Hayley Holt on alcoholism and her political future with the Green Party

by Nicky Pellegrino / 04 July, 2017
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When Hayley Holt gave up alcohol, it turned her life around in ways she never anticipated.

Hayley Holt doesn’t want it to be about the alcohol, really she doesn’t, but the trouble is, it is. The snowboarder-turned-TV-presenter is more reticent than usual when talking about her drinking. Her desire for privacy is at odds with her natural openness. It’s clear she would prefer not to be rehashing her days of hard partying, but she has to.

Because there’s a direct line between the drinking – or more accurately the giving up – and the exciting, slightly scary place she finds herself in today.

Holt doesn’t look like she’s ever been a big drinker. She has smooth skin, bright eyes, silky hair; there’s a wholesome, just-in-from-a-yoga-class look about her.

“That’s what happens when you give up,” she says, with a laugh. “It’s been two years and four months. I have more energy, my mind is clear.”

It’s no exaggeration to say quitting alcohol has been life changing. Some of the people she used to socialise with barely recognise the Hayley of today.

“They say it’s like meeting a new person. They’ve had to get to know me all over again.”

She was a party animal, she admits.

“I was the one who liked to stay until the end. I wanted something to be happening all the time – let’s go on an adventure, let’s do this, let’s get going.”

For Holt, the consequence was that early one morning she turned up for work as a host on More FM’s Breakfast radio show still worse for wear from the night before and was pulled off air by her bosses. The incident hit headlines, which was humiliating, but the partying didn’t stop immediately.

“I probably held some resentment,” reflects Holt. “I didn’t own it and you’ve got to own your own shit – excuse my language!

“Then I had a moment of clarity where I thought, ‘this doesn’t work anymore’. A lot of energy goes into drinking. It was taking up too much of my time and I was sick of being hungover and tired. When you’re feeling like that, you’re always on the back foot.”

She sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous, and today going to meetings remains an important part of her life.

“It’s like free counselling. You sit there and share, then leave lighter than you went in.”

No longer able to drown a bad day in a few wines, Holt found she had to face up to her emotions and began to think deeply about what was really important. It turned out there was quite a lot of big stuff worrying her – climate change for one, the numbers living in poverty, and the fact that younger people seem alienated from a political system that has the power to change things for the better.

Without the escape of alcohol, Holt started feeling like she had to do something constructive about it all.

“I couldn’t hide from these things I was learning about. And I couldn’t stand back and hope other people would fight the fight for me."

That’s why, in this September’s general election, Holt will stand as the Green Party’s candidate in the Helensville electorate. In April she was also elected female co-convenor of the Auckland Province, a key leadership role with responsibility for overseeing the party’s branches and activities in the region.

The move isn’t as left-field as it might seem for the presenter of Prime TV’s The Crowd Goes Wild, who is also known for her appearances on shows like Dancing With The Stars and Treasure Island: Pirates of the Pacific, as well as the political series Back Benches.

“I’ve always been interested in politics,” she says. “I thought I might get into it a bit later in life but it’s just happened that it’s now.”

Two years ago she picked up her arts degree part-time, having let it go when she decided to travel the world snowboarding, and most of the papers she’s taken since have been focused on political science.

Talking to Holt, it’s clear how passionate, thoughtful and committed she is. More importantly, she is solutions-focused. Yes this is a scary time for the world, she concedes. The key is to work together and find a way to fix it all.

She believes lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 and engaging young people earlier in the political system will make a difference.

“There’s a real problem with young people not voting,” she says. “Studies have been done to show voting is habit forming. So if you vote the first time you can, it’s likely you’ll keep voting. If you don’t, then you won’t.”

At age 18, people are often going to university or entering the workforce and are caught up in becoming independent. At 16, most are still at school, so the opportunity is there to educate them about politics, get them involved, and try to prevent them feeling so disempowered.

“With MMP we’ve got a really awesome system that allows representation for everybody, but if we don’t vote it’s not going to work,” she points out.

Holt has already campaigned for the Greens on climate change. Last year she helped launch the #LoveSnow campaign, aimed at drawing attention to how global warming will affect our winters and skiing industry. She’s also backed the Worth Saving petition, calling for a climate plan that New Zealand can be proud of.

Greens co-leader James Shaw.

“Being involved with the Green Party, I felt I’d found my tribe,” she says. “It’s a really good fit. Their priorities seem right to me.”

In an era focused on profits and financial growth, being a Green can mean saying difficult things many people don’t want to hear. Still Holt is hopeful, not only that change to protect our environment is possible, but that New Zealand is in a position to be a leader in developing creative solutions the rest of the world will want to follow. She’s in favour of this country introducing a constitution to entrench the rights of the environment as well as the rights of people.

“I worry that a lot of people think they’re not green enough to vote Green,” she says. “But I’m not a perfect Greenie. Sometimes I forget to take my reusable bags to the supermarket. I love motorsport. It’s about finding positive solutions, rather than saying you can’t do things.”

