Amanda Stepto – her story
by Catherine Dunphy
For Amanda Stepto, the Degrassi Talks series meant working behind the camera for a change.
“The best part of doing Degrassi Talks was meeting teenagers from other cities and towns – and realizing how we’re all the same in a lot of ways. Even though we have all different backgrounds, we all go through the same teenage ups and downs.”
Amanda played the character of Spike for five seasons on the popular CBC-TV series Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High. She was also the host of the Degrassi Talks program on sex – and Catherine Dunphy interviewed her specially for this book.[i.e. – Degrassi Talks on Sex]
Working behind the camera took some of the pressures off her as performer.
“I got to paint the picture this time and move people around and direct and think of camera shots. It’s really neat. It’s more a power feeling.” The most personal interview she conducted was with Shantih, a young girl who gave up her child for adoption. Amanda herself is adopted.
“I think Shantih and my natural mom chose adoption for the same reasons. Shantih was being a responsible individual, thinking of her child. She was practical instead of idealistic. My natural mother had the same thought process.”
She was banned in Britain; she was a hot topic in dressing rooms and among the clumps of girls clustered in washrooms and at their lockers.Newspapers wrote about her; she was mobbed in malls during publicity appearances. She was not even in high school and she was going to have a baby. She was Spike, the girl on Degrassi Junior High with the dyed blonde Mohawk – the one in big trouble by the 11th (and Emmy-winning) episode of the season.
By the end of the 1986/87 season she was in labour, and when Degrassi returned in the fall, she was barely 14 and the mother of Emma. It was made up, all of it, but Spike got lots of letters.
Letters telling her she was a sinner, others begging her to keep the baby, or put it up for adoption. Some offered her baby clothes, and others just wanted to discuss the messy ordeal of teenage motherhood. Girls wrote who had made the same mistake as Spike. Girls wrote who also had kept their babies. Girls who decided to have an abortion and girls who hadn’t had sex yet but who were feeling pressured by their boyfriends to do so wrote to her.
They asked her what she thought, what they should do. As if she were a psychologist or a doctor, or a sex therapist, or a counsellor. Instead of a 17-year-old Mississauga girl named Amanda Stepto who was still a virgin. Now 21, Amanda laughs. “It was pretty funny. I wasn’t having sex in real life and I was pregnant on TV.” Guys came onto her as if she was an experienced woman of the world. Even the rest of the Degrassi cast assumed she was sexually active, if only because she was the oldest of them. “I didn’t talk about it”, she explains. “I’m usually a very private person anyway. I didn’t say, ‘No, I didn’t’, and I didn’t say ‘Yes’ even when I did. I didn’t talk about my sex life with anybody. It’s not that it was right or wrong to have sex, but with a lot of people, it was sex this and sex that. That’s all they talked about and it turned me off. I mean, what’s the big deal?” It was at a time when a lot of the Degrassi cast were about 15, she continues, and, to put it bluntly, obsessed with sex. She was older and not.
“Everything had sexual innuendoes. I was like, ‘Grow up. I don’t want to hear about it. Please, I’m eating ‘ ” , Amanda laughs again. ” I just tended to stay by myself.”
And answer her letters. Kids continued to write her, sympathizing and outraged when Spike was going to be thrown out of school because of the baby, worrying when she became so tired – from doing homework and looking after the baby and never going on a date or out to a dance.
She was always careful not to dictate a solution to their problems. First of all, she really believes that people are different and have their own way of thinking things through for themselves. And second, of course, was the fact that she was not, and had never been, pregnant.
Although she sometimes felt as if she had gone the whole course. Degrassi made sure it was realistic. Amanda groans: “On set I felt so fat and ugly.” Pretend pregnancy or not, it made her even more careful. “I waited to have sex because I wanted to wait and I never let myself be put under pressure.” She’s very firm about that. She has made it a point, a credo she lives by, to never give in to group pressure. It’s why she says she never smoked or did drugs, no matter how often she was asked or told to. “I would just say no and if they kept on I’d say to them,
‘Hey, I don’t need this. I can always go home.’ And she rarely drinks . It started when she would be the designated driver “because I was the responsible one”. She loves the club scene and alternative music. Because of a long-term relationship with a man who was a musician, she knows a lot people in “thrash” bands and hangs out in clubs. Even now when she lives in downtown Toronto and can walk to some clubs, she still rarely drinks – out of habit.
