Bevan Chuang: The Little Princessby Steve Braunias
This story first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Metro. Photos by Simon Young.
We sat watched over by a big cock, a brass rooster, in a private alcove at one of the downtown hotels where she used to meet Auckland Mayor Len Brown during their pleasant two-year affair. She took off her shoes and curled her legs up on her chair. She had delicate, beautiful hands and a thrilling kind of laugh. She spoke interesting English, inconsistent with plurals and tense — the past was sometimes the present, the present was flexible.
I said, "You’ve been here before."
Bevan Chuang said, "Oh yes, I am here many times, for event and things like that."
I said, "I meant with Len."
She said, "Oh right. Oh right. Yeah." Then she said, "I can’t remember which room."
It’s possible she would have put her flat blue shoes back on and wandered the corridors looking for it if I insisted. Open, confident, direct, she was also strangely acquiescent, almost pliant — a woman who said yes to men. Her desire to go along with what men want is a theme of the whole amazing story of her involvement in the biggest sex scandal in New Zealand public life.
She gave Brown her love. She gave the news of it to Brown’s political opponent John Palino and to her lover, Palino’s adviser Luigi Wewege. She gave the explicit, excruciating physical details of it to Brown’s sworn enemy Cameron Slater, and to journalist Stephen Cook, the author of that incredible 2000-word scoop ("routinely masturbated… pulled out and came on her", etc) which he published on Slater’s Whale Oil blog.
But she took it all away. First she betrayed Brown, then she claimed she was pressured by Wewege and Palino to blab, that it was all a vicious right-wing attempt to stage a coup.
Slater denies there was any kind of conspiracy. Wewege denies he was in any kind of relationship with Chuang. Palino was last seen denying everything and anything to Campbell Live reporter Rebecca Wright, who memorably got in his face (Whale Oil: "shameful… shameless") as he tried to get into his car and drive far, far away." Chuang is adamant that Palino wanted to force Brown into stepping down as mayor. It was an epic fail. Brown has remained in office. Good luck to Cook, Slater, Wewege and Palino, as they return to their various interests. What about Bevan Chuang, 32, briefly New Zealand’s next top mistress, the famous other woman? "I’ve got nothing out of it," she said, "except that I ruined everything."
Tears shone in her black eyes. Her voice trembled. I had just gently put it to her that her motives were completely and utterly selfish. Bevan, Brown’s concubine; Bevan, Wewege’s occasional lover; Bevan, Cook’s giggling tell-all source; Bevan, Palino and Slater’s pawn — but those roles are to assume she was passive, someone who just went along for whatever ride was going. In fact, she possessed a crazy kind of power — "I ruined everything." Bevan, who betrayed the mayor; Bevan, who turned on Cook, Slater, Wewege and Palino; Bevan, the princess of chaos, who was too much for everyone, and crushed all their hopes.
She repeated the claim she made on the Sunday TV show, that she "traded love for love" when she betrayed Brown to please Wewege. "The only option I thought I had was it was either Luigi or Len. I said to Luigi, ‘I have to pick one or the other.’ He said, ‘I hope you are choosing me.’ I thought that’s all I had. One or the other."
I said, "But in a way you were just choosing yourself. You were just being totally selfish."
The wet eyes, the voice that began to shake. I changed the subject. I smiled, and said, "You like the drama." She laughed happily, and said, "Obviously I like the drama!" And then: "No, I don’t actually like the drama. I always get myself into drama, and then work out a way to get out of it. No one in the mind," she said, stepping over a word, "would think that makes sense."
She said she came from a wealthy Hong Kong family, big in real estate and property development, but that life changed forever when they came to New Zealand and her parents split. She was 16. "We were basically left here. Just four girls." She meant herself and her younger sister, and their mother and grandmother. "Four girls who have to do everything and build our lives here on our own. My father has decided to just cut everything. We were left with not much."
I said, "How did that affect you?"
She said, "I was daddy’s little girl. I was brought up being the favourite child. Everything I didn’t ask for, it was just there for me."
"You were a princess."
"I was a princess," she said. "My sister — to be honest, my dad liked me more. I’d draw things and he’d take it to work and show everybody. He was very proud of me. I was a little bit spoiled. All looked after and everything. I’d go to my grandmother’s place with a chauffeur. We’d go to England — we’ve got a big house there, with farmland and everything — then Paris, all that kind of thing." "And then you were dumped in Auckland."
