Long before Aisha Dee was Kat on The Bold Type, she was just a 90s kid living on Surfer’s Paradise Boulevard in QLD, watching reruns of Sesame Street.
Her feet were decked out in colourful socks, with Big Bird and the Cookie Monster printed on them and when she washed her stunning black curls, her shower cap was adorned with characters from the show.
Sesame Street was Dee’s happy place.
It was a street filled with kids and adults of different nationalities, that had different coloured skin and different ways of speaking. It was her first example of anyone that looked like her.
An only child to an Australian mum and an African American dad (her half-siblings would come when she was 15), the 26-year-old grew up “surrounded by blonde hair and blue eyes”. A stark contrast to her caramel skin and dark brown features.
“I didn’t quite understand it as a kid, so my mum would explain it to me. I’m like a neenish tart [black and white cookie]. She’d be like, “it’s like you, you’re half white, half black.”
When Dee and I sat down together on a hot summer’s day in Sydney, her bubbly energy was contagious. She was warm, and friendly — exactly as you’d hoped she’d be.
As we talked about the show that would define her life, she scooped a full banana into a jar of almond butter (“What? Don’t judge me!” she laughed) and recalled how she had asked her mum how to actually get to Sesame Street.
“She was like, ‘Oh, it’s in New York, it’s in America and then I said, “Well, how are these kids on the show?”
Dee’s mum explained, “well, they’re actors”.
“It just seemed like a given to me that I would be an actor and I would move to New York. It was just, that was it,” she said. “What a presumptuous child to be like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll do that.’ Everyone would make fun of me for saying that.”
During her school years, Aisha would thumb through the yellow pages looking for agents, and at one point, even wanted to audition for a touring production of Annie, however, her mum, a former opera singer, wouldn’t let her do it.
“’You’re too young. You’re not going to go do a musical,” Dee said. “I was probably like six or something.”
At school, Aisha enjoyed maths, english and science, but was more competitive for her teacher’s affections than her classmates.
“I was never super popular,” she explained. “I was never any good at making friends… I always felt like kind of like the black sheep, literally, and just figuratively. In every environment, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I quite belong. I feel a bit weird.’ And it really bothered me for a long time.”
“Now that I look back on it, it was more just being tokenised and fetishised for being the only person who looked like me anywhere and now, I’m like, ‘You know what? If that’s who I am, then that’s who I am’. I think the older I get, the more I find power in that, like being a little left of centre is where I live now.”
At 13, Aisha, her mum and her stepfather moved to Melbourne where she landed her first television role as Desiree Biggins on the hit kids show, The Saddle Club.
“It was the most incredible job because it wasn’t like a job,” Dee recalled.
“It really was like a full family. I lived in a house with two of the other girls, with Marny Kennedy and Ariel Kaplan, and we’re still such good friends. The three of us in a house with a chaperone. We would get in trouble all the time because we refused to sleep in our own bedrooms. We just loved each other so much and I’d never had siblings at that point. I was an only child. So, it was my first-time kind of experiencing that.”
The Saddle Club (yes, even the theme song, Hello World), holds such fond memories for Dee that she cites it as the job that made her “fall in love” with acting.
“I love when the show gets to be out in the world and people are watching it,” she said.
After the show ended in 2009 Dee had a few more roles in Australia, before hopping on a plane with her family and heading to the bright lights of Los Angeles, and it was here, that she scored another career-defining role opposite acclaimed comedic actress, Jaime Pressly in I Hate My Teenage Daughter.
But there was another co-star who would go on to be her mentor, friend and subsequent roommate, Kevin Rahm.
While their age-gap was significant (22 years), Dee felt at home with the actor and his then fiancé (now wife), Amy.
“He actually taught me a lot, too,” she said. “He was really, I don’t know, just like a great friend and mentor, but not in a preachy way. Just the way that he approached staying calm in yourself. When things are good, you say, ‘Oh, things are good,’ and when things are bad, you say, ‘Oh, things are bad’, with the same tone of voice. You know?”
Some of the reviews of the show were “really bad” and critics called out Dee specifically.
“It felt so personal,” she recalled. “I was 17 and it was hard to hear. It was a big thing for me and I was excited about it. It was kind of tough to hear that, but Kevin really helped me through that. He said, “You’re never as good as they say you are and you’re never as shit as they say you are.”
