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Acting her age

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Acting her age - Girl interrupted

The Sydney Morning Herald

1 May 2006

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As Home and Away's Sally Fletcher, Gold Logie nominee Kate Ritchie has grown up on television. Michael Idato reports.

Kate Ritchie, aged nine, has a delightful smile, a twinkle in her eye and, in OshKosh B'Gosh overalls, a preternatural sense of fashion. As a projection thrown onto the wall for The Guide's cover shoot, she is a spectral, intangible shadow behind the real Kate Ritchie, now 27.

The gulf between the two seems at once vast and momentary. The smile is the same and her sense of style - a Diane von Furstenberg top and Frankie B jeans - has kept pace with the times.

"There is part of me that is very detached. I know that's me but at the same time it's not me," she says of her ghost-like former self. "She's the little girl who grew up

on Home and Away and in some ways that person belongs to somebody else. She belongs to the people who have watched the show."

Ritchie's 18-year run as Summer Bay sweetheart Sally Fletcher is a rare tale of longevity in an industry known for its high turnover. Her endurance has even earned her - with co-star Ray Meagher - a place in The Guinness Book of World Records.

In the process, her rite of passage - from childhood to adulthood with terrible teens in between - has been documented on television every weeknight for almost two decades in a rare and intriguing way. In some ways it evokes Peter Weir's film The Truman Show, about a man who has spent his entire life within the confines of a television show.

"People think I've been playing the same role for the past 18 years ... but it's certainly not the same role it was 18 years ago," Ritchie says. "I was a child, then a school-aged teenager, then a young woman, a young mother. It has changed, more than most roles on TV."

Ritchie auditioned in 1987 for executive producer John Holmes, who was putting together Seven's response to the success of Neighbours. Her audition scene, she recalls, involved strawberry jam and her infamous imaginary friend Milko, who "is more famous than I am", she says, laughing.

Holmes, now Seven's head of drama (and still Ritchie's boss), says she was the standout among those auditioning for the role. "Actors always choose themselves for a role and in this case Kate Ritchie shone head and shoulders above all the rest," he says.

The success of the show and the attention of fans and the media were difficult to adjust to, Ritchie says, particularly for a child trying to process the contradictory messages of "stranger danger" and fame. "The first time someone came up and asked me for an autograph, I burst into tears because I didn't know what I was meant to do. I was embarrassed and a little frightened," she says. "As a kid, adjusting to people recognising you, and that attention, was hard."

Tougher still was the prospect of puberty, pimples and the other burdens of teenage life - all under the ruthless scrutiny of television cameras. "I don't have anything to compare it with," Ritchie says. "So the way my life has panned out, the experiences I have had, that's just the way it's been for me."

She was protected to some extent, she says, by the company she kept - the older, permanent cast members such as Meagher, Debra Lawrence and Judy Nunn, rather than the teenagers who, in shows such as Home and Away, come and go like the weather.

"I have seen lots of people come and go and, I guess, the good and the bad side of fame, and fame that comes very quickly," she says. "What I have learned more than anything is that it doesn't necessarily last. That's why I'm happy where I am. Home and Away itself is always going to be bigger than any one person on it. That's why it works."

Because she grew into the role and didn't arrive with the kind of teen-magazine media splash that trumpeted the arrival of many of her co-stars, Ritchie has stayed on the fringe of the limelight for a long time. That may change this year if she walks away with the Gold Logie, an honour that would propel her into the company of Jana Wendt, Ray Martin and Lisa McCune.

"The Logies, the nominations and all the stuff that went with it, that was always something that happened to someone else," she says. "I'm actually really nervous. But I'm excited at the same time."

There have been moments, she concedes, when she has reconsidered her destiny. As a child she never made a conscious decision to become a professional actor. As

an adult she is comfortable with the choices her life has given her.

"It was odd when my friends finished high school and were deciding what they wanted to do, and in my case my choice had been more or less made," she says. She is interested in architecture and design, and beyond acting she wants to pursue directing and writing.

"You wonder what life would be like without people knowing your business or calling out your character name on the street," she says. "But I know that being a part of Home and Away has given me much more than it's ever taken away."

Gold diggers

Seven contenders stand between Kate Ritchie and the No. 1 Logie. Here's their form.

Natalie Bassingthwaighte

Best known as Izzy Hoyland, the girl viewers love to hate, in Neighbours. Her television and music fan base - she is also the lead singer of Rogue Traders - could give her run some extra oomph.

Bridie Carter

The postergirl of McLeod's Daughters, Carter's storylines - the loss of husband Nick (Myles Pollard) and his miraculous return from the dead - scored huge coverage in TV Week, a key part in the run for Gold.

Bec Hewitt

After losing last year to Rove McManus, Mrs Lleyton Hewitt (nee Bec Cartwright) has faded from television screens but she still has a huge magazine profile, which could easily propel her over the finish line.

Rove McManus

McManus has won for the last three years but his talk show Rove [Live] has delivered consistently soft ratings during the past year, a worrying shift among his audience that could damage his chances.

Bert Newton

Admitted to the TV Week Logie Hall of Fame in 1988, Newton won his first Gold Logie (of three) in 1979. He is a living legend but SMS voting will affect this year's Gold Logie win and Newton's fans aren't as young as they used to be.

Ada Nicodemou

Twice nominated for the Gold Logie, Nicodemou danced back onto the ballot after winning Dancing with the Stars. As a Home and Away favourite, she has a solid chance.

John Wood

After more than a decade as Sergeant Tom Croydon in the police drama Blue Heelers, Wood has always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. With Blue Heelers taking its final bow, the time may be right for Wood to take the top honour.

Kate Ritchie

After 18 years on Home and Away, Ritchie makes her first appearance on the Gold Logie ballot this year. Audiences who watched the nation's sweetheart grow from a cute child to a beautiful woman will find it hard not to vote for her.

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