After coming out as a lesbian, Envejecido 12, she suffered a horrendous attack at school. Now a successful actor, she is determined to help those wrestling with their identities
Ruby Rose spent much of her childhood travelling around Australia with her mother, an aspiring artist, trying to make ends meet. They were poor, but they were unstoppable, says Rose. Her mother had sold their TV, so there were no dreams of becoming the Hollywood action star she is now, nor the model, presenter, DJ, VJ and campaigner she has been over the years. When Rose was a child, she just wanted to write.
“I wanted to write a book for kids that were my age. I just wanted to have a way to communicate and speak to kids like me, who didn’t have someone," ella dice, over Zoom. “I was just this kid who had no friends, who was super unpopular, got bullied and beaten up at school, and was like: ‘I’m going to be a famous writer.’”
The book hasn’t happened yet, but Rose has undoubtedly helped kids who identify, like she does, as gay or gender-fluid. Since the 2014 release of her passion project, Break Free, a personal short film in which she explores gender roles, Rose has helped kickstart conversations about non-binary and gender-fluid identities. Her role in Orange Is the New Black brought her distinctive androgyny to the fore, challenging more traditional understandings of sexuality; her casting as Batwoman made her the first gay superhero character in a TV series. Even now, starring in action films such as the recently released SAS: Red Notice, her presence in the mainstream as a gender-fluid lesbian feels subversive and important.
But that visibility cost her dearly as a child.
Rose was born in Melbourne in 1986, the only child of Katia Langenheim, a 20-year-old single mother. Langenheim was an artist, studying for her master’s, often with Rose sitting on her lap. The two left Rose’s father when she was two years old, y, after a period spent sharing a room (with their cat) at her maternal grandparents’ home in Melbourne, they were offered a church house at reduced rent in a nearby parish (“a really nice house, considering we were poor”).
Many of Rose’s earliest memories are of struggling with her gender identity. “I loved being with all the boys, and sort of saw myself as one of the boys," ella dice. When sports classes were split up on gender lines, she couldn’t understand why she had to play with the girls. At home, she’d experiment with making her physical appearance more masculine, slicking back her hair like Superman and flexing in the mirror. She also bound her breasts with bandages.
“For a long time, I thought there was something a bit wrong with me, or that I wasn’t the gender I was meant to be," ella dice. “It took years, but eventually, I came to a place where I went: ‘OK, I think I’m just very androgynous and very in tune with the masculine energy.’”
Rose came out as a lesbian at 12, to a fully supportive mother. “She knew anyway," ella dice.
Her school peers were less supportive. She was an out lesbian, sometimes shaved her head and came from a poor family with a single mother – plus she had started modelling. All of this made her a target.
“It was horrendous,” says Rose. She was verbally and physically abused, socially excluded. “We hate Ruby” was written on the toilet walls. As an introverted teenager she hid in the library, waiting for school to end. At the swimming pool, other girls would accuse her of looking at them in the changing rooms, so she stopped going. “It was little bullying moments like that, that just made me feel like I couldn’t be myself.”
Some of the teachers tried to protect Rose. Her German teacher sent her to Germany for a few months on an exchange programme, usually reserved for the top four students. (“I was not in the top four!")
But one bullying incident was so bad it finally convinced Rose’s mother to let her move school. “I was hospitalised and then was out of school for about five days,” says Rose. “I got beaten up by about four girls and one guy in front of about 50 gente. They hit me in the head with metal chairs at a cafe, and they threw things at me. They punched me. I ended up with lacerations, big bruises, concussion and also … just how much that horrifies your soul, your spirit. I’d been bullied a lot, but not to this degree where I was worried for my life.”
Rose wanted to press charges – aggravated assault and grievous bodily harm – but was advised against doing so. Her mother didn’t have the means for a lengthy legal battle and was also worried about the sustained impact on her daughter’s mental health (Rose has struggled with mental health issues her whole life – including suicide attempts when she was as young as 12). She still receives messages from people who witnessed the attack. Some apologise for not intervening. One described the nightmares they still have about it.
En 2003, Rose came second in a modelling competition for an Australian teen magazine. She was a reluctant model; as a child, her mother would put her in a high ponytail and take her to casting auditions. “I never wanted to do modelling ever. Never, never, never," ella dice, risa.
For her first gig, an artificial grass advert, she was paid about $1,000. “I hated it. But it made money. We needed it, we counted on that money.”
