Pop Culture

For This Bridgerton Star, Lady Whistledown Is the Ultimate Drag Alter Ego

This story contains spoilers for season one of Bridgerton.

Before Nicola Coughlan was cast by Shonda Rhimes in a crucial role on Bridgerton, the delightful Netflix period drama that took homebound viewers by storm this holiday season, she was a dedicated fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

“I could quote it 12 seasons back if you wanted me to,” the Irish actor told Vanity Fair last week. She’s not exaggerating: “If I don’t get to be an Extra Special Guest Judge then I don’t even know what my life has been working towards,” Coughlan wrote on Twitter in 2018, the year she rose to prominence in the U.K. on the critically acclaimed Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls. A year later, she ramped up her campaign efforts by tweeting her qualifications in an evidentiary collage. (“Exhibit C is me at a Drag Show being squashed to death by beautiful gay men which is exactly how I want to die,” she cheekily pleaded.)

So when Coughlan discovered that her sweet Bridgerton character, Penelope Featherington, was hiding a larger-than-life alter ego—all-knowing gossip columnist Lady Whistledown—the actor naturally translated the dual identity into Drag Race terms.

“I think sometimes of Lady Whistledown as Penelope’s sort of drag alter ego,” said Coughlan. “Sometimes drag queens say they find the confidence that they couldn’t have themselves in this drag persona. It was useful to me to think that way about Whistledown.”

In the series, Penelope is an innocent teenager wracked with bouts of insecurity around her crush Colin (Luke Newton). Meanwhile, her alias Lady Whistledown—voiced by Julie Andrews in Gossip Girl–style voice-over—has the pot-stirring imperiousness of a society untouchable. Coughlan has spent hours scouring message boards devoted to Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton books—the basis for the Netflix series—to further analyze the character’s delicious dichotomy.

“She’s a total contradiction, in a way, because she’s so low status. She’s at every ball; her family doesn’t pay attention to her; Colin doesn’t pay attention to her in the way that she wants,” said Coughlan. “But then she’s also the most high-status character in any room she’s in because she’s Lady Whistledown. She is the puppet master. She pulls all the strings. She can change someone’s fortune at the drop of a hat.”

Coughlan had to toe a difficult line playing Penelope, given that her Whistledown alter ego is not revealed until the season’s final episode.

“It couldn’t be played overtly…I couldn’t be in the background sort of scribbling things in a notebook,” said Coughlan. She helped reverse-engineer sly Easter eggs indicating Penelope’s secret identity based on each episode’s Whistledown write-up. If a column focused on one particular incident relating to Daphne and Simon, for example, Coughlan said she asked the series’ directors if she could station herself in the general vicinity of that moment. “I feel like it should be fun for people to watch back and spot Penelope, almost as a sort of Where’s Waldo, hidden in good places.”

Should Bridgerton be green-lit for a second season, Coughlan hopes that Penelope will be able to invoke more of her Whistledown self-assurance in her day-to-day life.

“I would love to see her get a little bit more confident, to be able to answer back to her sisters a little more and say to her mum, ‘I’m not wearing this hideous yellow dress,’” said Coughlan. “She reveres Colin so much. I’d love to see her not be so in awe of him. I think she’s desperately in love with him and always will be, but I would love to see her not treat him like such a god so she could just have regular conversations with him. Because I feel like they have very similar senses of humor, Colin and Penelope.”

Coughlan also anticipates how Whistledown’s success will affect Penelope.

“I do feel like because Whistledown is so revered, that that’s going to have some effect on her. I am obviously selfishly thinking about Penelope and going, ‘Well, she’s obviously rich because of Whistledown,’” said Coughlan, wondering where Penelope might spend her secret column earnings.

If the next season follows Quinn’s books, it will shift perspectives from Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) to her rogue elder brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey). Regardless of which Bridgerton drives the season’s romantic drama, Coughlan just hopes that there will be enough screen time devoted to Penelope’s friendship with Eloise (Claudia Jessie)—a favorite season-one storyline for viewers and Coughlan herself.

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