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Meet the break out stars of Ladies in Black

Newcomers Clare Hughes and Azizi Donnelly steal the new ABC show...

The new ABC TV series Ladies in Black (the second adaptation of Madeleine St John’s novel – the first being the 2018 film of the same name) is set in 1961 – a time of incredible social change in Australia. We step back in time with two of the Ladies in Black cast breakout stars.

Clare Hughes

When Clare graduated from NIDA in 2022, Australia’s top agents were hammering at her door – not that the self-effacing actress would tell you this herself.

Clare Hughes photographed wearing gloves by Peter Brew Bevan.
Ladies in Black is Clare Hughes’ first professional role. Photography by Peter Brew-Bevan. Styling by Mattie Cronan.

Starring as Lisa, an ambitious uni student who works at Goodes part-time, Ladies in Black is the Perth-born 23-year-old’s first professional job post-graduation. And if the early episodes we’ve seen are any indication, it will be the first of many leading roles to come as she follows in the footsteps of some of her favourite actresses.

“It’s a wild first gig, I know, I really won the jackpot” she laughs of the project which is directed by Gracie Otto and stars some of the nation’s most seasoned stars.

Miranda Otto [who plays Virginia on the show) was a huge part of the reason I wanted to go to NIDA in the first place. I never brought it up with her because she’s the most chill person ever – I’m the biggest Lord of the Rings fan. So watching her work was amazing. I was poking my head around the monitor when she was doing any scene.”

Clare Hughes and Azizi Donnelly in a fashion shoot by Peter Brew-Bevan
Clare and co-star Azizi get into the ’60s mood. Photography by Peter Brew-Bevan. Styling by Mattie Cronan.

Delving into the archives to learn about life in the 1960s was another perk for Clare. “I love history and I had a really fun time delving into that world,” she says.

“We showcase the fashion and the beautiful, luxurious things but also the not-so-great side of that time. Women didn’t have financial independence; you couldn’t access the pill unless you were married. The attention was very much and what you looked like and there was a lack of opportunity. We still have such a far way to go in terms of gender equality, but the lack of equality back then? We definitely explore the underbelly.”

Azizi Donnelly and Clare Hughes posing for a photo by Peter Brew Bevan
Azizi Donnelly and Clare Hughes are center stage in ABC’s Ladies in Black. Photography by Peter Brew-Bevan. Styling by Mattie Cronan.

Azizi Donnelly

Azizi was just 18 years old when she took an enormous leap of faith. Leaving her tight knit Lebanese and Irish family behind, she bought a one-way ticket from Sydney to New York to chase her creative dreams.

Azizi Donnelly wearing long gown in photo shoot by Peter Brew-Bevan
Azizi Donnelly was a model before making the jump into acting. Photography by Peter Brew-Bevan. Styling by Mattie Cronan.

“Today, I really value the naivety that I had that allowed me to take such a big risk,” she reflects as she returns home for her first Australian acting role as Angela – an aspiring fashion designer – in Ladies in Black. “Because I didn’t have a job. I was just like, ‘I’m going to go there and something’s going to happen.’”

After dabbling in the world of modelling, her ‘diminutive’ 5’7” height saw Azizi relocate to LA where she was signed to Ford Models. She took “every acting class I possibly could, I really dedicated myself” for a year before stepping onto a stage for the first time. And she was hooked.

Clare Hughes and Azizi Donnelly in a photo shoot for Peter Brew-Bevan.
Azizi Donnelly strikes a pose with co-star Clare Hughes. Photography by Peter Brew-Bevan. Styling by Mattie Cronan.

She’s had a few roles in the US and is building a presence there, but it is this experience in her homeland which she feels has cemented her decision to embark on an acting career.

“I’ve learnt more about myself and my craft on this set than in any of the classes I took,” Azizi muses.

“Watching these amazing actresses work with so much ease was so cool. From Debi Mazar [who plays Magda], I think she’ll be proud of this, I learnt to find my light. She was always like, “find your light and never let another actor block it.’ She also taught me it’s okay if you accidentally screw up or make a mistake – you just get right back into it.”

Azizi Donnelly and Clare Hughes having a laugh on set of photo shoot with Peter Brew-Bevan.
Azizi and Clare became fast freinds on the set of Ladies in Black. Photography by Peter Brew-Bevan. Styling by Mattie Cronan.

Working on a period piece has been a dream for Azizi. And while she feels that she, like her character, would have been “a bit of a troublemaker” has she been living in the same time period, she adds, “you didn’t have to do much as a woman to be a troublemaker in the sixties.”

“The show has allowed me to realise how far we have come as women,” she says. “I know there’s a lot more we need to do, but to see the limitations we had then and the freedom we have now? It’s pretty cool to have that perspective.”

Ladies in Black airs 8.30pm Sundays on ABC TV and ABC iview

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