In the blockbusting Bridgerton as in life, Simone Ashley radiates intelligence, charm and independence. So, asks Radhika Seth in British Vogue’s December 2022 issue, what next for streaming’s leading light?
When she was a teenager, Simone Ashley would often spend New Year’s Eve alone, writing letters to herself. “I was a bit of a rebel,” the actor explains, half amused at her own self-seriousness. “I went to a predominantly white all-girls school. I didn’t fit in, there was bullying and I was wishing my life away.” She would remind herself to have perspective, that it’d all be over in a few years. “I would tell myself, ‘You’ll move away from this place, you’ll find your people and you’ll do whatever you want.’”
Now, more than a decade later, that steely resolve is still visible in the assured, if decidedly less angsty, 27-year-old in front of me. It’s the tail end of the August heatwave and she is barefoot, sprawled across a blue velvet sofa in her sunny West London loft, wearing Levi’s cut-offs and a silk tank with the insouciance of someone who is entirely comfortable in their body. Her cocker spaniel, Myla, is curled up at her feet, her nose against the tattoo of a sphinx cat on Ashley’s ankle (one she cavalierly drew and then tattooed on herself during the first lockdown). Dangling from her fingers is a vape, which she puffs on absent-mindedly, letting her natural curls fall down her back as she gazes up at a wall lined with prints – a Basquiat, a poster of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, a vintage map of India.
It’s a rare moment of stillness for Ashley in both a day and a year that have been lacking in them. When I arrived at her home over an hour ago, I found her packing boxes. Rushing to make me a mug of mint tea, she told me that she was getting ready to move to a bigger place, having outgrown this split-level studio in the 18 months that she’s spent here. It’s been a transformational time. When she moved in, she was mid-shooting the third season of Laurie Nunn’s revolutionary Netflix comedy Sex Education. Now, another streaming behemoth has brought her global recognition: Shonda Rhimes’s racy Regency romance Bridgerton.
“During filming, I was working six days a week and I didn’t get a chance to process anything,” Ashley admits. Her costar Jonathan Bailey “would be like, ‘Are you ready for your life to change?’ I was in denial. Later on, I remember bumping into Regé-Jean Page [the show’s former leading man] at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, and he said, ‘Give it three to five months. You’ll notice a difference.’ He was right.”
It was in 2021 when Ashley got the call to audition for the role of Kate Sharma, the headstrong heroine who would succeed Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne as Bridgerton’s romantic lead, and sweep her brother Anthony, played by the smouldering Bailey, off his feet. The next nine months flew by in a haze of sumptuous balls, horse riding lessons, croquet matches and days shooting on location at some of the most spectacular historic residences in the country.
When the season debuted, its viewing figures even overtook that of the first instalment. Ashley’s fiery portrayal won praise from critics and viewers – and the fashion world took notice too, making her a front-row fixture as well as the face of the Loewe fragrance Paula’s Ibiza. Mostly though, she became a beacon of hope for young women of colour who were unaccustomed to seeing themselves the glamorous lead of a glossy period drama produced and broadcast in the West.
“I didn’t have the traditional entry into this industry that a lot of my white peers had, that of being a thespian, and I’ve always found that a bit isolating. But, I don’t want the colour of my skin to ever stop me.” Did she ever feel that having darker skin limited her opportunities? “I’m sure it was restrictive,” she replies, carefully weighing her words. “Things have taken me longer than other young actors who maybe don’t have the same restrictions. But, I never surrendered to it. I remember being a kid and people saying certain things that make you really aware of the colour of your skin. I remember seeing those Fair & Lovely [lightening] creams – they smelt so good, like baby powder, but I didn’t understand what they were. Now I’m like, ‘Wow. That’s messed up.’ But, I adore the colour of my skin. I always have.”
In recent months, that appreciation has been enhanced by the work of her make-up artist Alex Babsky and hairstylist Peter Lux. “I get emotional talking about this,” she says, her voice breaking. “They understand my skin and the texture of my hair, and when getting ready for events, we find the joy within it. And it’s not a superficial thing – it’s about normalising dark skin and curly hair for girls who need to see that normalised.” Ultimately, she’d like to create a beauty line for those young women. “I want them to be like, ‘Yes, I’ve got exactly the right products for me.’”
