The making of Survivor NZ host Matt Chisholm

TVNZ's Matt Chisholm is the host of Survivor New Zealand.
BEVAN READ/FAIRFAX NZ

TVNZ's Matt Chisholm is the host of Survivor New Zealand.

The story of how Matt Chisholm became a journalist isn't really about him. It's about his older brother.

It was July 2000 and Nick Chisholm, then a 27-year-old architect, suffered a series of strokes that started during a rugby game. The Dunedin man has what is known as "shut-in syndrome" and hasn't talked or walked unaided since.

Matt Chisholm, the youngest of four boys, a TVNZ reporter – or "storyteller", as he prefers – was then a newly minted graduate with an entry-level banking job. Observing Nick at the mercy of ICU nurses, made him reconsider his career.

"I thought, 'I could probably fall over in a game of rugby next year. Or I could get knocked over going across the road," Chisholm, now 40 and host of the soon-to-air Survivor New Zealand, says.

"If you only live once, you've gotta do what you really wanna do."

Chisholm's uncle Scott, whom he describes as "kinda like my dad but a whole lot cooler", was a veteran news anchor for Sky TV in the United Kingdom. After being expelled from high school for harbouring lads' magazines, Scott worked at the Otago Daily Times before heading to Australia, then the UK.

In the 1990s, Scott famously walloped his co-anchor Chris Mann on air. More than a decade later, he would be dubbed the "secret weapon" behind the first televised debate on Scottish independence in his role as a media trainer.

When Chisholm was in high school, Scott told him: "This is a good gig, mate. If you're only going to live once, why don't you become a journalist?"

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Matt Chisholm's older brother Nick, and Nick's wife, Nicola. The couple met online in 2009 and were married in 2013.
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Matt Chisholm's older brother Nick, and Nick's wife, Nicola. The couple met online in 2009 and were married in 2013.

 
 
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The young Chisholm had mulled it over, but the paltry pay packet was unappealing.

After graduating from Waitaki Boys' High School, he enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in business and society.

"I can't tell you what that is," he says now, a bit ruefully.

"I was going to study farming but my mate found this degree where you didn't have to study maths."

Matt Chisholm as a journalism student in 2007.
Craig Simcox

Matt Chisholm as a journalism student in 2007.

He soon set off on the path well-worn by Kiwis of a certain age: travelling, and teaching "very butchered agricultural English" in South Korea.

Arriving back in New Zealand at 30, he decided it was time to "give this life thing a go".

His goal, he says half-seriously, was to one day host Country Calendar – New Zealand's longest-running television series, which documents rural life in Aotearoa.

Instead, he studied journalism at Massey University, sleeping on the floor of a Wellington flat "for a while, until I got a bed".

When he graduated, he landed a short-lived $300-a-week internship at Radio New Zealand in Christchurch. "Do I look like a Radio New Zealand guy to you?" he asks.

Then he took a job feeding fish and cleaning ponds at a Canterbury salmon farm.

Hearing him tell the story, one gets the impression Chisholm was in his element.

"It was summer, it was hot, I was in my footy shorts...

"It was actually pretty cool."

Fair Go presenter Matt Chisholm on assignment last year. Chisholm took on the role of Fair Go presenter when he returned ...
LAWRENCE SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Fair Go presenter Matt Chisholm on assignment last year. Chisholm took on the role of Fair Go presenter when he returned from filming Survivor New Zealand in Nicuragua.

When Chisholm was still at journalism school, a crew from 20/20 had visited his family home in Dunedin to film a story on Nick, one of many segments that would air over the years.

Nick is an indomitable character who communicates by looking at letters on an alphabet board. He is a four-time wheelchair body-building champion, whose story has been reported internationally in Men's Health and turned into a solo stage show.

Today, Nick and his wife Nicola, who he married in 2013, hope to conceive with an egg donor. The 20/20 crew had instructed the brothers to be themselves – advice, Chisholm says, he now gives the subjects of his own stories.

It was open slather, Chisholm recalls. "Eff this, bugger that…"

"We're probably quite an odd family," he says.

"Years ago, Chisholms fought in the Battle of Culloden. Some fought for the Brits, some fought for the Scots... I think in a weird kinda way, things haven't changed too much... "We kinda go in to bat for each other, and sometimes we fight each other as well."

The shoot's executive producer was delighted with the fraternal antics – "they were getting what they wanted," Chisholm says – and inquired about Matt's studies.

The rookie reporter with an easy grin and a luxuriant soul patch confessed he wasn't sure how well he fit in with his younger classmates.

The producer, Mike Valintine, declared Matt's a problem of medium rather than temperament.

Matt Chisholm in his role as Survivor New Zealand host.
SCOTT MCAULAY

Matt Chisholm in his role as Survivor New Zealand host.