Dee also struggled with anxiety and panic attacks at the time, which is still something she’s working on to this day.
“My mental health is not perfect, but I think maybe in the last three or four years is the first time that I actually made it a priority to work on it and to see it as like a health thing,” she admitted.
“It’s literally so crazy to me how much my life shifted when I all the sudden started to acknowledge that as being something that I needed to prioritise for myself. A few years ago I had to have surgery and I couldn’t walk for a month and I just had to sit with my anxiety alone. And I was going through a breakup at the same time,” she said.
“You know those times where you wake up and you’re like, ‘Am I in a soap opera?’ because every single aspect of my life is falling apart. I was forced to face a lot of those things.”
After Teenage Daughter, Aisha scored roles in Chasing Life and Sweet/Vicious, both ending after one or two seasons.
“Whenever I finish playing a character, I mourn them,” she admitted.
“And I mourn the people that they were friends with too. I really do. I live in these make-believe worlds. I feel like — not to get too spiritual about it, but I do feel like any character or thing that’s ever come into my life, it’s come in to teach me something about myself or maybe about someone else and give me a new kind of empathy or connection.”
“Like the Christmas movie I did [Ghosting: The Spirit of Christmas]. It was just a Christmas movie, but doing it, I felt like I had never properly mourned the death of my Grandpa, and he was a huge person in my life because my dad wasn’t around. So it was him, you know? And I never properly mourned him. Doing this movie, I never felt so connected to him. I properly cried about him for the first time. I mean, it was just a Christmas movie, but it meant something to me because, for whatever reason, it was there to teach me that.”
Now, in her biggest role yet, Aisha plays Kat Edison on Stan’s The Bold Type — a coming of age story “where you realise that there is no age you have it figured out”.
“We’re experiencing the world through the lens of these three different women and they’re completely different. So, no matter what your personality type is, I think you can see yourself in all of them a little bit, but maybe specifically one of them.”
Dee’s character is bi-racial and bi-sexual, navigating her new-found sexuality in a world still filled with prejudice.
“Going back to Sesame Street. That shit was important to me and I knew what that did for me, my heart and soul, to see myself reflected on screen and to now to have that opportunity to be a part of this movement that is really kind of not only industry-wide, but I think in the whole world, we’re seeing women and women of colour and queer people, kind of banding together to put themselves front and centre.
“And we’re seeing that through Kat as well, which is really inspiring. People come up to me all the time just to tell me that Kat inspired them to tell the person that they love them, or to come out to their family or Sutton’s (Meghann Fahy) storyline inspired them to ask for a raise at work or Jane’s (Katie Stevens) storyline inspired them to ask what they want in a relationship and all of these things are important because I think pop culture can be seen as this really trivial thing, but it’s actually a mirror and it’s actually a two-way mirror because it’s reflecting the world, hopefully, you know, as we experience it.”
Kat has also inspired Dee to live in her own truth, with the role impacting so many different aspects of her life.
“In my relationships, it kind of weirdly gave me permission to just say like, ‘Oh, this is who I am.’ And in terms of the workplace also, kind of being brave and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t think this is right.’ Or, ‘Hey, I think this is the story we should be telling.”
In fact, Dee and her co-stars Fahy and Stevens, often have a say about their character storylines.
“I remember season one, my first meeting with the writers, I was like, ‘Hey, is there any way we can show my stretch marks and my birthmarks on the show?’ And they were like, “I don’t know how we will do that…” and I was like, ‘Well, it’s really important to me, so if we can figure that out, that would be great.’ And then season two we had an episode where they did the photoshoot with the scars and the stretch marks.”
“Props to them for being so collaborative and wonderful. I think they really do value our input and suggestions.”
Now that Dee has found her groove, she has found the confidence to release an EP, Ice in My Rosé, which was a very “big thing” for her to do.
“I used to just sing in my room and put a few things on Instagram. This is a big deal for me. I was always worried people wouldn’t get it.”
So with a career that really is on the trajectory, what advice does she have for other young aspiring actors and musicians?
“I spent a lot of my life searching for the thing that was going to ‘fix’ me. I don’t think there’s any one fix to anything… I’m kind of trying this new thing where I’m just trying to be my own friend. You know?”
And you know what? We can all take that advice. Be kind to yourself and be your own friend first. The rest will happen from there.