The real Heather du Plessis-Allan
In Heather du Plessis-Allan's mother's house there's a zebra skin on the sitting-room floor. It's beautiful, and kind of gross – an entire pelt complete with ears and mane and what used to be a face, with stitches clamping the eyelids and nostrils shut.
"Tell me," says du Plessis-Allan. "Does it offend you?"
She's eating a huge Vogels and roast beef sandwich, and is sitting on another flagrantly carnivorous furnishing – a huge ottoman finished in hairy cattlehide, like a cubist's idea of a cow.
"I think it's a bit of a clash having a cow and a zebra in the same room. Maybe I'll steal it for my flat."
Her flat is a rented studio apartment in Mt Eden that's about to become her Auckland base. Du Plessis-Allan lives in Wellington with her husband Barry Soper, but once she starts co-hosting TV3's Campbell Live replacement she'll be commuting to Auckland. Today though, on a sunny Sunday in late July, she's at her mum's house in Pukekohe, on the southern fringes of Auckland.
Her mother, a real-estate agent, is South African, hence the zebra, but the decor is New Zealand-inflected too: there's a huge, coarsely-daubed painting of All Black Christian Cullen on one wall, which was, apparently, painted upside-down in 90 seconds by a famous speed-painter at a charity event.
"Isn't it hideous? I reckon he looks like a burns victim."
FIXING THE ACCENT
Du Plessis-Allan is 30 years old. She's energetic, somewhere between Tiggerish and jolly-hockeysticks territory. She talks about people in nicknames: the economist Shamubeel Eaqub is "Shamu"; media trainer Bill Ralston is "Billy"; malign political blogger Cameron Slater is "Cam".
My name doesn't readily convert to a nickname, but she calls me "buddy", and "man", and once, during a brief discussion about varieties of tea, "wanker". When a neighbour comes to the door, she calls him "buddy" too.
Her face is mobile and expressive, and big – big hair, big forehead, big eyes, big mouth. She's loud, with a deep voice that's musical in a cello-ish sort of way, and has the faintest traces of the South African accent she brought to New Zealand when she was 12. It returns fully when she says actual South African words: Pistorius, apartheid. She was teased a bit about her accent when she arrived and was still ironing it out a decade later.
"I remember standing in the voice booth at TVNZ, and making a concerted effort to Kiwi-fy my voice." She has to watch out for vocab as much as clipped vowels.
"My mum's Afrikaans, so she has transliterated a lot of stuff in her head. She'll say, 'Don't be ugly to your brother,' and I'll pick that up and use 'ugly' as a word for bad behaviour. Or, 'I'll see you now-now,' which means I'll see you in a minute."
Du Plessis-Allan's father is an Englishman who'd moved to New Zealand in his teens. Her parents split when she was five, but her mother's second husband was New Zealand-born too, so even before the shift to New Zealand "it was always a case of growing up with an awareness of a dual identity or nationality".
In her final years at high school her mother's second marriage ended, so her mother asked Heather and her two younger brothers whether they wanted to scarper back to South Africa or stay. They chose here.
In South Africa, she'd attended a strict, "semi-private" school that was still adjusting to the end of apartheid in 1994.
"I can remember sitting at school assembly, and the headmaster getting up and saying, 'Listen guys – we're going to have some new students coming in. They're going to be a bit different ...' You look back and think it's just laughable that we had to be warned that we were going to have black and coloured and Indian kids come to school."
She says her stepfather, who had a tiling business, would earn a lot but then blow it all, so it was a bit of a rollercoaster, but they were "moderately well-off" – more than enough for a good lifestyle. They always had people working in the garden, people working in the house.
"Things have changed now. They even have minimum wages for domestic servants – how outrageous! – so I think it's less affordable than it was."
THE MOVE TO NZ
The shift to New Zealand, to Pukekohe, to Waikato's Tuakau College, did her good, she says.
"I come to New Zealand and the school has a huge Maori population, and it's a pretty liberal school. But it's fantastic. There's something about growing up in a decile 2 school that just rounds you out as a person. I have no concerns about relating across the spectrum, and find myself totally comfortable in a lot of circumstances, which is important as a journo."
She's been thinking about her South African childhood a bit recently, because she's been researching for a book she plans to write about her uncle and his depressingly controversial marriage to a coloured woman.
Two memories stand out. There's the school essay she wrote in Afrikaans when she was 11 about how she didn't like apartheid, which was reprinted in the school newsletter.
"Apartheid had just been phased out, so it was probably the PC thing. Ooh the little white girl – we can publish this."
The other is of the time their domestic servant came home upset because the dairy owner had called her a "kaffir".
"I stormed up there and told this big fat Afrikaans guy with a massive gut, told him off, and felt really proud of myself.
"I don't remember holding those views outside of those events, but judging by those events I must have been pretty, y'know, anti-apartheid.
"At least I remember, eh? Unlike John Key."
ART OF POLITICS
Du Plessis-Allan has been a broadcast journalist for a decade, mostly with TVNZ. There was general reporting, then two high-profile years as hyperactive roving reporter on Seven Sharp and then, seven months ago, a move to the job she'd always wanted: political reporter. She's given that up to switch to Mediaworks and TV3, where she and Duncan Garner will present Story at 7pm, competing head-to-head with Seven Sharp.
A day out with fellow political-junkie and husband Barry Soper, who's 33 years her senior. Photo: KENT BLECHYDEN/FAIRFAX NZ
Giving up the politics job was a wrench. Like most broadcast journalists she's always been a show-off – school productions, playing drums and guitar and singing in school bands – but the real draw of journalism was always politics. Watching politicians, and keeping track of the kind of calculated dishonesty that leads, for example, to John Key being unable to remember whether he supported the 1981 Springbok Tour or not, is one of her favourite things.