"We were dumped in Auckland," she said. "Suddenly everything changed. Life was just an ongoing battle. My mother was really upset. My grandmother was getting older and couldn’t speak English. I went to school and tried to get a life. We had to found a house in a short period of time. Even my dogs got anorexic! We had to move so quickly, they were having a psychological problem, because we didn’t tell them what was happening, we were just busy trying to find a new place to live."
The neurotic dogs, the new home in the new country, with its flat, grassy suburbs and its bright light… I said, "Did you miss your dad a lot?"
She said, "I did. And I just don’t understand why suddenly that was it. He stopped talking. That was also the first time I had my first panic attack. I remember I got up and went to the bathroom. I sat on my chair for like 20 minutes — I suddenly had this massive chest pain and couldn’t breathe. I thought I was having a heart attack. Years later, I realised I was actually having a panic attack… I have them quite often. Every week or so I might have a little one."
I said, "A controlled one."
"A controlled one," she said.
"What impact did all this have on you?"
She said, "I think I’m quite insecure, honestly. I always wanted to have assurance. Because I felt that things could change, and like my father who I trusted, and I absolutely — it’s made me really insecure about everything. I constantly need assurance that everything is okay.
"I know I can be a bit needy. I always question who I am, and am I good enough, and I always feel I need to please somebody, just so that someone would appreciate me."
I said, "And love you."
"And love me," she said.
She said her longest relationship was four years. When she posed in a corset and stockings for her so-called “burlesque” photoshoot, it was a 30th birthday present to herself. “I wanted to get pretty photos of myself.” It was around then that she started her affair with Len Brown.
I said, “Were you in love with him?”
“With each other?”
“Yes,” she said. “And I’ve no regrets for it. I mean, I have regrets for what happened, in terms of destroying everything, and the hurt and the humiliation that the children have to go through. But I don’t regret the times we have shared. We had a really good relationship.”
She switched once more from past to present tense, and said, “He knows what to say to me and he knows how to give me the attention and make me feel loved.”
She had said in her interview with Stephen Cook that she found Brown’s power “intoxicating”, but claimed she didn’t mean it, that it wasn’t true. “I admire him as a person. I really enjoyed talking to him.”
More likely Brown was intoxicated with her. Young, single, alert, with her deep laugh and her lively intelligence, funny, expressive, provocative — she wrote on her blog two years ago, “I have never been shy about sex. I talk about it a lot.”
I asked her if meeting in hotel rooms was exciting, and she said, “Not exciting, but it’s good to stay away from everybody else and just have the private moment.”
I said, “Was the affair exciting?”
She said, “No, I was scared. Every moment we worried that someone would find out.”
I mentioned the security guard — just about the only person in the whole scandal to remain silent — who found them in the Ngati Whatua room at the Town Hall. She was naked, Brown wasn’t wearing his pants. She laughed, and said, “I still remember being freaked out. It was chaotic. The door opened, I run and hide. Which was not easy. You couldn’t really hide in there. I found a chair.”
I said, “Did the need for secrecy bring you closer together?”
She said, “Yes and no. There were things I could talk to him about, and I could share things with him. I remember when I lost my job at the art gallery, he was the first person I rang. He never intervened, he just wanted to talk with me, and gave me advice… He’s a great mentor. Len was someone I could rely on.”
I said, “Do you miss him?”
She said, “I just feel incredibly guilty. I know I can’t say sorry to him physically. I think he’s still angry with me.”
I said, “I imagine he’d just rather you didn’t exist.”
“Yeah,” she said, but it wasn’t what she was thinking. “We will see each other again, I’m sure. At different events in the same room. I think we will one day. We just need to get over that.”
I asked if she thought she had brought shame to her family, and she said, “Obviously. But I can’t keep hurting them anymore. This has to be it. I need to stop doing that.”
I said, “You have to stop hurting yourself.”
“And I have to stop hurting myself,” she said. “Because I obviously keep hurting myself again and again and again.”
“Have you had counselling?”
“Yes, about six years ago… I’ve got to be more assertive, to stop doing things just so people might like me.”
“Has that been a pattern?”
She said, “I think maybe when my dad left, I felt I needed to do something to make him like me again. I need people to reassure me I’m a good person.”
I said, “Was Len a father figure?”
She gave that deep, cheerful laugh. “No,” she said. “I feel really relaxed around him, and safe. He’s always there for me. And I feel comfortable. He’s a very wise man and I really respect him. He gives me that security. He has strength.”
I said, “You’re kind of describing an ideal parent.”