Although in politics, as in life, there are no guarantees. What if Holt does all this work and then isn’t successful getting into parliament?

“Then I’ll spend the next three years getting more involved with the Green Party, doing my bit, working behind the scenes. I’ll finish my degree and continue with life and I would like to try again in 2020. This is a long-term thing. It’s serious. I’m not doing it for a bit of excitement.”

Politics is an all-consuming career, so conversely if Holt does make it into the Beehive then it will be a challenge to balance the workload with any sort of personal life. This is clearly something she has given plenty of consideration to.

“I guess I’m thinking I’ll take it as it comes,” she says. “I’m 36 so not so young in terms of female reproduction. And I’d love to start a family and do all that personal growing we all aim for.”

While Holt is dating, there is no one special right now.

“I’ve been very picky,” she admits. “My family; they don’t even bother asking anymore.”

Friends have tried to matchmake.

“But I find that really awkward because I like the idea it will happen naturally and you’ll feel it.”

As for Tinder, “I was in Italy last year and my friend convinced me to go on it while I was there. I lasted about half an hour before I freaked out. If you’re using it as a dating app that’s cool, it’s connecting people that would otherwise never meet. But I don’t like that whole hook-up culture around it.”

She’s had to put up with some well-meant nagging but Holt, who’s known she wanted children since she was in her 20s, isn’t in a position to get going right now.

“If it came to it, I’d be happy to have a baby with one of my gay friends. In the meantime, I have two godchildren and friends with babies.”

On the set of sports show The Crowd Goes Wild.

Family is important to her. She’s close to her parents and recognises what a great start in life they gave her and brother Logan, raising them in the inner Auckland suburb of Epsom so they could go to good schools.

“I love my family – they’re the most important thing and they keep me grounded. My dad’s a builder; at 70 he’s still on the tools. And Mum works in IT and accounting. They have land up in Warkworth now with a native forest and wetland, and it’s where I can see myself being at some point.”

There’s a particular paddock where she dreams of building an eco-house out of hempcrete (a natural building and insulation material created using the plant hemp). For now though she’s flatting in Auckland with two girlfriends – and yes, they do compost their food scraps, plus they’ve recently got chickens.

It’s partly her sense of being among the privileged ones that spurred Holt to take this step into politics, even though she knows it might risk the TV career she’s worked hard to build.

“All my life I’ve taken risks,’ she says. “I love the job I’ve got now but I want to do something where I feel like I’m giving back. I’ve had all these opportunities. Now it’s my turn to help other people.”

In politics, like elsewhere in life, appearances count more than they should for women. Holt is blonde and beautiful and you can’t help wondering if sometimes she might struggle to be taken seriously.

“Yes and I see that as an advantage, as you can be underestimated and that puts you in a strong position. In sport it could get frustrating. But you’ve just got to break down those barriers.”

Her parents might not have made a fuss about her looks while she was growing up, but years of competitive ballroom dancing meant Holt was exposed to a very appearance-focused culture.

“I think that’s why I’m such a tomboy, because I used to have all the dresses and diamonds. It was a reaction to that.”

Holt is no stranger to stepping out of her comfort zone, both in her previous snowboarding career and her appearance on shows like Dancing With the Stars.

You don’t dance and snowboard at the level Holt did without having the determination to succeed. If anyone doubts she’s in this for the long haul, you get the feeling Holt will thoroughly enjoy proving them wrong.

Right now her focus is on planning her campaign, and getting out and about in the Helensville electorate, which encompasses coastal areas and farmland as well as townships, and learning what issues most concern residents.

Some of those people may judge her for having admitted to an issue with alcohol. Could it hurt her political aspirations?

“I actually don’t know,” she admits. “But I’ve acknowledged my own weaknesses and I’ve dealt with them so hopefully it will be a positive.”

She still likes a night out, but these days she chooses to drink a soda rather than a glass of wine, “because I know that’s not going to help. The past year has been pretty difficult for my circle of friends and if there had been alcohol involved it would have been 10 times worse. When you numb yourself you do stupid things.”

Recently Holt became an ambassador for No Beers! Who Cares? – a campaign by friend and former TV3 reporter Claire Robbie, aimed at getting us to take a step back and think about how we drink.

“There’s always a drink; you wet a baby’s head, you celebrate a wedding with champagne, you’re sad then have a whiskey; all of that,” says Holt.

Going through the highs and lows of each day clear-eyed and sober isn’t always easy, but it’s working out pretty well so far. Before we leave the café where we’ve been chatting, I ask Holt where she would like to be in 10 years’ time. What would be the happiest, most fulfilling life she could imagine leading?

That off-grid, hempcrete house in her parent’s paddock comes up again.

“There’s native bush at the back and this beautiful valley. I’d be living there, with a family, maybe some organic sheep and still in politics hopefully. Yeah, that would be cool.”

This was first published in NEXT magazine Via Nowtolove.co.nz.

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