Kiruna Stamell: Australian performer and commentator in London
Kiruna Stamell is a true Rennaissance woman: producer, actress, activist, commentator and even tap dancer. She also has a long list of achievements from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge through to Olivier-Award nominations. This dynamic Australian born woman has carved out an international career, fought discrimination and worked tirelessly to champion equality and diversity in the performing arts. I caught up with Kiruna in the UK just after she was featured on ‘Australian Story’ where her remarkable life and career were profiled.
Life in Australia
Kiruna grew up in Sydney Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. I asked her what it was like growing up in her suburb.
“I lived in an area that very quickly changed from working class, affordable and family focused to trendy, expensive and unattainable. It was only leaving and living overseas that made me realise what an affluent area I was privileged to grow up in. It felt like a creative and open-minded community to me as a child and a friendly place to grow up. We had a lot of private schools in our area but I went to the local comprehensive. This was my introduction to the Australian class system. I loved my high school and really developed as a person at Vaucluse High.”
Kiruna has established an enviable career in film, television and stage which includes work with people like Geoffrey Rush, Baz Luhrmann and Ricky Gervais. Her work has been BAFTA nominated and she has performed in some of the best theatres in London. I asked her where she was in terms of her journey as an artist.
"I still love what I do and every day I am learning. A career in the arts is feast or famine. It ebbs and flows as you age and change. When you are your work it is really hard to reflect on the journey because it is not a clear trajectory."
"One day you are at an opening then the next you are scooting around London off to another audition and quietly wondering should I be looking for a day job yet? Or explaining to a taxi driver who has never seen your work, that no you have never done Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs over Christmas."
"I just keep moving along on this journey and try not to accidentally double back over my old tracks."
"Having my story told on Australian Story was a huge moment of recognition for me and my career. The supportive comments from Australians who got in touch with me afterwards was incredibly beautiful because sometimes I have felt very lonely on this journey.”
Kiruna is an advocate and role model for people with dwarfism and perceived difference. I asked her how this role came about?
“As the eldest of three sisters - who all have the same dwarfing condition - I was always the first to do something and break the ice for other people. My experiences of injustice and prejudice have made me want to lessen the burden for other people who have this shared experience. I guess it makes me feel connected to people, knowing that we are all different. I want the world to be the sort of place I can be proud to live in and be a part of.”
Getting a break in the performing arts is hard enough but Kiruna always had to fight her corner, stand up for who she is and address discrimination. I asked Kiruna how she sustains the energy needed to work harder than everyone else and how she maintains her joie de vivre?
“Mum says when I was born it was with a great big smile and with the kind of expression and twinkle that indicated I might grab the world by the balls. I feel like I am on a quest and have taken great inspiration from Rainbow Brite and Astroboy. The 80s versions. Poor Rainbow has been tarted up a bit too much in her modern reincarnation. Or maybe I have a genetic, ‘roar’ in me."
"But, I am not just organically awesome. LOL. I also take anti-anxiety meds. You can’t be superwoman all the time and sometimes there is life drama and stuff you can’t control. You know, there is cancer, war, poverty, selfish-ness, climate change, road rage… cruel people… etc…"
"So, I have asked for help and counselling when I have needed it but I also try to minimise interpersonal drama in my own life and keep my life as simple as possible. When you feel under siege you need to find your allies."
"My friends are supportive people. They are great, kind and have integrity. I have no time for fair-weather friends. I try to thank people who have helped or given me their time and give other people a leg up in the world when I can help them."
"I am fortunate to have found and fostered friends and family who ‘get it’, at least most of the time. I found a wonderful group of disabled women (mostly) and a few men in the UK who helped me understand how diverse the real world really is and this sense that we are all different is unifying. Best advice I can give anyone is to get friends who are more different than you and give each other perspective and help."
"I try to make sure I get decent amounts of sleep.”
Life in London
Kiruna relocated the UK about ten years ago. I was curious to know what motivated her journey and how her UK experiences compared to Australia.
“I had opportunity in London, which I didn’t have in Australia, such as access to training and a lot more work. The hardest part was being 3 foot tall, I didn’t know how to find an accessible place to live or how I would take money out of the ATMS over here."
"Artistically the UK really fulfils me. Culturally, the disability rights movement and politics are more developed over here, so there is more of a shared experience. But I meet more overt discrimination and rudeness on the streets here in the UK. In Australia I am less likely to hear ‘midget’ screamed at me by a stranger or to notice someone laughing or being overtly rude, like I am here in the UK. But the discrimination is more covert in Australia, in terms of institutionalised discrimination and lack of opportunity."
"The disability rights movement is much more evolved in the UK, but I think that is because the disabled community are closer to each other here. Things are getting better in Australia, the conversation is evolving.”
Travel opens up enormous opportunities for women. I wondered what advice Kiruna had for other Australian women with dwarfism, or disabilities, thinking about "doing a geographical”.
“Do it! Meet people like yourself and more different. Ask disabled women what different parts of the world was like for them in terms of access and use the internet to contact people for their tips."
I asked Kiruna if there was anything she wished someone had told her before she came here?
"Dual nationality means you can’t run for Australian parliament. Lol… no… I came over just as the internet was taking off and the internet made a huge difference to my life and meant I had made contact with people before I came over."
Always keen to locate the best places and experiences in London for Australian women, I asked Kiruna about her favourite parts of London.