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New queen of romance Nicola Coughlan’s rise to fame

Nicola never imagined she’d be part of Bridgerton’s most feverish love stories
Nicola Coughlan on the red carpet
Once penniless, Nicola looks a million dollars on the red carpet

Just a few years ago, Nicola Coughlan was half expecting a chat with her parents, telling her it was high time she pulled the plug on her acting dreams.

“My family would have been well within their rights to say, ‘Maybe this isn’t working out,’” the actor recalls. “But they didn’t. They had my back. If I didn’t have them, I couldn’t have done it.”

By “it”, Nicola means her dizzying rise to fame, from a struggling wannabe actor, hardly able to get an audition, to starring in the steamy runaway Netflix hit Bridgerton.

Gone are the days when there wasn’t enough cash in her pockets to buy a coffee. Now, she has Hollywood knocking down her door.

Bridgerton

“It’s hard for me to comprehend,” admits Nicola. “How do you process that? You don’t, is the answer.”

Based on the novels by Julia Quinn, each season of Bridgerton follows a different sibling from a London society family. The plot follows as they attempt to find love in the early 1800s. In the recently released season three, it’s Nicola’s turn to play the romantic lead as Penelope Featherington. She acts alongside Luke Newton, 31, who plays her on-screen lover Colin Bridgerton.

It’s a scenario the 37-year-old never imagined as she was growing up in a small village near Galway on Ireland’s west coast.

“Not because I couldn’t imagine being an actor. Because I was more drawn to those over-the-top women in entertainment like Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli than the romantic leading ladies.”

Nicola Coughlan and Luke Newton in Bridgerton
With Bridgerton co-star Luke.

Early days

She was just nine years old when she scored her first role as “Little Girl Feeding Swans” in a film about the Northern Ireland conflict called My Brother’s War. That’s all it took for the acting bug to bite. After finishing her tertiary studies, Nicola went straight to drama school. But any hopes she had of stepping directly into a screen career were dashed.

“Those years after drama school were horrific,” tells Nicola. Auditions were thin on the ground and she fell into depression.

“I felt like the worst failure,” she says. “My bank account was dry. I say all the time, ‘Money doesn’t make you happy’ – but unless you’ve been really broke, you don’t know the stress. How it takes up all your time, how it sucks the joy. I still get scared to check my bank account. Yes, I still have that fear.”

She eventually found a two-day-a-week job while she continued to look for acting work. Her big break finally came in 2017 when she was cast in the hit Irish sitcom Derry Girls.

Learning to cope with her sudden fame has been “a learning curve every day”, she confides.

The public eye

But she is handling it very well. Recently after being called “very brave” for revealing her naked body on the show, she said she was proud of her “perfect breasts”. And in 2022, she posted a selfie, along with a request to her 1.2 million followers. She said, “If you have an opinion about my body, please, please don’t share it with me … It’s really hard to take the weight of thousands of opinions on how you look being sent directly to you every day.” The criticism then fell away immediately.

“It was misconstrued by a lot of people as me taking down the haters,” she says. “Nope. This is me trying to tell you directly how I feel.”

She was also highly amused when she made a list of best-dressed women in 2021.

“My friends and family found this absolutely hilarious,” she laughs. Then she explains that she regularly wears things other people wouldn’t be seen dead in.

“I have this jumper with the word ‘happy’ and a rainbow picture on it,” she tells. “I was given it years ago. For some reason, even though I know it’s terrible, I wear it all the time.”

Nicola Coughlan in Derry Girls
Nicola got her TV break in Irish comedy Derry Girls.

Reflecting

These days, of course, Nicola has more than enough money to make sure she’s well decked out for all the opportunities coming her way. She was delighted to be given a cameo in the Barbie movie and has recently signed up as the lead in a thriller called Love and War, in which she will play an Irish woman trying to rescue her six-year-old daughter from war-torn Syria.

“In 2017, I was also working part-time in an optician’s. I was about to turn 30, living at home with my parents and unsure whether the whole acting thing was ever going to happen or whether I was completely kidding myself,” she muses.

“The funny thing is, I don’t feel any different to the girl who used to ring people up and tell them they’re overdue for their eye test.

“I hope I can show the world, along with myself, that sometimes the oddball in the corner can take centre stage.”

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