For Teuila Blakely, the realisation came in the middle of the night. Her mobile phone was going crazy with notifications and in a sleepy haze, she reached over and started reading. It was pure poison.
“The messages were about anything they cared to insult me about – I’m old, I’m ugly, I’m a slut,” she recalls. “Do I feel like New Zealand’s most vilified woman? Yes, 100,000%. No-one gets trolled as badly as I do. But I promise you, every time this happens, I come out stronger.”
The actress – who hit the headlines two years ago when a sex tape involving herself and Warriors player Konrad Hurrell, 17 years her junior, was leaked online – knew instantly the hate campaign that raged against her was back with a vengeance.
It was hard enough to deal with two years ago, when more than 5000 messages of vitriol poured into her Facebook feed. This time, the 400-odd malicious messages were over something much less confronting than a sex act.
Just a few hours earlier, Teuila – on her way to Sydney for an acting workshop – had bumped into Konrad at Auckland Airport. The two are friendly but rarely see each other and as she had done on the handful of other times they’d run into each other since the sex-tape incident, Teuila posted a selfie of them online. “That’s what was so surprising,” the former Shortland Street star tells Woman’s Day. “There have been several pictures of us together over the past two years and no-one had commented. I don’t know why this was any different. Maybe they were having a troll convention that day.”
The mother-of-one, 41, admits the new outpouring of bile hurt – “Despite what these people think, I am human,” she confesses – but she’s holding her head high in the face of adversity. “To be honest, people expected me to be embarrassed of the tape and I think they’re angry that I’m not. It’s like, ‘Try being ashamed because you’re 40 or because you’re ugly and not a good mother.’ They still want me to be embarrassed and that’s really what’s annoying them.”
A few hours after the new hate campaign began, Teuila hit back with an expletive-filled video. “It was a knee-jerk reaction,” she says. “I thought, ‘Last time, I wrote something really reasoned and it had no effect.’ So I started filming the video and I felt so relieved after I’d said it that I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing. I just uploaded it. “I don’t regret it. It really was an extreme circumstance, which is why my language and emotions were extreme. I can understand some people not understanding why, but I was basically backed into a corner by bullies.”
Bullying is something the former Dancing with the Stars contestant feels strongly about. It’s her own experience as a child who was constantly bashed in the playground that has helped shape her into the resilient woman she is today.
“I’ve not spoken publicly about this,” she says, “but as a kid, I was always very smart – basically a geek before geeks were cool. I was a classical pianist and I never fitted the mould of what people thought a Samoan girl should be. I was beaten up a lot, most often by boys. Girls’ bullying was often emotional, verbal and isolating, which was worse. “On my very last day at primary school, I had a whole stack of awards and books to take home. I was saying my last goodbyes to my other geeky friends when a boy ran up behind me and smashed half a carton of eggs on top of my head. I had to walk home with everything I was carrying completely ruined, literally caked in egg.”
Teuila continued to be a target throughout intermediate, where she often received a thumping in the schoolyard. “But I learned how to fight back,” she tells. “By the time I hit high school, it stopped. I had come into my own. Those two years of fighting back had strengthened my resolve and that’s why I can take it these days. But now I’m doing it with words instead of fists.”
During her last Facebook storm, Teuila deleted the hurtful comments from her page, but this time she’s leaving them up “so others can see how they treat people”. Besides, to cull the comments would mean she’d have to read them.
“Who needs that in their life and who can actually handle that? A lot of people can’t and that’s my concern. When I was at school, the pattern seemed to be that once you’ve been bullied by one person, others see you as a victim and they join in too.
“I am so thankful for the few people who have stood up for me. My message to all New Zealanders is if you see someone getting bullied, online or otherwise, you have to stand up for people. We can’t let the bullies win. If people fight the good fight, we can start to effect change in a positive way.
“I hate the term keyboard warrior. Warrior is a powerful term and why do we give them power? They are keyboard weaklings. And we call them trolls like they’re some mythical creatures. No, they’re real people. Weak, scared, mean, abusive people. People kill themselves because of what they do and I’m tired of giving them power.”
It’s interesting, says Teuila, that “as an adult, I have again become a target for bullies, but thankfully I am no longer a child. They will not drag me down. I am only ever going to become stronger. I’m proud of myself. I really am.”