From the outside looking in, Riverdale‘s Madelaine Petsch has it all. Along with her silky red locks and gleaming smile, Petsch gets to play one of the hit show’s sassiest characters. And although fans of the series would likely agree that their opinion of Cheryl has changed several times over the course of the first three seasons, her character has evolved into a beloved fan favorite. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always that way, and in a new interview with Seventeen, the 25-year-old actor opened up about the bullying she faced after Season 1.
“When I was bullied online after the 2017 Teen Choice Awards following the first season of Riverdale, I was very upset,” she told the mag for its brand new digital issue. “I thought, ‘Why do people hate me? I don’t get it. I’m just playing a character.'” Playing characters, after all, was what Petsch dreamed of since she was a little kid. “I’m one of the few people that, by the time I was six years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “My parents were very supportive. And I really loved being on stage and bringing different characters to life.”
Petsch didn’t only encounter bullying after the first season aired, though. Actually, she’s been bullied much of her life for reasons beyond her control, including her background, her diet, and even her amazing red hair. “I grew up in a small town,” she said. “And a lot of people made fun of me for having red hair, my parents are South African, I wasn’t raised religious, I’m plant-based. I had everything up against me, like all the things that made me unique were the things that people would chip away at.”
In hindsight, Petsch realizes that the things she was once bullied for are actually the things she should be celebrating about herself. “I think Cheryl has helped me really love my red hair,” she said. “Finally, my hair and I have a great relationship. And when fans tell me they’re being bullied, I remind them that the things they’re being bullied for now are the things that make them unique. When you get older, those things are going to make you stand out.”
But playing Cheryl Blossom did more for Petsch than simply help her love her hair. The role also gave her a window into the minds of those who’ve bullied her in the past, offering an explanation as to why they were so cruel. “I’ve learned the mindset of the people who bullied me very well because Cheryl’s been a bully on the show,” she said. “I’ve learned that the people who’ve made the most fun of me as a kid probably had their own shit that they were going through. And so they were taking it out on other people. And that breaks my heart.”
Going forward, Petsch just wants people to get to know who she really is — beyond the hair and her often controversial character on the show. “I want people to get to know Madelaine,” she said. “I want them to know that I’m weird and funny and I love people. If they still have bad assumptions, then that’s on them.”
Check out the full Seventeen interview for more on Petsch’s relationship with the Riverdale cast, why Choni’s so important to her, and the hardest thing about losing her late co-star Luke Perry.