She got hooked after her father, who lives in New Zealand, gave her the book The Dark Art of Politics by former Act party insider Simon Carr.
"After that, every conversation I had with my dad for about a year was about what Winston Peters was doing."
She studied politics at Auckland University, got a brief internship with TV3, landed a job at Radio Live, then moved to TVNZ.
Politics matters because the decisions politicians make "will affect you directly at some stage of your life". And then there's the drama of it, which seems harder to justify "in a news sense", but still matters, because the backstabbing and nastiness that goes on is "the powerplay of the people who make the decisions".
"So if, by way of example, Judith Collins was to backstab John Key and take his job from him, you know that the decisions she takes are going to be completely different from the decisions he takes. So people should be interested in the drama."
FROM THE ARCHIVE:
She always votes ("that ridiculous notion that a political journalist should not vote is so unbelievably elitist"), but won't say who for ("put it this way: I've voted across the spectrum").
Whatever her own views, she enjoys catching the pollies out.
"Those guys are slick, man. They stage things. They make it seem there's conflict in the party when there isn't, in order to achieve an aim. They release information in order to distract you from something. That stuff is so reprehensible that calling them out on it is the rewarding part."
She's married into politics too. In 2009, in Parliament's Grand Hall, she wed Newstalk ZB's political editor Barry Soper. She was 24. He was 57. What's it like to be 30 and married to a man who'll be drawing a pension in a couple of years?
"It's fine. He was worried we wouldn't like the same music, but we do. I don't think our relationship is any different to two people of the same age, though there are some challenges we have that other people don't have."
"I have to factor in his adult kids and their partners, where normally I'd be dealing with kids who'd be really young. And it does attract interest from people – like you But apart from that it's fine. It's pretty normal."
Are you a young fogey?
"I suspect so. I've always had crushes on older men. At school I had crushes on my teachers."
Duncan Garner was asking her about this, "and I said it's not so much wanting to be with an older man, it's more not wanting to be with people my own age because they don't have good yarns.
"You want to learn from and be challenged by your partner, and more often than not people my own age present no challenge and are interested in things I'm not interested in, like Facebook."
Soper was, naturally, one of the people she consulted with before taking the new TV3 job. Like her, he vacillated. She was giving up her dream job in the gallery, but here was a big opportunity.
What's the pay?
"Ha, ha. Kiwis don't like talking about pay. You know that."
But you're South African, so tell.
"If I was South African I'd probably add a zero then tell you."
Fine. Do that and I'll take the zero back off and print it.
"No. Not telling."
Current affairs at 7pm is a high-risk workplace. John Campbell is gone. The turnover of presenters at Seven Sharp was high before Mike Hosking turned up. How long will she have to prove herself to TV3? How long's the contract term?
She won't say, but says she's confident she'll be "looked after properly".
"I've said to TV3 that I don't want to be doing this job for a decade, so I've asked them to hire me in a way that means I can move around in the organisation and not have to be stuck on a show forever."
With the new man in her life, Story co-host Duncan Garner.
On Seven Sharp du Plessis-Allan did some pretty dreadful stuff. There was the time she dressed up as a park ranger and pretended to stop people entering a park in Wellington for a story that made no sense at all. She was sent to chat up old men in a pub to make a non-newsworthy point about the pension age. She jogged around the capital with the speaker David Carter. She introduced the world to John Key's office toilet.
She's almost squirming as I reel off the items, but meticulously avoids slagging off her old show. The stories she's most proud of, though, are all from the recent politics stint: the Saudi sheep yarn, a story about the benefit fraud committed by MP Carmel Sepuloni's mother, a piece about Rena insurance payouts.
"The last seven months have been the happiest of my recent career – doing stories that matter."
Any chance she'll do a story about the PM's loo in this new TV3 gig, then?
"I would sincerely hope we'd have no reason to do a story that had anything to do with his loo."
Did she like Campbell Live, the show whose demise cleared the way for her?
"Hmmm. Did I like Campbell Live?…
"This is an embarrassing thing to say, but I don't actually watch that much television, so I was never enough of a fan of anything to sit down for a huge amount of time to watch it, but some of the stories I saw on Campbell Live I thought were fantastic.
"This is the problem we've got, right. Many, many people don't sit down to watch anything at 7 o'clock, and unfortunately I would probably fit into that camp. Even when I was on Seven Sharp I didn't watch Seven Sharp. So it's not a case of even saying I like something or don't like something."
She said that as I was heading out the door, as she rinsed our teacups.
A little earlier, as the interview was winding up and the shadow cast by the zebra's mane crept across the sitting-room floor, there'd been a knock at the door. A neighbour is dropping off a bottle of wine to thank du Plessis-Allan's mother for doing something neighbourly. He's pleased to meet the famous daughter.
"How are you?" he says. "I usually see you on the news… What did you say your name was again?"
She tells him. They natter for a bit, and he hands over the wine.
He says: "It's great to see you. You do a great job on TV."
"Are you going to switch to TV3 now?"
"I'm moving to TV3. The new 7 o'clock show."
"Oh really! What's that going to be called?"
"Oh wow. So that's in opposition to Mike's show?"
"Wow. I always listen to him in the morning."
"Next month," says du Plessis-Allan. "Please watch. I'm going to win you guys over, one viewer at a time, like this."
He laughs and leaves.
"Thanks so much," du Plessis-Allan calls after him. "See you, buddy."
- Sunday Magazine