Tricia Helfer

Shifting Gears

Battlestar Galactica Alum Tricia Helfer’s Passion for Motorcycles Has Become a Vehicle for Giving
by Dann Dulin

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Brian Bowen Smith

Tricia Helfer is a natural covergirl. This international model has graced many a cover, including Elle, Marie Clare, Cosmopolitan, and Fashion. She’s been in campaign ads for Armani, Chanel, Versace, and Ralph Lauren. However, her best campaign has been for HIV/AIDS.

Tricia has participated in such fundraisers as AIDS Walk Los Angeles, The Angel Awards at Project Angel Food, Together to End AIDS, and Riders For Health. A major nature and motor biking enthusiast, Tricia and her best friend, Katee Sackhoff, who worked together on Battlestar (she portrayed Starbuck to Tricia’s Number Six), established the charity, Acting Outlaws, which raises money and awareness for their favorite causes. Their newest venture, a provocative 2013 calendar, has just become available. Each month of the New Year one can revel in classy va-va-voom photographs of the two lightly clad women and a portion of the proceeds benefits amfAR.

For the past three years Tricia rode the Purple Panther (or sometimes referred to as the Lavender Lion)—her motorcycle—in Kiehl’s LifeRide, a fundraiser for amfAR. If the name Kiehl’s sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably used one of their legendary high-quality skin and hair care products, a staple at five-star hotels. Keihl’s has been around since 1851, starting out as an apothecary in New York’s East Village. Since 2006, Chris Salgardo has been president of Kiehl’s, and in 2010 he created the Kiehl’s LifeRide.

“Chris is a huge motorcycle rider and that’s how Katee and I met him,” informs Tricia in her light yet strong, genteel voice. “He’s an amazing man and I like his philosophy of wanting to give back to his community. He’s tried to marry the two together to have fun and to raise money. [The three rides have brought in nearly half a million dollars.] I think Chris invited us [on the LifeRide] because there aren’t that many female riders, especially actors, so it would help to draw a little press,” she interjects. “We were lucky enough to get asked to do it.”

Today when Tricia shows up at my Los Angeles apartment, after removing her shoes at the door and greeting me with a hug, she thoughtfully presents me with the Acting Outlaws hefty, oversized calendar. She’s wearing a low-cut black T-shirt under a lightweight light blue denim jacket with pearl snaps, and “Big Star” dark blue jeans adorned by a shiny silver rocker belt. She sports tiny silver earrings that are mostly hidden by her long cascading hair. Her sleeves are rolled up, as are her jean cuffs. Though she carries herself with a model’s upright flowing posture, it’s juxtaposed by a tomboy aura. She now sits across from me on a chair in my living room, barefoot, wholesome, and glowing.

She was raised on a farm, and hers is a Lana Turner-type story. Tricia grew up in Donalda, near Alberta, Canada, a town of less than five hundred people. At seventeen, she was discovered by a modeling scout while waiting in line to purchase a movie ticket. Yes, fairy tales do come true. Soon after, she won Ford’s Supermodel of the Year contest. Based in New York, she traveled extensively and met many influential people—a far shout for a kid from the farm.

“I grew up barefoot and running around,” asserts Tricia, crossing her legs as her arms are folded over one another on her lap. A thoughtful look comes across her face. “I didn’t have the worries that you do in the city, or even in the suburbs because there was nobody around. I literally grew up being a kid. When it started raining we’d go out barefoot and get all muddy.”

In the eighties when AIDS broke, Tricia was just a kid. Her parents didn’t own a TV set and by the time she left Donalda for New York City, at seventeen, she had only seen about eight movies. So it’s not surprising when Tricia tells me that she was not familiar with the epidemic. She began modeling in the early nineties when HIV/AIDS was still thought of as a gay disease and a death sentence. It was in the world of fashion that she had her first experience with the epidemic. “I worked with this male model who was HIV-positive. I didn’t know him well,” she recalls, “but he has since passed away.” Her remark hangs in the air.

Tricia spent ten years in fashion. “I had a great modeling career, enjoyed it, but it was never a dream of mine. Not that acting had been either,” she states plainly. “I thought I was going to go into psychology but I took an acting class to help with commercial auditions, thinking I was going to model for another year or two, then go to university. And I just fell in love with it the first night!” She beams a hearty smile and her face conveys sheer wonderment. “I started studying, and a year and a half later moved to L.A., and a year after that I was cast in Battlestar.”

