When Lee Donoghue packed his bags and headed to New York City last July, he was planning to find himself – not somebody else.
The Shortland Street star was in Manhattan to take on a new challenge and spend nine weeks studying acting at the esteemed Susan Batson Studio – whose famous alumni include Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez and Chris Rock.
However, his landlady, Jenet Resta, had plans for her Kiwi tenant that would prove life changing: enter American actress Angelic Zambrana.
Now halfway around the world, lying relaxed and happy in Lee’s arms, Angelic (25) explains, “Jenet told me, ‘I’ve got this really cute guy coming over that I want you to meet. It’s just for the summer, it’ll be fun.’”
But, while Angelic was initially wary of her friend’s attempts to find her a holiday romance, Lee (28) was immediately smitten by the tiny woman with the big personality.
“She knew I was after her,” laughs Lee, who admits it took a great deal of effort on his part before New York native Angelic agreed to take him out and show him the city – and even then, it was only on the proviso that they were just friends.
“I wanted to make sure he tasted a good New York pizza, so I took him to the best place in the city,” says Angelic, who had a role in oscar-nominated film Precious.
“But it wasn’t until we sat down to eat that I stopped my usual storm of hyperactivity and actually took a good look at him. At that point I realised he was really cute and very sweet. Afterwards we went to a club and I discovered he knew how to dance, so I started to think, ‘okay, maybe this could work.’”
Lee, who is delighted to now have his gorgeous Puerto Rican American girl by his side in New Zealand, recalls, “When we were at the club, she looked at me and gave me this amazing hug, and there was something so warm and genuine about her that I thought, ‘She’s a great girl – definitely worth pursuing.’”
From that night, the romance went from strength to strength, with Angelic, who has herself studied under Susan Batson, helping Lee prepare for his intense acting workshops.
Eventually, however, the lovers had to face the fact they came from opposite sides of the world and Lee, who was due to return to his role as drug-addicted medical student Hunter ocKay, needed to go home.
“on the way to the airport we were both crying in the back of the cab,” explains Lee. “She was angry because I was leaving and she let me know it.”
“Throughout the time Lee was in New York, I felt like a kid again. We had so much fun and I felt accepted,”
Angelic explains. “When he was leaving, I told him, ‘I can’t handle a long-distance relationship. It’s too far.’”
But, despite their agreement to move on, the pair soon found themselves talking on Skype for several hours a day and their bond only grew stronger.
So when the chance came for Angelic to head down under, she opted to forsake a snowy Christmas with her relatives in the Big Apple for a summer one with Lee’s family in Wellington.
A week into her visit, Angelic is almost as taken with Lee’s home as she is with him.
“I think New Zealand is one of a kind,” she smiles. “I can’t compare it to anywhere I’ve been before. You’ve got your own thing going on down here and I like it.”
And though no-one knows yet how the future will go, it’s clear this could be the start of something big.
“I always thought to myself, ‘I will never date an actress,’” laughs Lee, “but it’s turned out to be the total opposite of what I expected – I’ve never been with anyone who is so supportive before.”
Angelic looks up at her Kiwi beau and adds, “Lee is different to the American guys I’ve dated. In New York, a lot of us get jaded being cooped up on top of each other.
“I don’t know if it’s all Kiwi guys, but there’s something innocent and magical about Lee. He’s his own person and I love that.”