.Anna McGahan is a 27-year-old Australian, Logie-nominated actress best known for her portrayal as Nellie Cameron in 2011’s Underbelly: Razor and her role in House Husbands. She has written at length about her decision to not appear nude in any future productions. In this edited extract, she recounts how she was forced to pose nude while doing promotion for that character and how that changed her whole outlook on going nude for acting roles. The original version appears on her website, A Forbidden Room.
Last night, I went and saw a play called ‘We Get It’.
It was part of MTC Neon, and created by ‘The Elbow Room’ – written by Marcel Dorney and Rachel Perks, and co-directed by Marcel Dorney and Emily Tomlins.
I went to this play with two male friends, and we sat in the front row. For most of the play, I laughed loudly. It was excellent satire, pitting female actors against one another in a sordid reality show.
The aggressively charismatic host, ‘Emily’, engaged and provoked the contestants, who became increasingly confused, insecure, and then angry – but were continually objectified and rejected, and finally rendered voiceless.
At one point in the play, ‘Emily’ gets a cue that leaves her conflicted. She stops the show, and refuses to say her next line.
It then takes a turn.
‘Emily’ begins to talk directly to the audience – slowly, cautiously. She becomes fragile before our eyes – all showmanship evaporating. She monologues about her experiences, her understanding about what it means to be seen as F (f—able) or NF (not f—-able).
As ‘Emily’ speaks she removes her costume, piece by piece. The wig, the jacket, the corset, the pants, the body stocking, the heels. Behind her, ‘live tweets’ of audience mockery and abuse are broadcast for the audience to see.
The play’s world converged with reality, into a genuine question of justice.
I wanted to say sorry. I wanted to get on my knees, or get on stage and sit at ‘Emily’s’ feet. I also wanted to leave. My friend said later that he wanted to get undressed, too. Just stand there, before her, in repentance.
My conviction manifested as grief, and I did not move and I could not look. As she took off every single one of her clothes, and told us how she was not deemed ‘F’, I closed my eyes.
Now, I bring up my professional experiences [in the fourth season of ‘Underbelly’, playing a 16-year-old prostitute, Nellie Cameron] with caution and with respect.
I don’t feel like a victim, or a passive wanderer through a broken system. I was naïve. And in my naivety, I was not able to protect myself from an industry that did not consider itself responsible for me, or how my body was experienced and understood by a public audience.
We all partake in this. I was complicit.
I performed the role [of Nellie] with joy and pride. I love a bit of physical freedom. In the safer contexts, it did feel liberating. I had incredible directors and mentors around me who did seek to make sure I felt empowered on set. I was committed to authentically telling the story of this woman, who had actually lived in 1920s Sydney, but I also knew I was playing a sociopathic criminal, extreme in every sense. I wasn’t concerned about how it would reflect on me, or anyone else. They all knew I was acting – it was art!
I had been told that I was brave. I had been told that the lighting was very beautiful. I had been told that it was tasteful. All these things were true.
I had also been told that if I wanted to work as an actress, I had to be prepared to get my breasts out.
When we were shooting, I chose to normalise it for myself and those around me. I had a lot of sex scenes, with different actors. I wanted everyone to feel okay – I took on that responsibility – even when caring publicists would encourage me to be careful. I figured it would help us all relax, the less of a big deal I made it.
Until one day, we had a publicity shoot, and I unravelled.
I was topless, but only my back was showing. It was a dark and mysterious setting, with a photographer that I had never met before. A different team ran the publicity shoot to the production company– so they had a different interpretation of my character and how they wanted her marketed.
I had no idea.
We shot a few scenarios – it was all modelling stuff, pretty simple on paper. But I am not a model. I freeze up. I find it incredibly exposing. I hate looking down a lens because I don’t feel in character, and I consequently get very nervous.
The photographer sensed this.
I just need you to be more sexy.
We tried again.
Can you just open yourself? Be sexier!
You’re playing a prostitute and you can’t be fucking sexy?
I was gutted. No, I couldn’t. I was standing there half naked, and I wasn’t sexy, and I didn’t know how to be. I knew I could play my character, but Anna – twenty-two-year-old Anna – with her fears and her insecurities, was not able to do it.
I had one job. And I knew I had failed.
The show was fairly successful, and I kept getting work because of the professional exposure it granted me. However, something had changed.
Where I had previously been going to castings for awkward, tomboyish comedy roles, the intelligent ‘best friend’, or the assertive, passionate young woman – I started auditioning for the ‘sex girl’. She was always ‘beautiful’, and either had power in antagonism (and a penchant for sex) or complete innocence (leading into learning about sex). It was so far from how I perceived myself, but I listened to it earnestly – challenged by these auditions and roles to embody something that didn’t make much sense to me.
Is this how I come across to people? Is this how I treat men and women? Is this how I find love/acceptance/identity as a young woman? How do I become sexy?
I did a few other roles, but the next big project I was offered was ‘Spartacus’. My character was a slave girl that didn’t even have a name yet. They asked for full frontal nudity, and sex scenes.
I felt very strange. Over the previous six months post-‘Underbelly’, I’d had countless conversations about my breasts with complete strangers. There were newspaper articles about my weight, quotes of me saying liberal things about nudity and sexuality, and pictures of my body all over the Internet. The constant question was ‘How much are you like your character?’
I felt disconnected from my work. I wanted to be portraying thoughtful, challenging characters on screen and on stage, and writing plays about the world around me, but it felt like I’d forfeited that direction for my career.
This was a big American production and it was ten months work, and heck, who did I think I was to say no to nudity now? I should be grateful. I was obviously learning how to be better at ‘sex girl’.
I accepted the offer, and arranged to move to New Zealand.
A week later, we got a call. I was at the airport, about to head down to a Logies promotional shoot – a completely new beast in itself. A network producer in the U.S. had changed their mind about me. They wanted to retract the offer. The production asked us to give them a week, and they’d try and convince him to keep me on it.
I cried into my arm the whole plane trip, absolutely gutted. Then I put on a smile for the shoot, walking and posing like an obedient model/actress, feeling utterly empty.
I had one job.
The next day, something in my perspective had shifted.
I wasn’t particularly spiritual at this stage – but I now see that something pressed in on my heart in this moment, calling forth the young woman who had wanted to be more than just context for men.
I had done all I was told. I’d given my body over to those in charge of deeming whether it was worthy – I’d agreed to that contract without argument.
I had finally accepted the label of ‘sex girl’ and the industry that had given it to me had rejected me anyway. I saw this moment the way a discouraged abductee might see her one opportunity to make a run for it, and escape.
This was my chance to change it.
I knew, right to my bones, that they should feel honoured to have me say yes. My body was worth more than their money. I would not beg for an opportunity to be used. I was so afraid to voice it, but I did.
Since then, I have made the decision to not do nudity. I have just said no.
I admire any actor who commits their body to their craft – and I do not regret doing it myself – but this industry has evolved to understand intimacy and boundaries in increasingly subjective ways.
As a female actor, I have continually had to assert the forgotten truth that my body is mine.
Click through the gallery below for photos of Anna that she has consented to. Post continues after gallery.
This article is an edited version of a longer piece that originally appeared on Anna’s blog, A Forbidden Room.
Did you watch Underbelly: Razor? What were your thoughts?
For more on sexualisation of women…