Simone Ashley talks highlighting South Asian representation in the media through her Johnnie Walker campaign and Bridgerton.
When Simone Ashley first appeared on our screens as Kate Sharma in Bridgerton, the world took note. For many, seeing South Asian representation at the forefront was barrier-breaking – and at just 27-years-old, Simone is leading the way. ‘I still get stopped by people all the time,’ she tells me over a Zoom call. ‘To have these beautiful women come up to me and just say, “we’re such a fan of your work, because we feel seen seeing you on screen.” I didn’t ever think that that would happen in my career,’ Simone adds.
The scene that remains a staple for many fans due to it’s subtle brilliance and cultural significance is the hair oiling scene between Kate and her younger sister Edwina. The exchange embodied a sororal sweetness that transcended cultural boundaries — whether you’re a desi woman, like the actors portraying the Sharma sisters, or not, you understand the love between them.
Ashley shares, ‘This is something that I experienced in my childhood with my mum putting coconut oil in my hair. That scene was really nostalgic for me, and I never thought that I would be portraying that on screen.’ For many, seeing the most treasured parts of their culture acknowledged in a genre that usually excludes them was deeply moving. ‘I was really proud to see people finding the joy and seeing a moment in my culture that related to them on screen,’ Simone says.
Simone hopes to use her voice and platform to ensure these significant moments only continue in the mainstream media. The actress has made it a priority to spotlight and support the next generation of South Asian creatives by collaborating with Whiskey brand Johnnie Walker’s on their ‘Bold Steps’ campaign. Alongside inaugural partners, Diet Paratha, the partnership will also support their Family Tree Mentoring – a programme aimed at supporting British South Asians looking to break into or advance in creative industries.
The actress says working on the campaign was amazing. ‘I just remember speaking out loud for what felt like the first time about my own personal experiences, and what it is like to be a dark skinned woman and what how I wanted to express this and the team just listened, related and they shared their own experiences,’ she recalls.
Her determination to succeed has paid off – from starring in Netflix’s Sex Eduation to Bridgerton. As season three is on the horizon, the world is eagerly anticipating a return to the regency-era and the characters we all know and love.
Simone’s debut in the second season depicted Kate and Anthony Bridgerton’s slow-burning romance – a mutual dislike that sparked unbearable sexual tension and, eventually, marriage – but Ashley says the third season will show a new side to Kate as she settles into her role as viscountess
‘I’m really excited,’ she gushes. ‘What’s so special about Bridgeton is that every season there’s a new focus on a new love story. So in season three, I’m really excited for everyone to see Penelope and Collin’s love story unfold, because it’s been a long time coming.’ Adding, ‘But I’m equally as excited for everyone to see Kate settling into the Bridgerton family and a little bit more of her backstory as well.’
Through Diet Paratha, founded by Anita Chhabi, the next generation of South Asian creatives will find those much needed role models. Simone reflects on how seeing other women of colour in the entertainment industry thrive, inspired her own journey. She explains, ‘I think it’s really important for the entertainment industry – especially for women of colour – to just be like, “Look, we’re a community, and let’s welcome each other in whether you’ve been in here for years, or if you’re new, or wherever you’ve come from, we’re here to do this together and to support each other. There’s a seat at the table for all of us.”‘
How important is it to Simone to play roles that transcend stereotypes? ‘It’s all I’ve ever wanted,’ she replies instantly. ‘ When I wanted to be an actress – I just wanted to be an actress. So, I was I never wanted to play stereotypes, ‘she says, carefully weighing her words. ‘That’s why it’s so important for the entertainment industry to create roles that are authentic.’
Simone says, ‘There are so many different Indian actors that I looked up to look up to. I was watching Lion again the other night which stars Dev Patel. And I was just like, “Wow, look at him shine, what a career he’s had, and the characters that he’s chosen to play – from culturally specific roles to non-culturally specific roles – he’s amazing.” She continues, ‘I think it’s about finding those stories, scripts, and creative teams that do defy all those stereotypes and want authentic representation.’ She explains that collaborating with Johnnie Walker on this campaign was an instant yes as she was surrounded by a team that understood that vision.
Over the years, Simone has found the beauty in her differences and wants to inspire upcoming talent to do the same. She reflects, ‘When I was 16, I used to get scripts and be like, “Oh, well, they’ll never cast a brown girl. They’ll never cast anyone that looks like me,” but there is so much power in realising actually they could because I’m going to show them how great I am.’
Simone has created a path for herself and also lays one out for the next generation – but what advice does she have for them? ‘Your voice is mighty – follow your voice and dream big, ‘ she says. Before she ends the call she adds, ‘Oh, and just know that there is a community and a space within this industry for you – people will support and celebrate you.’
Author: Aaliyah Harry
Published on Feb 2, 2023