The feisty actress talks family, fame and fitness

When Nicole Bessick appears on your TV screen, she’s not only living her childhood dream of becoming a performer. She’s also fulfilling her purpose of making South Africans consider their role in social issues.

“I knew from the time I acted as Mary in our school nativity, at the age of three, that I wanted to be a performer,” Nicole laughs. It was an ambition that “apparently” came out of nowhere, given that both parents worked in the IT industry. Nonetheless, she never doubted her calling. To the contrary, with every Sunday she spent watching the 7de Laan omnibus with her grandmother, she became more certain of it. “Seeing coloured actors and actresses on TV, knowing that they were doing it, meant that I could, too,” she recalls.

It was this, rather than a craving for celebrity, that convinced Nicole to chase her dreams. “I’m actually a very private person, so it wasn’t even about becoming famous. I just wanted to tell stories and change the industry.”

That’s rather a tall order – so how did she go about attaining it? “It started with figure skating,” Nicole says; a discipline she loved because it allowed her to express her natural athleticism while exercising her knack for performance. She was also remarkably good at it – but ironically, it’s her talent that ultimately led to her putting her skates away for good. “You can only win the same championship so many times before it stops being a challenge,” she shrugs.

If it was a challenge she was after, her next pursuit – performance art – certainly provided it. Nicole sang, danced and acted three hours a day, three days a week – and longer on Saturdays – without letting her school marks drop. Her hard work paid off: she was still in school when her first movie, Cold Harbour, screened at both the Cannes and Berlin film festivals.

Given this success, it would have been understandable if Nicole had decided to pour her passion into acting immediately after matric – but her upbringing, which was rooted in the belief that there’s a particular way of doing things if the world is to make sense, made this an impossible choice. And so she enrolled to study law at UCT, even completing a semester at Harvard – “but always bringing my studies back to my first love, which is why I focused on intellectual property”. In fact, Nicole’s studies have had a major influence on her career – not on her choice of work, because she’s drawn to messy, imperfect characters (as far from the black and white world of law as possible), but in her emphasis on running her life as she would a business. “It’s naïve to believe that acting will keep the lights on, if only because demands change as quickly as trends. Two years ago, no one was interested in the female fighter image I personify. It’s now highly sought after, but that could change. Knowing that, I keep looking for what’s next.”

‘What’s next’ happens to be a particularly gritty role in a series Nicole has long held in high regard. “Landing a part in a show I used to watch as a child makes me feel that I’ve come full circle. I have to pinch myself,” she enthuses. The controversial nature of her character makes it even more appealing to her. “I love the fact that my career enables me to lend my name to causes that matter to me, and that I can play a part in the narrative of our country as it stands right now. It’s an honour to take on a role that may have an impact on someone’s life. As performers, it’s our social responsibility to make people look inward and consider how these issues affect their own lives, and what they can do about it.”

She follows this ethos in her personal life, too, as her decision to take part in Africa’s first female celebrity boxing match attests. Nicole donated all monies from her win – and from all subsequent matches – to shelters dedicated to advancing women. “As a former victim of bullying myself, I take my status as the #BullyProof Champion very seriously,” she says.

She relishes her time in the ring for other reasons, too. “Boxing came about almost as a coincidence because I did all my own stunts – I guess my look means that I’ll never be cast as a damsel in distress!” Nicole jokes. “My agent eventually suggested I do all my fights, too.” It was a smart move. “Boxing helped me find my niche and set me apart,” she muses, adding that her advice to any industry hopeful is to strive to find the one thing that works for them in this manner. “Otherwise, you’re just following trends – and that puts you at risk for a short-lived career.”

In contrast, if you do work that you love and that’s full of meaning, opportunities will come to you. More than that, you’ll find your job a blessing. That’s certainly the case for Nicole. “Not every day can be great. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling grateful for being able to do what I do, every single day.”

She’s all the more grateful considering the struggle she’s faced to get where she is. “As a coloured and a woman, I’m doubly disenfranchised. I’m a rarity in my industry – but being a rarity isn’t going to stop me from doing what I love. I never back down from a challenge. It’s just not in my nature.”

That lesson is one of the gifts of her rigorous training. “My years as an athlete taught me that if you put in the work, you’ll get the results. They kept me disciplined and focused.”

And during the times when those qualities need a bit of a bolster? At those moments, Nicole turns to her family. “You could invite me to the fanciest restaurant in town – I’d still want nothing more than to be eating chicken biryani at home on a Sunday.”

It’s an insight that shows that illustrates why Nicole’s friends call her a pineapple: despite her tough-girl façade, she’s “the softest, most invested friend, sister and partner”. That hardcore exterior is an attempt to protect herself from the fame that inadvertently found her – and that she considers a wonderful piece of luck, in spite of the pressures that come with it. “Being recognisable is humbling – there’s no ego in it. It makes me realise that people know my work – and affirms that I’m achieving the objective I set for myself when I first embarked on this career: to create change.”

TEXT: Lisa Witepski IMAGES: © Anna Pepper Photography and #TLRstyling/ShieldZA/Garreth Barclay