After feeling uninspired by the roles on offer in Hollywood for female actors, the Netherlands’ Eline van der Velden decided to create one of her own. Following in the footsteps of her idol Sacha Baron Cohen – the man behind the likes of Ali G and Borat – she came up with a ‘rude, crude alter ego’ in the form of Dutch beauty queen Miss Holland. In 2012 the actor/director began filming spoof clips around Los Angeles which she uploaded online. They racked up millions of views, and even scooped a Lovie Award, but that was just the beginning. Now, the character has come to BBC Three, with a brand new series following Miss Holland’s ‘crash course in Britishness’. We caught up with the woman behind one of 2018’s most provocative comedy creations to find out more.
“I was in LA auditioning for all these ‘damsel in distress’ roles. It wasn’t really me,” recalls 31-year-old Van der Velden. “I was never going to be the perfect size for those roles either. I was told to lose weight at every single audition and I was probably already at my thinnest, so there was no way I could have lost any more.
“I thought; ‘No, I need to do something funny. Nobody had done a female version of Ali G or Borat, so I came up with Miss Holland. Then we just started filming it on the boulevard in Venice.”
How (not) to be British
While Miss Holland’s early adventures took place stateside, the latest series, which hit BBC Three last month, tells the story of the Dutch beauty queen coming to the UK to ‘find herself a ginger husband like Meghan Markle’. “She learns to be British, basically,” smiles Van der Velden.
“Getting Miss Holland commissioned was a really big milestone for me. I created those early clips by myself in LA just with a camera guy and me editing, producing, directing. Everyone was so lovely; helping me out and doing things for free. So now, being able to pay people and get the show made professionally, and be able to pull all the same people back on board is just wonderful. It’s so exciting to see it come to life!”
In the series, reality TV stars, former royal household staff and religious leaders are left astonished by Miss Holland’s mischievous questions as she attempts to navigate the complexities of modern British life. “None of these people have any clue that I’m not real,” grins Van der Velden. “I was really nervous before filming, but I love it. It’s like a thrill. It’s the biggest acting challenge to see if these people will buy that you’re this person.”
Exploring ‘Britishness’ is something which appealed to the actor, who was born on the Dutch island of Curaçao, in the Netherlands Antilles. Aged 14 she left the Caribbean paradise for the small market town of Tring in Hertfordshire, England, to attend the prestigious Arts Educational School, whose alumni include film stars Thandie Newton and Daisy Ridley.
“I was a very overambitious young girl. I wanted to move to New York and go to the stage school that Britney Spears had gone to, join the Mickey Mouse club…all that stuff. My parents were like; ‘Absolutely not!’ So they introduced me to the musical theatre world in London. They took me to all these things and I was mesmerised,” she remembers.
“That’s why I wanted to come to the UK, because performing arts are just so well explored. I was very pushy and when I found out about the Arts Educational School I told my parents I wanted to audition. That’s sort of how it got started.”
Van der Velden admits the move was a ‘massive culture shock’, with an unusual early memory relating to the salty British food spread Marmite – renowned for its powerful taste.
“We have this thing in Holland called ‘Appelstroop’, which you spread really heavily on bread. So I saw the Marmite and I thought, ‘Yes!’ and I got a massive spoonful of it and put it all over my bread. People just looked at me in horror but I carried on with it, thinking that they were being weird. Then I took a massive bite and everyone laughed!”
Where it all began
As a student, making her peers laugh was commonplace for Van der Velden, whose talent for comedy emerged at a young age.
“I was a bit of a klutz and a disaster my whole life. Everybody always thought that I was funny without me realising I was funny,” she smiles. “I used to knock over glasses on the table all the time. My mum said it was ‘cos my arms were still growing. Unfortunately, when I stopped growing I was still just as clumsy.”
The actor cites her time at the Arts Educational School as fundamental in developing her passion for entertaining people. “I studied musical theatre but I was a terrible singer,” she admits. “In order to gethrough a song I had to really act my way through it and make people laugh. You can forgive a bad singer if they’re doing a comedy song, you can’t forgive a bad singer if they’re doing a very serious ballad. I think that’s where it all started.”
A woman with many strings to her bow, Van der Velden also spent four years studying physics and graduated with a Master’s degree from Imperial College in London. “The fascination for science is still there and I hope to incorporate it into my work as much as I can,” she explains, revealing plans to make a Big Bang Theory style show inspired by her fellow female physicists. Last year, she also presented a popular science street experiment programme on BBC Three called Putting It Out There. “But I also love just silly comedy – which Miss Holland definitely is!” she points out.
There’s something about Eline
So what else is next on the agenda for Van der Velden? “I really want to make a romantic comedy. I really love the era of Cameron Diaz romantic comedies. I know nobody wants to say it, but I really loved those films. I guess I’m one of those people that’s really not snobby.”
Having started making comedy sketches at the age of 22, Van der Velden says a kind of epiphany came when she realised she would never please everyone. “I’ve made more than 100 sketches. I just make them for myself and whether people find them funny or not, well, that’s not my problem. As long as I’ve enjoyed myself!”
Well, many people clearly do find Van der Velden’s work hilarious – the millions of YouTube views are testament to that – although she finds it interesting how the appreciation of her work varies from country to country.
“Not everybody is gonna like you,” she concludes. “There are so many different types of humour. You’ve got British humour, you’ve got Dutch humour…Even when I take my comedy to Curaçao people laugh at different jokes. And within a country not everyone likes the same thing. Once you are at peace with the fact that you can’t please everyone, it becomes a lot more fun!”
TEXT: ANNA VILLELEGER