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Hannah Tamaki: A league of her own

Hannah Tamaki. Photo/David White/Listener

“I’m aiming to win, yes,” says Destiny Church’s Hannah Tamaki, who is controversially contesting the Maori Women’s Welfare League presidency.

She had been a member of the league for 27 months when she was nominated, only to have her name removed from the ballot paper. Thirteen Destiny-related branches of the league (10 of them created, with biblical efficiency, in a single day) were suspended by the league. “I was a bit surprised, really. Shocked. Where’s the courtesy to talk to somebody and to explain to them why?” She wasn’t having it. “I did say the only way I could be stopped from standing is if somebody right up top stopped me. At the end of the day I had to go to the High Court to get my name on the paper, didn’t I?” she tells me. “I was a prophet of doom for myself!”

Doom has, for now, been averted. The High Court says Tamaki has a right to run. Though the 10 new branches, formed, as the judgment says, in “one fell swoop”, were ruled to have been not legitimately established. All those votes gone south. Tamaki’s taking it as a win. “It was a difficult place I was put in, but I’ve navigated my way slowly through it and, at the end of the day, I think I had to do what I did to get a bit of justice.”

From the outside it looks as if she’s navigated her way through it like an up-armoured Humvee. But then I wouldn’t be talking to her if things were ever routine on Planet Tamaki. They do things differently there. Getting an interview with Tamaki involves some carry-on, too. It was going so well, at first. Yes, fine, said Tamaki’s PR, Amiria Pupuke. Would it, she wondered hopefully, be a cover? Tamaki wanted to be photographed in Maori costume. Some, during the course of her MWWL travails, have suggested she isn’t Maori enough. Fine by us. What with the now-notorious platinum hairdo, it’s a look that could give new resonance to the notion of getting in touch with your roots. Then, just as I’m leaving for the interview comes a text. Like a name on a MWWL ballot paper, I’ve been scratched. The reasons are various: Hannah is out of town; the league has applied a media ban …

Oh dear. Fortunately, I don’t have to resort to the High Court. I’m eventually summoned to the headquarters of Destiny Church, in Mt Wellington’s existentially reassuring-sounding Allright Place, where the vibe is more high camp. We meet in the big upstairs room – chandeliers, buttoned leather, glossy portraits of Brian and Hannah beaming down from the walls. The wahine costume idea has been binned. “They’re already calling me a plastic Maori,” sighs Tamaki. She has also been compared to Dolly Parton. “Because of this,” she says, indicating her hair, “and these.” We all pause for a moment to consider her upper torso, not something you expect to find yourself doing at a church.

All this emphasis on appearance is, at least partly, her own fault. Style, of an American televangelist sort, is a big component of the Destiny ethos. And Tamaki did post on her Facebook that she was considered too glamorous for the league.

“Yeah, it was a joke. That’s why I said to the girls, ‘Send me your most glamorous pictures.’ Brian goes, ‘You’re asking for trouble.’” Indeed. At a league meeting from which she was turned away, Tamaki spotted some members sporting blonde wigs, pearls and feather boas. “I texted Brian and I said, ‘Honey, I think they’re mocking me.’” Hannah Tamaki has a laugh like a ground-proximity alert – escalating whoops that pull up abruptly just short of slightly hysterical.

Her image the day we call is carefully youthful and unthreatening, hair caught up in a tie, more Glassons than glamorous; far from her on-stage look, which can veer alarmingly towards the Tammy Faye Bakker.

In person, she’s friendly, chatty, wired. Though her train of thought tends to take off at breakneck speed, making it difficult to get off at the right station, or even, at times, to stay on the rails. Sometimes, considering Destiny’s problems with being accused of being a cash cult, she can sound naive. “I know people have had a struggle with the title of bishop,” she muses. “But bishop only means ‘overseer’. Brian’s an overseer of 26 other pastors. So that’s like a CEO, I suppose.”

But she’s a smart cookie and lets you know she’s done her homework. “Everyone said to me you are such a critic on television programmes and stuff. I go, ‘Maybe she’s going to critique me for ‘A Chat with Hannah’,” she whoops. She’s referring to her cosy segments on Destiny’s dawn slots on TV3, which, mercifully, I haven’t reviewed. But no one can deny that Brian and Hannah Tamaki are ace performers.

