Anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember that Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie was one of the meanest characters on TV. Portrayed by actress Alison Arngrim, Nellie was known for her iconic blonde curls, bad temper and bratty attitude.
While the role made Arngrim a household name around the world, she was hiding a deep and dark secret. Speaking to Angela Bishop on Studio 10, the 56-year-old explained that she was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by a close family member as a child. While she confirmed it wasn’t her mother or father, she didn’t disclose who her abuser was.
She’d originally detailed the abuse in her 2010 book, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. Sadly, she said being honest about what happened to her hadn’t given her closure.
“My father used to laugh and say, ‘There’s no such thing as closure – that’s only on TV shows’. It has been a marvellous thing that I’ve been able to help so many people,” she explained. “I have had so many people write to me and call me and tell me that my going public helped them, that the book helped them. So knowing that that’s happening, that I am making a difference, that other people will not suffer what I suffered, I sleep really good at night.”
Sadly, as Bishop explained on Studio 10, Arngrim did look at the possibility of pressing charges against her abuser, although she was outside the statute of limitations. She also found that in 26 states of America, if sexual abuse occurs at the hand of a family member, there is no prison sentence. As such, she’s been travelling to each state to get the law changed.
“She was unable to prosecute in her own case, but she has helped thousands of children around the country,” Bishop said.
Arngrim also used the interview to talk about some happier times from her childhood and dished some secrets from her time on Little House on the Prairie. Despite being known for her golden curls, it turns out she wore a wig for most of the show between 1974 and 1983. She described it as one of the most expensive wigs ever made, although admitted it was painful to wear.
She also said fans found it hard to separate her from her mean-spirited character.
“I remember during the show when I met people, they got quite freaked out and terrified,” she said. “Someone threw a cup of orange soda at my head during a Christmas parade.”
Reruns continue to air all around the world decades after the show wrapped and it turns out some of the show’s biggest fans are from France.
“They don’t think Nellie Oleson is mean, they think she’s French,” Arngrim laughed.
And, while her character was enemies with Laura Ingalls, it turns out she and actress Melissa Gilbert were really good friends off set. To this day they’re still close and Arngrim joked that the pair often engage in fake Twitter wars so fans of the show think Laura and Nellie are still feuding. She also opened up about what it was like working with the late Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls on the show.
“He was wild. He was a very fun person,” she recalled. “Great with the children, an overgrown child himself.”