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Playing Nellie Oleson on 'Little House' taught me why you should ignore bullies and focus on your friends

Because I had a great sense of the difference between fantasy and reality, I always knew the nastiness wasn't about me.
Alison Arngrim on Megyn Kelly Today on Sept. 19, 2018.
Alison Arngrim on Megyn Kelly Today on Sept. 19, 2018.Nathan Congleton / TODAY

People generally go into show business so that people will love them. That isn't how things worked out for me: I became famous and everyone hated me, which was weird. I was 12 years-old when "Little House on the Prairie" started, so I was about junior high age when adults started coming up to me and saying, "I hate you and you are a b****."

Thus, any plan that being an actor was going to make me popular backfired completely.

The first time that two little girls came up and kicked me in the butt, knocking me to the pavement, because of the character I played, I was a bit shocked. But then I realized that they kicked me for something I did while pretending to be someone else. I thought to myself, How good a job am I doing that people are flipping out and attacking me?

I had to step back from the situation at hand and realize that I was playing someone who people are supposed to hate, and that I had tapped into something specific in the American psyche. I hadn't realized when I took the role that Nellie was who I would become to people but, on the other hand, people believed me. They believed that I was my character. And I thought, Well, it's going to be difficult on my end, but I get an A. They hate me.

It helped that I had a great sense of the difference between fantasy and reality; I was in a family of actors, and I already knew people who'd been on television, and I'd been on television before. So when someone hated "Nellie" — and it was quite a shock when people actually called me names and things, that was very bizarre — I always just knew that is wasn't about me. I even had people say to me, "I know you're an actress, and I know it's a role, but I just really hate you." I always said, "Thank you, you're too kind."

And perhaps it was a little easier on me because Nellie Oleson was an actual person in the 1800s, and she was very unpleasant. I was doing my job, and people who were not completely crazy generally understood that.

I feel badly, though, for people on reality television today, and especially children in that genre. Reality TV, you know, is often very scripted, and very fantasy-oriented; people are playing roles within the reality TV show, like the bad girl or the nice girl. But, not everyone watching knows that, and your "character" is you. A young person — a teenager or kid — can't say, Well, yes I did that, it was in the script. I was playing Susie who was a terrible person. It was your name on the screen, you did it and people just don't believe that there was a script.

And as much as my childhood wasn't typical (in that people hated me for who I played on television rather than who I was), it's not really that dissimilar from what a lot of kids go through. You hear about the stories of bullying, like, when teenage girls will start a rumor about another teenage girl, that she went after so-and-so's boyfriend or whatever. But she's 12, she's never been on a date and she doesn't even know this guy they're saying she's trying to steal.

That can be so hard to live through at that age, but, you have to understand, like I had to understand, that it's not "you" in whatever ridiculous story. You have to, at some point, ground yourself and say to yourself, Okay, well this is who I actually am. This is not real. And you have to cultivate the friends who do know you, who know that whatever rumors are out there are absurd, and that people spreading rumors are out of their minds.

Beyond that, though, adults need to take bullying seriously because a lot of the harassment that goes on in schools, if it happened in a workplace, you would go to human resources and people would be fired. Yet, somehow 11 year-olds are supposed to just suck it up? Come on. School is a work place. If you're really being harassed, schools do need to step in and fix the situation, as any employer would.

It's so difficult knowing who you really are as a young person, knowing what you really want and who you really want to be. I was lucky: I had parents who helped me stay in public school with people I'd known since the third grade, I had success as an actor, and I had friends who were blasé about the whole thing because they just knew me. Trying to be popular to strangers is fun, and it certainly has its perks, but it's not the same as having real friends.

As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.