New Zealand sweetheart Claire Chitham is best known for her longstanding role as Waverly Wilson on Shortland Street. With a bunch of other acting credits under her belt, she's also just finished a book and is the founder of Good For You, a health-content platform and communitity for sufferers of Crohn's desease. We made her stop for just a second, so we could hear about how she's grabbing life with two hands.
A life in the spotlight
Claire was an average kid until she landed what she calls a “full-time job” on ShortlandStreet at age 16. It meant she grew up in the spotlight and lived life somewhat in reverse.
“I had a kookie, funny character that was always fun to play out in public, but the responsibility was 24/7. If I got messy or hammered in public it breaks the magic for people.”
By 31 she’d already had a 15-year-long career, one marriage, one divorce and her own home. It all piled on, so she “ran for the hills.”
“I feel like Idid the adulting in my twenties pretty hardcore and then dropped all responsibilities.”
After winning the green card lottery, Claire spent time in LA and New York.
“For an actor, it's very much a bit of a golden ticket. I loved it. LA can be a mess of hellhole, but if you have connections or a reason for being there it can be incredibly invigorating and exciting.”
Her time overseas let Claire build her craft and learn from “fucking stiff competition.”It also helped her get over her Kiwi cringe about being an actor.
“Over there you can say, ‘I'm an artist’ and not feel weird about it. So, then you come back and you go, ‘I'm going to stop apologising for that shit. I'm just gonna get on with making stuff.’”
Claire was 12when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. While she was still living at home her family helped keep it in check, but on her own at 18, Claire cut loose.
“I was smoking, eating crap food, drinking Coca-Cola. Taking these giant pills three times a day just became boring, so I stopped,” says Claire. “I was having a ball and in vehement denial about what was happening inside my guts.”
Unsurprisingly her Crohn’s flared up – particularly when she drank.
“I could feel it in my stomach before I felt it in my head. It was a real physical reaction for me,” she says. “I was like, I'd rather just stop.”
By 22, she started to get things back in order, focussing on what made sense for her health, so she could get back to doing what she loved.
“I had a shitload going on to really care about. I didn't want to give that up,” saysClaire. “That evolved into looking after myself. It began to get easier to feel my own body and when I was in pain or not in pain, and to manage it.”
Claire spent five years working on getting better. 22 years ago, she came off her medication and has never had Crohn's pain since.
“The rise of people with gut health issues on one hand and depression and anxiety issues on the other, it pains me because I think it's really fucking preventable. But we don't know how to pay the right attention to our bodies and give it the grace and the care it deserves.”
Learning to relish drinks
Claire is what you’d call a mindful drinker – she now drinks occasionally but goes teetotal when she’s shooting. After spending most of her twenties alcohol-free, she started drinking again at 28.
“I don’t even really remember why. My brother calls that my white-girl-wasted period. It was like going back in time to when I was 18.”
It was a short-lived– if alcohol-saturated – time. The love of her work brought things back to perspective.
“I don't need anything to slow me down. I'm aware of the brain fog, the tiredness. As an actor, you need to have your emotional fluidity fully intact. Alcohol takes away that last five per cent and that’s where all the magic is.”
She remembers being at a party at David Arquette’s Hollywood home. Instead of soaking in the moment, she spent her time poolside, drunk, arguing about food. And what should have been a fantastic experience is now just a blur.
“I had no faculties to take advantage of that situation,” she says.
She compares that wasted opportunity to the lush memories she has of a dinner in SanSebastian.
“It was a special birthday meal at this phenomenal restaurant and I had one or two glasses, and I can still remember each drink. I relish that memory.”
Getting to the guts of health
Off the back of her successful site Good For You, Claire signed a book deal in January 2020. But COVID-19 had other plans – the idea of writing about wellness and gut health in the middle of a global health pandemic seemed bizarre.
“Everything I learnt might have been absolutely wrong,” she says. “So, I drank rosé instead.”
When New Zealand looked as if it would get on top of the virus, Claire snapped out of her unprecedented day-drinking habit, realising her knowledge was more applicable now than ever.
“Alcohol can be processed quite easily by the liver if you're not slamming them down one after the other and if it's not loaded up with sugar,” she explains. “So, we started to furiously write this thing in all corners of my house. Six weeks later we sent it to the printers in America.”
Claire says her book isn’t about telling people how to solve all their problems. The book shares Claire’s story along with basic information about how the gut works, the immune system and what can support those systems.
“I just believe that if we looked after ourselves better, we look after each other better and therefore we look after the world better. It creates a flow-on effect.”