For years, the word ‘family’ meant one thing to Shortland Street star Kerry-Lee Dewing.

'It’s my mum and I – that’s it,’ says the stunning 23-year-old, speaking to New Idea at the Auckland home she still shares with mother Pam. ‘It’s us two all the way.’

The pair’s tight bond was cemented 10 years ago, when they left their home in Cape Town, South Africa, for the unknown in New Zealand.

'I wanted her to live in a safer place,’ explains Pam, a hair salon owner.

‘In South Africa, there’s gun violence, hijacking, mugging – you never know when it’s your turn. It was my biggest fear that I’d wake up and someone would be in the house. What would I do with my child?’

Like most South African children, Kerry-Lee (whose father left when she was 18 months old) was never allowed to travel alone, but that didn’t quell Pam’s fears.

‘If I dropped her off, I always thought, “What if something happens to me on my way home and she’s alone? Or worse still, what if something happens to both of us after I fetch her at night?”’

‘Mum was mugged three times for her jewellery and our house was broken into many times,’ Kerry-Lee adds.

‘She thought, “Let’s leave before something really bad happens.”’

Despite knowing no-one in New Zealand, Pam chose Auckland because it reminded her of a safer Cape Town.

Adventurous Kerry-Lee was excited about the move, but settling into a new place still proved challenging. At home, the talented teen had been working as a model and actress since she was nine months old, and had built up a huge network.

‘I had to start all over again,’ Kerry-Lee says, recalling her early attempts to break into the New Zealand market.

‘I tried to get into an agency and they said, “You need to work on that accent.”’

She also desperately missed the dance competitions she took part in back home.

‘I felt so lost without it. But it was never to the point where I wanted to go home. I was quick to say, “I’m a New Zealander!”’

Meanwhile, Pam had her own battle trying to establish a salon, Hair D’Art, without a client base. She attributes the success of her North Shore business to Kerry-Lee’s endless enthusiasm.

‘She was fantastic,’ Pam says affectionately. ‘We used to hand out flyers and she’d encourage her friends to come to the salon. We were always there supporting each other – it was like a little team.’

Kerry-Lee spent hours at the salon, shampooing, sweeping up, making tea and coffee and taking bookings.

She also joined a dance studio and tirelessly pursued acting, and pulled back on the South African accent!

When she landed the role of nurse Kylie Brown in Shortland Street, the first person she called was her mum.

‘It was amazing,’ Pam remembers, beaming with pride. ‘When we first came to New Zealand, people said, “There’s this show called Shortland Street – maybe one day she’ll be on it.”’

Since starting in September, Kerry-Lee has had to adapt to the constant recognition that comes with Shortie fame.

‘I just keep forgetting. I don’t know why people are looking at me. Then I think, “Oh no, I look a mess!”’

Just like her flirtatious character, Kerry-Lee is getting a lot of male attention. ‘I even got a letter from a fan in the UK, asking for a signed photo.’

She’s been with boyfriend Dustin for several years, but is in no rush to move out of home.

‘During the day, Mum and I are busy doing our own things, so it’s good to come home and reconnect,’ she says.

When they have time, they meet for coffee, go to the mall, see a movie or get a manicure and pedicure together.

They also love baking. Kerry-Lee admits to having a ‘big-time sweet tooth’. ‘I’ve gotta have dessert every night,’

In February 2012, the pair returned to South Africa for a month-long holiday. It was the first time Kerry-Lee had seen her other relatives – including dad Stuart Burton – in nine years.

‘I reconnected with a lot of my cousins,’ she says happily. ‘One is a professional soccer player and the other’s a dancer who’s just signed with a record company, so performing is obviously a talent that runs through the family.’

For the first time since leaving, Kerry-Lee realised how important South Africa was to her.

‘I’ve always stood up for New Zealand, even over South Africa. I’m proud to be a Kiwi and I love it here. But going back made me think, “OK, this is actually home.”’

Suddenly, her two-person family expanded.

‘I thought, “Wow, we’ve got these people who are more than just friends, they’re our family,”’ she says.

‘In South Africa, all these people knew who I was.’

She pauses, remembering her newfound fame, and flashes a quick smile before adding, ‘And not because I’m on Shortland Street!’

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