Rachel Hunter, chameleon

Last updated 05:00 15/09/2013
Lawrence Smith/Fairfax NZ
CHAMELEON: Quick-change artist and super-model Rachel Hunter is enjoying being 44 years old.

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Time was tight that Tuesday morning, so the interview with Rachel Hunter would have to be while her hair and makeup were being done for the New Zealand's Got Talent cameras. As soon as she was ready, they'd be shooting the bit where the judges pore over names from the auditions and decide who gets into the heats.

In a corner of the empty Northcote Point wedding venue, the usual gaggle of black-clad folk with walkie-talkies and serious faces were setting up the shot against a backdrop of the Auckland harbour, lugging lights and doing things with drills. Fellow judge Jason Kerrison was downstairs, tapping intently on his Apple laptop and emitting occasional loud snatches of song. Cris Judd, the Texan choreographer best known for a brief marriage to singer Jennifer Lopez, was mooching about looking bald and cheerful.

Hunter was up in a mezzanine area, curling her eyelashes while her assistant Krisztina Moricz finessed other parts of her face. She gave a great big smile, waved and called out, "Hi!" Even from that distance, you couldn't help noticing she is a bit of a looker. Well, obviously.

Hunter is the girl from Glenfield who wanted to be a dancer but ended up a model. She appeared in that famous New Zealand TV ad for Trumpet icecream at 15 and by 17 was in New York and Milan with big modelling contracts. At 21 she wed serial model-marrier Rod Stewart, who was double her age (they had two children, and split nine years later).

As Moricz dabbed foundation on her face, Hunter pointed out that while looking great has been her job, "it has nothing to do with me".

"That's the beautiful part of it. It's my mum and dad's genetic make-up. I haven't made myself the way I am." The only bit that's her responsibility, apart from keeping healthy and so on, is that she can "add depth to that as a person. That's being intuitive, and listening, and being selfless, and being compassionate."

Hunter has been living in Los Angeles for quite a few years, where people presumably talk like this all the time, but somehow - perhaps because her accent is still about 90 percent Kiwi - it doesn't sound insincere. She turned 44 last week. She's part of that generation of supermodels that arose in the 1990s - Schiffer, Christianson, Evangelista, Crawford, Macpherson, Campbell and so on - who have maintained surprisingly long careers in an industry that fetishises youth.

In recent years, though, there's been a fair whack of reality TV (Celebrity Circus, Dancing with the Stars, Make Me a Supermodel) and some schlocky TV movies. The highs have been fantastic - "it has to be the Sports Illustrated moments; the Italian Vogue cover that Steven Meisel did; definitely this show down here [NZGT]" - but there have been missteps, too.

She regrets turning down a pilates infomercial series that was incredibly successful, and it wasn't always fun being stranded on a desert island while making the 2004 reality TV show The Real Gilligan's Island. What about those TV movies? The one that came out last year was called Piranhaconda (sequel to Sharktopus) and appears to be about busty women and strong-jawed men being systematically devoured in the jungle by a low-quality computer-generated snake/fish hybrid. Surely that was a mistake?

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Not at all, said Hunter. "It's sci-fi, and sci-fi has a genre." But yeah, she gets it that people might take the mickey. Speaking of hybrids, though, "Someone said to me, 'What animal would you be if you were a merged animal?' And I said I would be a unicorn and..." She furrowed her brow as she tried to remember. "...and a lion. Or a unicorn and a shark. I dunno."

But yeah, said Hunter, "everyone's career goes in peaks and valleys. I'll be the first to admit that you always worry. When I was with Rod I didn't walk away with a settlement. I walked away saying, 'You're the father of my kids and that's it.''

In his 2012 autobiography, Stewart wrote about his shock when Hunter left him and he discovered that she'd felt stifled by the lifestyle he had wrapped around her, complete with private jets and fine dining in formal attire at home, and how she'd "wished she could have been in her jeans, eating poached eggs on toast, as girls in their 20s do". That sounds reasonable, but does Hunter ever regret turning her back on a life of ultra-luxury?

"No. And I do the dishes and I vacuum and I make my bed." Stewart is "incredible," said Hunter. "I adore him. The kids have a great relationship with their dad. I'm not calling him every day. I'm not like the nagging ex. But you just try to be as healthy as possible in that sort of situation."

Hunter missed out on some normal teenage stuff - she was too busy getting up at 3am for a shoot, or living in Milanese hotels - but she made up for some of that later. "I definitely had a good time in my early 30s. And at least I wasn't too mutton-dressed-up-as-lamb by that point. I could still wear short skirts and still have a good time."

