Penelope Featherington’s hair is so big because it’s full of secrets: fake courtships. Concealed pregnancies. Financial ruin. Garden trysts. All the Regency tea the ton — and audiences — can’t get enough of.
But today, at EW’s photo shoot at London’s tony Lanesborough hotel, Penelope’s massive auburn wig and its attendant calumnies are nowhere to be found. Instead, Nicola Coughlan, the effervescent actress behind Bridgerton’s secret gossip queen, is a bit bereft sporting a chic, short blond cut. “I feel weird being in costume without ginger hair,” she quips. “I’m not even a natural blonde, either, so it’s just layers and layers of lies.”
She may be talking about her coiffure, but the natural brunette could easily be describing Penelope’s alter ego — anonymous scandal-sheet author Lady Whistledown — or even Bridgerton at large.
Bursting onto the scene Christmas Day 2020, the series garnered acclaim as a televisual mille-feuille, its first season enticing viewers with the decadent trappings of a 19th-century costume drama and a mouthwatering duke (Regé-Jean Page), and then peeling off the corset to reveal a meditation on love, sex, gender roles, friendship, and family waiting under all those thirst traps.
As the first series from Shonda Rhimes’ megadeal with Netflix, Bridgerton carried expectations higher than Penelope’s titian tresses. But its winning mix of soapy drama, sexcapades, inclusive casting, and provocative storytelling catapulted the series to an instant success — becoming Netflix’s most viewed show (until Squid Game outplayed it) and landing 12 Emmy nominations, legitimizing an oft-scorned genre to naysayers.
“I had a very clear vision for season 1, and I was given the freedom to follow through on it,” says creator Chris Van Dusen, who adapted Bridgerton from Julia Quinn’s novels about the courting and cavorting Bridgerton brood. “Then the show came out and started to take hold of the world,” he adds of the drama spawning an SNL parody, a Grammy-nominated TikTok musical, and memes galore. “It was all so surreal. Staying true to my original vision [for season 2] became much more challenging, but it made me drill down even more.”
And he’d have to do it all without his breakout star. As she’s wont to do, “Lady Whistledown” shocked the world with a pronouncement via Bridgerton’s social media just as season 2 was poised to go into production last spring: Season 1 lead Page would not be returning.
While some speculated of Whistledown-worthy drama behind the scenes, Page had signed on for only one season, and both Rhimes and Van Dusen have repeatedly stated the grand plan was to pivot away from the romance of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the duke. “It was always my intention to follow a different Bridgerton sibling for every season,” Van Dusen says of keeping with the serialization of the source material.
But heartbreak and outcry from Page fans leave many channeling Julie Andrews’ Whistledown voice-over and asking, “Can Bridgerton turn the page and remain a royal success with the loss of its ravishing rake?”
Well, dear reader, when Bridgerton returns March 25, it seems a whole tea tray of delights is on the menu. At the start of a new social season, we find the eldest of the eight Bridgerton siblings, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), in want of a wife.
The Sharma family, new to London from Bombay, quickly catches the eye of everyone from haughty Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) to Anthony himself. Identifying Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) as his ideal match, the eligible bachelor’s courtship plans are hampered by her strong-willed sister, Kate (Simone Ashley).
It’s hard to say who tempts him more — the perfect diamond that is Edwina or the determined spinster Kate. “You can understand why he’s drawn to both,” teases Bailey. “And they’re both drawn to him in turn. It’s an interesting love triangle; it’s dangerous when it’s siblings. It’s bestial between them in a way season 1 wasn’t. They’re all animals with each other.”
If there’s anything Penelope — er, Lady Whistledown — can’t resist, it’s a love triangle. But she has troubles of her own, between her yearning for Colin (Luke Newton) and fending off the investigations of her best friend, Eloise (Claudia Jessie), who is obsessed with uncovering Whistledown’s identity. “The main theme of season 2 is head versus heart,” teases Van Dusen. “It’s true for Anthony and Kate, and it’s also true for Penelope. Her heart is with Lady Whistledown, but even she has to wonder if being London’s most notorious gossip writer is the wisest thing.”
