Like her Celebrity Treasure Island castmate Edna, actress JJ Fong has a very close connection to her chosen charity, Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand.
"My auntie passed away from leukaemia about eight years ago, so I'm doing this for my cousins," reveals the Creamerie and Step Dave star, 35. "My father's younger sister was a single mum and they had to look after her when they were in their early 20s. That was really hard on the family."
JJ has fond memories of her aunt cooking her specialty, schnitzel and mashed potatoes, when she'd go for sleepovers with her cousins. When her aunt got sick, it was JJ's turn in the kitchen, making fresh fruit and vege juices to bring to the hospital.
"Watching my dad grieving was the hardest thing for me and seeing my cousins taking up responsibility was something that I'll never forget," she says. "Grief changes the entire family."
Coincidentally, JJ's campmate Brynley Stent is playing for the same charity because her mother died of the blood cancer non-Hodgkin lymphoma when the comedienne was 18.
"Sharing our stories on the island was a comfort to me," shares JJ. "She lost her mum at such a young age and I really admire her strength throughout the show."
Besides raising money for Leukaemia & Blood Cancer NZ and the "personal challenge" of appearing on the show, the star also signed up "to see what it was really like making a reality TV show".
She explains, "Because I produce a lot of my own work, I've been watching the cameras and the crews, thinking, 'How do you produce this?' I didn't think I'd ever get a chance to experience this. Next season, I might be behind the cameras!"
JJ's big break came with her role as Alice on Go Girls, but after realising the lack of diversity on Kiwi screens, the Chinese-New Zealander and two friends, Perlina Lau and Ally Xue, began creating and starring in their own web series, Flat3 and Friday Night Bites, which led to this year's acclaimed black comedy Creamerie.
"I was the token Asian when I was on Go Girls and it sometimes still feels like the story of my career," sighs JJ. "Even here, with 20 contestants, I'm the only Asian woman on this series. I'd love to make it to the end just to represent, especially because last season it was three white men."
Asked about her greatest achievement, she says, "It was definitely getting a mainstream comedy show with three Kiwi-Asians as the lead on national television. That was my dream and I definitely achieved that with Creamerie. It's something I'm so proud of.
"People who previously haven't seen themselves on screens tell us they started making their own work, began telling their own stories or decided to become actors because they saw what we do. It makes me feel very privileged. When it gets hard – producing your own work is really difficult – it makes me want to keep going."
Ironically, filming of Creamerie, which is about a pandemic that kills off the planet's men, was shut down by COVID-19 and when it resumed, they had to shoot in the middle of winter, on a super-strict schedule and tight budget.
Fortunately, JJ had her partner of six years, cinematographer Marty Smith, whom she met while filming Step Dave, as director of photography on set. "It was stressful, but we tried not to take that home with us. You have to keep it separate."
Of her time on Treasure Island, she says, "Being away from my partner will be hard – I'll just have to spoon Kim Crossman!"
But if she wins a phone call home on a challenge, JJ insists she won't be speed-dialling Marty.
"I'll cry if I call my partner. I'll definitely go for Perlina because she'll tiger-mum the s**t out of me, like, 'Get in there, JJ! Do not fail! Do not come home without the trophy!'"
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