The Divine Ms Mby Diana Wichtel
After a series of sackings, pappings and outings, broadcaster Alison Mau is being transformed by talkback radio.
"Win, win, lose, lose, win, win,” muses Alison Mau. “A motivational speaker said that to me recently. Which is a nice way to look at my career.” We’re talking over coffee after her Radio Live show. The cafe is trying to pack up. “Shall we leave?” Mau offers. She’s okay for a couple more minutes, says the man behind the counter unencouragingly. Celebrity will only get you so far, even in Ponsonby.
We’d been there a while. Mau’s is that sort of career: long, and at times, fraught. Words like “desperation”, “hideous” and “debacle!” pepper the conversation. As you’d expect of anyone who survived so long presenting news and current affairs in a country where, for women, there are not a lot of options between unthreatening young co-host to a loose cannon and Mother of the Nation.
Now she’s in radio. “If I’m any good at it I have the opportunity to extend my career way beyond what I’d probably be able to do in this country in television, given our appalling record of turfing women off screen as soon as they get a couple of wrinkles.” Mau is knocking on the door of 50 (not many wrinkles to show for it). She started out following her father and grandfather into print in her native Australia. She’s been in broadcasting here for 20-odd years, some of them very odd indeed. Win, lose, up, down.
Career ups would include being half of a top TVNZ newsreading duo with her ex-husband, Simon Dallow. So perfect did they look that words such as “Barbie” and “Ken” got used. So coolly professional were they in an era of punishing onscreen emoting that many wished they weren’t consigned to weekends.
It was decidedly a down when Mau absconded to “Albania” with Paul Holmes in 2005 for Prime. Holmes’s new show was soon canned. An offer of a newsreading job was withdrawn. “Ooh yes, hideous. I spent two years essentially on gardening leave. We worked out a settlement. They owned me for a couple of years and I sat on my butt like people do in that situation.”
In 2007 she rocked up to TVNZ and informed then head of news and current affairs Anthony Flannery that having worked on almost every show in his stable, she was just what he needed as a fill-in presenter. “When I pitched up in his office he just knew that I was Simon Dallow’s wife,” she says. “I clawed my way back into work.”
Then there was Seven Sharp. Lose, lose, lose. “Bruising’s a great word for it.” She was working for Fair Go when she got the call. She’s hesitant to talk about it. “On the occasions that I’ve made comment about it I get accused of sour grapes so without explaining the whole thing to you I probably can’t do it justice.” It’s a chapter in a book, she sighs, not a paragraph in a profile.
She will say: “It was never what it was supposed to be.” She was hired by Ross Dagan, who left soon after. “I was in a job I loved, Fair Go, and I very quickly regretted leaving it. But they had a vision for a different current affairs show but still a current affairs show, right? I bought into that vision.”
The people who took over had other ideas. “And so chaos ensued.” With hindsight, there were troubling signs. “Early on we were told by the new management to ‘uncouple’ from news and current affairs. The warning bells should have gone off right then because I’ve been a journalist for 30 years. I couldn’t uncouple from news and current affairs if you paid me $2 million to.”
Surely a fresh approach needn’t mean jettisoning everything. “So it turns out,” she says dryly, of the show’s belated move to put more info into the tainment. “But back at the time that wasn’t an option.” It was never about those on the shop floor. “They’re a fantastic bunch of people and probably the closest friends I’ve ever made in 20 years at TVNZ.”
The early, appalled reviews didn’t target the clearly beleaguered hosts for the disastrously silly format. “But you still blame yourself, to a large extent. So it’s painful. Look, I drove down Nelson St today, past TVNZ, and I started to get an anxious stomach. Plainly it’s not a happy memory.” It is a fading memory. “My partner said to me just on the weekend, ‘You never laughed properly last year and now you’re back to your old self.’ So it’s not as if I’m bearing any lasting scars. Hopefully.”