There’s no wondering for Coughlan. Already known across the pond for her fecking funny turn on Derry Girls, the actress became a household name and fashion plate in the States thanks to Bridgerton’s bodice-ripping success. “I come from a background of small touring theater, so I’m happy when 15 people watch something,” says the bright and bubbly 35-year-old in between snaps at the Lanesborough. “When Bridgerton came out, I was like, ‘No one’s going to watch,’ and then it snowballed. Then Kim Kardashian said it’s her favorite show. We’re ‘besties’ now on Instagram.”
While vamping for the camera with precision, Coughlan channels her gossip-maven alter ego, using her phone to pull up the Instagram account Deuxmoi — a contemporary Lady Whistledown on steroids that proves not much has changed in 200-odd years.
“We’re still doing the same stuff,” Jessie says of our collective voracious hunger for scandal. “Where they would go to dinners or balls, we just do it with social media. It shows how adorably pathetic we are. We want validation or escapism.”
Yet, in the world of Bridgerton, gossip is worth much more than that. As Lady Whistledown, Penelope earns an income publishing her scandal sheet. But she also banks something far more valuable: influence. “She’s the most powerful woman in London,” notes Coughlan. “Often, we perceive gossip as a very modern invention — but it really isn’t. When women had no agency in their lives, this was all they were deemed to be good for. So why be ashamed to participate in it?”
Adds Chandran: “One could argue that the negative perception of gossip is a misogynistic feature to prevent women from communicating and sharing knowledge.”
Even the palace isn’t immune to gossip’s sinuous pull. Queen Charlotte uses Whistledown’s whisperings to escape the reality of her tragic marriage — but she’s also invested in exposing the author to eliminate any threat to her clout, using Edwina as a pawn in her quest to unmask the gossip. “Charlotte is the queen,” says executive producer Betsy Beers. “But in the world of gossip, Lady Whistledown has a leg up because she always knows things the Queen does not. Whistledown has the platform to alter the way the ton see society and themselves.”
One person loath to take a closer look at himself or society’s strictures is Bailey’s Anthony, who enters season 2 in a mode of self-preservation. Heartbroken after his mistress, Siena (Sabrina Bartlett), rejected him, Anthony has finally resolved to fulfill his duty to marry and provide an heir —but insists he can do so without entangling his heart.
Bailey isn’t interested in giving audiences a basic portrait of a strapping alpha male — savoring, instead, the quieter on-camera moments like when Anthony is alone in his office or leaving a woman’s bed. “That’s him at his most honest and fatigued and exhausted,” he says. “Everything outside that is a construct.”
Luckily, Kate Sharma has come to London to deconstruct men like Anthony, puncturing their egos. “She came with one goal: to take care of her sister,” says Ashley. The greater threat Anthony poses to that mission, the more he and Kate clash — enacting a tense, timeless dance. “Enemies to lovers is extreme,” teases Bailey. “They can hit each other’s buttons within a second, and it’s something that’s instinctive. Their sense of self they project to other people, they can’t do that [with one another]; they’re naked in front of each other.”
That connection pushes Anthony to do some soul-searching, as he vacillates between the woman who checks his pragmatic boxes and the one who ignites feelings he’s desperate to avoid. “Edwina and Kate are the embodiment of his approaches to love — one is head, one is heart,” says Bailey. “The push and pull [illustrates] how intense it is to fall in love in a society that is so rigid, where the gender roles are so specific, and how much those roles can be completely counterproductive to happiness, progression, and to love.” Embodying the tenets of the romance genre, Bridgerton strives to offer happily-ever-afters steeped in feminism and reflection… and lots of rippling viscount forearm cuz c’mon, who are we kidding?
