Celebrity News

Shorty star Ria’s magic milestone birthday

Celebrating her 40th birthday, the actress reflects on her ‘gruelling’ journey to motherhood – and why she’d go through it all again
Ria standing front of a flowery backgroundPhotos: Robert Trathen

Shortland Street star Ria Vandervis wasn’t sure if she wanted to have a party for her 40th birthday, but after being “egged on” by one of her besties, former co-star Amelia Reid-Meredith, the actress ended up having a beautiful, intimate bash with her closest family and friends.

“Amelia had a vision of us celebrating my birthday in a room with white walls and wooden floorboards,” Ria tells Woman’s Day. “Then one day, I was walking up Auckland’s Karangahape Road and saw a private space for hire. It was exactly as Amelia described, so I figured it was meant to be!”

The actress has played Dr Harper Whitley on Shorty since 2013. She already had some tickets to go with friends to Shapeshifter’s 25th anniversary gig at the Auckland Town Hall during Matariki weekend. Once she saw the space, she decided it was the perfect venue for a long lunch as the prelude to a night of dancing.

Ria Vandervis standing behind a giant '40' sign

A talented designer, DIY expert, accomplished actress and marriage celebrant, Ria transformed the space herself into a stunning party venue for her 45 guests. “In total Ria style, I went from not being sure I wanted a celebration to creating a full-blown DIY event,” she laughs. “It was almost like organising a little wedding!”

Ria found some funky pink-and-white candy-striped fabric in the bargain bin at a haberdashery store. She whipped up some eye-catching tablecloths with it, which provided the inspiration for the long lunch’s “loud, proud and very fun vibe”, she smiles.

Guests arrived for drinks and nibbles mid-afternoon, before enjoying a sumptuous Middle Eastern-inspired feast.

Ria Vandervis chatting to bestie Amelia Reid-Meredith with a champagne flute in hand
Bestie Amelia got the party started.

“One of my best friend’s brothers, Tristan Wolfenden, is a chef who recently came back from the Bahamas, where he was working on superyachts,” tells Ria. “He cooked lots of amazing food, like tabbouleh, koftas, chicken skewers and salads. Regal King Salmon gifted me some salmon, which we ate smoked. It was all so healthy and delicious.”

Her bestie Amelia, 38, who played Bella Cooper on Shorty for six years, organised Ria’s beautiful vintage-inspired pink birthday cake, which was covered in little red love hearts and topped with her nickname “Rizzle”.

“Turning 40 is a massive milestone and Matariki was the perfect time to celebrate it, given its focus on reflection, getting together with people you love and sharing kai,” tells Ria. “In my speech, I talked about my deep gratitude for getting this far. I also expressed gratitude for the amazing people in my life, especially my husband Chris and our little boy Ted.”

Ria Vandervis standing excitedly beside her cake

Ria has been open about the years of fertility struggles she and her husband Chris Ashton, 39, endured, including a miscarriage and several failed IVF attempts. She tears up as she talks about her selfless younger sister Lottie, who gave her the ultimate gift, donating some of her eggs to enable the couple to have their much-loved little boy.

“I can never thank Lottie enough for the incredibly special and generous thing she did for us. She hadn’t even had her own children yet. Ted is a gorgeous, spirited toddler with so much personality and is the biggest joy in my life.”

Ria says life has changed dramatically since she became a mum in December 2021.

Big hugs from Ria to sister Zina in front of a flowery photo wall
With sister Zina.

“We wanted a baby so badly for so long and when he arrived, I wasn’t quite prepared. I suffered a bit of postnatal depression and didn’t bond with him straight away, which was terrifying. But now I’m so in love with Teddy. He has changed my outlook on everything for the better. I feel so blessed.”

After a long, hard road to become parents, Ria has “so much empathy” for others facing similar challenges.

“The journey can be so gruelling, emotional and lonely, but I would go through it all again if I knew it would end up the way it has.”

With son Ted at a picnic table
Sister Lottie made it possible for Ria to become a mum to Ted.

When not acting or spending time with her whānau, the handywoman is busy with her DIY projects. She has renovated several homes for the family over the years and takes on other do-up projects. As her Instagram page reveals, she is much more than just an ideas person, doing everything from installing kitchen sinks to relining walls.

“DIY is in my blood,” explains Ria. “My father Lee renovated every house we lived in during my childhood in Dunedin. When I was little, we lived in a church. After that, in a big old homestead built in the 1800s for the man who founded Otago Medical School. Dad spent years restoring it to its original beauty after previous owners split it into eight flats. The smell of sawdust is so nostalgic to me.”

When she’s not on the tools, Ria works as a marriage celebrant, something she has done for more than a decade. She gets a thrill out of seeing the brides and grooms “loved-up and so happy”.

Ria Vandervis acting alongside Ben Barrington and Sam Bunkall on Shortland Street
On Shortland Street as Harper, with Sam Bunkall (left) and Ben.

She is also a director in husband Chris’ successful business Konstruct. He and a friend started it in his student flat while they were studying at the University of Otago. It’s now one of New Zealand’s leading suppliers of custom-printed apparel and promotional products.

“When I met Chris, he was sleeping on a lilo in his factory. He couldn’t afford a flat,” laughs Ria. “Thankfully, times have changed!”

The couple married in 2012, around the same time Ria won the role of Harper on Shorty.

With husband Chris in front of a flowery photo wall
The birthday girl with husband Chris.

She recalls, “We had just bought our first house in Dunedin, but I had to move to Auckland for the role. I never got to live in it. Chris moved up a few months later, and he’s been married to Ria and Harper ever since. He still helps me learn my lines at night!”

Ria’s on-screen husband Drew McCaskill, played by Ben Barrington, is another significant person in her life. “Ben and I are so comfortable around each other, having played husband and wife for nine years,” she says.

“It’s pretty special Harper and Drew have been together so long. That doesn’t often happen in the world of soaps. Their relationship is one of the highlights of my time on Shorty. That, as well as the amazing week a few of us spent filming in Fiji in 2014. It was the coolest experience. I’ll never forget it.”

Ria Vandervis and Shorty co-star Sally Martin in front of a flowery photo wall
Ria and Sally Martin (aka Nicole on Shorty).

A self-confessed active relaxer, Ria admits to not always getting the work-life balance right. Motherhood is helping her to slow her down, though.

“I’m normally going a million miles an hour and have lots of things on the go, but now that I’m a mum, I feel a strong urge for stillness and being really present for Ted.”

As she looks ahead to her forties, Ria’s priorities are clear. “I’m most looking forward to spending time with my family and watching my son grow,” she smiles. “Ted already has such a wicked sense of humour and is just a delight. I’m so proud to be his mum.”

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