Bridgerton season 3: Who is Nicola Coughlan, this season's star?

Nicola Coughlan in Bridgerton (LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX)
Nicola Coughlan in Bridgerton (LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX)

She describes herself as “a solid seven”, is relentlessly vocal about the Israel-Hamas war, has spoken widely about body pressures and her struggles with depression, and talks at a mile-a-minute.

This is Nicola Coughlan, the 37-year-old Irish actor who TV fans will know best as Bridgerton’s Penelope Featherington and as Derry Girls’s Clare Devlin.

Over the past seven years Coughlan’s life has turned upside-down. In 2017 she was working part-time at an opticians, living with her parents and wondering whether she should give up on acting.

Then along came Channel 4’s Derry Girls, a laugh-out-loud teen drama about a group of school girls in Northern Ireland in the Nineties. Coughlan was catapulted to national stardom in the show that became Channel 4’s biggest comedy since Father Ted.

And now she’s the lead in Netflix super-show Bridgerton. Her character, the witty Penelope Featherington, spent much of the show’s first two seasons pining after Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) and harbouring a big secret: she was in fact Lady Whistledown, a gossip columnist who penned spiky newsletters that often caused upset among members of the ton (Bridgerton’s high society circle).

The character was a little frumpy, described by the show as a “wallflower”. But now all that is about to change: season three puts Coughlan front and centre, focusing on her character’s love story with Colin.

So, with Bridgerton season three part two landing on Netflix today, we take a look at the actor’s remarkable life.

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in Bridgerton (LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX)
Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in Bridgerton (LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX)

The start

Born in Galway, Coughlan grew up in Oranmore, a coastal town in north-west Ireland to a stay-at-home mum and a father who worked in the army. By five years old she had decided she wanted to be an actor, inspired by her sister’s performance in a play.

Aged 10 she had already bagged an uncredited role in James Brolin’s My Brother's War, and seven years on, she had a role in Irish filmmaker Tom Collins' short The Phantom Cnut.

She went on to study acting at the Oxford School of Drama and the Birmingham School of Acting, but not before completing a degree in English and Classical Civilisation from the National University of Ireland.

She had voice roles in The Fairytaler (2004-2005), Summer of the Flying Saucer (2008), Thor: Legend of the Magical Hammer (2011), Ivan the Incredible (2012) and roles in Svengali (2013) and Doctors (2012).

She also featured in the play Jess and Joe Forever between 2015 and 2017 which was performed at the Old Vic, the Orange Tree Theatre and the Traverse Theatre.

But at the beginning of her career, things were far from easy. Coughlan struggled with financial difficulties in London before making it big, which caused severe depression: “I hadn’t had an audition in about a year [before Derry Girls]. I had no money in my bank account, so I had to move back in with my parents,” she said in one interview.

“I was so depressed, and it was so hard. It was a very slow recuperation from that. I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt like I failed at everything. I felt like I had nothing, and I had let my family down. You think all these terrible things about yourself and that was made worse because I had taken out a loan and I just kept thinking about being in financial debt.”

Nicola Coughlan attends the ERDEM show during London fashion week in February (Getty Images)
Nicola Coughlan attends the ERDEM show during London fashion week in February (Getty Images)

She slowly managed to climb out of her depression with the help of her family and friends: “It was my family being amazing and my sister literally pulling me out of bed and making me go for a run,” she said to Glamour in 2020. “Stuff like that gave me a sense of purpose again and that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Though her professional fortunes radically improved, it was a tough time personally as Coughlan’s father died just five days before she was offered the Derry Girls role. “He sadly didn’t know I ever got it,” she said to Laura Whitmore on her Castaway podcast. “The first time we were at the Baftas and won these incredible awards, it’s always that tinge of sadness he’s not here to see it.”


Fame has brought its own problems. While Coughlan is forever grateful to have a career, she’s had to learn how to deal with losing her anonymity: ”There’s no handbook for that,” she said to Radio Times. “Mostly it’s lovely – people are so kind – but it’s [tough] if you just want to go to the shop on your own or to the doctor.”

Now that she is a public figure, strangers feel confident to comment on all aspects of her life, including her body and her political positions. In 2022 she took to her Instagram to politely ask people not to comment on her figure – even positive comments were ultimately unhelpful.

"If you have an opinion about my body please, please don't share it with me," Coughlan said in the now-deleted post. "Most people are being nice and not trying to offend, but I'm just a human being and it's really hard to bear the weight of thousands of opinions about your appearance being sent directly to you."

Nicola Coughlan, wearing a red pin which represents a call for a ceasefire in Gaza, at Bridgerton's New York premiere (Getty Images for Netflix)
Nicola Coughlan, wearing a red pin which represents a call for a ceasefire in Gaza, at Bridgerton's New York premiere (Getty Images for Netflix)

Coughlan initially found analysis of her size incredibly shocking. Speaking to the Irish Times in 2020 she said: “It was wild, because I was size 10 filming series one and I got called ‘the big one’! I was, like, ‘Are you serious?’ I’m not this gigantic sumo wrestler, and even if I were, would it matter? Would it be relevant?”

Over time the actor has adapted to fame by becoming more private. In the past she shared more of her personal life on social media, but now she’s more careful to keep the things that she really values – her family and her friends – private.

Coughlan, an outspoken campaigner for human rights, has also found herself in hot water for continuing her public support of various groups.

In 2015, during Ireland’s marriage-equality referendum, she campaigned for the Yes vote, going from door to door. “This was pre anyone knowing who I was, so I didn’t have a big platform to do stuff, but I did what I could,” she said.

But after the release of Derry Girls in 2018, when Ireland held a referendum on abortion law, she found campaigning much more complicated – though it didn’t stop her from getting involved.

“I’ve always cared about causes and social justice,” she said to Teen Vogue last month. Coughlan has been sharing posts about the Israel-Hamas war on her Instagram and has worn the red ceasefire pin to several premieres.

“You do get told, ‘You won’t get work, you won’t do this,'” she continued. “But I also think, deep down, if you know that you’re coming from a place of ‘I don’t want any innocent people to suffer,’ then I’m not worried about people’s reactions.

“More of us should be trying to understand how upsetting and traumatising this is for Jewish people, and how horrific it is that all these innocent people in Palestine are being murdered.”

Nicola Coughlan at the London Barbie premiere in July 2023. She played Diplomat Barbie in the film (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Nicola Coughlan at the London Barbie premiere in July 2023. She played Diplomat Barbie in the film (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)


More recently the Irish actor has had roles in Greta Gerwig’s 2023 Barbie blockbuster, playing Diplomat Barbie, in Channel 4’s dark comedy series Big Mood (2024), and in the British comedy Seize Them! (2024).

Now she’s set to take centre stage as the romantic lead of Bridgerton. Famous for its love triangles and heady sex scenes, Coughlan was definitely thrown into the deep end, filming what could be awkward sex scenes with her longtime friend Newton.

“It was really scary because obviously we've been friends for years and, you know, thinking about kissing your friend is kind of a terrifying prospect,” said Coughlan to the Standard. “But we went with it and we had an incredible intimacy coordinator who helped us feel like we had a lot of agency.”

Coughlan clearly has her feet firmly on the ground. Partly, she says, it’s due to her age and life experience. “Scrutiny is difficult, but it’s easier when you get older to shut certain things out. I lived a whole life before any of this happened,” she said to Radio Times.

“I worked a million different jobs, lived in different places, lived in terrible house shares with mould on the walls. It’s funny because people see you at fancy events and think you must be fancy. No, no, I was making frozen yogurt in Westfield not long ago.”

Bridgerton season 3 part 1 is available on Netflix now