She's single now. An engagement to Canadian ice hockey player Jarret Stoll was called off in 2009, a couple of months shy of the planned wedding. She's sort of American, even if she still has a green card rather than a passport, so is she doing the American thing and dating?

"I think if you have chemistry you have chemistry, but I don't understand the dating thing. I'm still a New Zealander with that - you kind of hang out and if it works out, it works out, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. I'm not someone who's on the prowl or something. Not at my age."

Los Angeles is home because that's where she's raised her kids, but now they're starting to roam - Liam, 18, is a promising ice hockey player; Renee, 21, is studying dance in London - and Hunter says she is increasingly interested in her birthplace. A couple of years ago she was stuck in bed recovering from back surgery and the heart condition myocarditis, and with all that time to think, "I thought I need to change things. I've got to go home - go where it all started for me. I want to teach myself, and hear from other people, and hear about our country more."

You could argue that judging New Zealand's Got Talent involves hearing from more than enough other people, but it's more than that. She has become patron of a local conservation charity that does things with kiwi in the wild. And she is setting out to educate herself. "I want to know more about the Maori culture. I want to know, what is New Zealand? - and it has lot to do with who was here before us. I'm really fascinated. I'm asking more questions."

Who do you ask? "I've been asking Tamati [Coffey, the host of NZGT]. He's amazing." Does this mean she keeps an eye on New Zealand news and politics as well? Not exactly. "It's hard when you're between two places to take a stand on something. It's like, what right do I have, because I don't live here. I'm one of those people who sit on a fence, because I can understand the two points of view.

"I'm a bit of a chameleon. I've learnt to adjust to different scenarios, whether I'm in Africa with gorillas [another wildlife charity], or in New York doing a photo shoot.''

Time was all but up. There were a few minutes left for Sunday photographer Lawrence Smith to grab a nice portrait (I'm sure it wasn't like this when Steven Meisner was doing that Italian Vogue cover), but first Hunter needed to change. TVNZ's sharp-eyed publicist gently tugged me towards the stairs, but too late - Hunter had already ducked behind a portable clothes rack, which completely failed to hide the fact she'd dropped her grey jeans and was wriggling into a short pink skirt and a fresh shirt. The chameleon was clearly just as relaxed here as anywhere.

Then Hunter posed for Smith's abbreviated photo-shoot - which was really something to see. The truth is, nattering with Hunter over the roar of the hairdresser's blow-dryer had been a totally pleasant experience, even if some of Hunter's mildly dippy fence-sitting meant her answers didn't lead anywhere much. But once the camera was pointing her way she became someone different - focused and poised, and totally in control.

"It's so nice," muttered Smith, as Hunter zoetroped her way through a series of appealing arrangements of limbs and facial features, "to be doing this with someone who knows what to do... Slightly more serious this time, Rach. I like the way you lift your left eyebrow. That's it. Hold it. Okay.

"It would be weird, obviously, if a supermodel couldn't pose, but I found it impressive all the same. As the clock ran down, model and photographer trotted over to where Smith had set up a deep armchair with the light just so. Hunter did it all again, athletically shrugging and lolling and throwing her arms in the air, with a huge, natural, girl-next-door smile which suggested this was the most marvellously enjoyable thing she'd ever done. Then she put on her lapel mic, took her seat with the other judges and started burbling about how New Zealand indeed did have a lot of talent.

A couple of days later, the TVNZ publicist called. Rachel was worried that the interview may have been ruined by the hairdryer, and that it had been a bit rushed. Did I want to grab another 15 minutes with her on the phone from LA, to plug the gaps? That was a kind offer, so I did. It was another pleasant natter, and allowed time for a few important questions, like whether she wants to stay single (no), whether she's had plastic surgery (no), and whether she ever would have plastic surgery (maybe).

She talked, too, about that ability to come alive for the camera. To an extent, it's just a job: "I trip the switch into work mode. I know what's needed." But at the same time, there has to be something real going on, because people can read what's in your eyes. "You have to be willing to give up some sort of emotion." She said she likes being in her 40s. She said she loves "certain wrinkles and that beautiful look that women get when they get older".

All the same, she doesn't like every picture of herself that gets taken. The paparazzi in particular are liable to catch you when "your skirt's blown up, or your head's down and there's down-lightning on you, and you get more jowly".

The good news is that even when the camera's unkind, real people aren't. "You meet people in person and they say, 'Oh, you actually look so much thinner. You look really young.' And you're like, 'Oh, thanks!'"

New Zealand's Got Talent, 7.30pm, Sundays, TV1

- Sunday Magazine


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