"You're a TV guy," he was told. "You're training to write for newspapers."

On the back of the 20/20 shoot, Chisholm scored some work experience at TVNZ, before heading to that ill-fated internship in Christchurch.

He was at the salmon farm when he got a phone call. It was Valintine. Would he like to "have a crack" at Close Up?

It was the country's most watched news and current affairs show. Chisholm had had a few Dominion Post headlines to his name – "Little penguin steals the show"; "School kids pop out for beers at lunchtime"; "Blind students show vision in web design" – but had hardly been climbing a career ladder.

He could hardly believe his ears.

"He goes, 'What's the worst that can happen? You suck at it. At least you'll know,'" Chisholm recalls.

"I packed my car, came up to Auckland, and gave it a nudge."

Ten years later, Chisholm has outlasted the show that made him a household name – Close Up was axed in 2012. And, he has silenced the naysayers who derided his appointment.

After breaking stories about pet food producers selling horse meat for human consumption, and exposing animal neglect at what was then New Zealand's largest family-owned dairy business, Crafar Farms, some at TVNZ were openly resentful.

Survivor New Zealand host Matt Chisholm leads a tribal council.
SCOTT MCAULAY

Survivor New Zealand host Matt Chisholm leads a tribal council.

"One my colleagues was like, 'Yep, mate, you've been handed this on a platter and you don't deserve to be here.'

Chisolm recalls the event without apparent bitterness.

"I was a trained journalist but I probably didn't really look like a trained journalist, and probably, in some ways, act like one," he says.

"That p...ed a few people off."

When asked what exactly a typical journalist looks or sounds like, Chisholm says he's not going to turn up to a job in a suit and tie.

"I often say to people when I'm trying to talk them into doing a story, 'Hey mate, it's going to be a lot of fun. We're just going to go on an adventure.'"

Chisholm's gift for putting others at ease and his affinity for the outdoors makes him a good fit for Survivor, a TV show which pits marooned contestants against each other in an isolated location – in this case Nicaragua.

Chisholm was surprised to be shoulder-tapped to audition for the role last May.

"It may surprise you," he says, "but I'm not the kind of guy to put my hand up for something."

Hosting isn't at odds with his reporting gig on Fair Go, he says. Both roles are about producing good content.

"It sounds cheesy, but all I've ever tried to do is tell a good yarn that people want to watch. I think the more we see ourselves as storytellers and not journalists... the better the industry will become."

He shuts down any suggestion that the Survivor franchise – one of the longest-running in television history – is tired.

"Kiwis are made for a show like Survivor," he says. "We're a hunting, shooting, fishing kinda people... Even city folk are attached to the land in some way."

Chisholm's wife Ellen was pregnant when he was offered the role. Her due date overlapped with the filming in Nicaragua. "When I told her she burst into tears," Chisholm recalls.

"We had to have some really solid conversations about what we wanted to do."

Two months and countless hours of watching old episodes of Survivor later, he was on a flight to Central America. The Chisholms' son Bede was born three days before Matt returned home.

On arrival in Nicaragua, Chisholm, who stayed in a villa in a resort about 30 minutes' drive from the contestants' camps, spent a few days on his own, going over his lines and feeling the pressure. 

"I didn't care about snakes and tarantulas and scorpions – if they get you they get you, right?

"This was something that was very new to me, I needed to deliver."

His first tribal council – a fire-lit elimination ceremony where the contestants are held accountable for their actions – was a memorable one. A combination of heat exhaustion, nerves and wayward pathogens struck him down with crippling diarrhoea hours before he had to interview 16 people he had only met that day. "I remember sitting on the toilet, punching the shower curtain, just going, 'WHAT have I done?'"

Collecting himself, Chisholm donned his khaki kit, and sped off to the set, notepad in hand. A few questions in, he breathed a sigh of relief: he was just doing what he did every other day.

He was seriously ill for the rest of the week. He also worried about his heavily pregnant wife in New Zealand. The 47-day experience, he says, was "really, really tough".

But it was nothing he couldn't handle. "I have this feeling that, probably based on my brother's scenario, that you can get through anything, if you want to," he says.

"Anything's possible."

During filming, Chisholm's contact with the cast members was limited to adjudicating tribal councils and refereeing challenges. He speaks warmly of the motley crew whom he witnessed lie, cry and betray one another.

"They're in a game but it was real for them," he says.

"They thought they'd play the game much nicer than people from other parts of the world. But almost immediately, it was game on, and they were doing whatever they had to do to survive."

It was hard not to be swept up in the emotion, he adds.

"When a certain person left the game we really embraced and I had tears in my eyes. I'm thinking, I'm probably not supposed to be hugging you right now."

Since returning home, cast members have sent him friend requests on Facebook. At the time of this interview, he hadn't accepted them.

"We're still playing the game."

 - Stuff

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