Interview: Kim Hillby The Listener
RNZ National's Kim Hill has been named 2012 International Radio Personality of the Year at the AIB Awards in London. Here's our August interview.
A rumour that Hill was in a relationship with chef and foodwriter Ruth Pretty had gone viral. Hill laughed it off. It wouldn’t go away. “I thought, ‘Okay, so it’s not really funny.’” She got proactive; pitched a story about gossip. Media Chinese whispers in a small province. “About the mad rumours that go around in New Zealand. … I’d be a small part of this large story of insane rumours. No! On the cover: ‘Kim says she not a lesbian.’ You can imagine how that went down with my, indeed, lesbian friends.” Actually, the cover said, “I’m starting to feel a bit bullied!”, but then Hill has a flair for the dramatic. I can only assure her that won’t happen again, the matter having been comprehensively cleared up. She can laugh about it now, in her familiar, slightly pained-sounding nasal way: heng heng heng.
This time I’m not talking to Hill for any reason other than, like Everest, she is there. Still. Always. In 1993 she took over RNZ National’s Nine to Noon show and became appointment listening for anyone with half a brain. Earlier, she’d honed her twin interviewing aptitudes for rapport and evisceration, sometimes simultaneously, on Checkpoint and Morning Report. She took over Saturday Morning from John Campbell in 2002. There were forays into television, where her tendency to gurning and pen-twiddling under fire, as much as her take-no-prisoners style, polarised interviewees (John Pilger!) and viewers alike. “Oh, Pilger. The thing is, if Pilger wasn’t an egomaniac, he wouldn’t have done the work he’s done. I was keen to talk to him, but he turns out to be a prick. So it goes.”
Television, she says, wasn’t particularly satisfactory for a journalist. “The make-up, the constraints of time, the clobber, the lack of spontaneity … But I worked with some great people. It was fun. I was just so glad I had radio going at the same time.” She has done a stint on Fair Go, a walk-on on Shortland Street. She is something of an institution. Jandals, Marmite, Kim Hill. It must be weird being her. “I’ve never thought about it like that. It’s quite easy to become famous in New Zealand.” She is distinctive looking. “D’you think? Around about now there are a million middle-aged women with short grey hair. How does anyone tell us apart?” Hill may be partly responsible for those battalions of the defiantly undyed. She went grey ahead of the trend. She famously cuts her own hair. “The dog and I share the scissors.” She used to take to the hair of her daughter, Hannah, now 22 and safely on her OE in South America. “She wouldn’t let me near her after the age of 10.” There was the mullet incident. “I didn’t mean to,” she says. “These are the things that only emerge in therapy.”
This running-with-scissors modus operandi is what has made so many interviews over the years so indelible. Her recent encounter with businessman Owen Glenn began with cheery birthday greetings but became tetchy as Hill wondered whether tax avoidance was consistent with philanthropy. In the end they were arguing about everything. Glenn: You’ve got 30 seconds left. Hill: I’ve got 40 seconds. “Oh my God. Fifty per cent of the responding listeners thought I was a disgrace to National Radio and should immediately be laid off. The other half thought Owen Glenn was a pillock. So take that as you will,” she says. “I got a lot of flak for asking him about tax havens, because people thought I was being nasty to a chap who just wanted to do his best for the world.” But he kept setting her off. “The most wonderful thing he said was, ‘How can I be a misogynist when I surround myself with beautiful women?’ Gasp. There goes 5000 years of patriarchy.”
This was small beer when you recall some of Hill’s greatest hits. Jeffrey Archer, Monica Lewinsky, Tony Parsons … “People who hate me,” summarises Hill. “People always say, ‘What was the best interview’? I can only ever remember the worst interviews.” Well, they are more fun. “For you, perhaps. At the time they are horrific.” Really? “Oh, horrific. It’s like being flayed alive in public.” She always sounds so in control. “Oh well, it’s bluff. … I remember the infamous Jeffrey Archer interview. I came out of that shaking. It was face to face and it was unbelievably horrible.” And inexplicable. “Never really even got around to asking about the prostitute.” Novelist Tony Parsons took instant offence. “The producer said to him, ‘Kim’s going to read an extract from your book’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah fine’, and then he just went off.” Cue excellent mimicry of Parsons’s cockney tones: “‘You’ve got your head up your arse.’” Later, she recalls, he said, “‘Oh, I’d never have said that if I’d known she was so old.’” Perhaps, I suggest, word gets out that a stoush with “Him Kill” garners publicity. Or they mistake her default ironic drawl for hostility. If a woman is remotely assertive, she’s an aggressive bitch. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I don’t play that card,” she says stoutly. True, even John Campbell gets accused of being too aggressive. “He’s also a great deal more charming than I am,” she sighs.
