Growing up, Chloé Hayden didn’t see anyone like her on screen. Bullied and ostracised by her school peers for being “different”, she was diagnosed with autism at the age of 13 and switched to home education after attending 10 schools in eight years.
She spent many of her teen years blogging about her experience with autism under the pseudonym Princess Aspien and, to her surprise, thousands of people reached out in response, thanking her for making them feel that they weren’t alone.
Today, the 26-year-old is once again paving the way for neurodivergent people all over the world with her Logie-award nominated portrayal of autistic character Quinni in Netflix’s Heartbreak High series reboot.
The hit Australian show, which is shooting its second season, was lauded globally for its grittiness as well as its diversity and truthful representation. While previous depictions of autistic characters were mainly played stereotypically by neurotypical men, Hayden’s rendering is nuanced and authentic.
As well as starring in Heartbreak High, the actor is the host of the new podcast Boldly Me, where she interviews high-profile personalities about being their true, bold selves. Hayden is also the author of last year’s release Different, Not Less: A Neurodivergent’s Guide To Embracing Your True Self And Finding Your Happily Ever After, which is a practical guide as well as a personal – and at times heartbreaking – account of what she went through as a child.
In it, she tells of finding notes in her school locker telling her to kill herself. Once, she had a sleepover party and gave BFF necklaces to the girls who attended, only to discover they’d thrown them in the bin the next day, saying, “We’d never be friends with you.” Teachers told her she needed to “grow up” and gave her detention when she cried about not understanding her lessons.
Fast-forward to now and Hayden’s life is a far cry from those dark days. In December last year, she and partner Dylan Rohan got engaged, with the star sharing the happy news on her social media accounts, which total about 1 million fans across TikTok and Instagram. The couple have just bought their first home together.
“Marriage means I get to spend forever with my best friend,” Hayden tells marie claire on the set of her cover shoot. Rohan, who is listening in, adds, “And build a future together.” They smile adoringly at each other.
Here, the winner of marie claire’s Rising Star accolade at our 2022 Women of the Year awards reflects on what life might have been like had autism been represented more on screen when she was young, and why she’ll always speak her mind and stand up for her community.
Marie Claire: How did it feel to be nominated for the 2023 Most Popular New Talent Logie for your role as Quinni in Heartbreak High?
Chloe Hayden: I remember when I first got the role of Quinni in Heartbreak, me and Mum were joking about the idea of attending the Logies one day. Mum said to me, “Oh my God, now you’re on Netflix, imagine that one day you get to go to the Logies!” And I was like, “Oh my God, that’s crazy! That would never happen. Imagine that.” We weren’t even pipe-dreaming a nomination. We were pipe-dreaming just attending. So to be nominated in two categories [Heartbreak High was also up for Most Popular Drama Series] in my first year isn’t anything we ever dreamed would’ve happened.
MC: You’re obviously a talented actor. Was acting always on the cards for you?
CH: I’ve always wanted to be a performer. When I was a kid, I used to force my siblings to do plays with me and I’d direct them. I’d make my sister play Barbie with me but I was like, “Here’s your script.” I was always putting on performances and writing songs [from] age four, which were not good, but I knew I loved performing. Being autistic meant I had to mask my whole life in order to survive, so I had to perform. When I learnt that performing could be my job, I was like, “Well, I’m doing this shit for free, so I might as well get paid for it!” But as soon as I left the house, I was nonverbal. I couldn’t speak to anyone. It wasn’t really an option for me.
My dad would joke that if I wanted to be a performer, I’d have to mime. But performing was my biggest dream in the entire world. So despite the fact I couldn’t even walk in a straight line, let alone dance, and that I froze up whenever I was asked to sing or speak in front of people, my parents were like, “Well, this is her dream, so we’re gonna do whatever it takes to get there.” Every time I got kicked out of a dance class for being too bad, my mum would say, “That’s fine, we’ll find you another one.” We used to live in this tiny little town in the bottom of Victoria and my dad would drive me eight hours every week just to go to an acting class. My dad is the best person in the whole world, I love him so much. When I was like, “I want to be a motivational speaker,” he was like, “OK, well, you’re going to speak to me first.” So every single night, my mum and dad would sit there and I’d stand up and read monologues to them. Despite all odds, they made sure I was able to get to where I wanted to be. I owe everything to them.
MC: What was your reaction when you were told you had the role of Quinni?
CH: When I got the role, I was doing a motivational talk in Albury-Wodonga. At nine o’clock at night, I had 30 missed calls from my agent. I got off stage at halftime intermission and my PA was like, “Daniel’s calling you, I don’t know what’s happening.” And I was like, “That’s so weird. It’s nine o’clock on a Friday night. What’s he doing calling me?” So I step outside and I call him back and he doesn’t even say hello. The first thing he says to me is, “Are you sitting down?” And as soon as he said those words, I didn’t even ask what else, I just broke down, sobbing my heart out. There was a security guy watching me, going, “What do I do with her?”
I was on the ground in an alleyway, crying my eyes out. And then I had to go back in and finish the show, still bawling my eyes out. But I couldn’t tell anyone for almost a year because we had to keep it a secret until a couple months after we started shooting. So I went back in and people were like, “Oh my God, are you OK?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m just really happy to be here!”
WATCH: Chloe Hayden Is Surprised With Her marie claire Australia Cover
MC: When you were shooting the first season, did you have any idea just how loved this show would become?
CH: Not even close. I knew that it was special because when I got the casting brief for Quinni, she was very boldly depicted as a neurodivergent person. And I’ve never seen that before. It’s [usually] like, this person is “quirky” or this person is “XY”. We never actually see “this person is definitively neurodivergent”. So I knew it was going to be special, but I didn’t realise how many other people would think it was special. We had a couple of people who’ve been in the industry for a long time say to us, “Are you guys prepared for when the show blows up?” and all of us were like, “That’s not gonna happen. It’s Australia, that sort of stuff doesn’t happen to Australians.” And then the day after it came out, I was walking through Sydney and I got mobbed. And I was like, “Oh, OK, this is big!” It was a full Hannah Montana moment. My whole world just turned around literally overnight. It was crazy.
MC: What would it have meant to you and your family to see a character like Quinni when you were diagnosed with autism at 13?
CH: It honestly would have changed the whole trajectory of my life. You can’t be what you can’t see. Growing up, never seeing myself represented, I grew up thinking I wasn’t supposed to be here. In some ways, it’s the most overwhelmingly exciting thing to be able to be one of the firsts. Young people can look at Quinni and go, “OK, if she exists as wholly and beautifully and unapologetically as she does, then I can too.”
But in other ways it’s devastating that it took us so long to get to this point. I don’t think people understand just how much of an impact media has on the way we perceive reality. Media chooses what our reality is. Probably weekly I will still get messages or comments in real life going, “You’re nothing like Sheldon Cooper [the character in The Big Bang Theory].” It happens all the time. And it’s because this is what we believe autism to be. Even when we see real versions of it in the news or whatever, it’s always done in a really negative way. It’s, “This person did this and, oh, by the way, they’re autistic.” So if I’d had a Quinni growing up, not only would I have felt represented, but my family, my teachers, my peers in school and so many other people in my life would have gone, “OK, I understand what this is because I’ve seen it before,” rather than, “I think I understand what this is because I’ve seen an incorrect stereotype.”
Pick up a copy of the September issue of marie claire Australia on sale Thursday 17th August to read the full story!