Up close and personal with Ali Mau
Ali Mau gets up close and personal with Adam Dudding, ahead of her biggest TV role yet
So, Ali Mau. You’ve proved that becoming New Zealand’s best-known mid-life bisexual isn’t exactly career-limiting. Has it, in fact, been career-advancing?
“My relationship? Oh yes! Karleen credits herself with being the making of me.” She emits a curious, squeaky “ha ha” – half ironic laugh, half despairing croak. “Please write that I said that with a smile.”
Okay. She said it with a wry, telegenic smile. Really.
The truth is that Alison Jane Mau – journalist, newsreader, telly blonde, former member of New Zealand’s leading hetero TV power-couple – seems to have a pretty developed sense of humour about the events of recent years: the end of a marriage; the romance with a woman 10 years her junior; the doomed attempts to fend off the media’s fascination with that romance; the eventual emergence as celebrity flag-bearer for gay marriage and societal tolerance.
Back in February 2010, when Mau sat on the Breakfast couch as Paul Henry’s stand-in and ranted to camera about Woman’s Day and the paparazzi who were stalking her family, she looked thoroughly unamused. Thin-lipped. Hard-eyed. A little unhinged.
When radio host Dom Harvey followed that with a puerile reworking of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” with lyrics about Mau’s presumed Sapphic activities, Mau was “really angry”.
But last month, during an interview with Sunday Magazine at an Auckland bar to plug her new role at TVNZ, Mau laughed easily. She waved her arms about. Her smiles were warm and authentic (even when you discount for the fact TV execs hire people for their warmth and authenticity). She cheerfully answered an unjustifiably large number of questions about pashing girls, marital fidelity and such. She seemed, in short, happy.
And Karleen – that’s Karleen Edmonds, Mau’s partner – might even have a point about her career being on the rise. The new job may be Mau’s best yet.
Less frivolous than Breakfast. Less rigid than newsreading. Broader in scope than her last gig hosting Fair Go. From tomorrow she’ll co-present – alongside droll comedian Jesse Mulligan and Clark Kent-ish presenter Greg Boyed – Seven Sharp, a magazine-style current affairs show in the 7pm, TV One slot vacated by the increasingly creaky Close Up.
Mau reckons she’ll have “a good measure of creative control – and I’ve never had that before as a newsreader… I’m senior enough now. I’m not going to get any more senior than this.”
She’s 47. She was 12 when she decided to be a journalist – just like her father Leigh of the Melbourne Herald, and her grandfather Darcy of the Albury Border Morning Mail. In the Mau household, television was a dirty word – it wasn’t proper journalism. (“Mau” is pronounced Moore, is of German origin, and everyone says it wrong.)
At 17 Mau was on her way, cadet on outback rag the Warracknabeal Herald, a year so miserable she’s blanked most of it. She recalls dry wheat fields, fights under the window of the pub where she boarded and two-hour drives to deathly council meetings.
Apprenticeship served, she worked at the Melbourne Herald and six years later was in London, where a pub chat with fellow Australian journos landed her a job writing scripts for a BBC business programme. A couple of months later she auditioned on-screen, and she’s been there ever since. Her father came round eventually.
Beauty matters on TV. For that pretty London-based 23-year-old, this was “fabulous”, but she later got sick of the way looks were equated with stupidity. “When Simon [Dallow] and I were reading the news together at TVNZ, we were called the Ken and Barbie of New Zealand television. You’ve got to brush that sort of shit off.”
By the time you get to 47, though, “I don’t think the looks thing is terribly relevant. It’s like Rachel Hunter said recently – I can’t really claim to be the pretty girl at my age.”
This is unconvincing. She looks great. When I point out that she routinely appears in those hottest-women lists, she says, “Ooh, that’s good,” with something suspiciously close to enthusiasm.
Oh all right, she says. She can live with being attractive “for as much longer as it lasts”.
BREAKDOWN OF A MARRIAGE
By 1993 Mau was living in New Zealand with fellow TV presenter Simon Dallow (they married in 1996 and had two children). For years, Mau was newsworthy only for the usual TV-personality reasons: career updates; a thrilling account of her reading the news despite a broken ankle; articles about babies, her charities or “The Secret to Our 10-Year Marriage”.
Even when that marriage folded in 2009, the coverage was, well, predictable.
“When you’re the lead story on the radio news because your marriage ended, it’s not pleasant – but everybody kind of expected that. There wasn’t that much fuss at that point.”
But then the rumours that Mau was dating – dah dah daaaah! – a woman. In February 2010, the Herald on Sunday outed her and named Edmonds on its front page, and women’s magazines ran coy follow-ups, complete with paparazzi snaps.
Mau’s a journo. Surely she sees this was much more delicious and reportable than a boring old marriage split?
“So it turns out,” says Mau dryly. She understands journalism thrives on invasion of privacy. In 1987 she death-knocked the family of a victim of Melbourne’s Hoddle Street massacre, earning her first Melbourne Herald front page and an uneasy feeling in her gut. Being on the receiving end sucked.
“I was very rattled. It upset me. I was being followed in my car. TVNZ gave me some defensive driving training. That was hilarious. I had this route I would drive from work to home where I would do loops so I could see who was behind me.”
