Just like her Shortland Street character Ula Levi, who struggled to tell her parents about her unplanned pregnancy, actress Frankie Adams has a communication problem of her own – trying to understand her mum’s rapid-fire Samoan.
As she jokes around with her mum Lau (50) and sisters Julie (16) and Flo-Jo (12) in the Auckland sun, she knows her life as a successful actress in New Zealand is a million miles away from her native Samoa – a feeling that’s bittersweet for the gorgeous 18-year-old.
Frankie hasn’t forgotten her roots on Samoa’s largest island, Savai’i – the place her mum Lau and her late father Allan left, taking her with them when she was three years old. They didn’t know a word of English. “If we didn’t move over here, life would have been different, that’s for sure,” says Frankie. “We would have missed out on so many things. I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
It was a scary time for the tight-knit family as they upped and left the life they knew to settle in Auckland’s Mt Albert. “I was scared when we landed at the airport – it was just so different,” recalls Lau. “Actually, I remember Frankie was terrified of the escalator. She refused to come down them, so she just stood at the top!”
“Well, they were moving stairs and I’d never seen them before. What else was I supposed to think?” replies Frankie.
Life in New Zealand took a long time to adjust to as the family dealt with being separated from their relatives. “The first year was really hard. The very first day we arrived here I was crying so much,” says Lau. “I was so homesick. I still miss them all.”
“It’s not like you don’t talk to them every day for two hours!” teases Frankie. Unfortunately for Frankie and the girls, while their mum now has perfect English, their Samoan isn’t quite what it used to be.
“I can understand what Mum’s saying most of the time and I can kind of speak it, but my pronunciation’s all wrong. I get mocked for it,” says Frankie. It was on a recent trip back to Samoa with some of the Shortland Street cast that Frankie was able to connect with her homeland for the first time since leaving as a young girl.
The actress was able to meet her huge extended family and find out that in Samoa, you don’t have to be related to be considered a relative. “It’s really strange actually – everyone’s related over there. Even if you’re not related, you’re related!” she laughs. “And once you’re on TV, you’re related to every single person.”
“Yeah, that was a bit weird. All the kids were like, ‘You’re my cousin! Remember that time we went for a swim?’” adds Julie. But their roots haven’t been forgotten, with Lau placing a huge emphasis on community. “In Samoa, everyone helps. It’s so important,” she says.
Despite missing their families and their village – Flo-Jo didn’t want to leave after visiting with Lau last year – the girls are making the most of the opportunities in Auckland. Along with Frankie’s acting, all the girls play netball and the odd game of touch rugby – a legacy from their dad, who was sports mad.
Even though he passed away in 2000, the girls have a permanent reminder of Allan every time they look out their window – he helped build the Sky Tower. “When I’m with my friends, I’ll point it out and say, ‘Yep! My dad did that!’” Frankie grins.
As she deals with increasingly intense story lines on Shortland Street, playing a teen who has kept her pregnancy secret from her parents, Frankie says it’s comforting to know that if she were in a similar situation to Ula, she’d be able to confide in her mum. “It would be scary at first – I’m sure every teenager would feel nervous about breaking that kind of news to their parents. But we have a great relationship and I know she would be there for me 100%,” she says.
Lau adds that while it wouldn’t be easy, she would stick with her daughter. “I would take it quite hard at first, but once the dust settled, we would work together to make sure we sorted everything out. “As a mother, you only ever want what’s best for your children and to be there to support them as much as possible,” she says.
Frankie smiles and looks at Lau. “She’s done so much for us. I’m so appreciative of Mum.”