Actually, Hill is delightful, if you can only keep up. Perhaps other alpha types feel the need to upstage her slightly theatrical manner. Even off-air, she’s a performer. Her conversation swoops from shout to stage whisper. From torrent to Pointed. Single. Word. Sentences. An email from her lands in the inbox like a piece of found poetry: “Please. I have just dropped my cellphone down the toilet. By accident.” She once wanted to act. She has bags of comic timing. As I ring the bell at her house, which is perched on a hill overlooking Wellington, things turn slightly farcical. A noisy, curly-coated creature hurls itself at the glass in what I hope is greeting. Mangu, the spoodle, is 11 but remains a demented puppy. Like Hill’s more anarchic side made manifest. I’m assigned a seat beside him so he can make friends, which takes two seconds. Perhaps Mangu should have interviewed Jeffrey Archer. Hill rather ruefully shows me a New Yorker-ish cartoon on the fridge of a woman and her dog gazing at each other over a candlelit dinner.
There are chickens in the yard. She has a horse, Ollie, kept at a friend’s property. She seems to exert little control over her menagerie. The horse was called Willy. “I thought, I can’t spend my life calling ‘Willy, Willy’ through the paddocks. Not that he takes any notice. So I deftly changed it to something that I thought would sound the same to a horse.” Ollie ignores her to a different name now. “Exactly.” If listening to Hill on-air is occasionally like being on the fringes of a perplexing pub punch-up, that’s part of her ongoing appeal. Her show won Best Daily or Weekly Series at this year’s Radio Awards. People tune in to be entertained, irritated, enraged by her insistence on saying “fill-um”. Unfashionably, in these ratings-driven times, listeners may also tune in to be treated as if they have half a brain. Hill’s conversations with Sir Paul Callaghan, some of which are collected in the book As Far As We Know, caught a wave of interest in science. “I don’t think it’s anything to do with me. I think that it’s a kind of a zeitgeist thing,” she says. “We’ve always done science and Radio New Zealand has always done science … So I don’t know why people think I know more about science. Riding on the coat-tails of the late, great Sir Paul Callaghan.”
When I call her back after our interview, she has been in Gisborne for the Transit of Venus Forum, founded by Callaghan with the aim of making New Zealand “a place where talent wants to live”. The experience has her abandoning irony altogether. The weather was dodgy as everyone gathered on the refurbished Tolaga Bay Wharf, she says. “All of a sudden, after the Navy band had played and we were singing the national anthem, a blast of sunlight came through and all the telescopes that they put out along the wharf showed the Transit of Venus clear as clear,” she says. “They were all scientists and social scientists and knights and dames of the realm. Nobody said ‘there must be a God’, but secretly everybody thought, ‘Yay, Paul.’ It was Paul Callaghan shining light down from Heaven.” Lest this sounds soft, she reports on something closer to home: “Ooh, there’s a squashed cockroach at the very top of my french-door window. How did it get up there and, more to the point, how did it get squashed?”
A question for the science boffins, perhaps. Pests figured at the forum. “There was Paul’s so-called mad idea about a pest-free New Zealand. I think it could really become a decent mass movement. It sounds quite mad, but I think people feel quite impotent about a lot of things at the moment. The economy, climate change …” she says. “So, get a trap, go out and join the neighbours and actually catch the predators.” Pest control as social therapy. Hmmm. She’s talking about humane traps. She had the makers of one model on her show. “I haven’t yet tried mine out, but I’m going to.” The three stoats she has spotted at her Golden Bay bach are on notice. What about cats? I quaver. “Well, sadly your cat might have to go.” Feral cats, surely? “What’s the difference? You’ve seen your cat coming up from the garden with a mouth full of feathers.” Yes, but I usually rescue them. “Well, it’s nice to know you’ve got your cat under 24/7 supervision,” she drawls. I’m beginning to feel like Owen Glenn. And yet Hill is such a pro she’ll have you telling her your life story if you’re not careful. Her own life, the clippings reveal, makes lively reading.