Ali and Willie all the way to three o’clock!” These days she’s Willie Jackson’s sidekick, with the emphasis on the kick. The afternoon I sit in, they bicker about Destiny Church. Ali refused to accompany Jackson to the grand opening of Destiny’s modestly named City of God. “I suggested I would probably be struck by lightning as I walked through the portal,” says Mau.
Talk about an odd couple. Willie hasn’t noticeably throttled back on the colourful expression of his views. “Go jump in the lake, Chris,” he advises a caller. And: “I didn’t call anyone a dog.” He did.
He’s very nice to Mau. “Miss Ali,” he calls her. When she pops out of the studio he says, “She’s lovely. She’s a good sort. People like her.” Mau, who heard about her removal from the Seven Sharp line-up from a newspaper, vaulted into the seat vacated by John Tamihere when an interview on the Willie & JT show with an 18-year-old woman went badly wrong during the height of the Roast Busters scandal. “I did my due diligence,” she says, of Jackson, “and everybody had only good things to say. Even his ex-wife, who I saw at a barbecue, just sang his praises. Mind you that doesn’t mean that everybody didn’t predict the failure of our on-air partnership because nobody seemed to think it would work.”
How’s it going? Early days. More females are calling and the ratings show a 9% increase in listeners in the slot, says Radio Live programme director Rik Van Dijk. “There’s a compelling chemistry between [Ali] and Willie Jackson that has surprised a number of people.”
Sparks still fly. “He sometimes forgets that it’s me and not JT. But he would never intentionally say something hurtful to me because he’s a gentleman, which infuriates me sometimes because I am, you know, a feminist.”
Lest the insult quotient fall too low – this is talkback – they can count on getting some rum emails. “There was one guy calling me a Nazi media whore,” says Mau. “‘Sellout “n” word’,” volunteers Jackson, not to be outdone. Goodness. “You have to toughen up or you shouldn’t be in the game,” he says.
Willie (to caller, Mark): “You wouldn’t give a damn what’s happening in South Auckland because you’re just a smug little jerk from Palmerston North.”
Ali: “You’ve wound him up, Mark.”
Mau has form with challenging offsiders. “I was there when he would start shouting from his corner office,” she says, of Holmes. “Some of the transgressions were major at the time and very painful for him too, as anybody who’s ever seen that apology for the Kofi Annan thing would be able to testify. But if you look back over the breadth of a career, that was kind of part of the deal.” In the era of Seven Sharp, Holmes looks like lofty current affairs. “The good old days. Who would have thought?”
Mau did her time as unthreatening co-host to a loose cannon on Breakfast with Paul Henry. “Hmmm. People forget when they ask me about Paul that Paul pretty much saved my bacon. So whatever else I think of him, I will love him forever for that. In 2004 Mike Hosking had been doing Breakfast on his own.” It was the time of Bill Ralston’s great purge. Hosking left. “Bill put me in.” It was mad. “Towards the end there was one day when I did 13 interviews back to back. When they turned the lights off, everybody left the studio and I just sat there and tears rolled down my face. Then they hired Paul to sit next to me.” Salvation. “Mind you, if you have a wee look on YouTube, you can see the mortification on my face on several occasions. Paul needs to know there are two or three BSA complaints that were not upheld because of the unnamed co-host’s moderating influence. That was me.”
The moustache-on-a-lady incident. Mau was going “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” like an automatic weapon firing blanks. She’s been asked why she didn’t walk out. “My professional instincts wouldn’t let me do that. I would never get up and leave a live broadcast unless we’d been invaded by machete-wielding … I don’t know.” You go down with the ship. “Yeah. I was genuinely pleading with Paul not to say it. It was no joke. There was this furious argument between us in the control room during the commercial break. Some people like Paul, maybe, find them the exhilarating moments of live television but I didn’t find them exhilarating. Terrifying more like.”
