Michelle Hardwick is Emmerdale’s Biggest “Vanity” Fan

In August, we interviewed Emma Atkins, who plays Charity Dingle of the British soap opera “Emmerdale” and one half of the couple “Vanity” (Vanessa and Charity). We raved about Vanity as an excellent example of a positively portrayed same-sex couple: funny yet sweet, mature yet playful, genuine and heartfelt.

As Vanessa Woodfield, Michelle Hardwick plays the other half of Vanity. Michelle first crossed AfterEllen’s radar when she came out as gay in real life in 2013, and we’ve quietly kept up with her ever since. When the extremely helpful folks at ITV asked if we wanted a word with Michelle, we jumped at the chance, and learned that when it comes to Vanity, Michelle is one of the couple’s biggest fans!

Afterellen:Let’s start with the topic everyone wants to know about: Vanity. You and Emma have both talked about how unexpected and, indeed, random you found the pairing to be when you first read the script for it. And yet, the coupling has worked so brilliantly. Why do you think this is? And more generically, what do you think is the key to good chemistry in an on-screen pairing?

Michelle Hardwick: First of all, hello everybody! I think the coupling has worked—Charity and Vanessa—because you’ve got two characters here who initially are so different from each other and whom no one, including myself and Emma, would expect them to get together and expect them to work. And I think that’s the buzz around it, really. I think because Vanessa has been the one person that Charity has been able to open up to and reveal such personal details about her past, that secured a bond between them. I think you look at Charity’s past relationships have been quite racy and daring and I think she’s never been able to open up to Cain or she was married to Chris Bisson’s character Jai. I think with Vanessa she’s just found that one person who she can really trust and connect with.

As far as chemistry in general, I do believe the writing plays a massive part in that. We’ve been so fortunate that our writers and producers have pitched the story perfectly. It’s had quite a slow build throughout and Charity and Vanessa do bounce off each other with the dialogue so we have enjoyed that journey immensely.

AE: You’ve touched on it slightly, but on paper, Charity should have been an awful match for Vanessa, not the least because she used to be involved with Vanessa’s father Frank both criminally and sexually. Why did Vanessa pursue her so hard against all logic? What’s the attraction?

MH: Well, Vanessa didn’t really pursue Charity. They were locked in the cellar together, they were drawn together, and I think it was a bit of cat and mouse and Vanessa was an unexpected challenge for Charity. So it was more the other way around and Charity was goading her and I think it’s like what they said, it’s the little boy in the playground who pulls the little girl’s pigtails; it’s the teasing; but Vanessa was drawn in. You know as far as her dad is concerned, with the history there, she really tries not to think about it. You know everybody’s always got a past, but to know that her girlfriend has slept with her father, she really tries not to think about and she just puts it out of her mind because I think it probably would drive her insane if she thought about it too much. But hey, it’s the Emmerdale village!

AE: What is your favorite Vanity scene and what is your favorite thing about Vanity as a couple?

MH: You know, I think this might surprise a few people, but my favorite Vanity scene was the water fight that was shown maybe a month or two ago. For me, seeing that scene in the midst of everything that was going on—at that point the trial was hanging over the girls—and to see them out with their sons enjoying family time, it was quite refreshing to see that. Such a warm feeling seeing it. It was really nice. Favorite thing about them as a couple: I like that they make you laugh. They can make you laugh, they can make you cry, but most importantly I like the fact that they didn’t begin their relationship through an affair. There was no cheating on anyone. They got locked in a cellar and thrown together, but neither was with another partner. So again for soapland that was quite refreshing as well. I do like that fact about them.

AE: Is there a Vanity scene that hasn’t been done yet that you’d like to see written and shot?

MH: Well, the big thing that everyone keeps asking is: are Vanity going to get married? Are Vanessa and Charity going to get married? So I think that might be something in the future, but who knows? If so, I assume they’d have to get engaged first. Maybe that’s something. Vanessa has never been married yet in “Emmerdale,” so maybe that’s one thing I’d like to be involved in, in Vanessa’s own wedding rather than her being sat in the congregation. That could be exciting. It might not go to plan or it might do. Who knows!