She just laughed.
Scenes from an Auckland scandal: there were the tête-à têtes she had with Brown at Esquires Coffee House in downtown Lorne St (cakes and savouries, free Wi-Fi), the two-hour interview she gave to Cook in a corner booth at McDonald’s in Great North Rd — and her two nights holed up at the Mt Eden Motel (spa pool, continental breakfast) after the story first broke.
She first heard details of the story when she was driving and it came over RadioLive. "Willie and JT started bringing the subject up." Her name wasn’t mentioned; it had been kept out of the story on Whale Oil. But she got home, and the phone rang. It was a journalist from TVNZ, and then another reporter started banging on the door.
"I was shocked that within an hour or so everyone knew my identity. I had been promised my details were not going to go out. I freaked and rang Stephen Cook, because he said, ‘Whatever happens, you need to talk to me first. I’m going to be the most important person in your life.’ He said to pack, that he’d come straight over.
"I remember frantically writing a note to my family, saying, ‘I gotta run!’ I pack a bag of just basic stuff — I thought I could wear the same jeans for a week. And then I just left with Stephen within half an hour and he popped me in a motel. He paid cash for two nights."
Brown made his wretched confession that night on Campbell Live. Chuang sat on her motel bed and watched."He looked terrible. I just didn’t want to see him like that. It was terrible watching it. I can’t turn on the heater and the room was cold. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on. It was blowing out cold air. I hop into the bed because that was the warmest place in the room. And it’s got that, you know, that mat."
I said, "Electric blanket?"
"Electric blanket," she said. "I hop into the bed and I start crying. A friend of mine sent me a text saying, ‘Are you okay?’ He ordered some pizza and paid for it and said to the delivery guy, ‘Just knock on the door, and leave it there and go away.’ But when the pizza guy came around, I opened the door and picked it up and everything."
The cold, lonely Chinese girl, her tear-stained face — if the pizza guy had asked her if she was okay, she might have told him the whole story. When I asked her why she felt the need to be so explicit in her interview with Cook, she said. "He kept asking me questions, wanting every detail."
I said, "But the version on Whale Oil is that you were laughing and giggling, that there was no pressure. You were happy to talk about it."
She said, "I was laughing and giggling, but I was actually embarrassed… I wasn’t very comfortable about it."
"You could have shook his hand, walked out of McDonald’s. Why didn’t you?"
She said, "I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking, to be honest."
But I knew what she was thinking. Cook was working on a big story, and wanting information; her behaviour during Cook’s interview was the same as it was during this interview — always trying to help, always giving us what we wanted. She echoed every trite little insight I offered ("You were a princess… You have to stop hurting yourself," etc) — she was so agreeable.
She said, "I will not talk more about it. This is my final interview."
"This is it?"
"This is it," she said. Only the day before, she had gone with NZ Herald reporter Lincoln Tan to John Palino’s house and attempted to get him to talk about his role in the scandal. It wasn’t a very successful stunt. Palino wasn’t home. Undaunted, Chuang gave Tan an 11-minute video interview.
The weirdest scene was the carpark opposite the Berkeley Cinema in Mission Bay, where Chuang had her late-night rendezvous with Palino. She drove there in her Suzuki, Palino in an unmarked campaign car. A car with open windows and a boombox went by on Tamaki Drive. She got out of her car and into his. Sunday night by the gentle waters of Mission Bay; Bev and John, alone at last…
Palino has issued a formal statement declaring that the only subject of conversation was a threatening text that they both received. She said, "The plan was to go to the mayor and tell him there was evidence of an affair, and ask him to stand down. John would either be elected before the mayor is sworn in, or there might be a by-election. Which means he’s got a much bigger chance of winning it. And he said I could get any job I want."
The ugly American. According to Chuang, the first she spoke about the affair to Palino was the night before, at the post-election party on October 12, at Wildfire in downtown Quay St. Chuang had also stood in the local body elections, for the Albert-Eden Local Board. She missed out by 246 votes.
"I was devastated. The whole team had worked incredibly hard. I only had four hours sleep each day. I remember walking to my car [after the results], and I suddenly broke down and couldn’t stop crying. I’ve never felt so bad. I went to Wildfire and was desperately looking for someone to give me a hug and tell me it’s okay."
