One-on-one with Olympia Valance

The 'Playing for Keeps' star, whose late grandfather started the Neos Kosmos publication, on multiculturalism in Australian TV, growing up in a Greek household and the benefits cultural diversity brings Australians

At the end of last year, the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC) launched its Ambassadors for Multiculturalism program. A panel of five high-profile Victorians were announced as ambassadors, all tasked with helping to eradicate divisive narratives within Victoria by promoting the wonderful benefits cultural diversity brings to the state.

The ambassadorship includes Jack Riewoldt, Karen Martini, Darcy Vescio and Larry Kestelman and Olympia Valance, daughter of Serbian muso Rajko Vukadinović and Greek Australian Tania Gogos-Wilson, whose father, Dimitri Gogos founded Neos Kosmos. Valance is also the step-daughter of Australian rock musician Ross Wilson, who married her mother following her separation from Vukadinović.

As the third eldest of eight half-siblings; she grew up embracing both her Australian identity but also her Greek-Serbian heritage.

Olympia, who jumped from modelling onto the small screen making her acting debut in the long-running soap opera Neighbours as Paige Smith is now one of the leading stars on Network Ten’s Australian drama television series ‘Playing For Keeps’ as Tahlia Woods.

Between her VMC ambassadorship responsibilities and demanding career on television she sat down with Neos Kosmos to talk multiculturalism, Greekness, her daily challenges and future goals.

Growing up, did you feel connected with your Greek heritage? How was it growing up in a Greek household?
Growing up, we had an open-door policy where everyone was welcome to come inside, come eat, come celebrate and growing up, my friends would come over and see this beautiful happy and positive environment that I was so proud to be a part of.
I went to school with lots of different backgrounds and cultures and you learn about people’s religion and family and culture and how they’re brought up, so you learn not to grow up to be judgemental and to be inclusive and I think it was really important to grow up like that.
My mum, and my entire family, have always celebrated our Greek background in a very appropriately large, over-the-top full of life type of way. There was never any question of being anything other than connected to my heritage and to do so very proudly. I think one of the most consistent presences was food; through cooking and meals shared together. Bringing people together over a myriad of grilled meats, fresh fish and seafood, delicious salads, moussaka you name it, happened most nights of the week. My family would host big barbecues on weekends, inviting pretty much anyone and everyone to join in, eat well, and be part of the family.
Warmth, love, huge feasts of comfort food and a buzz of people is how I would best describe growing up in a Greek household. My fondest memories are a direct result of my mum’s celebration of our heritage.

You share a very strong common thread with the Greek community as your grandfather started the Neos Kosmos publication. How does that make you feel?
No words will really do this justice, but I am immensely proud. My heart and soul are filled with honour and admiration when I think of everything he accomplished in his lifetime. The fact that I am also a small part of his legacy is never lost on me. Not only did he come to Australia with next to nothing, grinding day and night to provide for his family, but he managed to also create a space which not only celebrated the Greek culture, but contributed to its acceptance within the Victorian community at large. His presence and contribution will continue to be felt for decades to come.

Olympia Valance with her fellow Ambassadors for Multiculturalism Darcy Vescio, Larry Kestelman and Karen Martini. Photo: Supplied

How did the ambassadorship for multiculturalism come about and what does the role entail for you? What do you aspire to achieve through this opportunity?
The Victorian Multicultural Commission created the Ambassadors for Multiculturalism program for the purpose of shining a positive light on the contributions of all cultures to our State, and importantly, to demonstrate how cultural diversity enriches all Victorians.
As an actor and someone who has worked within the Australian entertainment industry for most of my life, my role is to represent a multicultural voice within Australia’s entertainment industry and to promote the positive benefits. Whether that’s music, theatre, film, comedy – each discipline has been influenced from every corner of the world.
I feel privileged to be an Ambassador for Multiculturalism and to do my bit by sharing my family’s story, their background, and encourage others to do the same to start conversations and create a more cohesive Victoria.

You’re on ‘Playing For Keeps’, which must be very challenging and demanding. How do you manage everything? Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
Every week is different, and some are harder than others. At the moment, I’m staring down the barrel of a massive few weeks as I’m currently scheduled to be in nearly every scene, which means 6am call times, and sometimes we don’t wrap until 1 or 2 in the morning. Sleep is sometimes out of my control, so weekends become crucial to fill my cup back up. Eating well, exercising when I can and not being too hard on myself are all pretty key to keeping myself feeling in control and on top of everything. I think acceptance is also important – accept it’s going to be a bit of a tough, exhausting week, and know that it will pass. The overriding feeling is always gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. I still wake up every day not really believing that I’m lucky enough to do what I love day in and day out, and on a show that is as fantastic as this. It can be demanding and it can be overwhelming, but there’s no place I’d rather be!

As one of the most loved young TV stars in Australia – coming from a mixed background yourself, do you feel there is enough ethnic representation and enough diversity in Australian TV?
I am of Serbian and Greek descent, my father is from Serbia and my mother is Greek Australian. Growing up in Melbourne and being constantly surrounded by people with different backgrounds allowed me to showcase unique and diverse perspectives on screen.When I watch TV, I want to relate and resonate in some way with the people I’m watching or listening to. Entertainment is such an important platform because the audience is so large, and you have kids watching a range of different cultures, viewing these people acting and feeling like they belong. Seeing is believing, so when you watch TV you feel like you belong when there’s people that you can resonate with.
Australia is privy to some of the best art, musical and entertainment experiences on offer. We are fortunate that embedded within different cities in this state, and in this country, that our screens end up drawing on a wide range of cultures and reflecting different ethnicities.
Victoria is already one of the most multicultural places in the world and I think we are doing a great job at welcoming and incorporating diversity into Australia’s entertainment industry and the day to day, however, there’s always more that can be done.

Ideally, where do you see yourself five years from now? What are your goals for the future?
I have always tried to trust the timing of my life and lean into whatever is thrown my way, so thinking five years into the future is not something that comes all that naturally to me! I love to look forward to things and picture how they may turn out, but I think getting too attached to a life you create in your mind can sometimes mean you end up missing out on what is actually meant for you and what you’re being gifted with in the here and now.
My main goal in life is to be happy, in whatever form that takes. I always want to say yes to life, yes to adventures, yes to love and yes to spontaneity. So, wherever those goals take me in the future is where I will be!

If you had one message to share with our audience, what would it be?
I want to inspire Victorians, and all Australians, to celebrate what we share, rather than what our differences are.