And she resists any pressure to get her to change her ways. She says she’s seen too much of that, girls going along with the gang, “preppy girls willing to do anything” for what Amanda calls the “heavy metal” guys. “No way”, she says, shaking her no-longer spiked hair. “I said, ‘ Are you stupid? Don’t you have any minds of your own? ‘ ”
Her way was to abstain from everything, including sex. She waited until she was 18 and in a steady relationship. He was five years older and her first “real” boyfriend, she says, “not a three-month thing, or a friend, or even a week thing.” And she was sacred and nervous and did feel pressure, she admits. He was experienced but still ” I didn’t think it was too grand.”
Only now, after talking with girlfriends, has she discovered that sex the first time is not always fireworks and grand passion the way it is in the movies. “It was terrible experience for most of my friends”, she laughs. I
n real life, she has never experienced a pregnancy fear. Since she began having sex she has been taking the birth control pill and, she says, she is always very careful. “Wouldn’t that be stupid after I played someone who got pregnant and went through all of that – because basically I did go through all of that – wouldn’t that be stupid? Me, Miss Preacher, the one everybody looked up to?” So she knows how big the decision is to have sex. Even now in these times, when there is so much information, when there are condom dispensers in school washrooms.
It used to be the taboo was having sex. Now it almost seems like it is not having sex.
She remembers two girls from Halifax who told her they would not have sex until after marriage – “and that was cool” – but most kids have sex. Or so it seems. Statistics say it’s now one in every two kids in high school, but Amanda thinks it might be more. “Everybody seems to be doing it, not just the gorgeous people or the low-lifes. Kids want to be able to say they’ve done it. Having sex is a status symbol, definitely.” She says she worries about the promiscuity she sees around her, because she knows not everybody uses condoms when they should and because she says she still doesn’t believe in one-night stands. “Now in a club if you meet someone and are attracted to them and go up to them, automatically there’s the sex thing. It’s not like ‘Let’s go on a date and get to know each other.’ When you’re in a club it’s ‘Hi. Sex.’ Then after the sex, you might get to know each other”, she says. And she thinks this is working in the guys’ favour. “I think you can say sex is a power thing.” That is being played by the very young.
“When I was in Grade 8, I still thought boys were disgusting”, says Amanda. She was a good student, busy after school with dance, music, skating classes. she lived with her parents and older brother and sister in Meadowvale, a subdivision within Mississauga. She enroled in the Etobicoke School for the Arts for three years with dance as a major and drama as a minor, transferring to a school in Mississauga to finish her courses. She says she was just an average dancer, never great. And although she loved modern, she never thrived in ballet class.
“I had a strike against me because of my spiked hair. It didn’t go with the pink getup.”
She spiked her hair because it was different, and that’s what she wanted to be more than anything.
When a drama teacher told the class about the open audition for Degrassi, Amanda was the only one who acted on it. She didn’t have a resume and had to get her doting father to take a couple of pictures, spiked hair and all. When her character became pregnant, her mother sniffed, “As long as it doesn’t happen in real life”. During the first reading of the script when that happens, some of the Degrassi cast snickered.
But that’s not the episode which sticks in her mind. The one which meant more to her was the episode in which a pregnant Spike considers her options, including putting the baby up to adoption. The script called for her to speak to Wheels, a character in the series who is adopted.
“It was like me, Amanda, talking to myself: ‘ How do you feel, what were you thinking?’ It was really trippy. I was like in the body of my biological mother talking to me. Really weird.”
Amanda was adopted in Montreal when she was three months old. Her birth mother was 25, her father 55. He was an American jazz musician just passing through and she was a woman who had been raised in an orphanage and wanted her own family – although not necessarily a husband. But when she realized she couldn’t bring up a baby, she put Amanda up for adoption.
And that is all she knows about her birth parents. Right now that is all she wants to know.
“I really don’t think about it at all. I’m happy with my life. I’m happy with my parents. I don’t wonder what it would be like. I have a better life now.”
She is very close to her mother who tells her to wait before she thinks about ,marriage – to go out and get a career for herself. And, after being Canada’s best known unwed teen mother for so long, that’s exactly what Amanda intends to do.