The comeback: Susan Wood on returning to TVNZ
When Susan Wood left television in 2006 she was not in a good place. She had just hada large part of her thyroid removed, she'd had a very public, bitter dispute with Television New Zealand executives about her salary as host of Close Up, and she wasn't sure she could handle the chaotic life of a newsroom much longer.
"It was really, really good I left. I was exhausted and I was sick and I had been there 21 years." She dipped her toes in the sometimes-murky world of PR - and found they were bitten off pretty quickly (one job lasted just one week).
"You actually have to hustle for a dollar. I mean,I've done some things I really did not want to do, butI still had a mortgage and kids to help. You don't have the option of staying in bed unless you've won Lotto. I think, the thing is, when you do those things you realise, 'This isn't me,' and, 'How do I get out of hereas gracefully as I can?' Sometimes it was graceful, sometimes it was just out."
And then she came back. Wood, blonde, early 50s, is cavorting on a suburban Auckland traffic island for a Sunday Magazine photoshoot, telling us that, despite believing she's "the oldest woman on TV", she hasn't felt this good since her 20s. The host of TV One's Sunday morning political show Q+A says, "I have found who I am again. I have found my freedom again. I don't mind what people think about me any more. I'm a normal person. I probably drink a bit too much wine and I don't exercise enough. I'm not going to dance naked in the streets, but I feel free.
"On my headstone I want 'Susan Wood, interviewer'... I like people, I like talking to people, I like asking people questions way more than you asking me questions. It's what I like doing." Wood says it was "strangely normal" rejoining TVNZ after seven years out of the television-presenter spotlight. Her career had included a regular fill-in role with flagship current affairs show Holmes, and a full-time role with its successor, Close Up.
Today, Wood says she is proud that she continues to follow her late, great mentor Sir Paul Holmes by taking over the reins at Q+ A, which he once hosted. "I think about him a lot. It's funny, I will be sitting in the studio at [Newstalk] ZB and it's like he's there. You feel like saying, 'Hi Paul'. A lot of the things he said to me come back. At the funniest moments something will pop into your head from Paul. I was really lucky to have that relationship with him over all those years. It was phenomenal. I still don't quite believe he has gone because he was such a large character. He hasn't gone in my head. He is still there."
Wood, who started her career as a print journalist for the Bay of Plenty Times, still fills in on Newstalk's breakfast programme about 12 weeks a year. The Q+A job is essentially part-time - and while she was familiar with the medium, some things had changed. "I couldn't quite remember where everything was and a few things had moved. Like the door into the newsroom had changed slightly and I got lost a few times.
"I had been there for so long before no one thinks to tell you these things so I banged into a few walls, and then I figured it out. It's a bit like going home again after six years outof the building." Things that used to annoy Woods, like make-up every day, had become a novelty.
"Ooh yee-ha, makeup," she says, laughing. And her team at Q+A have made the readjustment easier. "The guys behind the scenes, the producers, but also the technical guys - they get really involved and so we have some fantastic conversations in the early hours of Sunday morning that are really funny.
"I'm loving being part of that again and you forget what an amazing team it is. TVNZ has some really fantastically talented people." The other thing, she says, is being part of a "really important national conversation".
"Housing, the budget, the economy, the things I'm really interested in. To be part of that conversation, and to be driving that conversation to a certain extent... is great." So what about mucking round with all these young bucks on TV? "You mean being the oldest woman on TV? Is that what you are trying to say politely?" she snaps, before laughing.
"Your challenge is to get a really nice photo so I don't look like the oldest woman on TV." More seriously: "A lot of it is we put the pressure on ourselves as well. There is a different pressure on men, but actually you have got to be good at what you do. You can't be up there and doing it if you aren't good at what you do. I think age is a fantastic thing because you just go, I am what I am - it is what it is. Here I am, so whatever. Thirty six is about the perfect age - and I can't get that one back so that's gone."
But, she says "it was really nice going back into the make-up room, and there were lots of beautiful young women in there, talented young woman, and there was a lot of, 'Yay, you just elongated our careers.' And I thought, 'Yip, that's great. I'm happy to take that mantle,' because you don't get worse at your job as you get older, you get better."
"Look at the States - look at Barbara Walters. She is my mother's age. I have got a whole generation to go if you follow that. If you're not comfortable in your own skin by this time, well, you really haven't been working on yourself very hard."
Life in general is good, says Wood, while declaring her love life "non-existent".
"The only constant in life is change - that is one of the big things that children teach you. Everything is a phase. I like my life, and I like my friends, and I like my children, and I like my dog. And in this bit of life that I'm in, I could not be in a better place."