Instead, according to Chuang, Wewege and Palino put the word on her to betray Brown. Princess Bev, in distress… Slater dismisses her version of events as fantasy. The panic attacks, the sobbing, the burlesque photoshoot, the affair, the betrayal — there was another theme running through her story. She was such a creature of whim. I said to her, "Even though you’d lost, and were upset, it doesn’t make sense. Why would you do that to Brown? It’s crazy. It’s fucked up."
"It’s crazy, it’s totally fucked up," she said. "That’s why when I saw him on Campbell Live, I was really upset. ‘What have I just done? What did I do to him?’ But I thought by doing it I might get some brownie points from Luigi. That’s all it was."The mayoralty of New Zealand’s biggest city in exchange for brownie points. Chuang has made much of her love for Wewege, but was that a fantasy, too?
I said, "You did all this for him. That suggests you were wildly in love. Were you? Were you really?"
She said, "I think I was looking for — he was saying things that made me feel there might be more to the relationship, and — I lacked confidence, and I needed assurance, and he was making promises of marriages and starting a family — and I wanted that. Being a 32-year-old woman who’d been single for a long time, I really wanted to settle down with somebody, and start a family. He might not be the person that I love the most, but — he promised the world to me, and — when we were out in the public, he would tell his friends to not flirt with me."
"Like, ‘This is my woman.’"
"He actually said this!" she said. "He said to one of his friends, ‘Don’t put your hand on my woman. Stay away from my woman.’"
You would have liked that."
"I do like that," she said. "That feeling you’re loved and owned."
I said nastily, "You weren’t in love with him."
She said, "But I still wanted to be with him."
When she was 17, "dumped in Auckland", living in her family of abandoned "girls" in Epsom and attending Selwyn College, she wrote in a blog, "I am a migratiant from Hong Kong to New Zealand and have a major homesick." She’s fluent in three languages, and can speak decent Japanese. At Auckland University, she got a BA Honours, majoring in anthropology, and has earned a reputation as a smart, energetic workaholic and community volunteer, active in such initiatives as helping to establish the New Lynn night markets.
We had ordered a second pot of Earl Grey. I asked her to describe herself. She sipped from her cup and said, "I don’t quite fit into the Chinese world nor Kiwi world. I think I fit into both. I take whatever that suits me. I’m always doing thing that are slightly different to other people."
An outsider, a maverick — made in Hong Kong, then displaced in New Zealand. She still lives at home, with her mum and sister and her two shih tzu dogs. She said, "My priority for me is to rebuild my life. I still have to make a living. I still need to pay the mortgage. That’s more important for me than finding someone — I might not find somebody for a long time.
"I feel a little bit hopeless that I might not have a family. It makes me feel incredibly sad. I tried, and tried, and tried, and either I couldn’t find anybody or I met the wrong people."
I was sick of tormenting her with questions about love. I said, "What do you want to do with your life?"
She said, "Continue to help the community. I’m passionate about that. Because it’s better to move on." And then she said, "I have a depression at the beginning of last year. It was so hard. I wrote something very graphic on Facebook about how depressed I was. A few people came to my rescue. It was the hardest thing to go through. This, somehow, doesn’t feel like that. When I was going through my depression, I didn’t — I do want to die, but I don’t know how."
She had come to the story because of sex. Bevan Chuang, naked in the Ngati Whatua room, acting out the little subterfuges with hotel door keys, the scent of her Chloe perfume lingering on Brown’s skin — but now she was talking about death.
I said, "You didn’t want to live."
"I didn’t want to live," she said. "I always imagined that I’ll be driving and someone comes driving to my car and killed me. That’s how my depression was. I just wanted someone to kill me."
I said, "Was this before your affair with the mayor?"
She said, "During. But it had nothing to do with him. I lost the art gallery job, I felt I didn’t have a future, no one was there for me — I just felt incredibly depressed. I desperately wanted someone to kill me."
The wet eyes, the voice that started to shake… And then she said about the scandal: "This is hard, because of the shame I’ve brought to the rest of my family, but I actually feel I can move on and can be stronger. I can actually resist more than I used to. Sadly, I’m not as trusting."
I said, "Do you trust yourself?"
"I don’t know. I don’t know."
She emailed that evening. She wrote, "When you asked me how I describe myself — I guess I am a psychologically disturbed, incredibly lonely, insecure person. I don’t have a hobby, it’s all work and nothing else.
"As I said, this will be the last time I get interviewed about this — I really hate seeing my name in the media on this over and over again.
"However, if you needed to ask me anything in regards to the interview — do let me know. Happy to fill in the gaps…"
Always happy to help, always happy to give something someone else wanted.
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