Real Life

Kiwi drama queen Lily’s a class act

The Palmerston North talent won't let Down syndrome stop her star from rising

Lily Harper has dreamed of being an actress all her life. “I’ve always loved drama,” she tells Woman’s Day. “When I was younger, I liked pretending to be a different person, like a Disney character or just another child. When we did work experience at school, I said I wanted to be a movie star, so they found me a job in a cinema.”

Now aged 33, Lily is still shooting for the stars and recently had a lead role in the play Up Down Girl, which had a successful run in her hometown of Palmerston North, before receiving rave reviews in Wellington.

Although, like most actors, Lily knows to hold on to her day job. When she’s not acting, she’s a valued member of the team at her local Farmers, having worked there for over 13 years.

Incidentally, Lily also has Down syndrome, but she’s definitely not the sort of person to let an extra chromosome stand in the way of achieving her goals.

‘My character would be a bad guy because bad guys are the best!’

Born in England in 1988, when Lily’s birth mother decided she couldn’t provide the care a child with Down’s might need, baby Lily was adopted at six months by mum Angela and dad Paul.

“We’d had three kids in three years,” recalls Angela. “I’d left my career in medicine to bring up the kids when we decided we wanted to adopt a baby with Down syndrome. We’d been respite carers for kids with intellectual disabilities and I wanted a challenge in parenting, then Lily joined our family and she more than fulfilled our expectations.”

A happy, sociable child, Lily displayed a talent for acting out long segments of her favourite movies, an activity she calls “understudying”, from an early age. She says, “I did sometimes get bullied at school. When we lived in England, there was a boy who was quite mean to me, so Mum invited him over.”

Angela adds, “It turned out it was the only time he’d ever been to play at someone else’s house. After that, the bullying stopped, so that strategy worked well!”

The Harper family is keen on adventures. “The type of people who adopt kids with special needs have to be,” Angela smiles, explaining that the Harper whānau moved to Australia for a job swap in 1998.

“We had seven children by that stage and because we rather liked this side of the world, after the job swap ended, we gave New Zealand a try.”

Lily and her mum Angela, who adopted her as a baby.

Lily and her mum agree it’s rare for people to be unkind here in Aotearoa, although in 2017, a line from Lily’s favourite soap did hurt her feelings. “A character on Shortland Street called Zoë told Chris Warner she was pregnant and the baby might have Down syndrome. When Chris suggested she have an abortion, that made me feel very sad.”

However, the storyline strengthened Lily’s resolve to be an advocate for adoption. “If people can’t cope with a baby with Down syndrome, then they should give it to someone else to look after,” she explains.

When a distressed Lily shared her hurt with playwright Nathan Mudge, as well as her frustrations about how few roles there were for actors with Down’s, he suggested they do something about it.

They set to work adapting the play Up Down Girl, with Lily taking out Best Emerging Actor at the Central Regional Theatre Awards for her role as a young girl with Down syndrome preparing to leave home.

She’s no stranger to prizegivings, having twice co-hosted the Attitude Awards with Simon Dallow. Now in its 14th year and set to be held in Christchurch for the first time on December 10, the awards celebrate excellence and achievement in Aotearoa’s disability community.

In recognition of her achievements, Lily is thrilled to have been nominated for a 2021 Attitude Award in the creativity category. “Sometimes people judge me or tell me I can’t do something, but I say to them, ‘You don’t know what I’m capable of.’ Being nominated for this award has made me very happy.”

Lily’s outlook is inspiring, although her mum and dad can take some credit too. “Our role as parents is to give our kids wings and let them fly,” says Angela. “We’ve done that for all our kids, only with Lily, we’ve not just given her wings, but an aviary to fly in, which means the possibilities are endless.”

As for the future, Lily’s fans can see her onscreen next year on TVNZ’s new dating show Down To Love – and she’s open to accepting a role on Shorty.

“I could play Chris Warner’s daughter. Maybe he had a bad attitude towards Zoë’s baby because many years ago he gave a Down syndrome child up for adoption. I could come back to surprise him, but my character would be a bad guy because bad guys are the best!”

Related stories

Get Woman’s Day home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 29% on a magazine subscription.