“It’s been pretty…weird,” says 20 year-old Norwegian actress Josefine Frida Pettersen of her newfound fame. Her high-pitched, girlish English is timid and deliberate.
We are in a gilded suite at the historic Grand Hotel in Oslo, having double espressos and kale salads, about to shoot her wearing a portfolio of designers who are about to show at the upcoming Oslo Fashion Week. She says that this is the first fashion shoot she has ever done, and that despite starring as Noora Sætre in Norway’s record-breaking hit series Skam, she has hardly done any interviews, either.
“Things have changed so much since the show, since I’ve become…known," she says. You can tell she is hesitant to say the word “famous.”
After all, fame is a strange thing in Norway. It’s not understood the way it is in America. Consider how many American celebrities there are, and how much American entertainment is exported globally. Then try to name one Norwegian celebrity. The country’s population is just over 5 million (a bit smaller than the state of Minnesota), and the majority of people live in remote towns and villages up and down the country’s coast, which is roughly the size of the United States’ eastern seaboard. So when an average of 1.2 million people tune in every to watch your show--that’s proportionally the same as Americans who watched the Friends series finale in 2004, except this is every week--it can feel any semblance of private life you once enjoyed has dissipated like wind through the fjords.
“It’s weird sometimes,” says Pettersen of how she navigates her newfound notoriety. “Like when people take pictures of me while I’m sleeping at the airport, or while I’m eating.” When you have 800,000 Instagram followers, you’re bound to attract a few weirdos. She smiles at me, laughs, and says, “But if that’s the kind of picture you want, I guess, here you go!”
Skam has been all-consuming in Scandinavia, and is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. It’s a teenage web and television drama tackling issues like sex, coming out, drinking and mental health, placing it firmly in the pantheon of such shows as Skins, Degrassi, and Gossip Girl.
But in addition to weekly episodes, Skam keeps its audience hooked by tapping into this generation’s all-consuming obsession with social media. Multi-platform media are shared in real-time: Noora’s texts to her boyfriend on a Tuesday night are shared as screenshots on the show’s website on a Tuesday night; a scene at school on a Thursday morning is posted on a Thursday morning; and characters post to their “real” social media accounts throughout the week. Because of the show’s unique format, Pettersen’s portrayal of Noora--known for her outspoken nature and unwillingess to compromise her feminist values--goes way beyond just forming a highly likable character. She feels like your best friend.
Part of being friends with someone, as Pettersen has come to find out, is taking cues from their style. Women across Norway have started copycatting Noora’s signature look: a platinum bob and crimson lip. Back to the Friends analogy, it’s not unlike “The Rachel” haircut phenomenon. “It’s weird. Now when I walk around Oslo, and I see people from behind, I find myself thinking, ‘Am I crazy?’ Everyone started copying Noora’s style.”
The irony is that Pettersen is not a big fan of the look herself. “They first cut my hair when I was cast, and I was saying, ‘I hate this! It is so ugly!’ … And now when I get my hair cut I always try to say, ‘Oh, they’re making Noora grow it out,’ so they leave it long. But there’s no lying when I come to set…I hate to crush the fans but it’s the truth.”
But beyond the covetable style, Pettersen's character allows the actress to delve into heavy topics that make Skam just as important when it comes to addressing social issue. In Season Two, Noora’s arc includes an alleged sexual assault and the difficult decision to eventually report it to the police. “After that episode,” says Pettersen, “I got so many messages on Instagram from fans that said, ‘I was raped three years ago and today I told my parents, because of your character.’ That touches me. It makes me very happy to know that people don’t see it as just a show. It actually touches people and helps girls feel stronger.”
Off-screen Pettersen’s ease and sense of reality sets her apart from so many others her age who achieve such a level of fame. “I have such good friends and family, and spend time with the same people as I did before, so not much has changed in that regard,” she says. “I don’t want people to think I know any better than them. I’m only twenty, like everyone else who watches the show. I have insecurities and flaws, too… And I’m much goofier than my character.”
In many ways, Pettersen still acts like a regular twenty-year-old, with habits and hobbies just like the rest of us. We catch her singing Lady Gaga songs to herself in between takes on set. She keeps a list on her phone of her favorite places to find a good margarita. And she also admits to writing down, at least once every day, a conversation she overhears in public. “Sometimes you’re in a dressing room and you hear girlfriends in the next stalls and they are having a lovely conversation. You think about it for two minutes, it makes an impression, but then you forget it forever. I think it’s beautiful to write it down — then you can look at it a year later and you remember that whole day.”
'Veep's' Sam Richardson Wishes Julia Louis-Dreyfus Were Really President