AE: You touched upon this in the last question, but do you think a Vanity wedding is a good idea or is it just asking for trouble in the soap opera world?

MH: There are not too many weddings that go smoothly in soapland apart from Robert and Aaron’s! That was a lovely episode, especially because there was no trouble. I think if the storyline takes us down that route then yes, definitely, that would be the natural next step, but like I say, I’ve got no idea because at the moment it has been a naturally slow, building relationship, so whether they’d want to do that within the next year, who knows? I certainly don’t know.

AE: Your fans are keen to know: how does it feel to be part of a same-sex onscreen relationship that’s touched the lives of so many people?

MH: You know, when you read all the letters and the messages that you get via social media, they genuinely touch your heart to know that you are helping people with this storyline. I always say about any storyline, whether it’s ours or anybody else’s: if it helps one or two people, then we as a TV program have done our job well, definitely.

AE: Despite being on the show since late 2012, viewers still don’t know much about Vanessa’s past. What about your character would you like the show to explore, if given the chance?

MH: You know what? I would really love to know more about Vanessa’s past! Who’s her mum? We’ve got no idea really who her mum is. We’ve had little snippets in the past, she used to sort of say, “Oh you know, my mum won’t be bothered.” Her mum’s never been round to see her baby Johnny. Obviously we’ve got her dad here now which is amazing, but yeah, it’s all very intriguing with Vanessa’s mum. I suppose anything could happen, really. All we know is that they’re not massively close, but why is that? Is there a reason? We don’t know. I suppose anything like that could be explored. I would love it. I would love to find out.

AE: Is that someplace you’d like to see Vanessa’s storyline go next maybe?

MH: Maybe. After everything that Vanessa and Charity have been through, with Charity and the abuse storyline, it would be nice for them to have a little bit of fun next, a bit of happiness. But it is “Emmerdale,” it’s soapland, and you’ve got one or two obstacles thrown at you now and again. That’s the drama of it, that’s what people love to watch. Possibly, maybe we could have a little bit of Vanessa’s past popping up. Maybe there are a few skeletons in her closet. Don’t know.

AE: Before you were cast, you counted yourself a fan of “Emmerdale.” You’ve also guested on a few other soaps as well. What sort of relationship does the British public have with England’s soap operas? And given that intimate and longstanding relationship between viewers and “Emmerdale,” how have straight viewers reacted to the Vanity storyline?

MH: Do you know what? The British public…it’s familiarity, I think. We are in people’s living rooms five nights a week. For so many people it’s escapism for whatever reason. My mom and dad, my family, they work hard all day and they look forward to when soaps are on. My mom, more than my dad, obviously, but they look forward to it when they go abroad on holiday. They set the Skybox or whatever to record and they do a massive catch up (my mom will probably tell me off for saying that). But yeah, it’s a familiarity and we tell stories that people can relate to, and it’s a wonderful way to tackle issues to millions of people, in your living room. What better way than having it heard five nights a week? Millions of people are tuning in.

As far as straight viewers go, as far as I’m aware it’s all been positive and encouraging behind the pairing of Vanessa and Charity. Unless I’ve just been protected from any negativity, all I’ve seen is positivity, and quite right, too! They’re a normal couple, that’s what it’s about! There shouldn’t be any negative comments. That’s what we’re marching for, that’s what Prides are for. Anyway, I’ll stop and get off my soapbox.

AE: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you didn’t know any other lesbians when you came out, and that you’ve been invested in the Vanity storyline because it’s so personal. Is Vanity the sort of representation you would have liked to have seen when you were younger?

MH: Oh my goodness yes, without a shadow of a doubt! And that’s why it’s so important that we are telling these stories and showing that these two women who have fallen in love…you don’t have to go on about labels. They’re in a small farming village and it’s accepted. Nobody is questioning it. I know where these girls are coming from who are these Vanity fans because that was me, only I didn’t have that social network around me. It was me and my own thoughts and thinking there was something wrong with me at the age of 18, 19. It’s so important. And that’s why I’m so proud to be a part of this storyline, goodness me!

