When she was just eight, Kate Ritchie's fate was decided when she landed the role of Sally Fletcher in Home And Away.
From that point on, the actress would be forever linked with her on-screen character, whom she would play to acclaim for more than two decades.
"I will always feel attached to Home And Away," Kate, 43, tells TV WEEK.
"How could I not? It trained and nurtured me. It offered me some of the most wonderful years of my life and, for a long time, defined who I was."
Both Kate and Sally came of age in front of the camera between 1988 and 2008. Fame and media interest quickly followed, and Kate recalls that at that time she was regularly speaking to media publications such as TV WEEK.
"There was always something to chat about, whether it was to do with my own life or Sally's," Kate says, adding that she especially revelled in the chance to talk about Sally's milestone moments – including her several trips down the aisle.
"Everybody loves a wedding – and Sally had a few," Kate says with a smile. "They weren't all a success, but TV WEEK always handled them delicately."
But in the early days, the actress remembers feeling like the left-out youngster among the cast – particularly when she was left off the guest list to the industry's night of nights, the TV WEEK Logie Awards.
"I finally got to attend the Logies for the first time in 1991," she says.
"A few years before, I was too young to go and was heartbroken. I felt so left out. I just wanted to put on a pretty frock and go to the party with all the big people."
But Kate needn't have worried. As she transitioned seamlessly from kid performer to bona fide TV star, the actress became a fixture on the red carpet at the annual awards. She won several herself – including two coveted Gold Logies in 2007 and 2008.
For Kate, it was validation for a job that was entwined with her very being.
"There was a lovely feeling of reward and acknowledgement that you can turn up and do your job because you love it, not because you're chasing recognition – and that, slowly but surely, people will notice," she says.
A Gold Logie win may be regarded as the acme of success, but Kate recalls that her 2008 contained a twinge of "turmoil" – she delivered her acceptance speech knowing her time in Home And Away was drawing to a close. After 20 years as Sally, Kate was eager to see what life held for her outside of Summer Bay.
"It was more about letting go of a little part of me that made me feel safe," she reflects.
In her speech, an emotional Kate acknowledged her transition by telling the audience and viewers at home, "I hope this isn't the last you will ever see of me."
With hindsight, Kate says it was a significant – but difficult – moment.
"I feel sorry for the person up there accepting the award," Kate says.
"I can see such turmoil. It's nice to be a little further down the track and see how far I've come emotionally."
Kate's career flourished in new directions after Home And Away, with the actress pivoting into a radio host on NOVA and also penning two children's books.
But as fans already know, she wasn't lost to the Bay forever. Kate made one final, brief, return in 2013, with Sally arriving in town harbouring a "close to home" family secret. The revelation set off a catastrophic chain of events, ending with Sally's final departure – again.
Reprising the role was a chance for Kate to throw herself into something she adored one last time.
"I know I come across as some sentimental old tragic, but I wasn't too bad on the day," she recalls of her first day back on set. "I knew I had a job to do."
Fans are always wondering if Kate will return to Home And Away – and even she admits she sometimes yearns for the good old days.
"Even now, with some distance from those days and having had the chance to develop into my own person without the security blanket of Sally, I still miss it desperately," she says.
"But I also realise I'll never be able to recreate that time, nor do I need to."
That said, Kate certainly hasn't ruled out television for good.
"The day I walk back onto a film set will be a very happy one," she says. "I look forward to being part of an ensemble again one day. It's all about finding the right role. Don't worry – I'm still searching!"
And while the door to H&A remains shut (but ever so slightly ajar), for now, Kate is content with showing her six-year-old daughter Mae footage from the glory days.
"I've told her about working on a television show, and that I even won some awards," she says.
"When we YouTubed the videos [of the Logie Awards], she was impressed with my pretty princess dresses. But she'll be bored to death if Mummy shows her videos of old episodes!"
- PuzzlesThe Australian Women's Weekly February Issue Online Entry
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