What she hated most was her appearance being constantly criticised. It brought out her rebellious streak. If they criticised her tattoos, she’d want more. If they commented on her shaved head she’d dye it pink. “I wasn’t anti-modelling, I was anti being told that I had to look a certain way, and that how I looked wasn’t good enough. If anything it just made me kind of bolder, stronger. I had a bit of a problem with authority.”
Rose’s first tattoo was not the usual teenage act of rebellion though, but part of a bargain with her mother. When Rose came back from Germany with a tongue-piercing, her mother – concerned that they didn’t have money for dental treatment – offered to get her a tattoo if she removed it.
“She let me do that, because she wanted me to own my body,” says Rose. The tattoo was a Celtic rose design – a “lower-back tramp stamp” she now seems embarrassed about. “She said she felt like all the bullying and attacking was giving me a lack of boundaries. What’s mine? How do I get to own myself again? It was a good idea and very sweet. It did make me feel stronger and tougher.”
After school, Rose attended an acting course at Victorian College of the Arts, which her family helped pay for. She worked multiple jobs (including bar work and modelling) while studying and auditioning. And it was while she was working as a manager at a call centre that she got life-changing news.
“I was on the phone to some guy who was complaining, telling me I was never going to amount to anything because I wouldn’t give him a credit on his account.” Her other phone rang. It was MTV about her audition to be a VJ and presenter (part of the audition involved downing 100 shots of beer in 100 minutos). “I answer it, and they’re like: ‘Hey, you’re moving to Sydney!’” She accepted immediately, walked out and left her angry caller on hold.
Rose started at MTV in 2007 and quickly established herself as a household name in Australia, hosting shows such as Australia’s Next Top Model. She wanted to act, but had become too prominent as a TV presenter in her home country to be taken seriously in character.
After she moved to the US, she struggled for two years to land an agent or manager, let alone a role. “They all just wanted me to do reality TV. They were saying: ‘We don’t have a reality TV show with a gay woman yet. It would be huge.’”
With four months left on her US visa, Rose produced and released Break Free, a short personal film in which she transforms from a feminine to masculine appearance. In two weeks it was viewed more than 5m times. Today it’s been viewed more than 54m times. Is it the project she is most proud of? “I would say so," ella dice. “I was very proud of it at the time, and proud of people coming up to me in the street and writing to me about what it meant to them. Now we’re almost seven years on, I’m extremely proud of it. Because not only did it open up so many doors, but it also started so many conversations.”
Yet while these conversations have brought greater acceptance and understanding of transgender, non-binary and gender-fluid identities, there has also been increased hostility over the years.
“I think people are scared of things they don’t understand,” says Rose. “That’s just part of human nature. Unless that person is in a position where they’re actually going to affect the way that people live, then I don’t have the bandwidth to give my energy to caring about the fact that this person doesn’t understand. I don’t even have an issue with the fact that they have an issue. I’m still confused as to why they’re so completely enveloped in this phobia, fear, anger, rage, whatever it is, and why they get so fired up about it.”
The success of Break Free led to Rose’s casting as the seductive inmate Stella Carlin in Orange Is the New Black, and since then she has moulded herself into a modern action star, with roles in the John Wick, xXx and Resident Evil franchises. Most recently she starred in SAS: Red Notice as the film’s villain, a psychopathic mercenary. En 2018, Rose made headlines when she was cast as Batwoman. In May last year, after one series, Rose announced she would be leaving the show.
When filming stopped across Hollywood last year, Rose found herself wrestling with some of life’s big questions: “Do I need to think about what else I want to do in life?” Maybe one day she will fulfil her childhood dream and write a book for children struggling with their identity. What advice would she give them now?“The path that you’re meant to be on is going to be the path that was designed for you – whoever you are, at your core, and whoever you feel that you are one day to the next. It’s allowed to change, and it’s allowed to be fluid. You’re allowed to be unsure, and you’re allowed to have all those feelings. It’s really not anyone else’s business. No one else can tell you what or who you are. All the answers that you’re looking for are inside of you.”
SAS: Red Notice is available on Sky Cinema now.
En el Reino Unido, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 y ChildLine is on 0800 1111. En los EE.UU, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255. In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue en 1300 22 4636, Lifeline en 13 11 14 and at MensLine en 1300 789 978.