AE: AfterEllen has noted that England is the global leader by number of lesbian and bisexual soap opera characters. There are 15 this year (last we counted) and an amazing 25 between 2011 and 2015. What is it about the UK’s approach to soap operas that makes them more inclusive than anywhere else in the world?

MH: You know what, I think soaps in the UK are so, so very good at highlighting everyday issues, whatever they may be: abuse, “Coronation Street” had male rape, we had the acid attack with Ross. I think soaps over here reflect modern day society, which can only be a good thing, surely. We don’t shy away from certain issues. It’s just very truthful to life. I think that’s what we are so good at: we don’t shy away. We dare to tell those stories.

AE: Speaking of lesbians on soap operas, any thoughts on “Kana” (Kate and Rana) on “Coronation Street”? Is there a friendly competition between you and Emma and Faye (Brookes) and Bhavna (Limbachia) regarding whose pairing is more popular?

MH: {Laughing} There’s no rivalry whatsoever from any of us, certainly, and I’ve met the girls and they’re so lovely. You know, “Emmerdale” and “Coronation Street” are so extremely supportive of one another as soaps. Both of these couples–we’re a little bit older for a start, Emma and myself–but both these couples, their stories and journeys have been very different. They’ve tackled very different issues. Which is good and it’s important for fans to have that and have more than one coupling because certain fans may identify more with the Kate and Rana story and then some fans may identify more with the Vanessa and Charity story. So no, absolutely no rivalry whatsoever. For me, I think it’s fantastic. The more the merrier, really, because we’re normalizing it. As it should be, like I said before. Go on, Kana!

AE: As a gay actor in a gay role, what is the ideal impact that you want to have and how important is it to you to be part of representation for our community?

MH: Oh, it’s massively important. For me, it’s such an honor to play a role like Vanessa. When I started six years ago I had no idea what direction the character would be going in. I’m absolutely thrilled with this. The impact on the fans who are struggling with their sexuality…from what we’ve seen, it’s been huge, and you have to get it right. We have got a big responsibility as a show to tackle issues and portray them right. I believe that as a program, I think we really are—from the response we’ve had, the feedback—I hope we’re getting it right. 

AE: What do you think straight actresses are likely not to know about playing a gay role, and what advice would you give them upon taking such a role?

MH: No, no, no at the end of the day we’re all actors and actresses so whatever role, you just take on that role. There are no rules. No one lesbian is the same, so you can’t say, “Play that, she’s a lesbian play it like that.” It’s up to the actor along with the writers to create that individual role, so there are no rules for how you can play a lesbian. When I came into it, I’m a lesbian woman who came into it playing a straight character and no one gave me advice on how to play it straight, you know what I mean? There are no rules. You play the character.

AE: Are there any lesbian-themed TV shows or couples are you watching right now?

MH: You know what? I really need to catch up on the last two seasons of “Orange is the New Black.” Please don’t judge me, but sometimes you don’t have time. I’ll tell you what I have just binge watched, which is my favorite thing ever: “Killing Eve.” And there’s a slight little hint of something going on there. Possibly. I’m not going to spoil it for anybody who’s not watched it yet. But yeah, I would recommend that one. I do need to catch up on “Orange is the New Black.” I binge watched “The L Word” years ago as well. I think I’ve seen that twice through now. I loved it.

AE: Will you be attending any LGBT-related events this year?

MH: I went to Manchester Pride and Leeds Pride this year. They’re always amazing events and it really warms you heart when you’re there with everyone. Unfortunately I won’t be able to go to the ClexaCon event in London in November just due to work commitments because we’re up in Leeds and it’s just so far away for us, unfortunately. But I know it will be a big success.

AE: The Vanity fandom would like to know what it feels like to meet your fans, because they love meeting you.

MH: Do you know what, it’s always an honor to meet fans. When you do meet them, a lot of them say they’ve traveled miles just to come and say hello. I try and spend as much time with them as possible. I know they’ve made within themselves a community and they’ve made a lot of lifelong friends between them and it’s just so gorgeous. They’ve got people of their own age, roundabout, to talk about what they’re going through. I didn’t have that at their age and I’d have loved that so for them to have their Vanity friendship group is wonderful for me. This storyline alone for them to be able to talk things through and just know they’re not on their own, job done. Love it.