Celebrity News

Keisha Castle-Hughes: ‘Fame tore my family apart’

The Kiwi actress reveals the drama and heartache behind her success – and how it nearly destroyed her.
Kiwi actress Keisha Castle-Hughes on fame and life after Whale Rider

Keisha Castle-Hughes is in the news again, and this time it’s for all the right reasons – after a whirlwind romance which began in late July, the Kiwi actress is set to marry Jonathan Morrison this summer. The pair, who originally met – and flirted – on Twitter, first saw each other face to face on the opening night of the London Olympics. They have barely been apart since.

“We kept tweeting and we really clicked – I know she’s the one,” says DJ and musician Jono (24), who also runs a screenprinting business but hopes to find a place alongside Keisha (22), in the acting world. “The day we met we felt like we already knew each other – we arranged to meet for drinks at a mutual friend’s house, then we went home together. We haven’t been apart since.”

Jono’s proposal, five weeks into the relationship, came as a complete surprise to Keisha. “He’d been telling me he had a surprise for me for days, but I couldn’t bear the wait so I made him tell me!” laughs Keisha, who says Jono finally popped the question at home with little fanfare, but with tears of joy from them both.

The pair clearly enjoy each other’s company, joking about the “thousands” of tweets the pair exchanged before meeting in person. “We quickly worked out who was the funny one,” says Jono – before both he and Keisha add, “It was me!” in unison. The pair have a lot in common – they both love music, and Jono considers himself a movie buff, admitting he cried when her first saw Whale Rider.

Keisha is carefree as she discusses her upcoming summer wedding with Jono

The engagement comes hard on the heels of a turbulent year for Keisha. She has once again been the subject of bad press – some of which is fairer than others, she says. But in an exclusive interview with New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, Keisha reveals that while she’s ecstatic with her new engaged status, she’s been doing a lot of soul-searching on why she sometimes behaves as she does – and it makes for shocking reading.

“It’s taken me a long time to realise how overwhelmed and underequipped I was to deal with what happened during my teenage years,” says Keisha, whose meteoric rise to fame as Paikea in Whale Rider earned the then-13-year-old a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 2004 – she is still the youngest actress ever to be nominated. “No-one anticipated the success it would have, so my mum and I were thrown in the deep end and we learned the hard way.”

Based in the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes, one of a family of five children with parents on the DPB, Keisha and her mum Desrae suddenly found themselves on a four-year publicity tour for Whale Rider. “Mum would pick up her DPB payment, then a limo would turn up and take us to the airport where we’d fly, first class, to a beautiful LA hotel penthouse where we’d get massages,” remembers Keisha.

“Then we’d use the only four dollars we had to buy hot dogs which would have to see us through until the next time we were taken out for a free dinner of amazing food and vintage Champagne, with me wearing a $25,000 dress.

“There were times we were stranded on the other side of the world in complete luxury, too proud to admit that we didn’t even have enough money to get home. It was a bizarre life – no wonder my family resented me so much.”

Keisha with mum Desrae at the 2004 Academy Awards

And resent her they did – to the point that Keisha’s family dynamic became so fractured she hasn’t seen her Australian-based mum for two and a half years. They will reunite, in person, this week. “We had been thrown into a completely unknown world and the pressure was huge,” Keisha explains.

“By the time I was 14 I’d become the breadwinner for my whole family. Everything was about Keisha – it took me a long time to realise I was having my own problems. That was really hard for them to understand – why I was having this seemingly charmed life while they were all at home not knowing if there was enough money for dinner. It tore my family completely apart.

“It was so stressful – I had an eating disorder, I was anxious all the time, I had terrible night terrors where I’d wake up screaming, and at 14 I was smoking and drinking. “Mum realised I needed an outlet so she let me do all this behind closed doors – but it didn’t make anything better. I thought I was nuts – all I wanted was to go away, go to hospital or somewhere I could just lie in bed and be looked after.”

