In 2013, The PHA Group started working with actress Rachel Shenton.
When Rachel joined the agency, she had recently stepped down from playing the character of wannabe glamour model Mitzee Minniver in Hollyoaks for three years, in which she quickly established herself as the scene-stealing fan favourite.
At the time, British talent was proving to be hugely successful on the American small screen, with actors like Andy Lincoln, Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis and Charlie Hunnam winning rave reviews and industry plaudits, and pulling in massive audiences for their work on an American network and cable television. Game of Thrones was establishing itself as a runaway success, but there still wasn’t a huge proliferation of British actresses landing such prominent and regularly recurring roles.
Furthermore, the transition from UK soap star to Hollywood Heavyweight? Not exactly the typical career trajectory one sees very often. Teetering on the melodramatic, soap operas aren’t always renowned for their high quality of acting and I would definitely say that casting directors are – or perhaps, were – a little apprehensive and cynical about hiring talent from that world. If your background is in theatre or arthouse / independent cinema, there’s greater credibility there. But avoiding typecast and establishing yourself as a serious player after inhabiting a soap character for years doesn’t come without its challenges.
Hopefully, however, these attitudes will now become a thing of the past because Rachel Shenton has come along and completely re-written the playbook.
When we first met Rachel in 2013, she was immediately likeable: charming, humble, graceful and classy. But the character trait that struck us the most was just how seriously she took her craft. Her work ethic was second to none. She wanted to challenge and push herself, to grow as an actress and to work with some of the best writers, directors and producers in the business. She had big dreams and she wasn’t afraid to work hard and put in the time and the graft.
More relevantly, Rachel was involved in a great deal of charity work as the patron for the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS). After going through her backstory, we learned that her dad became deaf when she was just 12 years old, following the chemotherapy treatment he underwent for cancer. The need to communicate with her father encouraged her to learn sign language and it was clear at that moment that acting was never about the fame or the celebrity for Rachel – she had big dreams of shining a light on the lives of other people who don’t have the voice that we do. To empower them by giving them that voice. To bring to life the struggles of others that are massively under-represented in mainstream film and TV.
Essentially, Rachel wanted to keep her media profile alive whilst she concentrated on landing her next television role and our job was to raise and maintain that profile and keep her on the radar of casting agents, directors, producers and writers during her temporary absence from TV.
Her fluency in sign language clearly separated her from the competition and gave her a unique edge, a remarkable skill set and a compelling origin story. Many of the interviews we set up for Rachel touched upon this element of her story and there was a great deal of media interest in her personal campaigns and charity work.
The PHA Group prides itself on going the extra mile. First-class publicists, we are, but commercial agents by trade, we are not. But from day one, we saw and recognised the promise and the potential in Rachel and absolutely believed in her. So, further to raising and maintaining her profile in the media, we wanted to go one step further and bring Rachel directly to the attention of the people in the television industry who had real power to change her career. So, we got proactive.
The Media Management department at The PHA Group has promoted and protected a wealth of TV talent over the years. We’re therefore constantly attuned to the international entertainment landscape – the talent and the programming that are capturing the zeitgeist of the moment, what’s hot and what’s not.
We had been avidly following the success of a relatively new TV show at the time called Switched At Birth – an American scripted drama that broke new ground as the first mainstream television series to feature numerous deaf and hard-of-hearing characters appearing in a series regular capacity, filming some scenes shot entirely in sign language.
We introduced Rachel to the show and insisted she check out the previous two series that had aired to familiarise herself with the storylines and the tone of the programme. We then encouraged her to commission a show-reel of her work. Once this was ready, we strategically identified and targeted the creators of Switched At Birth and established an ongoing dialogue with them. The differences between American and British sign language aren’t vast and we made a strong, persuasive case – we handled the PR for an extremely talented British actress who emotionally connects with the material of the show on a profound level because of her own life experience. Moreover, she quite literally speaks the very language of the programme and could master the sign language scenes with ease. We knew Rachel would be an asset to the show and we deliberately timed our approach to coincide with the pilot season in America.
We didn’t expect to get such positive feedback so quickly. The show’s creators invited Rachel to audition during pilot season and as we suspected, they immediately saw what we saw. They loved her so much that they ended up creating the role of Lily Summers especially for her, a role that she immortalised until the show’s Season 5 finale.