Who can forget her brilliant performance as Six on the Emmy Award-winning SyFy series, Battlestar Galactica? Six was a multileveled character and Tricia played it with such spine-tingling precision. Her character is raped, tortured, falls in love twice, becomes pregnant, miscarries, lies, kills, manipulates, and destroys both good and evil. The series aired for five seasons and it blasted straight to our core emotion—fear. It dealt with current issues of the day, the War on Terror: Who is the enemy and how do we deal with an enemy when we don’t know who it is?

Tricia loves playing those steely complex characters. “The roles I’ve played are mostly strong women but at home I’m definitely a goof,” reveals the Canuck, with a chuckle. “And when it comes to seeing films, I definitely tend toward the more dark and gritty ones. I’m not a romantic comedy type girl. Actually my husband likes chick flicks and chick music!” (She’s been married nearly ten years to Jonathan, who is an attorney.) When asked what character she’d like to play from a novel, she replies, “Gretchen Lowell from the Heartsick series [by Chelsea Cain]. She’s a serial killer.”

Since Battlestar, you might have landed on some of her other work on such TV series as The Firm, Criminal Minds, Two and a Half Men, Burn Notice, and Dark Blue. In February Tricia will appear on the sitcom Community. On the big screen she’s appeared in Memory, A Beginner’s Guide to Beginnings, and Open House. Tricia also lends her voice to popular video games as well.

Though Tricia is relatively new to the AIDS community, for over a decade she’s been active in environmental causes and animal rights. (She and Jonathan own several cats. The proud mama fetches her iPhone, scrolls through pictures and shows me some adorable pusses.) From the beginning of her acting career, she’s used that celebrity platform to raise money for charities, like selling items on her
Web site.

“AIDS is a horrendous disease, but with my limited knowledge of it—I’m still learning and I’m certainly not up on the statistics—after talking to Kevin Robert Frost [CEO of amfAR, who annually bikes in the Kiehl’s LifeRide], I would say we are on the cusp of finding a cure,” she claims, sweeping her satiny, dishwater blonde hair behind her ear. “Unfortunately, it’s out of the limelight as opposed to ten, twenty years ago. It’s changed drastically from the forefront of people’s minds. People just don’t think about it anymore, don’t donate anymore, and that’s a shame. With all the research, we are so close.”

The prejudice surrounding HIV/AIDS disturbs her too. “After all these years there is still that stigma out there,” she says sternly, wrinkling her brow. “I remember reading some time ago about this boy who was denied access to a Hershey school because he was HIV-positive. His parents took them to court and they won [a settlement]. But the mother decided to send her kid somewhere else,” reports Tricia. She ponders a moment, looks off while playfully biting her lower lip. “Maybe the stigma exists because people are shy when it comes to STDs. Obviously it can be transmitted other ways, but I think people don’t talk about AIDS as freely because it has that element of shame to it, as opposed to, say, breast cancer.”

Tricia attends Together to End AIDS at the end of the LifeRide, flanked by Katee Sackhoff and Tyson Beckford. Photo by Sean Black

“Sex is still taboo in America,” she declares with a serious nod, reasoning, “You can’t show a naked body on TV but you can show heads being blown off.” Tricia shakes her head. Her eyes dart to one side. There’s a pause. She then purses her lips and exclaims sarcastically, “We came into the world this way!” Tricia clarifies with a giggle, “I don’t think we should all walk around naked…,” she halts then adds “…all the time—but I don’t see why it has such a hush-hush element to it.” Amen.

All of a sudden, the bright afternoon sunlight bursts through the living room window and for a few minutes Tricia bobs back and forth to avoid the glare that pierces her eyes. I get up to close the blinds. She thanks me and continues.
“Because of how AIDS was perceived early on—that they [gays] did it to themselves—that stigma sticks. The people who felt that way are then passing it along to the next generation,” she theorizes. “Parents pass on their beliefs to their children. That’s why AIDS education must be taught in schools. The stigma lingers on because of ignorance.”

Tricia is ferocious about stopping that. That’s why she burns rubber for the Kiehl’s LifeRide. Each year the event gets progressively longer and larger. The first LifeRide was a journey up the California Coast from San Diego to San Francisco. The second was from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts to New York City. This year was the longest ride which went from Miami to Washington, D.C. Tricia picked it up in Atlanta, where she was filming. When they arrived in Washington, D.C., the 19th International AIDS Conference was in session. It was also the night before Together to End AIDS Gala for amfAR and GBCHealth.

