Right now, Aisha has to settle for being holed up in her LA apartment, where she’s waiting out the stay-at-home order. She flew back to her US home in March, shortly after The Bold Type’s set in Canada was shut down.
The lockdown cut the 18-episode fourth season short by two episodes, and Aisha suddenly found herself with plenty of spare time.
“This is probably the first time in over a decade that I haven’t been constantly living out of a suitcase and there’s something really lovely about moving a little slower,” she says, via the phone. “I’ve always had this drive to keep working but this situation has really made me sit still and take stock of the things that I’m grateful for.”
The Bold Type was inspired by the life and career of long-time Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, the show’s executive producer. It follows three best friends who all work at the fictional women’s magazine, Scarlet – social-media director Kat (Aisha), writer Jane (Katie Stevens) and assistant-turned-stylist Sutton (Meghann Fahy).
As bisexual and biracial, Kat is the character who pushes most of the boundaries the show explores.
“When I first read the script, I wondered if I was capable of playing this confident character, because I didn’t feel that confident at the time,” Aisha confesses.
“In the past I’d always been kind of shy about really speaking my mind in a public space. I felt comfortable doing it in private and it was something for myself, because I’m still coming to terms with embracing and celebrating my identity as a black woman.”
More recently, she admits, the cultural shift surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement has forced this daughter of a white mother and African-American father to re-assess how and where she fits in.
“I’m becoming more connected to the fact that the art that we put out into the world is a two-way mirror and it has the power to really influence people in the real world and change how they feel about themselves.”
Aisha was raised by her single mother, an opera singer, on the Gold Coast, and had always had her current career in her sights.
“I had dreamed of acting since I could string a sentence together,” she says. “Back then, I would tell people I was going to move to America and be on Sesame Street and it’s ridiculous now looking back, because I had no way of actually making that come to fruition!”
At the age of 15, during one of her first professional auditions, Aisha landed a major role as Desi Biggins in the third season of the popular children’s television series, The Saddle Club. But when that role ended, the phone didn’t ring.
“I guess there’s some diversity in Australia but growing up on the Gold Coast, it just was not that for me at all,” she laments. “I started noticing that I’d maybe have a handful of auditions and my friends would be auditioning all the time.
“I was industrious but I was told by casting people in Australia that there was probably more work for me in America because they just didn’t feel that I looked like ‘the girl next door’ in Australia. I just felt like, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”
At only 16, she relocated to Los Angeles, where she was quickly rewarded with a starring role opposite Jaime Pressly in the network sitcom I Hate My Teenage Daughter (2011-13). More TV work followed, including regular roles in the drama Chasing Life, about a group of young people struggling with cancer, and the comedy-drama Sweet/Vicious, about a group of college students fighting for justice for those who had been sexually assaulted on campus.
“I’d think of [working in America] as this game where I thought it was going to be temporary,” Aisha recalls. “And then I would get another job and stay a little bit longer and go back to Australia for a minute and then something would always pull me back here. I usually try to listen to my gut, and it was telling me to stay here. So I followed that intuition.”
“I think if you change the way you feel about yourself and you’re able to move through the world that way, that in itself is its own form of activism.”
The chatty, down-to-earth actor who is genuinely excited to hear another Aussie accent – hers is mild and fades in and out during our conversation – says she was also proud of the fact that her biggest roles were also her most socially conscious.
“I love to do things that influence people in the real world and I’ve been lucky enough to be on a few shows that have been a big part of pushing culture forward.”
“But with The Bold Type, it was an even bigger pressure, because it’s very rare to find a bisexual, biracial character on TV anywhere, and you really have to treat that responsibility with so much care
and attention and sensitivity.”
Earlier this year, when Aisha returned to Australia to visit her mother, she was surprised to learn how popular her show had become, but also amused that few Aussie fans had any idea she was born here.
“So many young people came up to me and told me how much the show inspired them, and how Kat empowered them to come out to their family, or tell someone they loved them, or to ask for that promotion,” she says. “But then they’d ask, ‘Have you ever been to Australia before?’ It was always a bit of a shock for them to find out I’m Aussie!”
Lately Aisha has been using her unexpected downtime to reflect on how to fully embrace her own cultural journey.
“I’d taught myself for so long to fit into a box and not take up too much space, because I didn’t want to piss anyone off by being too forward or too loud, or telling people my opinions too much because you just want to be a people pleaser,” she confides.
“I’m not saying that all women don’t feel like that sometimes, but especially black women do and playing Kat taught me to shed that a little. I wear my hair out a lot more often now because I’m not afraid to take up space in that way.
“I think if you change the way you feel about yourself and you’re able to move through the world that way, that is its own form of activism.”
While Kat’s sexuality is front and centre on the series, the actor is much more reluctant to talk about her personal life or whether she’s sharing her apartment with anyone else during California’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
“I’m not going to comment on my relationship status right now, but that’s just because I’m shy,” she says firmly but sweetly.
And don’t look for clues on her social media, either. The irony is not lost on Aisha that for a woman who portrays a powerful social-media maven, she’s relatively clueless and rarely updates her Instagram account under her nickname @aishtray.
“I’m a girl in her 20s and I know I should be really good at the whole Instagram influencer thing, but I feel like an old lady on the inside, and I just don’t understand much of it,” she giggles.
While the show’s costume designers have described Kat’s style as “eclectic” and “architectural”, Aisha also admits there is more irony in that comparison.
“I grew up going to op shops with my mum and we got everything there, from furniture to cutlery to clothes,” she says. “One friend told me that I dressed like a little boy who hasn’t gone through puberty yet, so I guess, if I’m being honest, my genuine style inspiration is Will Smith in Fresh Prince!“
And there’s no doubt that the boldest type, Aisha Dee, absolutely pulls it off.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 26.