Actor Robyn Malcolm’s similarity to her Outrageous Fortune character Cheryl is more than skin deep.
Just like the matriarch of the West family, who started the lingerie business Hoochie Mama, Malcolm has launched her very own knicker venture, Robyn’s Undies, which she works on with her sister between various acting projects.
The 56-year-old says Covid-19 lockdowns were the catalyst for starting the venture when her on-screen work dried up and, like many actors, she found herself at home with nothing to do.
Over the past 10 years, 80 per cent of her acting work has been overseas, so she found herself out of work for almost a year, until January.
The “super scary” time was an opportunity for lots of free thinking, and she says it was her first opportunity to consider the possibility of a stable income. Starting her own venture is something she has wanted to do for a long time, but until recently she lacked the impetus to take the plunge.
“I’m quite used to, as an actor, not knowing what the future holds … I get a job and lose a job every three months, and most of the time when the jobs end I don’t know when the next one is coming. I’m used to wide open, scary horizons, but for me it was more about time usage – I don’t like doing nothing,” says Malcolm.
The self-confessed lingerie addict says she and sister Jen have for years been toying with the idea of starting a business together. “For the last probably 20 years, every now and then when we sit down with a glass of wine, we go: ‘If we’re going to run a business together what would we do?’ and we end up in girly stuff.”
They have considered makeup, perfume, handbags and shoes, but always settled on the prospect of underwear.
“I know a lot about lingerie,” says Malcolm. “Now that I’m 56 – and I’ve been a lingerie addict since I was 20 – I know a lot about lingerie on bodies that get older and older, and I know what I think l looks amazing as opposed to what feels amazing.”
Malcolm says she is used to working 16-hour days and knows all about what makes a winning pair of undies.
But it wasn’t until she was approached by directory company Yellow to partner with it as part of a marketing campaign for its digital platform that she turned her love of undies into a full-blown social enterprise.
The business has been operating as a pop-up for the past seven weeks, but Malcolm has lofty dreams of sustainable fabric sourcing and expanding the range to include other types of undergarments such as bras, bikinis and one-piece togs.
She says being in business is a long-term venture for her – a change from the short-term acting projects she typically finds herself involved in.
“It’s a great learning curve for me,” she says. “I’m used to living with a certain amount of risk so I’m not scared of it.”
Robyn’s Undies was set up with Yellow’s help in less than three months.
“I rang up my mate Karl Maughan, who is one of New Zealand’s most prominent artists, and said: “Can we put your art on our bums?” recalls Malcolm.
Maughan agreed, and 100 per cent of the profit from the sale of the bamboo cotton undies goes towards charitable organisation The Aunties, which helps women escape and heal from domestic violence. The undies are screen-printed and manufactured by a small company of women in Wellington.
The charitable arrangement is part of the Yellow campaign, but Malcolm says she plans to continue to contribute a portion of sales to the organisation.
“There’s something kind of lovely about working with women’s intimates to help women intimately,” says Malcolm. “There’s something about that that feels really right.”
The fact that the character she played in Outrageous Fortune between 2005 and 2010 also started and ran a lingerie business is a mere coincidence. She didn’t launch the business to tap into the TV show’s fan base, says Malcolm.
“It sounds like it is more than a coincidence, but it’s not. I have a really long history with lingerie – way before Cheryl.”
Malcolm describes her business as “injected with comedy and fun”, and says she saw a gap in the market to cater for all ages, with designs that suit older women’s bodies. She says her 82-year-old mother will model the undies for a promotional shoot this year.
Sister Jen is an ex-lawyer with “more of a business head”, which makes the partnership perfect, with Malcolm focused on the creative side. Jen works for New Zealand Rugby.
The pair plan to power the business together, playing on their individual strengths, with Malcolm focused on the creative and marketing aspect and Jen the day-to-day management.
While she has high hopes for the venture, Malcolm says she will never quit acting to work on the business full time, nor will she “ever retire from acting”. She sees Robyn’s Undies as “another string in her bow” that within time will tick along by itself.
Robyn’s Undies has opened her eyes to a different world. She says she likes the fact that the business enables her to be creative, though says it isn’t too different to the type of work she is used to.
“It’s a lovely balance for me psychologically because I live in the narcissistic world of acting.”
Malcolm, a single parent to two teenage sons, will soon be heading for New Orleans for three months to shoot a TV show. She has just wrapped up work on a feature film in Wellington and an episode on Lucy Lawless’ show.
She loves being busy and has no plans to slow down, planning to take on more work, not less. She would like to still be working when she is 80 – in both acting and business.
“[As an actor] the rhythm of life is so different, I feel like I live the life sometimes of a retired person in between my jobs, so I will have a month where I can do my garden and then suddenly I’m up 3am in the morning doing 16-hour days for six weeks. It’s a completely different rhythm and relationship with work.”
Early years, film career
Malcolm has been acting for over three decades and first gained recognition for her role as nurse Ellen Crozier on soap opera Shortland Street.
She says a defining moment in her career came 18 years ago in 2003, when she was 23 weeks pregnant with her eldest son and got a scholarship to the Globe Theatre in London. “There was one moment when I was standing on the Globe stage at night in front of 1500 people, pregnant with my son doing the famous Hamlet speech, in a master class, being taught it by Mark Rylance.
“I was standing on stage, doing Hamlet, pregnant, with Mark Rylance in London, and I don’t know in my working life if I’ve been happier,” says Malcolm. “It was such an incredible moment, and weirdly it was like the dream I had when I was at drama school.”
A second defining moment in her career, she says, was working with director Jane Campion.
Malcolm was born in Christchurch and grew up in Motueka and Ashburton. It was when she was studying towards an arts degree that she discovered it was possible to be a professional actor in New Zealand, and from there went to drama school.
She then lived in Wellington before moving to Auckland in 1994 when she was cast on Shortland Street.
When Malcolm is not filming and learning scripts, she can be found at home spending time with her sons and dog, working on her gardening skills.
In 2019, the actor was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Asked where she sees herself in five to 10 years’ time, Malcolm replies “God knows”. She’s not much of a planner. “I would like to Sam Neill it a bit more, not with the vineyard, but the idea of living in the country with a few more animals really appeals to me.”
She sees herself back in the South Island with more dogs somewhere with mountains, seas “or both”.
“My real heart place is in and around the Abel Tasman, I adore it down there.”
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