SHE dazzled as the all-American schoolgirl who stole a young boy’s heart in hit romantic comedy Love Actually.
But actress Olivia Olson says that in real life she felt like an outcast and feared having a breakdown as the pressure of being a child star became too much.
Olivia, now 30, developed crippling stage fright as Hollywood bigwigs criticised her weight and questioned her ethnicity.
Despite being one of the most talented singers of her generation, with a megawatt smile, one casting director even told her she needed to lose 10lbs to win a major role.
The stress — and the vicious bullying she faced at school — eventually convinced Olivia, who is mixed race, to turn her back on the big screen and start working as a voice-over actor.
Speaking for the first time about her ordeal, she said: “I thank my parents for being such a support system, because it’s kind of a miracle I didn’t have a mental breakdown.
“The auditioning process is constant rejection and at that age, having casting directors saying literally to your face, when you are 12 years old, ‘Oh, we would like you if only you dropped 10lbs’. It’s like, ‘What?’
“Any person who says that to a kid needs to re-evaluate, but it’s just how the world worked at the time.
“That’s what pushed me into doing voice-over acting because it didn’t matter what I looked like.
“I could let my talent speak for itself.
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“I am so ethnically ambiguous people didn’t know how to place me.
“I would only be put out for Hispanic roles and I would be asked, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’
“And I would explain, ‘No, I’m not Hispanic, so why would I?’
“No one knew what I was or where to place me.
“People would ask, ‘What are you?’ It makes you feel like a zoo animal.”
Fans will be shocked to hear about Olivia’s treatment given how brightly her star shone at the time.
Love Actually, which also starred Martine McCutcheon, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and Keira Knightley among others and is celebrating its 20th anniversary, seemed to be a break-out role for the talented youngster.
Olivia played Joanna Anderson, the lead singer in a school band, who classmate Sam is besotted with.
Sam, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, eventually summons the courage to confess his love at the airport before she flies back to the US.
Her singing was so good, producers had to ask her to tone it down to make it more realistic.
Incredibly, Love Actually was the first major role she had auditioned for.
And cinema-goers had no idea just how unusual the ten-year-old’s childhood had been before she was plucked from obscurity.
Olivia was adopted as a baby along with her 15-year-old mother.
The couple who became her parents are comedy writer Martin Olson, 66, and his wife Kay, a retired artist and astrologer, who raised her in affluent Westlake Village, California.
Olivia said: “I have these moments where I think, ‘I could have been raised on the streets by a 15-year-old single mother’.
“My biological mum met my parents through a mutual friend and she wanted me to be raised by someone who was vouched for.
“She only lived with us for a year, while she got her life back on track. It was always the plan that she would move on.
“It’s not my story to tell — even though it got me here — but she was a runaway from Florida and did not have a great upbringing.
“She ran away to California at 13 with her younger brother and they made it work. And she was so thrilled for me when I won the part in Love Actually.”
Olivia found overnight fame hard to handle, however.
She said: “I was away from my school for so long filming Love Actually and when I came back it was like, ‘Oh, you’re a celebrity now’.
“I was already the new kid at school and I was the only mixed-race kid in an area that was very white.
“I did have friends, but I didn’t always feel like I belonged there, I felt like an outcast.
“I think all kids feel awkward at times and for me it was heightened by being the only black kid in a cookie-cutter suburb and being adopted and then, all of a sudden, I was famous.
“By the time the film came out I was 12 years old and in middle school — and that’s when I had all the attention.
“The mean girls cornered me against the lockers saying, ‘You think you’re a singer — sing something now.’
“It made me not want to join the school talent show or anything like that because it had the negative connotation of, ‘She’s just trying to show off’.
“I had been very confident when I was ten years old but I developed crippling stage fright and didn’t want to perform.
“I was also in the final auditions for Disney’s Camp Rock series with Demi Lovato.
“But between 12 and 16 I decided I would rather be a normal kid.
“I realised that my heart was not in it at that time.
“I was more into my friends and school and being a teenager than trying to work, work, work.
“It came down to, ‘I don’t want to go to that audition today, I want to go to my friend’s sleepover party’.”
Olivia, who lives in Los Angeles, went on to carve out a successful career as a voice-over actor, for years playing Marceline the Vampire Queen in the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time.
She has not kept in touch with her former Love Actually co-stars but did occasionally work with actor Thomas, now 32, in the animated series Phineas And Ferb.
The movie has faced criticism in recent years for being “heteronormative”, as there are so many straight couples.
It has also been branded male-dominated and lacking in ethnic diversity.
But Olivia has never regretted taking the role.
She explained: “I was ecstatic when I won the part and over the years, as people have rewatched it and rewatched it, it’s become part of everyone’s hearts.
“I’m constantly getting tagged in clips from the film.
“Every year, people text me to say, ‘Look what I’m watching’, with a video of their living room. It’s a brilliant film, hilarious.
“I have such nostalgic feelings about it and I think a lot of the criticism is too harsh.
“There are a lot of characters of colour in the film, including me.
“And Thomas chased me, so I think our storyline was very much the opposite of what Love Actually is criticised for.”