Hollyoaks star Annie Wallace on Hayley Cropper's impact and why transphobes will "ultimately fail"

·12-min read
Photo credit: Hal Shinnie - Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Hal Shinnie - Lime Pictures

Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.

Next up, we're speaking to Hollyoaks star Annie Wallace.

Decades before trans representation started to improve with the likes of Pose and Euphoria, Coronation Street introduced Hayley Cropper to the cobbled streets of Weatherfield. Back in 1998, Julie Hesmondhalgh's character was the first trans person to appear in a British soap opera, and the success of Hayley's role was down in large part to Annie Wallace, who helped advise on and inspire the character's story.

Since Hayley's groundbreaking debut, Wallace has continued to make history in the world of soaps with her own role as Sally St Claire on Hollyoaks. Annie's introduction to the show in 2015 made her the first trans person to play a regular transgender character on a British soap opera, which is no small feat.

Soap characters regularly find themselves in extraordinary situations, but it's the ordinary people at the heart of these stories, people like us, people like Hayley or Sally, that make these stories worth watching. By introducing a diverse range of characters, soaps are in the perfect position to help normalise the lives of marginalised groups who are all-too-often othered in real life.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

Digital Spy caught up with Wallace to discuss the power of LGBTQ+ representation in soaps and why transphobes who oppose equality will "ultimately fail".

Do you remember the first time that you saw queer representation on screen? Was it a positive or negative experience?

So, I’m very old [laughs]. The first queer representation I saw wasn’t from someone queer. It was John Hurt in The Naked Civil Servant. Now, that was 1974, and I was only nine years old at the time. It was basically the story of Quentin Crisp, who had become a kind of celebrated, notorious gay man at the time, because he was very flamboyantly out.

Obviously, in the '70s, we had lots of representation in terms of closet representation. Camp gay was all over the television. It was totally mainstream. But they never spoke about being gay. It was all innuendo. It was very much something to be poked fun at. I’ve always said that trans people are about 30 years behind where lesbian and gay people are, in terms of the way the public view them.

I didn’t think I was gay at an early age. I just knew I was different. I kind of knew I was trans in my head, I suppose, because of who I felt that I was. And I thought, "Oh my God, this is what happens when you get to a certain age, that everyone just laughs at you, and then you just have to accept it, and go, 'Oh, yes, isn’t it funny?'"

The first time I saw someone who was trans on television was the late Julia Grant. It was this documentary series on BBC One called A Change of Sex. It followed her transitioning, and going to the doctor's in London, and seeking reassignment, or gender confirmation as it's called now.

It follows the whole process of going through that. And I was absolutely hit by it. I was like, "Oh my God, this is obviously who I am. It's obviously what I am." And at the same time, I was like, "Oh, God, look at that hospital and doctors. It's terrifying!"

I watched it in my bedroom on a little portable television with the sound turned down so that Mum and Dad couldn't hear what I was watching [laughs]. Because for them – if they know that I'm watching this programme, they're going to ask me questions about the show.

What are your thoughts on authenticity when it comes to queer storytelling?

I think it’s important purely on a basis of fairness and representation. This is what it comes down to. There are LGBTQ+ stories which have been written by straight people which are absolutely outstanding. I suppose my point of reference there would be the story of Hayley Cropper and Roy Cropper on Coronation Street. The ordinariness of that character, I think, destigmatised trans people to a huge extent. You can’t dismiss that character.

We had non-trans people bringing a trans story to screen. Admittedly, it was with my help, but that’s another thing. It made it more authentic with me helping them. But the actual stories came from non-trans people. And they were perfectly validating. So I think as long as the stories can be valid and not stereotypical or caricatures, I don’t think there’s a problem with straight people telling gay stories.

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But I think that as we move forward, we are getting to a stage where we have to give more opportunities and more representation to queer stories, purely because they have not been heard before, in much the same way you never saw trans actors on the screen until 2013, 2014. Because trans actors didn’t get invited to audition for anything. It was just deemed: "No, that’s weird. We don’t want that. We’ll get a straight person, and they’ll play it brilliantly."

There’s still only six people that I can name that are in regular work on television at the moment. But it’s a start, and things have to start somewhere. You can’t open the floodgates and just expect it to all happen overnight, because that’s not how the world works unfortunately.

I wouldn’t discount the work of straight people who are allies, rather than straight people who just want to write something and be patted on the back. Getting LGBTQ+ people into the room, at a writing level and a performance level, is crucial in terms of fairness. Pure fairness. People being allowed to work where people weren’t, because of prejudice. I think that’s the key. Representation at work, and authenticity, come hand in hand. There will come a point where it’s just perfectly natural.

I was doing an interview with my really good friend, Julie Hesmondhalgh – she played Hayley on Coronation Street. We were talking about how she feels she left the role of Hayley at exactly the right time, because for 16 years, she, a cisgender woman, had played a trans woman without much complaint, and with the support of the trans community. But it was becoming anachronistic that there would be a cisgender woman playing a trans character on screen.