That’s not something Ashley herself had, growing up in Surrey with her older brother and South Indian Tamil parents who’d emigrated to the UK. Raised on Disney and Pixar, she had a performative streak from a young age and was determined to be an actor despite having no industry connections. Her accountant mother and pharmacist father tried to instil a sense of academic discipline but she “failed at so many subjects”. At 16, she left school to attend sixth form at the performing arts institution Redroofs, before going on to ArtsEd drama school to study musical theatre. “It wasn’t right for me and I left after my first year.” She made the decision to move to LA by herself at 17, to pursue acting for real.
“Looking back, I think leaving home that young was the best thing I could’ve done,” she says. “I’m so deeply proud of my culture, but, if I’m very honest, I was raised in one where men had more of a voice than women. I always pushed against that – I wanted to get my driver’s licence, I wanted to do sports, I wanted to wear whatever I wanted.” What did her parents think of her decision? “They just never had any control over it,” says Ashley, shrugging. “I was like, ‘This is what I want to do and, trust me, I’ll be safe and financially stable.’ And I made the decision to do it on my own. I didn’t want anyone else’s opinion.”
She signed with a modelling agency and, through it, got her first acting job as a background artist in Straight Outta Compton. A flurry of supporting parts in British and American productions followed – in the BBC’s Guilt, ITV’s Broadchurch, and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – until she got Sex Education. “It changed my life,” she says. “I’ve never been on a set that’s so diverse, so inclusive, where everyone’s so supportive of one another.”
Though she won’t be returning to the show for season four, she still turns to former castmates such as Ncuti Gatwa and Emma Mackey for advice. “I’ve always been independent and I sometimes feel vulnerable depending on someone else,” she says. “But, I’ve learnt that you need people, you need your friends.”
She’s exploring her gentler side while shooting Bridgerton season three. The second instalment charted Kate and Anthony’s slow-burning romance – a mutual disdain that sparked unbearable sexual tension and, eventually, marriage – but Ashley says the third follows them through their honeymoon phase and beyond. “We’re filming a dance this week and tonally, it’s so different – sweet, endearing and light, compared to the heaviness of their story last season,” she says. We will also see Kate settle into the role of viscountess. “Even though she comes across as fierce, people like that are sometimes the softest on the inside. They develop that skin because they’re vulnerable. You see her insecurities and fears. She’s f**king nervous and I think there’s strength in admitting that.”
She says she feels more prepared for the public response when the series is released next year. Still, there is some wistfulness for the past, particularly her friendships with Charithra Chandran, Shelley Conn and Adjoa Andoh, who played Kate’s sister Edwina, mother Lady Mary, and chaperone Lady Danbury respectively. “On most days in season two, I was with the three of them – all Indian or Black women – and so I had someone to relate to on set. I felt at home. I felt heard. This season, I’m in the Bridgerton family. It’s great, but it’s different and makes me think about how important it was that we did see that last time.”
Soon, Ashley’s boyfriend will arrive to help her pack, having driven in from Germany. Though she won’t share his name, she confides that he’s not in the public eye and that they met at the Grand Prix in Monaco. (She was photographed at the race back in May with Jacob Elordi, though, she says, the Euphoria star is not the partner in question). “I’m very happy,” she says, beaming. “We haven’t gone public yet and we’re having those conversations about how we can get there before anyone else does.” Is she moving in with him? “No, not yet. I’d like to, but, you know, one day…”
There are exciting developments on the horizon professionally too. Alongside Bridgerton, Ashley will appear in the upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid in a yet-to-be-disclosed role, and is working hard to get other projects greenlit through her own yet-to-be-named production company. “I set it up when I got Bridgerton,” she says. “The more you work in this industry, you see the holes, you see what shouldn’t be happening. I want to create sets where everyone feels equal. And I don’t want to be put in a certain box. I want to be in the driver’s seat.”
Bridgerton series three will be out next year
Author: Radhika Seth
Published on Nov 2, 2022