She was born in Shropshire and ended up here at 15 because of an outbreak back home of foot and mouth disease. Her father was a vet, her mother a nurse who encouraged Hill to perform. Instead, she studied languages and, for a time, worked in a massage parlour. “Not that kind. But it had a weird name. The Select Lounge.” Oh dear. “I know.” Eventually, she did a journalism course and ended up a performer with a penchant for science in a game where the odd foot in mouth is not unknown. As for her legendary mental toughness, there were aspects of her growing up that sound character-building. Her father was an alcoholic. “He drank himself to death. The night before he died was the first time the word ‘alcoholic’ had crossed her lips,” she says, of her mother. “It was a terrible situation for her to be in. She was a very proud person, conscious of appearances, and he was setting fire to his mattress.” Hill didn’t really have a relationship with her father. “He was Irish, the life and soul of the party and very, very clever, but probably ADHD. And not father material.”
Her mother died of cancer in 1994. “They was untimely took,” she says. Mortality. “I do get exercised by it.” There’s been a lot of it about. “This year we’ve seen Paul Callaghan and Lloyd Morrison go.” Christopher Hitchens. Margaret Mahy. All those wonderful conversations. “You just think, goddam, they’re irreplaceable. There’s just a big hole where they used to be.” No wonder she needs a cigarette. “As long as you promise not to report it.” She says that to every journalist and every journalist duly reports it. She smokes hardly anything, she always says. “And look how thin they are.” Somebody has sent her one of those electronic cigarettes. “That’ll be interesting to try, won’t it?” In the interests of science she can fire it up while she’s killing things with her newfangled trap.
There’s not a lot off-limits when talking to Hill, though the occasional warning shot is fired. “I wouldn’t go there if I were you,” she murmurs dangerously, when I ask about her ex, father of her daughter. Many of us have been through difficult break-ups, I volunteer. “I don’t think so,” she says. “Are you prepared to bet?” We don’t go there. While we’re on awkward topics, is she in a relationship? Hill has a way of saying “No” that wipes every thought out of your head. “A silence fell,” she intones, with her broadcaster’s intolerance for dead air. “So now I go on the cover saying ‘Kim Hill is single’.” That cover shot was a great photo. “And yet I remain single!” she says, rewriting on the hoof. “’Kim Hill available!’” Well, she is available Saturday mornings at 8.00am on Radio New Zealand National. One minute it’s cutting-edge crowd-sourced eco cars; the next: “Breasts!” Her head must spin. “A spinning head isn’t too bad once a week.” She doesn’t miss the daily workload of Nine to Noon. “I listen to Kathryn [Ryan] and I think ‘How the hell did I ever do that?’” Nine to Noon is still the best job, she says. But she loves her work/life balance these days.
At 57, she feels no desire to change. Why-hy-hy would she? “It’s not like I’m grinding my way towards retirement. I feel like I’m enjoying myself. I’ve never ever thought about what I’d like to do after I’ve done what I’m doing. I always feel a bit pathetic and devoid of ambition when I say that.” Or maybe just still challenged by a job few could do as well. Though listeners still vigorously critique her interruptions, her stuttering, her manners … Still, she dishes it out. She can take it. “Exactly. That’s why I read out, you know, the hate mail,” she says. “Live radio is one on one. I’m as much in jeopardy as they are.” Writers don’t have to risk themselves like that. “That’s right. Schmooze, schmooze, schmooze and then stick the knife in soon as your back’s turned,” she says, fixing me with narrowed eyes. “We shall see, shan’t we?”
Actually, it would be hard to find much to say about her she doesn’t say about herself. “I’m not the sort of person that people like. I’m just not,” she says, oddly, given her devoted following. It’s a defensive strategy, perhaps, in a country where it pays to get in the first self-deprecatory shot. But she doesn’t dwell on the media construct that is Kim Hill. “It’s like tightrope walking,” she says, of her craft. “As soon as you start thinking about it, you can’t do it … If you think about that too much, you’d never do an interview; you would never open your mouth.” If she’d thought about it she might not have taken on Joyce, of the so-called “Manacled Mormon” scandal of the 70s. Joyce McKinney didn’t like how she was portrayed in Errol Morris’s documentary Tabloid, which told a story of the alleged kidnapping of McKinney’s Mormon boyfriend, bondage, sex … Hill was just after the truth. McKinney would not shut up. “Joyce! Joyce! Joyce! I’m losing the will to live, here,” pleaded Hill. Brilliant. “She was like a torrent, wasn’t she? An inexorable torrent.” Hill took flak from some who saw the interview as deplorable spectacle rather than instant broadcasting classic. “There are no rules, you know. People seem to think there are rules,” muses Hill, of engaging with the wonderfully various, sometimes moody, sometimes mad lineup of humanity that parades through her studio. “The only rule is not to betray people in some way,” she says. Apart from that, it’s all perfectly straightforward. Keep walking the rope. Don’t look down.
Saturday Morning with Kim Hill, Radio New Zealand National, Saturdays, 8.10am.