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Claire Chitham’s comeback: I’ve hit the Jackpot!

The actress was living the Californian dream, but love brings her home
Claire Chitham

When it comes to good luck, there are two kinds – one where you win a frozen chook at the school gala and the rarer kind where you hit the jackpot that changes your life.

Kiwi actress Claire Chitham has the best kind of luck – and has the stamp in her passport to prove it! On a whim in 2012, the gorgeous brunette – adored for her roles as the dippy Waverley Harrison on Shortland Street and gang chick Aurora Bay on Outrageous Fortune – decided to throw in her lot with 15 million other hopefuls around the world for a chance to win one of 50,000 US green cards.

Her name was drawn and she now has the right to work Stateside as much as she wants – something many actors would sell their grannies and their right arms for!

“It was pretty awesome,” Claire tells Woman’s Day. “It feels like a very exciting gift.”

Within weeks of her green card being approved, Claire hit the ground running for the January 2013 pilot season in Los Angeles, where directors look to cast their upcoming shows.

“There’s something like 400,000 actors looking for work in LA. Getting an audition is a feat in itself and I got to work with some pretty cool directors.”

Claire didn’t land any on-screen parts but found regular voice-over work – “I’m a natural mimic with accents. I get hired for my English accent quite a bit” – and she also found herself in demand as a Pilates teacher.

When she wasn’t working, she was upskilling with acting classes and enjoying vibrant Venice Beach, where she lived the “California dream”, hanging out with everyone from Kiwi The Hateful Eight star Zoë Bell to Super City actress Madeleine Sami and her wife Pip Brown, aka Ladyhawke.

“By the end of my stay, I was living in an awesome pad which was like Melrose Place by the beach. It was one of those old-school ’60s town-houses built around a massive swimming pool with fairy lights at night. I’ve still got furniture, a car and various belongings scattered all over LA, so I’m calling both LA and New Zealand home.”

Claire has launched a wellness website after ridding herself of the debilitating Crohn’s disease. “I want to share what I’ve learned.”

An illness in her family pulled Claire back to Aotearoa. And ironically, given that she was in LA looking for an acting break, her return Down Under has led to one of her meatiest roles yet. This month, Claire debuted her one-woman show Grounded, which runs until September 3 at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre.

She plays a nameless heroine who, every day, drops her daughter at daycare, goes to work, comes home and eats dinner with her husband.

The twist is that her job as a drone pilot involves dropping missiles on people thousands of miles away. Hollywood siren Anne Hathaway turned the George Brant play about the effects of killing by remote control into a Broadway hit last year and Claire is fizzing with excitement about the role.

“When I saw it was military- related, my instinct was, ‘That’s not my cup of tea,’” says the actress. “But once I saw it was such a strong female role about a topic that’s so relevant, I knew I had to do it.”

Claire, who amicably split from her broadcaster husband Mikey Havoc in 2009, laughingly admits there’s “some Murphy’s Law irony” going on with her appearing in a one-woman show.

“Any friend of mine will tell you that I quite like to talk – and now I’ve got about 50 pages of nothing except me talking!”

Since coming home, the actress has also made another dream come true, teaming up with Auckland journalist Kylie Bailey to launch an online website goodforyoutv.co.

“Our goal is to provide written and video content about how to keep ourselves a little healthier and happier.”

Claire should know. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s – a debilitating disease of the intestines – at the age of 12. At 20, when she was still starring on Shortland Street, she was hospitalised and told she would be on “serious medication” for the rest of her life.

“My stubborn 20-year-old self just went, ‘No thank you!’” It was the beginning of a major exploration into how she could help her “brain, body, gut and spirit” overcome her illness. Now “pain-free and Crohn’s-free” for 13 years, Claire wants to share what she’s learned.

“When people get told they’re sick, they think they have to change everything at once and that often feels insurmountable. I believe everyone can improve their health by making small changes, one step at a time. My goal is to share lots of those small changes.”

As for life after Mikey, Claire says she’s single. “Let’s just say American men are a unique breed. I’ll take a straight-up Kiwi guy any day!”

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