVE OVER BIG TED:
meet Kiruna Stamell, Play School’s new presenter
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.