The very last episode was broadcast in April 2017. During her time filming Switched At Birth, Rachel, with her filmmaker fiancé Chris Overton directing, somehow managed to find the time to write and star in a short film entitled The Silent Child. The 20-minute long film was largely based on Rachel’s personal experience as the child of a parent who became deaf.
Come awards season, The Silent Child well and truly swept the board, winning Best Short Film at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. This allowed the film to qualify for entry to the 90th Academy Awards. On 23rd January 2018, it was announced that The Silent Child had received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Live Action Short Film category, and on Sunday 4th March 2018, Rachel’s film won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. On collecting the award, Rachel upheld the promise that she had made to The Silent Child’s deaf lead actress, six-year-old Maisie Sly, and accepted her trophy in sign language. It was a momentous, inspiring, electrifying moment to watch and we could not be prouder.
So, whether you’re an aspiring actor, a breakthrough performer or a well-established name: work with creative teams that believe in you, that recognise your potential, that encourage you to test the limits of what you believe to be achievable. We believe that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether you’re a RADA bred performer or if you started off in a teen soap. Talent is talent, so dream big and work with the best! Because anything is possible!
Love her or hate her, Taylor Swift is one of the biggest and most successful stars on the planet. Her fifth studio album, 1989, sold more copies in its opening week than any album in the previous 12 years, and made her the first and only act to have three albums sell more than one million copies in the opening week.
At last night’s Billboard Music Awards Swift took home eight awards including the coveted Top Hot Artist award, proving it’s hard to deny her talent.
Whilst not to everyone’s taste, there are some ‘personal PR’ lessons we could all learn from the modern-day Princess of Pop.
Appreciate the people who help get you to where you are
Swift knows that she has a lot to owe to her loyal fans, so she does things like throw pyjama parties at her apartment and send out personalised gifts to fans. She sent one fan a cheque for $1989 to contribute towards said fan’s student loan.
By acknowledging the people who are your biggest supporters, it means they will continue to support you through thick and thin and Swift has successfully built a profile for herself as the ‘nice girl of pop’.
“It’s really not difficult…Now I can afford to go shopping for Christmas presents for them and ship it across an ocean. I can go on Tumblr, I can find their blog, I can figure out all this information about them, have my web team email and say, “Hey, you seem like a great fan, do you mind giving us your address and we can send you some merch.” It’s not hard.”
Be a role model
Although being a popstar doesn’t necessarily mean you should have to act like a positive role model to kids across the world, it’s a role that Swift has embraced. Unlike fellow popstar Rhianna, who told Vogue: “They want me to be a role model just because of the life I lead. But no, I just want to make music. That’s it.” Swift on the other hand, just gets on with the fact that it’s all part of the wider package.
At a time when fellow popstars such as Miley Cyrus dominate the papers for being controversial, Swift’s positive role model behaviour only gains her more respect.
“You have to be conscious of that. If you’re choosing to put out music and be out there in the public, you have to be conscious of the fact that you are a part of the raising of the next generation and you do have an impact on that.”
Stay strong in the face of criticism
Swift has dated some high-profile men in her time (including the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Harry Styles and John Mayer) and then uses those experiences as inspiration for her music. This is a common practice in the creative world – Sam Smith and Adele have both referenced their heartache as being the inspiration behind their massive top-selling hits, yet it’s always Swift that gets criticised as the ‘serial dater’.
Along with the fame and fortune of course comes continuous criticism, which Swift accepts and stays strong in spite of. Swift addresses the issues that irritate her but rises above it, by bringing back the subject matter to what she’s all about: her music.
“The most important thing for me is maintaining artistic integrity, which means as a songwriter I still continue to write about my life”.
At this year’s Grammy awards Swift danced like no one was watching and Pharrell was captured giving her what looked like a strong case of the evils. Headlines branded her as ‘The Worst Dancer EVER” but in true Swift style she kept her cool and didn’t let it phase her, proving that embracing who you are is the best way to beat criticism.
“I just don’t place much priority on looking cool…I think there’s this priority on having this persona of being edgy or cool or bored. And those things are all sexy. All those things are chic when you seem not to care about anything other than yourself. And I just don’t buy into it. I’m really excited by lots of things. I think enthusiasm is the best protection. It can protect you from anything.”
Mindful that a large part of her audience falls under the age of 16, Swift behaves well in front of the camera, keeps her clothes on at concerts and doesn’t feel the need to use her sexuality as a form of art. All in all, she keeps it classy.
“Choose your outfits and your words and your actions carefully. I think it matters. I think it really does. You can pretend it doesn’t, but it does.”