“Before the gala, we were all supposed to read names from the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Honestly, I was very ignorant. I didn’t know pretty much anything about the Quilt,” she confesses, clasping her hands together. The bikers rode over to the place where the reading was to take place. A woman from the organization debriefed them. Due to rain, they had pitched a tent and only three quilt panels were hanging, not laid out on the grass like they were supposed to be. The woman told them, “You’ll probably be surprised at how emotional it is.” Tricia didn’t take this to heart as she figured she didn’t know anybody on the list. “It…was…remarkable…,” utters Tricia dropping her voice, staring intently at me, letting out a gigantic gasp. Her china blue eyes become moist. “We all got up [to the podium], nobody’s watching because it’s raining, and it just hits you.”

“I was called halfway through our group to read. Chris and Robert went first and they both lost people very close to them, so they were emotional, obviously. I just thought, ‘I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.’ And then I stood up to that mike and started reading names. A lot of names on my list were first names. I got to about the tenth name and I completely choked up. It was powerful…and intense.” After a beat, she ripples a laugh and says, “Then we all spiffied up and went to the Gala!” She places her left foot upon the right foot, sits back, and rests her arm on the back of the chair. She releases a joyful sigh. “I felt very lucky to have been part of it.”

Tricia and Katee were so inspired by this moving event that it sparked the creation of their calendar for their charity, Acting Outlaws. “And to make more money we’re going to auction off signed copies too,” she points out. “Also by doing this calendar it will continue our charity work since Katee and I have conflicting schedules and won’t be able to ride together for awhile.” Indeed, the very next day Tricia’s off for a month to Vancouver to film a thriller, Deadly Visions.

A shot from the benefit calendar featuring Acting Outlaws’ founders, Tricia Helfer and Katee Sackhoff

Acting Outlaws was established in 2010. Think Thelma and Louise, Easy Rider, and Rebel Without—no, make that With a Cause. “It started with our love of motorbikes and riding,” Tricia specifies, “though charity work wasn’t necessarily in the forefront. It was always like, we’d like to somehow find a way to incorporate it, but ultimately at the end of the day it was the company that we wanted to start. Our end goal is to have a motorcycle clothing line so we can make money off of it. We are way in the hole now,” she admits, “but it’s something we do for fun!”

Acting Outlaws’ first project was The LA La Ride, which found Tricia and Katee riding their bikes from Los Angeles to Louisiana, raising awareness for the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf. Donations went directly to the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN). (Tricia’s husband and Katee’s boyfriend are both from Louisiana.) They turned their trek into a documentary film, which can be purchased on the Acting Outlaws Web site.

Another project was a silent auction, “Ride For Lunch,” which was just held in October and benefitted Riders For Health, an organization that manages and maintains vehicles to transport medical services to people living in rural Africa. The winner is scheduled to lunch with the founders.

“Even though I’m certainly not a household name, I want to use whatever celebrity I do have for some good. I’ve seen people make a gazillion dollars and they’re so materialistic. It’s all about them and I find it revolting. I never, ever want to be perceived that way,” shouts Tricia, appending, “and it also makes me feel good to help out!”

Tricia asks if I mind that she texts, as she’s running late for her next appointment. She continues to talk as she texts. “I think sometimes people think with donating that if they can’t donate a lot, it won’t do anything. But each dollar counts! If you get ten dollars from ten people, that adds up.”

Being inspired by her friends Chris, Robert, and Katee (who was influential in Tricia’s doing the AIDS Walk, where her team raised $16K), Tricia ardently wants to make a change. But why? I ask. “Hopefully I’m a caring person,” she purrs sweetly in a genuine voice. “I was raised on a grain farm to be a hard worker and I have salt of the earth parents—true and honest as you’ll ever find,” boasts Tricia. “There was no advocacy work when I was growing up, but they raised me to be a caring person.”

And though she considers herself a novice about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Tricia’s heart and attitude are in the proper place when she sums up, “If I can bring awareness to just one person, that’s what’s important.” Keep revvin’ those handlebars, Tricia!

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A tip-of-the-hat goes to Matthew Hetznecker for his support.

Hair by Brian Magallones. Make-up by Agostina.

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Dann Dulin interviewed actor and advocate Kal Penn for the July issue.

December 2012