Still, Mau hasn’t been afraid to make on-air mischief. In 2010 she had a go on Breakfast at Woman’s Day when the magazine ran paparazzo shots of her. “To my mind that’s a gross intrusion of our privacy and frankly a little bit creepy,” she said. No one likes to hear a celebrity whine. But as with Lorde, there’s something refreshing about refusing to play the game; subverting the toxic symbiosis that feeds celebrity culture. “I was properly freaked out. And it became about the kids, because later I heard through the grapevine that they were going to turn up at the kids’ school. My son came home and said that he and his little mate Andrew had worked out a strategy for if a photographer jumped out of a bush at them. He was eight years old. Being tailed in a car and having the same car sitting outside your house at night and it’s still there in the morning is not nice. I just think it’s a bit unnecessary here in New Zealand. Why can’t we be different?”
Yes, she sold stories. “The last time I did a personal story for a woman’s mag was 2007. The last time my children appeared was over a decade ago. People of course always pick up that stick to beat me with because I’ve done it before and I’ve profited from it before. And boy do I regret it. And yeah, I’m sorry and by all means have a go at me about it but you live and learn.” She still gets regular approaches. “God loves a trier!”
Mau in person is nice, funny, in command. Tears are often not far away. After the break-up of her marriage she fell in love with dance instructor Karleen Edmonds. “Hit me like a brick to the side of the head. I spent about a week sitting on the deck staring at the moon going ‘What’s happening to me?’” she says. “I talked to a few women that I knew afterwards – I won’t name any of them. They all said, ‘Oh, you must have tried it before. Come on, now.’ No. One of my girlfriends said, ‘I would have said you are the most heterosexual person I’ve ever met in my life.’”
She was outed by a newspaper. “The [NZ] Herald and Woman’s Day came out on the same day, really.” That must have been tough. “Oh, ask my partner about it. I fell apart. Sat in the shower and cried.” She seemed to handle it well. “I was able to come out swinging because I will not let them see that I’m upset. It was important for my kids, too, because they were processing my new life.” She didn’t want them to think this was something to be upset about? “Exactly.”
Throwing her life, as she says, “over the fence” wasn’t entirely out of character. “My career is trademarked by being willing to take the leap. I don’t suppose it was unusual behaviour for me to trust that it would be all good.”
Four years later, she says it is. “We don’t like to be apart for more than a few minutes. We don’t talk about it a lot because it’s pathetic. It’s smug and it makes people feel angry.”
Her daughter, Paris, is 16 now; her son, Joel, 13. “If I’m not careful I’ll start to cry, I’m so proud of how they’ve dealt with all of that. Not only the public stuff but the whole thing and the responsibility they take for making sure that people understand their view of human rights.” She didn’t mollycoddle them, she says. She hopes she empowered them. “Your choices as a mother are always a crap shoot aren’t they?” They have, she says, turned out great. “I kept thinking when they are in their twenties and they look back, they will know that their mother told them the truth and that they saw me happy, finally. So that’s got to be a good thing.”
Mau also tells her children they live in momentous times. “Oh, I got very drunk,” she says, of the night marriage equality legislation was passed. “I wasn’t at Parliament. I was in Christchurch.” She’s engaged. Her sister wants them to marry in New York. “But that means we would need to have two, because we didn’t fight for the same rights as heterosexual couples not to do it here.”
Liberation. There’s been some of that on the work front, too. “Radio has none of the artifices that television work has. You are actually wallpaper,” she says, of being a newsreader. “You need to be a non-distraction. I’m now being paid to have an opinion. If I don’t have an opinion I’ll be off air.”
So far, after a year of lose, lose, she sees this as win, win, win. “I walk in and two wonderful, talented producers say, ‘What do you need?’ I have creative control. I’m treated like a grown-up not a child. It’s transforming.”
Nice. As for the future, “I’m never one to think that there are not options. But this is my new ride for, I hope, quite a few years.” As rides go, talkback can be rocky. But after all she’s had thrown at her – sackings, pappings, outings, Seven Sharp – she must be tough as nails. “Pretty much,” she says, as we’re kicked out of the cafe. “I’m one of the hard ones now.”
TALKBACK WITH WILLIE AND ALISON, RadioLive, 12pm weekdays.
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