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Stellar series (5)

AT the heart of the play: meet leah vandenberg, australian-indian actor creating change from within the industry

As seen on ABC’s Play School, the award-winning Netflix series, The Letdown, and SBS’ The Hunting, Leah Vandenberg has been lighting up screens across Australia since 1996 and was notably one of Australia’s first South Asian female actors to be cast in a regular role in a drama series.

In this fourth profile in Australia’s Stellar South Asian Women 2021 series, the Australian South Asian Centre (ASAC) is celebrating Australian-Indian actor, writer and voice artist, Leah Vandenberg for her contributions and achievements in film and television.

Deeply compassionate and attuned to the needs of children, Leah’s empathetic nature and generosity have guided her through life. She’s driven by the desire to create more cohesive, equitable, and happier communities through storytelling and exploring creative ways for the youngest members of our society to feel represented. She candidly shared with ASAC about her, at times, turbulent and unconventional childhood and how it shaped her career in the Australian television and film industry.

Leah with her mother in Fiji

Childhood culture clash

Born in New Zealand to an Irish-Australian Mother and a Fijian-Indian Father, Leah spent her early years until the age of four in Fiji, before moving to Brisbane, Australia. She sees this time in her early years as having a profound impact on how she moves through life now and her work with children.

Leah describes her early childhood in Fiji as ‘living in a very collectivist culture.’ After her parents’ divorce, Leah’s father won custody which meant Leah was often in the care of her Fijian nanny, who Leah later learned spoke to her in the local dialect and raised her the Fijian way. “I was in the village with Vikka, my Nanny and was always being carried. Even saying that makes me want to cry because I can feel it, this incredible maternal instinct of my Nanny who just held and fed me, sang me lullabies.”

Consequently, Leah’s contact with her mother was limited, and this caused a degree of conflict. “It was so sad. My Mum used to come to the window to try and see me, but my Dad didn’t like that.” As an adult, Leah learned her Mum would try and take Leah from her Nanny. One day she succeeded. “When I was around four years old, my Mum took me from my Dad and got on a plane to Brisbane.”

Growing up as the only brown-skinned member of her family in Brisbane, Leah was frequently asked if she was adopted which made question where she belonged. Australia’s socio-political landscape added another layer of complexity to Leah’s childhood. During this time interracial marriages between white and dark-skinned people were looked down upon as were the children from those marriages. These sentiments were lingering remnants of the discriminatory attitudes that fuelled the White Australia Policy and were still felt within the community, despite the legislation officially ending in 1973.

Leah viscerally felt this tension as a child with ties to two different worlds, “It was a very distinct clash coming from the collectivist Fijian culture going into white, individualistic society. From being immersed in Fijian language, eating ‘lolo’ (Fijian fish curry), and being raised by a village to suddenly being transported to the land of ‘meat and three veg’, nuclear families, and living in suburbia.”

After attending a writing workshop where her childhood memories resurfaced, Leah had a strong desire to return to Fiji in search of her Nanny. While in Fiji, she had the profound experience of being reunited with memories of a culture that had been unknowingly lying dormant within her. “The songs, language and scents of Fiji resonated in my body and I felt a strange sense of grief and joy all at once,” she said. Leah realised a large part of her identity had not been acknowledged and returned to Australia with a stronger sense of self. This life-defining experience revealed to her the importance of maintaining childhood connections to culture and language.

Understandably, Leah is intrigued by children’s propensity to internalise the cultures they are raised in and how this translates into adulthood. “It’s a no-brainer that I have this sense of responsibility, to ensure children feel connected to their culture; that they feel heard, seen, accepted and are able to express all parts of themselves in the world.”

Creating change on-screen

Leah was trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and describes it as an incredible learning experience. Despite being the only woman of colour in her year at drama school, Leah was given the opportunity to play a myriad of roles from contemporary Australian plays like Strindberg to Shakespeare. Once she graduated she soon realised these opportunities didn’t exist in the real world. She recalls seeing her file at a screen test with ‘ethnic/Indian’ written on the front. It became evident, due to the colour of her skin, Leah would have restricted access to many of the roles on offer.

Despite these barriers, Leah was one of the first actors of South Asian heritage to be cast in a regular role on Australian television. Leah played Dr Yasmin Richards on the ABC series, G.P.  Australian audiences got an opportunity to know her character more deeply because she wasn’t a peripheral character seen for just one episode. She recalls at one stage when the writers were determining her character’s backstory, they suggested that Yasmin be adopted. Leah pushed back and proposed they cast an Indian actor as her father and a caucasian actor as her mother, reflecting Leah’s family structure. This was the first of many instances where the biased, anglo-centric gaze of Australian storytelling would appear in Leah’s career. It taught her that as an actor she also has a voice in how stories are told on-screen.

During our interview, Leah traced back how her childhood experiences led to her career as an actor “The turbulence of my early childhood contributed to my quietness and this inadvertently led me to acting.” There was a lot going on underneath the surface and it’s often incorrectly perceived as shyness. As an adult, I’ve become acutely aware that you need to listen really hard to the quiet children.”

“Because of that ‘shyness’ I was sent to youth theatre when I was six or seven years old,” Leah said. The theatre opened up a new world of connection and expression. “By being given words on a page to speak, I was able to find a way of expression that freed me. As a child, I just knew that being there felt good. I felt a connection with a room full of people who were responding to my words in a positive way. It gave me validation that I hadn’t experienced before and it propelled me to pursue acting as a career.”