But instead of being taken care of, the pressure increased. “My job was to do whatever was asked of me – my whole family depended on it,” says Keisha. “No-one liked me at school because they thought I was a pretentious brat who thought I was better than anyone else, but Mum completely controlled me.”

What started as a surprise success turned into a gilded cage. The family began living beyond their means and soon Keisha was forced to accept every job she was offered. “It was like they won Lotto,” she remembers. “We blew all the money on stupid stuff like clothes. We didn’t do anything sensible like buy a house or invest it. All that money did was tear our family apart – we didn’t speak for years.”

What started as a surprise success turned into a gilded cage

While Keisha says that some people, including her agent Gail Cowan, tried to protect her, she soon realised her best defence was to develop an alter ego. “Keisha and ‘Keisha Castle-Hughes’ were two separate people,” the likeable actress explains. “There were moments I’d see photographers, or be at a festival or something, and I’d know it was time to be ‘her’.”

Soon Desrae realised there were more opportunities to be had, and she got Keisha’s brother Rhys, 18 months Keisha’s junior, into acting too. “It was insane – we were this tag team providing for the family,” recalls Keisha. “I was exhausted, but Mum said I had to because we had to make money, bills had to be paid. Everything got messy.”

Keisha’s most destructive – and visible – self-protection mechanism was alcohol. Stories of her looking the worse for wear started to appear in the press, but the star says drinking was the only way she knew how to cope. It didn’t work. “I just stopped caring about anyone and everything,” she says.

“I got into a pattern where the professional Keisha would behave herself, then I’d come home and go on a two-week bender. It was out of control – a friend once told me she reckoned if I’d carried on I’d have been dead in two years.”

Keisha admits her life had spiralled out of control. Work became thinner on the ground, and when she did get roles, she would turn up hung over or wouldn’t have learned her lines. But then she got pregnant. “It was completely unplanned, but having Felicity was the best thing that could ever have happened to me,” she says.

“The brakes went on,” Keisha says of becoming pregnant with Felicity

When Felicity (now 5) was born, Keisha realised she had something worth changing for. “For years, everyone had had a piece of me, telling me what to do, when and how to do it, how to spend my money, how to behave, what to wear – suddenly I had this little girl who was mine.”

Keisha clearly adores Floss, as she calls her, and chats happily about her daughter’s “collections – flowers, stones, anything she can get her hands on!” she laughs.

Keisha has made several attempts to work through the damage her childhood has done. “For a long time I was angry with my mum and my family for what I went through. But for the first time in a long time, we can really talk without everything blowing up,” she says.

“I’m not as angry as I was any more, but there are still blowouts, still mistakes, for sure,” she says. “Now when things happen, I remind myself that I’m still only 22. I’m young, I’m allowed to make mistakes.”

Being around Keisha is great fun; she is candid and charming – and still vulnerable. Jono is all too aware of Keisha’s past and says he’s ready to deal with whatever happens in the future. Although Keisha’s positive about the future, she’s aware her past leaves her open to criticism. She’s planning to set up her own PR company to help other young actors cope with the pressures of fame.

With a new fiancé and impending wedding, as well as more regular work, Keisha says it’s time to move forward

“In other countries several people look after you, so when the work dries up you still get invited to events which keep you in the loop. In New Zealand, if the work dries up you’re on your own. I think I’m trying to replicate what I needed myself – a support system.”

And now, with a new fiancé and an impending wedding – as well as more regular work, which will hopefully include a six-month trip to Canada to film a new TV series called Rewind – Keisha says it’s time to move forward. “There’s no doubt what happened has shaped me, but things are changing,” she smiles. “I’m finally able to have a real relationship with my parents and I’ve got a wedding to plan.”

“She’s a pretty amazing girl,” says Jono, who reckons he’s almost doing more wedding planning than Keisha. “I know she’s the one – my family love her, I love her. What’s the point in waiting?”

Related stories

Get NZ Woman’s Weekly home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 29% on a magazine subscription.