She didn’t leave for that reason. She left because she wanted to do other things. But she said, "Isn’t it just as well that I left?" Because suddenly everything happened: Orange Is the New Black, Boy Meets Girl, all this stuff happened just after she left. She said, "It was a cultural tipping point where instead of portraying people, you started seeing people authentically telling their story."

I think she had a really good point about that. Sometimes there are tipping points within culture that move towards better representation. And we are getting there. Things move on, and then the baton is passed, as it were.

What kind of obstacles have you faced working as a trans woman in this industry?

Well, I didn't come out as trans for a very long time. I transitioned in the late '80s. At that time, if you were trans, you kept your head down, and you just got on with your life – if you could. If you blend in, then that was the target, because then people would leave you alone. And I blended in. I was quite lucky in that respect.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

So I went to drama school, and nobody knew I was trans. I got hired on other jobs. I started working in theatre, and nobody knew I was trans. I was just playing ordinary roles. I only decided to come out, as it were, just before I joined Hollyoaks, when I was auditioning. If I actually bit the bullet and dealt with public opinion about my life, then I could actually have acting opportunities that previously didn't exist.

So Hollyoaks came along, and I auditioned for that, and I was lucky to get the role. But, you know, I auditioned for some other stuff as well. I didn't get those roles, but it wasn't because I was trans. They wanted a younger person in Banana and Cucumber. With Boy Meets Girl, they wanted someone again who was younger, but maybe a bit more elegant, and I'm a bit more mumsy [laughs]. But that's not trans-related. That's a case of: "This person fits our view of the character better."

What advice would you give to young queer people navigating their identity in 2021?

The trans experience for most people, when I was growing up, was extremely solitary. You had to do all the research yourself. That's very different now. The assistance and the advice is readily available, largely because of the internet. The internet has bound together minorities like never before. It's the primary place where people who are LGBT can find information about themselves and like-minded people. And it can put them in touch with others in a social context.

When I go to Sparkle or any Pride event, I see young queer people gathering together, maybe for the first time, exploring themselves, discussing their lives with likeminded people. And that’s quite remarkable when you think about it, that differences can be discussed and supported. I think that’s the best way to put it. Support, rather than rejection, which is very much my experience. Rejection was a big part of my youth.

The situation with Mermaids – they started in the mid-‘90s, and then they moved forward from there, and got bigger and bigger. And they were doing incredibly well until the anti-trans movement arrived in about 2016. The landscape for young trans people has been appalling since then. There's been a huge movement stopping young people from receiving any kinds of counselling or advice, because they believe that young people cannot decide that they are trans.

It's like, "They're too young to know. It's just a phase." But they said the same thing about gay kids back in the day, too. They hold the belief that you don't know who you are until you're an adult. And those of us who are LGBT+ know that that's absolute rubbish. I didn't have a word for it, but I knew I was different from about 5 years old.

I think people getting together and sharing information, it’s a very powerful thing. knowledge is power. And the genie is out of the bottle. The anti-trans people – they really hate that. They hate the fact that people can be supported in their authentic lives, moving forward.

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And ultimately, they’ll fail. The naysayers and the anti-LGBT people, they will eventually fall away, because it’s generational. At the moment, the people opposing LGBTQ+ people the most are in their 50s. The battle continues. I’m happy to play my part, whatever that might be.

Looking back at everything you've achieved throughout your career, what are you most proud of?

In previous years, I have been – well, I still am, I suppose – an activist, and a campaigner. I’m a patron of Mermaids and of Sparkle. So I’m constantly politically pushing the envelope for trans rights out of work. And I would do that regardless. That’s a passion of mine.

I'm very proud of the work I did with Coronation Street, because Hayley Cropper was such a monumentally important LGBT character. Literally one of the most important characters in the world, as far as I'm concerned. I helped a bit, but it was down to the writers and Julie Hesmondhalgh to create that character, to make her the British public's relatable trans person. And that trans person was nice and kind and unthreatening.

Sometimes you have to go in with that attitude. You can push the envelope later. You can start making people criminals and crafty people and all this kind of thing once people have accepted that people who are different are not, by their nature, evil. Which is stupid. But that's how people feel. Difference is something to be afraid of, for many people, and they will think of the worst.

Hayley's role was very ground-breaking in terms of bringing the story to the public's mind. We were able to push for trans rights in the early 2000s, and we got them. I'm absolutely sure that the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 would have taken a whole lot longer had Coronation Street not brought the conversation into the public sphere in a way that other programmes are doing now, such as Ash Palmisciano is doing on Emmerdale, where trans men are able to have that conversation about their journey.

Hollyoaks airs weekdays at 6.30pm on Channel 4, with first-look episodes airing on E4 at 7pm.

This month, Digital Spy Magazine counts down the 50 greatest LGBTQ+ TV characters since the Stonewall riots. Read every issue now with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.

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