Hollyoaks actress Kéllé Bryan sits down with Leanne Pero to discuss her experience of portraying a Black woman with breast cancer and how Black Women Rising, her close friends and her own circumstances helped her get into character.
Back in the 90s, Kéllé Bryan had us singing our hearts out to hits like Power of a Woman and Angel of Mine as one quarter of pop and R&B group, Eternal. Fast forward 30 years, Kéllé now runs a talent agency and is still as prominent in our lives, on our screens as a panellist on ITV’s Loose Women and playing Martine Westwood in Channel 4’s Hollyoaks.
Martine (then Loveday) was introduced to the Hollyoaks village in October 2018 and very quickly made her mark. Kéllé has starred in some unforgettable storylines in the last four years, and in April 2021, spearheaded an impactful episode on unconscious biases against Black women in the UK. Her storytelling and the visibility on primetime TV was lauded by fans on Twitter and is still spoken about today.
“The reason I took this job - the reason I joined the show - is that I want to be able to affect social change. I want to reflect women of colour in a way that is accurate because I feel like we’ve been so misrepresented,” said Kéllé.
The research and work on this poignant episode helped Kéllé prepare for another important storyline: Martine’s experience with breast cancer as a Black woman, for which Black Women Rising served as a consultant.
When the producer approached her about the storyline, Kéllé recalls, “I remember going right, okay, but we need to do it properly. It sounds great, but we need to do it properly. I know our audience can be younger and that we’re on at 6pm, 6.30, but it needs to be accurate.”
Before the story even started playing out on screen in May 2021, a lot of work was undertaken behind the scenes. “I’d done quite a lot of research around the unconscious bias episode… Black women are less likely to get the medical care they want, less likely to be diagnosed on time, less likely to be taken seriously in their complaints [than their white counterparts],” Kéllé said. The importance of conveying these experiences accurately was paramount.
Once the storyline was underway, Kéllé sat down with Hollyoaks’ head of hair and makeup, Nicole, and had a thorough conversation about how they were going to relay this story over the next 18 months.
“Because we were in a pandemic, the hair was a real issue. I couldn’t be fitted for a bald cap because we were in Covid, so I wasn’t allowed to be touched. So we had to sit down and really thrash out ideas and ways to be able to manage the storyline realistically.”
Kéllé recalled the scene where Martine’s head is shaved, and expressed, although it was difficult to shoot, she was very grateful for those around her. “We utilised my own hair and so even when I was getting my hair braided, I remember having this conversation about it being hair loss and how we were going to do that. Just the details, things like Nicole saying ‘we’re going to distress it’, because if it was under a weave, the braids wouldn’t be perfect, they’d be distressed.”
In order to convey Martine’s breast cancer journey as realistically as possible, Kéllé undertook various practices herself. One was putting a piece of velcro in the right cup of her bra before Martine’s mastectomy to encourage irritation and discomfort in that area. “I need to feel the role in every sense,” said Kéllé. “I just kept thinking the whole time that I was doing it, this is not about me, this is about the women that are actually physically going through it.”
Another step she took to convey the experience as accurately as possible was to speak to her close friends who had had cancer. “I’m really close to Brenda Edwards, and she had the grace and candour to be really open with me about her experience, and has mentored me through the entire process.”
“She shared with me her highs and lows, and allowed me to interview her on the most intimate level. Even down to ringing her on set to ask her advice on the details - like how soon Martine would be able to raise her arm after surgery.”
However, Kéllé recalls that as no two people go through cancer the same way, conversations with another friend were also the toughest part about acting this storyline. She said: “My friend who had breast cancer, I leant on her. I just didn’t realise that I was upsetting her. That was without a doubt the hardest part of playing this storyline: the damage I caused to my friend.”
Kéllé reflected on how her comments and questions drove her friend to feel uncomfortable and noted, “I missed the mark [there]. I could never put myself in her shoes: for me, it is pretend, for her, it is her real life.”
Away from Hollyoaks, Kéllé has managed her own chronic illness since 1998. Kéllé has lost her hair twice and had to relearn to read, write and talk again following a seizure as a result of autoimmune disease lupus, which occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. She currently undergoes six to eight hours’ intravenous chemotherapy.
“Having a long term illness [definitely helped with the storyline]. I understand pain, the lethargy, the depression, the ups and downs, the peaks and troughs, the relationships that are changed - the surprises along the road! All of those lessons I can kind of relate to and had personal experiences of.”
Kéllé is extremely passionate about making the most of life, adding value to others’ lives and spending her days well - something she credits Black Women Rising with doing too.
“One thing you learn with chronic illness or any kind of diagnosis is how fragile life is and how it is almost like glass. Whereas we often see it as plastic - like we can drop it and it’s going to be fine. There might be one time you drop it and it smashes, you just don’t know when it’ll be. Tomorrow isn’t promised - I live [life] to the best that I can every single day; it’s not plastic, it’s glass.”