Real Life

Kiwi Broadway darling Scarlett’s battle with anorexia

Theatre queen Scarlett reveals her behind-the-scenes struggle
Scarlett Jacques in front of a pastel mixed coloured backgroundPictures: Jeremy Daniel, Levi Walker Photography

Growing up in Auckland, avid theatre lover Scarlett Jacques was encouraged to participate in choirs and theatre shows all around Aotearoa by her adoring mum Kay Ellis. By age eight, she landed her first role in a musical, Frosty The Snow Man.

“Feeling the spotlight hit felt incredible,” recalls Scarlett, now 21. “I wanted to keep singing and dancing forever!”

Joining the National Youth Theatre and Auckland Performing Arts Academy, she went on to star in more than 20 productions, including Annie, but after landing the role of Roxie in a Year 13 production
of Chicago, she began struggling with body image.

“Roxie gets lifted lots. I thought, ‘They’re struggling to lift me because I’m too heavy. I need to lose weight,’” recalls Scarlett, who weighed around 54kg at the time.

Then, unable to do what she loved during COVID lockdowns, the aspiring star “spiralled” into an exercise addiction because shedding kilos felt like the only way to gain control of her life.

Scarlett and mother Kay
With her proud mum Kay.

“I took walks with my mum or ran around Orakei Basin, then I’d do a Zoom dance class and five YouTube workouts.”

Scarlett eventually began intermittent fasting, then restricted herself to 400 to 500 calories per day. Gradually, her physical and mental health declined.

“It became so frustrating and exhausting because I was never satisfied,” she tells. “I’d step on the scale and think, ‘I’m a little less, so I may as well get down to the next number.’ I lost my spark and personality because my body was trying to survive. I had one purpose and nothing else mattered.”

Concerned Kay would assure her daughter she’d exercised enough or offer her meals, but Scarlett often snapped back. However, by the time Kay contacted Auckland’s Tupu Ora eating-disorder clinic in late 2020, Scarlett felt relieved.

In her twice-weekly sessions, professionals diagnosed her with anorexia, but things got worse before they got better.

Scarlett on a beach
Pre-recovery.

Scarlett recalls, “There was an introductory question about whether I’d had suicidal thoughts, which made me and Mum break down as I realised, ‘Oh, my God, I have.’ Because every time I got to the next weight or size, I still wasn’t happy. It felt never-ending and impossible.”

Scarlett tells, “Having to stop dancing made me go, ‘What’s the point in trying to get better if I can’t have the future I dreamed of?’ Eventually, that’s what motivated me to get better. I needed to perform again. I craved it.”

They put Scarlett on a 4000 calorie-a-day recovery plan, but she soon reached a new weight low of 43 kg. As her body went into starvation mode, her heart rate and blood pressure dropped, she lost her period and doctors advised against exercise. This dashed her plans to move to Australia, where four musical-theatre schools had accepted her.

During her recovery, Scarlett successfully auditioned for the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, which further encouraged her to get healthy.

Scarlett on stage in a Hairspray production.
Scarlett (in purple) as Penny Pingleton in Hairspray.

“New York was always the dream, but I really never thought it could happen!”

Her two years in the Big Apple proved the ultimate therapy, she says. “I had moments of getting back into bad habits, but I remembered what the clinic taught me and that I needed to remain healthy if I wanted to keep going.”

Scarlett found extra support after meeting her boyfriend Devan Derouin, who she enjoyed introducing to theatre. “I took him to a Broadway show and he whispered, ‘It’s like I’m watching a movie!’ It was cute.”

Scarlett waited two months before telling professional chef Devan, 21, about her struggles.

“A weight lifted off my shoulders,” she says. “Having somebody who cared about me like my family does was amazing.”

After her course, Scarlett began an apprenticeship with the Broadway Dreams programme. There, a faculty member encouraged her to audition for a Broadway production of Hairspray. She was gobsmacked when she landed one of the big roles. Directors casted as Penny Pingleton, just two months after graduation.

A selfie with boyfriend Devan
With chef boyfriend Devan.

“I was so nervous, I was shaking on stage the first night. I felt impostor syndrome and thought, ‘Why me?’ But somebody believed in me, so I had to believe in myself.”

More than 200 shows later, Scarlett’s rocked stages around the US, from California to Florida. While eating well on the road is challenging, Devan often cooks for Scarlett and she buys fresh where possible.

Now a healthy 57kg, the Kiwi star says travel and reading keep her mentally well, but nothing beats performing.

“I feel peaceful on stage. When we finish closing number You Can’t Stop The Beat, I can’t help but smile. Even on bad days, I walk off stage and everything’s better. It’s surreal how quickly things can change. This is all I ever wanted.”

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please see a GP, call 0800 2 EDANZ or visit ed.org.nz. For the Suicide Crisis Helpline, phone 0508 TAUTOKO.

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