For seven months, she wouldn’t play ball with media (full disclosure: the Sunday Star-Times was among those papers urging her to talk), but in November, at a drag-queen beauty pageant in Auckland, she publicly confirmed her relationship with Edmonds. Then she and Edmonds invited the journalist who’d outed them to breakfast and asked her to back off.
The journalist made an apology of sorts in print, and has reportedly said she now regards Mau as a “friend”. This seems extremely odd. Does Mau reciprocate the sentiment?
“Ooooh. Ah. I don’t have many friends… Um. That’s a difficult question…”
Later she phones with a coherent response: “My friends are people who I see regularly and who support me and who I confide in, so I’d have to say no, she’s not a friend.”
When she harangued the paparazzi from her Breakfast pulpit, “I was fighting for my privacy, and I don’t regret it. It worked a treat.” After Harvey broadcast that dirty ditty, she had a moan to Harvey’s wife Jay-Jay Feeney when they collided in a make-up room.
She can take the heat, but there’s a wider principle at stake. Some people, especially teenagers going through that phase of agonising self-consciousness, are far more vulnerable to name-calling and ill-considered jeering, says Mau.
“I don’t think it’s okay to make fun of people.”
Fair enough – but there’s a problem here. Between 2004 and 2008, Mau frequently shared the Breakfast couch with Paul Henry, a man who has a genius, if you can call it that, for mocking those who deviate from a rather narrow definition of normal. As straight-woman to the funnyman, wasn’t Mau complicit in Henry’s bullying?
She frowns. “Complicit is going a little bit far. I was there.”
There, for instance, when Henry made fun of Greenpeace spokeswoman Stephanie Mills for having a moustache.
“You saw genuine distress on my countenance that morning,” says Mau. “I did beg him not to go any further, but you can’t really control Paul.
He’s uncontrollable. That’s his brilliance. I love him.” That’s nice. But, again, how does she feel about her part in facilitating Henry’s cruelty?
“He did not intend to be cruel,” says Mau, then pauses as the cogs whirr. “But Dom didn’t intend to be cruel either, and it still hurt. I don’t know. I’d have to think about that. I’ve not been asked that question before. I think when you’re live on telly... I could, I suppose, have stood up and walked off, couldn’t I? That didn’t occur to me at the time.”
Mau’s less bothered these days by teasing aimed at her. When Newstalk ZB’s Bruce Russell called her a dyke last month, “most people read the story and assumed I was outraged. I wasn’t. We were having a giggle about it at the office.”
'THERE WILL BE PEOPLE WHO SAY I'M NOT A PROPER DYKE'
All the same, Mau has become a reliable Twitter commentator on such matters. When John “Gay Red Top” Key claimed “gay” was just a synonym for “weird” he’d learnt from his children, Mau tweeted: “When my kids use ‘gay’ as a pejorative, I politely ask them to choose a different word. Nice example setting @johnkeypm.”
When the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar bizarrely contended that gay marriage would increase crime, Mau tweeted: “I’m oddly grateful for his help in getting the bill passed.”
Mau is a supporter of Louisa Wall’s bill to legalise gay marriage. She and Edmonds are engaged.
Between the tweeting, the public declarations of commitment and the pre-existing celeb profile, Mau has become a bit of a poster-girl for LGBT rights (that’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender, though sometimes Mau gets the letters mis-ordered).
She’s okay with that – it means young women approach her in the street to thank her for the example she’s setting, and parents at Edmonds’ dance school tell her it’s been helpful for their child to see Mau and Edmonds as a normal family. (She also gets letters from Christians saying she needs to look into her heart and return to God. She bins those.)
Mau suspects “some people in the [LGBT] community will look at me and think, what a johnny-come-lately. I hope they understand I haven’t tried to swoop in and make myself a spokesperson.
“There will be people who go, ‘She’s not a proper dyke.’ And they’re right, really.”
As a young woman, and then as a married mother of two, it never crossed Mau’s mind she was anything other straight, “and that’s quite unusual for a woman of my age. I’ve surveyed my girlfriends, and a lot of them say, ‘Yeah, I pashed a girl when I was 18,’ and I’m like, seriously?”
There were no flings or experiments between splitting with Dallow and getting together with Edmonds. “I was the one that asked. Karleen was my friend and she would not have crossed that line. I made her cross that line.”
Realising she fancied Edmonds “freaked me out for a bit, to be honest. Not because I thought it was bad – it was just completely new. I took a little while to process that, and I took a little while to convince her as well.”
She knows there are other women like her who have surprised everyone by falling in love with a woman in mid-life, because “it was on Oprah!”
She bought a book on the subject, called Sexual Fluidity, but it was so dry and academic she gave up.
If her marriage had lasted, she’d presumably never have discovered her own sexual fluidity. Apart from anything else, “I wouldn’t have cheated on my husband. I’m a bit old-fashioned like that.” But frankly, she’s not desperate to figure out the whys and wherefores.
“I’ve met many women in my life. I’ve got a lot of girlfriends. None of them have ever spoken to me in that way. Is this a very special person or the right time of my life? I don’t know. And I don’t lie awake at night wishing I could answer that either. I’m too busy being happy.”