As for the league, she’s at pains to be diplomatic and pre-emptively bilingual. “I have to walk it alone,” she says, of her current course, “and other times I have the awhi or the support of other people.” But there’s the occasional whiff of utu in the air. “You’d be surprised the people who were wearing them,” she says, of the wigs and boas. “An ex-deputy mayor. I haven’t seen such catty behaviour since I was at primary school.”

Women, I say. “Yeah, I suppose so. I’ll just have to get used to it.” She’s been accustomed to a more patriarchal set-up. Brian Tamaki has pointed out that Destiny is not a democratic organisation. The authoritarian style isn’t very … Kiwi.

“No. Maybe. Kiwis are so used to voting. But at the end of the day there will always be a directive. The chairman usually has the balancing vote – what do you call it?” Veto. “The power of veto – the leader will still have that.”

Brian also once said that women leaders were “the devil’s strategy”. Taken out of context, says Tamaki. “I’m actually a very strong leader in my own right, too. We’ve worked very hard to build this organisation.” So she and her husband are equals? “No!” she says, as if explaining something obvious to someone simple. “He’s still the big boss.”

See, that might be part of the problem for someone wanting to head a women’s organisation. Tamaki’s identification with her church is total. Destiny is a way of life. “That’s fair.” But she points out they have beloved family members who aren’t in the church. What if the family member was gay? At this, the chatty atmosphere chills. “I’ve got one. I don’t have to tell the people what I’ve got. They don’t have to know my whole life,” she snaps. “I’ve got a few close to me and they know I love them. It’s not an issue.” They don’t have to change? “No.”

Yet Brian Tamaki uses words like “abomination”. Asked in 2006 by the Listener if someone gay could remain in Destiny, he said, “No. It would be like someone selling drugs to school kids and whatever, and you came and sat in here.” From his autobiography: “In my mind, the homosexual spirit has moved from sodomising an individual to sodomising the nation.” Yikes. “We’re under construction all the time,” Tamaki tells me at one point. What exactly, some wonder, are they building?

It is hardly surprising if Tamaki’s bid for power in a non-sectarian organisation is viewed in the context of her husband’s pronouncements. “He’s taken it from purely a scriptural perspective,” says Tamaki airily. “All Christians, that’s in all of their Bibles. Some of them are afraid to say that.”

The big boss also once preached that by now Destiny Church would be running the country. Doesn’t Destiny have to take some responsibility for the way it has presented itself? “What,” she says, “I’m not genuinely concerned for families?”

No doubt she is. But events like the black-shirted Enough is Enough rally showed Destiny doesn’t much care how things look to the unconverted. This can be a handicap when operating in the real world, as the church-related political party found in the 2005 election. “Yeah, in a way. That didn’t work out as we hoped,” says Tamaki. As for Destiny’s political aspirations, “It was wanting to get a Christian voice back into some of the legislation. It didn’t happen, but a lot of the parties, they came here because they actually see that our points are validated and there are other avenues.”

So, is the league bid another Destiny attempt get some mainstream traction? “Well, no. The boys can’t join,” explains Tamaki patiently. “I just thought it would be a nice organisation that I could get involved in and help grow and support.” If there were faults in communication, they belong to the other side.

“I hear, ‘Oh, she’s trying to make the league pay 10%.’ If I had that much power to make the league pay 10%, the Government would be happy because they wouldn’t have to give the league any more money, would they?”

This could have been explained, she says. “But no one talked to me. The only way that could have happened was by them just accepting me. Okay, holding me at arm’s length but not discriminating against me. Let’s be honest, that was unlawful. That was unfair. That’s dirty tactics.”

Which, ironically, is what Tamaki has been accused of. The formation of those new branches, each with 91 to 93 members to get maximum votes, looked like an undemocratic vote grab. What was she thinking? She told the Herald, “You load the bases because you want to hit a home run – okay, I did a foul ball out of the park, but I wasn’t struck out … I’ve also been tarnished in some way, too, so I might have to play catch-up rugby.” That sounds like a metaphorically mixed admission of error. “I’ve had a few people say to me, ‘Stop talking sporting terms,’” she muses.

The new branches, she insists, weren’t her idea. “If I had done the administration, it would have been so tight there wouldn’t be a flaw in it, because I’m very administration-driven. It was the team. The team were all excited and did it.” It’s a theme she comes back to. “The team here, they strategised it. Ninety-three, the next one 93 … That’s what they did. I think a political party would love someone that could just get 1000 people to sign up straight away to their party. Maybe they could hire me over the election period to give them some tips, perhaps.”