Leah has continued to create this sense of community and connection with children across Australia as a much-loved presenter on Australia’s longest-running children’s show, ABC’s Play School, reaching an audience of over 900,000 weekly. As the first South Asian Play School presenter, it’s not uncommon for young South Asian viewers to call Leah ‘Aunty’ or ‘Maasi’ because to them she feels and looks like family. Leah’s warmth and playfulness in person and on-screen embodies Play School’s ethos encouraging children to wonder, think, feel and imagine.

Leah’s most impactful experiences at Play School has been joining the writing team and creating opportunities to contribute South Asian cultural content for the national broadcaster. Leah has written Play School’s first Hindi and Punjabi language songs and introduced the Play School team and audience to Bhangra and rangoli making. This kind of cultural inclusion is a rarity in mainstream Australian media, and Leah continues to champion the creation of this content. She also noted, ‘The introduction of new vocabulary and customs to children who aren’t South Asian, is just as important as it is to kids who are South Asian.’ For the first time, Leah has both written and presented an upcoming Play School episode for its ‘Wonderful World’ series. In this exciting episode, she performs Bhangra with the legendary Tumbie player, Devinder Dharia and Dholi, Harman Sunna, while singing her song ‘Paiye Bhangra’, in Punjabi. It will air on Friday 10 September at 9am on ABC Kids.

Leah at Treehouse Cubby with Dugley

In response to Melbourne’s hard lockdowns in the public housing towers, Leah created online interactive play dates called, Tree House Cubby, for children from refugee and migrant backgrounds who were experiencing isolation and distress. With the help of arts funding, the project creates a space where children can play and connect with each other and engage with a diverse community of artists.

This year Leah stars in the groundbreaking anthology film set in Western Sydney, Here Out West, where she plays an Indian ex-punk rock singer, ‘Ashmita’. Leah enjoys yoga, singing, and dancing with Melbourne’s all-girls Bhangra team, Sherniyan. Leah is completing her Masters in International and Community Development, with her final research project focusing on rural women and wildlife in India.

Making an impact: Advice for aspiring creatives

As a result of working within an industry laden with systemic and structural racism, Leah says, “Mentally, I put on protective armour before going to work because I know there’ll likely be a battle somewhere in the process. It’s been my experience that you have to be an activist on set, especially when you’re the only person of colour.” Thankfully, this landscape is changing, but Leah has come to realise that ‘just because you’re in the scene, this doesn’t necessarily mean that will be seen in the final edit’. She pointed out, “Often, the majority of screen time is less for people of colour. I’m constantly pushing to create opportunities for other South Asian performers to be involved in the story, so it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ll often suggest ‘Can my character have a sister, brother, mother, or an aunty?’ So we can flesh out a character’s storyline and also increase representation.”

Leah acknowledges there may be consequences for speaking up. “When you identify issues and call out culturally uninformed decisions, you have to be prepared for the fallout from that. Being inclusive in these spaces means being gutsy and being prepared to lose the job sometimes.”

When asked about how she maintains her resilience while facing discrimination, resistance, and the emotional burden of educating and consulting with industry on cultural competencies, Leah shared, “It always comes back to why I’m doing it. It’s about all of our stories being seen, heard and, most importantly, understood, especially for young children. Prejudice and the notion of ‘the Other’ are heavily influenced by our screen stories.” She encourages aspiring creatives to find their ‘why’ and let it be their anchor and compass as they navigate their journeys. Leah feels strongly that if, we, as a society can become familiar with each other’s stories and complex cultures from a young age a sense of oneness and understanding can be fostered as we grow as a global community, “That’s what keeps me going. It’s about social cohesion and creating a sense of community for all of us.”

Leah reflects there may be a better way than building armour around yourself. “Align yourself with a fiercely strong, like-minded creative community. Make your own work. Start your own production company. Tell your story your way and smash it. Smash the systemic racism that’s keeping strong creatives in a holding pen and find a way to do it with empathy. The greatest tool an actor can have is empathy.”

“What keeps me going is the moments of reflection and validation I receive from the audience, whether it’s a 3-year-old or a 25-year-old, of the positive impact my work has had on them. It helps me to know that the work I’m doing is greater than myself.’

Leah’s career in film and television has been marked by the achievement of a number of firsts and ASAC hopes that many other aspiring South Asian actors and creatives follow in her footsteps, and continue building the inclusive, positive legacy she has been working towards.

This was the fourth of five profiles in ASAC’s Australian Stellar Women 2021 series, in collaboration with South Asian Heritage Month (18 July – 17 August), recognising five exemplary emerging and established South Asian creatives, activists, founders and leaders whose voices and work are a force of good. They’re women who are not only successful but are generous and supportive of those around them, and are paving the way for the next generation of South Asian community leaders. Today we’re celebrating Leah Vandenberg for her generous contributions to the field of television and film.  

Visit the links to read our previous profiles on Former Senator Lisa SinghFounder of Sober Mates, Sam Wilson and journalist and author, Sushi Das.

During South Asian Heritage Month, we’ll be celebrating and reclaiming South Asian histories and identities. If you enjoyed this post follow us on Instagram to stay in the loop as we share the last profile in this series! If you’d like to be a part of our community of ambitious South Asian women, sign up for our paid membership!

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