This story is from the team at thespinoff.co.nz
The breakout star of the reality dating series is also treading the boards in one of the most talked-about plays of the year. She tells Alex Casey how she’s juggling the wildly different roles.
Ashleigh Williams might be the only person in the country, possibly even the world, to appear in both a corny reality dating show and a confronting feminist theatre production at the same time. Starring in both Three’s Heartbreak Island – “sparks fly as sixteen singles pair up, show their best assets” – and Silo Theatre’s The Writer – “beautifully yearning and uncompromisingly savage” – the 25-year-old Aucklander acknowledges it is a “weird” experience to be appearing at opposite ends of the pop culture spectrum at once.
“The worlds are just so, so, so different” Williams laughs over Zoom. “I remember for the first few weeks of Heartbreak Island I was also in rehearsal for The Writer and it was so intense and very hard for me to split my focus.” The Silo Theatre show dismantles patriarchal structures in a fearless examination of what it means to be a woman making art. Heartbreak Island, now playing on ThreeNow, features contestants twerking a peach emoji strapped to their arse to win a large sparkly watch.
Williams first auditioned for The Writer at the beginning of 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Aotearoa. “I remember reading the script and being like, ‘I’ve never read anything like this before, or auditioned for anything like this before, or seen anything like this before’.” She left her audition with an unusually deep attachment to the work. “I wanted it so badly,” she remembers. “It was the first time I actually fell in love with the dialogue and the character, the want was there. I wanted to tell this type of story.”
Ella Hickson’s 2018 play has been described in reviews as “an assault on the stage”, taking a “wrecking ball to theatre as we know it” and a play “full of provocation”. In the opening scene, one of Williams’ unnamed characters takes the stage to challenge a male theatre director about his latest “lazy, sexist, profane” piece of work and the male gaze: “I walk on stage; first thing people think is – how old is she? How hot is she? How fuckable is she? That’s how we’re taught to look at women on stages. That’s how we’re taught to look at women.”
Back in 2020, Williams cried on the phone to her mum after she found out she got the part. But what followed was even more of an emotional journey – two years of uncertainty and soft cancellations. “In my mind, I just couldn’t see anything changing with the pandemic,” Williams says. “It had been two years of Covid and just nothing in terms of acting.” Even when she was asked to audition for roles, they were often for American projects. “I was never put up for a lot of New Zealand stuff, and if you’re not American are you really gonna have a good shot? No.”
So when Heartbreak Island came a-knocking at the beginning of 2022, Williams saw a unique opportunity – but not one without pitfalls. “It was a really massive decision for me. I spoke to my family, I spoke to all my friends and all my actor friends that I’m really close with.” Multiple people told her that she would be throwing away her theatre career if she got into reality TV, and that casting directors would never take her seriously again.
It was a similar critique that Williams had encountered before, when she began working as a stripper. “That’s when I realised: my acting career has not been halted at all by me stripping and doing sex work, so surely reality TV is not gonna do that either.” After tossing up the pros and cons for a month, she made her decision: “Fuck it, I’m just gonna do it.”
Her agent was not quite as enthusiastic when she told them the news. “They were like, ‘We don’t support people who do reality TV, we support professional actors and this isn’t something that we align with’,” she says. “To me it was a really old-school mindset to think you can’t be both a respected actor and do reality TV. So we parted ways.” Wait, was she really dumped by her agent for getting cast on a massive network reality show? “We parted ways,” she repeats, smiling.
It was around this time that Williams also received the news that The Writer would be put on as part of Silo’s 2022 season. She was scared that the theatre company would have the same response as her agent, so called director Sophie Roberts to tell her the news about Heartbreak Island. “She was literally like ‘I don’t care what you do in your spare time, I don’t care what you do with your life. I hired you for The Writer because I want you to play this role’.”
With her mind at ease, Williams entered rehearsals for The Writer as the Heartbreak Island publicity machine began to ramp up. A comment that Williams made in a promotional video for the reality show, in which she joked that New Zealand men were “subpar” made headlines, bringing online backlash and personal attacks with it. “As a Black woman dating in New Zealand, I was just talking about my experience,” she says. “And then all these people got personally offended so they were like, ‘well, I’m going to personally offend her’.”
In the comments online, Williams saw a myriad of racism and sexism, as men told her to “go back to her country” and “fix her boobs”. Even though she didn’t think she cared initially – “you are all ugly and I’m never going to date any of you, so it’s fine” – Williams noticed she began to feel fearful in public. “I remember being quite scared to see someone who might recognise me in the street from the article. I was genuinely afraid someone was gonna hurt me.”
Once Heartbreak Island went to air, her worries dissipated. Because within the needlessly complicated world of Heartbreak Island, Williams has carved out the essential role of narrator and heart of the series. When the drama kicks off, her talking head interviews often serve as our moral compass as she rolls her eyes, expresses empathy and understanding towards her fellow contestants or, in less generous moments, says that Tiarne is simply being a “stupid bitch”.
“I was very, very nervous about how I would be portrayed,” Williams laughs. “You think back to all the shit you said and did on the island and you’re like, ‘oh my fucking god, I can’t believe my parents are gonna see me have sex on TV’.” She describes the environment as a “pressure cooker” that heightened every moment. “You’ve got no influence from the outside world. You don’t have your job, you don’t have to cook, you don’t need money,” she explains. “So you’re 10 times sadder, 10 times angrier and 10 times hornier.”
Although she was excited to be involved in a “fun, silly thing” like Heartbreak Island, Williams says there was a deeper motivation to her appearing on the show. “I thought this could be a real opportunity for me to show that you can be an intelligent, feminist and socially aware person and go on a reality TV show,” she says. A fan of reality TV herself, she was also aware of the longstanding discrimination towards non-white contestants. “I never see Black women on reality TV and, if I do, they are always out first and they are always picked last.”
Along with appearing on a reality show and treading the boards of Silo Theatre every night, Williams has more big plans on her horizon. She’s set return to Fiji later in the year, shoot a nude calendar and possibly launch a slogan T-shirt line (much of her wardrobe was banned from Heartbreak Island for being too risqué). She’s also still very much in the game of Heartbreak Island, where she and her current partner Tobias are the only Black contestants left. “We had a conversation where we were just like ‘we can’t let another white couple win’.”
Although she won’t be drawn on her longevity for the rest of the season, Williams remains resolute in her reason for being on Heartbreak Island: “I’m here to represent my community. I’m here to be a Black queer woman on a reality TV show and I’m here to try and fucking win it.”