Likely, Bridgerton viewers are tuning in for a whole lot more than rippling forearm, though. (After all, our first glimpse of Anthony in season 1 was his bare posterior rutting with Siena against a tree.) But the drama’s abundant sex scenes, which have drawn praise and derision in equal measure, stand apart by stressing women’s pleasure. “It’s going back in time and saying, ‘What were their wants and desires?'” says Coughlan. “They weren’t these one-dimensional people who just did needlework. They had real lives and wants and needs and feelings.”
Detractors may dismiss the show for its sensual content and its focus on the interior lives of women, but those spotlights are entirely the point. “There’s so many people who will go, ‘Oh yeah, Bonkerton,'” quips Bailey. “But the female gaze is so important because there are many ways people communicate by sex, and what sex means, and what your body means to someone else. It’s important that there’s an inversion of sexuality and how people are exploited in the storytelling of sex.”
No cutlery will be licked, but Van Dusen promises this season offers just as many “thirsty moments” as the last — though with slightly more savvy participants. Unlike Daphne, who knew little about the mechanics of bedroom activities, Kate is more aware of her desires. “There’s always been a familiarity deep down with what Kate wants,” teases Ashley, who previously appeared on Netflix’s Sex Education. “That’s what I love about shows like Bridgerton and Sex Education: They might be touching on slightly taboo topics, but these characters know what they want.”
The role of Kate was cast via Zoom due to the pandemic, but Van Dusen says Ashley’s electric chemistry with Bailey was palpable even virtually. “It’s out of this world,” he says. “The season is charged and transporting and romantic.”
While Whistledown has the potential to turn enemies to lovers, she will also imperil the show’s beloved portmanteau, Peneloise. In season 1, the friendship between wallflower Penelope and spirited Eloise delighted audiences. But as Eloise makes her debut on the marriage market amid her renewed search for Whistledown, it is increasingly difficult for Penelope to keep her alter ego hidden. Eloise’s unrelenting drive will test Peneloise, particularly because their relationship has been so grounded in trust. “It felt like the most uncomplicated love that there was,” says Jessie. “But they’re getting older, and they each have secrets. It will shake them both.”
Coughlan believes Penelope partly created Whistledown for Eloise, who bristles against the expectations of being a lady and idolizes the mysterious businesswoman’s independence. But Penelope’s pseudonym could be the ultimate betrayal for her best friend. “It would be so frustrating for Eloise to know Penelope’s doing all the things she wants to do, and has a voice and power and can change things,” Coughlan says. “But Penelope thinks Eloise is the funniest, smartest, best person in the world — and a lot of Whistledown is to impress her. Maybe I’m putting rose-tinted glasses on, but it all comes from a place of love.”
However, Penelope’s motives are not entirely noble. Dismissed and emotionally abused by her family and potential suitors, Penelope channels her resentment into secretly pulling strings: “Hurt people hurt people,” Coughlan says. “People don’t treat her nicely, so she’s able to manufacture and move things around at her will.”
Though she operates in secret in the world of the show, the moment the audience learned who was behind Whistledown’s poison pen in the season 1 finale, “it became a whole different thing,” Bailey says. The actor believes the revelation allows Bridgerton to explore what happens when “power and space is occupied by people who don’t feel seen” — a theme that tracks with Van Dusen’s vision for the series, which has already been picked up for two more seasons. “I wanted it to be about more than just the Bridgertons,” says the showrunner. “I wanted it to be about an entire world and an entire society.”
Bridgerton is intent on having its pastel-colored cake and eating it, too, striving to live up to descriptions as fun and frothy… and just about every adjective you’d use to describe expensive champagne. But the writers also want to double down on the bigger questions lingering behind the delectable escapism: its ability to dissect, celebrate, and reframe everything from gossip to friendship to masculinity to sex — even without a certain duke.
“It’s so gratifying for this show to be a huge success, because oftentimes the things women are drawn to, people so easily disparage,” Coughlan reflects. “But you should never underestimate a woman.”
Lady Whistledown couldn’t have said it better herself.
Written by Maureen Lee Lenker
Published February 3, 2022