This, it becomes clear, is classic Tamaki. She doesn’t ask for these things to be done, they just … happen. “It wasn’t Brian’s idea for the ring. Other people wanted it,” she points out, of the covenant ring in praise of Brian, purchased by Destiny men. The ladies were keen, too. “We had cute little, wee necklaces made.” She shows me hers. “It’s just got ‘Destiny Church, Bishop Brian, The Covenant’. The funny thing is they don’t want to mention that the girls did a covenant.”

There was the time, too, Brian Tamaki went into print to say he didn’t want followers bowing down and laying gifts at his feet, after a version of some Destiny “protocols” was leaked. Perhaps, but it’s almost as scary that some his followers imagined he would want such treatment. Destiny can look like a cult of personality. “They don’t have to be involved in it. No one’s asked them to,” says Tamaki, adding smoothly, “I wonder why people want to make so many comments when it’s not about them?”

For all her elliptical bravura, it’s clear the fracas has taken its toll. Grilled by Paul Holmes on TV1’s Q+A – “Mrs Tamaki, it’s corrupt to try and rig elections!” – she looked as if she might cry. Today, she’s upbeat. “You know what? The team tried to get me as many supporters as possible. That’s them. I did not know how. I’m genuine. They can’t take over an organisation like this.”

It’s just as well Brian Tamaki isn’t running for president of the Maori Women’s Welfare League because he’s looking very glamorous these days. When the bishop glides by from the gym wearing an immaculate black tracksuit and an inscrutable expression, every pair of eyes in the room swivels. He turns up later, in tight jeans and black top, trimmed down, not a speck of grey in his hair. He’s friendly all the way up to the eyes, which have the coolly watchful look of a security guard on patrol. Hannah seems energised, says someone. “You should see her when she’s full-on,” says Tamaki. This isn’t full-on?

As we sit in what looks like the outsize lounge room of a cosy, affluent couple, you can see why this patriarchal extended family works for some. Hannah Tamaki’s PR, Pupuke, who has an impressive moko, is from a gang background. She was an addict for 11 years – “Alcohol and everything you can think of” – before she found Destiny. Clearly, Destiny helps people, though most churches do.

It has certainly helped Hannah Tamaki, whose life, she notes, hasn’t been perfect, either. “I had my first child as a teenager,” she says. Her eldest daughter had a child as a teenager, too. “If Brian goes away fishing, her and I snuggle up and we sleep together, that’s how close we are,” she says, of her first granddaughter.

Growing up in Tokoroa, where she met Brian, she was raised by her adored Pakeha father. Her mother, who is Maori, left when Tamaki was six. “My mum went off and had other families with other men, 12 children to six different men … But my dad loved her, so I wasn’t raised in bitterness,” she says, adding, pointedly, “Obviously a lot of other people have been raised in very bitter homes.” She is touchy about her cultural credentials. “I find it quite shocking that I get to 50 and I’m still having to justify who I am.”

As for her faith, she didn’t have what she calls a personal relationship with God until her first child was born. “It was my daughter being born prem and me saying, ‘Oh God, I’m a dirty rotten sinner. Let her live and take my life.’”

But even as a small child she felt a spiritual pull. “I felt lonely when my dad would be at work and I’d go and shut myself in this big old wardrobe that we had in the shed. I’d sit there and I’d talk to God.” She couldn’t sleep without saying her prayers. “But then I wake up and, oh, I’m a mischief and doing all the naughty things I can think of,” she recalls. “I had that strong Christian upbringing,” she says. “I’m consistent. I’ve not changed.”

When we speak, the election for office in a place that doesn’t seem to want her is looming. She is undaunted. “I’m aiming to win, yes. I’m running the race right to the end.” Any regrets about how she has handled things? Are you kidding? “I can’t have regrets,” she says firmly, “because that’s the way I am.”

Time for photos. “No shots that make my boobs look big. Try to get a more classical-type look.” Then we’re off. “You’re not as scary as they said,” she calls after me. “Neither are you,” I say. In a way it’s true, though I’m sure you wouldn’t want to cross her.

But perhaps because she’s lived so long inside the Destiny bubble, the version of herself she presents that resonates most strongly is of the motherless, lonely little girl turning to God in Tokoroa. She’s a world away from there now, but she’s still talking to God (and, these days, the media) and she’s still making mischief. As she says, she’s consistent. She’s not changed.

This article was first published in the August 27, 2011 issue of the New Zealand Listener.