Meet Nicola Coughlan, new leading lady of Bridgerton season 3: before starring on Derry Girls and wowing on the red carpet in Valentino, she was a struggling actress taking odd jobs in London

In the trailers that flooded the internet ahead of the show’s release, Coughlan reprises her role as Penelope Featherington, an unassuming but sharp-witted girl, and her dynamic relationship with her friend and long-time crush, Colin Bridgerton. This season centres on Polin’s – their couple name – relationship and sees Penelope make bumbling attempts to shed her wallflower status as Colin guides her on how to land a man.

With Coughlan being so firmly in the limelight now, it might come as a surprise to many that she actually spent years as a struggling actress. Just a few years ago, the Derry Girls star was working as a receptionist to make ends meet after failing to make the cut for a full-time course at the Oxford School of Drama.

What is Nicola Coughlan’s acting background?

Nicola Coughlan posts this throwback photo from her waitressing days while reflecting on her good fortune on Instagram in 2002. Photo: @nicolacoughlan/Instagram

Nicola Mary Coughlan was born in Galway, Ireland, on January 9, 1987, per IMDB. Her interest in acting was first piqued at a young age when she watched her older sister Clodagh performing in a school play, per

After graduating with an English and classical civilisation degree from the National University of Ireland, Galway, Coughlan moved to England to take a foundation course in acting at the Oxford School of Drama.

Nicola Coughlan appears on stage in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 2018. Photo: @nicolacoughlan/Instagram

However, her acting studies did not go smoothly. “After Oxford, I didn’t get in to any full-time course, so I worked as a receptionist in a physio clinic, which I found difficult. I began to wonder if [acting] was just a pipe dream” said the actress in an interview with Student Independent News. “Luckily I got into the Birmingham School of Acting in 2010-11.”

How Nicola Coughlan got her breakout role in Derry Girls

Nicola Coughlan in character as Clare Devlin on the set of Derry Girls in 2019. Photo: @nicolacoughlan/Instagram

She failed to get her acting career properly off the ground throughout her 20s, taking roles for short plays in pubs, and recalling to the Los Angeles Times how she once worked at a frozen yoghurt shop. She eventually moved back home from London and took a job at an opticians – but then she saw the news about an open audition at London’s prestigious Old Vic Theatre.

Luckily for Coughlan, she landed a part in the theatre’s production of the play Jess and Joe Forever, and caught the attention of Curtis Brown, a major talent agency. Soon after signing with her new agent, Coughlan landed her first TV gig as Clare Devlin in the breakout Channel 4 Irish comedy Derry Girls, which became a global success. Coughlan’s turn as the neurotic Clare put her firmly on Hollywood’s one-to-watch radar.

Nicola Coughlan and her Derry Girls castmates in a promotional shot. Photo: @nicolacoughlan/Instagram

But her success on Derry Girls was nothing compared to the stardom that Netflix’s Bridgerton propelled her to.

“Three million people watched Derry Girls and 82 million watched Bridgerton, so it’s a different beast altogether,” Coughlan said in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar.

She speaks out about various issues on social media

Nicola Coughlan supports the #CeasefireNow movement on social media in this 2023 post. Photo: @nicolacoughlan/Instagram

Much like her role as Penelope Featherington – who uses her secret identity as the mysterious and elusive scandal writer, Lady Whistledown, to sway the opinions of the ton – Coughlan leverages her own platforms too. However, unlike Lady Whistledown, she focuses on social issues over gossip.

The actress, who also had a cameo in Greta Gerwig’s 2023 smash hit film Barbie and has, at the time of writing, 3.1 million followers on Instagram, has spoken out on topics ranging from body positivity and size inclusivity in Hollywood to the outbreak of war in Gaza.

“Ultimately, my opinion is not important, but I have a platform in which I can share resources,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in regards to her activism. “So if there’s 1.3 million people on Instagram that can then get a link to the Red Cross, then I still think that’s useful.”

She’s a fashion icon in the making

Nicola Coughlan attends a press event for Bridgerton season three in London, in February. Photo: @nicolacoughlan/Instagram

Trailers for the upcoming season of Bridgerton show that Coughlan’s Penelope has finally shed her lurid yellow and orange sartorial palette and got the wardrobe update the character so badly needed. Taking a leaf from her character’s book, Coughlan upgraded her off-screen wardrobe just in time to take the spotlight as a leading lady.

Nicola Coughlan wears a gold and black Misho dress to a Bridgerton press event in April. Photo: @nicolacoughlan/Instagram
With the third season of Bridgerton fast approaching, Coughlan has been busy with promotional events and making red carpet appearances in outfits that are an absolute serve.

She’s worn a dramatic Valentino gown with a blue and black floral print to the 2023 Baftas; a bold red ensemble by Stella McCartney to the Bridgerton season three premiere in London in February; and a glamorously sparkly black off-the-shoulder Richard Quinn dress for the Australian premiere in April.

What other films and TV shows is Nicola Coughlan in?

Nicola Coughlan wears an Alice & Olivia outfit in this April photo. Photo: @nicolacoughlan/Instagram

Derry Girls and Bridgerton aside, Coughlan also showcased her acting range in Channel 4’s dark comedy drama Big Mood and the new comedy film Seize Them!, which is set in the British Dark Ages.

“I love my job, I feel really privileged,” Coughlan said at the reopening of the Disneyland Hotel at Disneyland Paris. “I want to do it forever. It was a long road to get to do it, and now I think I just soak up every moment. When you meet people who watch the things you’ve done and it made them feel something, that’s the best thing.”


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