Making marriage worth celebrating

22:01, Feb 24 2013
Penny Ashton convinced the Department of Internal Affairs there was a need for a celebrant who could dress up in costumes.

When you’re running a wedding, there’s one thing you need to remember, says Ewen Gilmour. Make sure the butterflies are properly thawed.

Usually, they’ve spent the night chilling in a freezer, so if you don’t start defrosting early enough, they’re still sluggish when you open the box. Instead of flapping about freaking out the bridesmaids and sticking to the wedding-cake icing as they should, they just lie there like they’re half-dead.

That’s why Gilmour likes to take control of a wedding. “I’ll say, ‘If you’ve got those butterflies, let’s get them in the sun now.’”

Ewen Gilmour, bride Sandi Keen and groom Wayne Maddock.

Butterfly thermodynamics is just one of the areas of expertise Gilmour has developed in his five years as an independent wedding celebrant. He’s better known as a comedian, and occasional local body politician, but a couple of dozen times a year the long-haired Westie pockets $850 (less for mates) to preside over a wedding.

He makes a speech, reassures anxious grooms and mothers-in-law, ensures the legal niceties are adhered to and, if necessary, wrangles butterflies. (Doves, by the way, are less fiddly. You let them out and they fly home of their own accord.)

Gilmour’s one of the 1731 independent wedding celebrants who have permission from the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) to bring two people together in matrimony. Some are comedians, or used to be famous on TV (Breakfast’s Kay Gregory, or white-haired ex-newsreader Philip Sherry). Others were in local politics (Wellington ex-mayor Kerry Prendergast), or are JPs who saw celebrancy as a natural next step. And some are just ordinary folk who want to make a contribution.


Another 7853 celebrants operate under the auspices of churches and other institutions (including Wiccan Connections, the Whangarei Psychic Centre and something called the “Temple of Isis and Anubis”).

That’s 9884 celebrants all up. With just 20,000-odd weddings in New Zealand a year, it looks rather like a glut. Which may explain why the DIA can get a bit picky. First-time applicants are frequently rejected. Some qualify only after providing testimonials to their rectitude, or petitions demonstrating an unmet community need for them.

When he was on the Waitakere council, Gilmour found people assumed this meant he could do weddings. It didn’t, but he was asked so often he decided to apply. His first gig was the wedding of fellow comedian Ben Hurley. 

It’s a great way to spend a day, says Gilmour. 

“It’s the happiest day of their lives. Everyone dresses up. The women look fantastic in their fancy cocktail dresses. It’s a fun day and you get to meet lots of people.”


Apart from cold butterflies, celebrants need to beware time-wasting photographers (“they want the bride getting out of the car, then getting back in the car, then once more taken from inside the car – they can f*** around sometimes”); slow brides (“you tell the bride to be late but not too late – on a hot day Grandma has been out in the sun since 3pm and is starting to melt”); and the infamous ‘friend who said he would look after the music’. 

There’ll be a guy with his iPod plugged into Gilmour’s PA system, who is meant to play a couple of songs during the signing, then fade out in time for Gilmour to present Mr and Mrs Whoever. Without fail, says Gilmour, when the time comes, “the music guy is chatting to a girl in a hot dress. The ceremony’s almost over and he thinks it’s time to make his move. I have to go over and say, ‘Bro, fade out.’”

Gilmour’s a comic. He has a signature wedding joke. “When I’m getting them to sign the register I say to the man, ‘Just sign with your maiden name.’ Maybe one person at each wedding will laugh at that.” 

He encourages whooping and hollering and laughter, but some things are serious. He warns the couple that if either of them say “no” when they’re meant to say “I do”, even if it’s just for a giggle, he’ll walk away. Nobody has done it.

Then again, “What one guy did was really funny. When I said, ‘Do you come here freely without reservation to give yourself in marriage?’, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin, flipped it and looked at it and said, ‘Yes.’ That was really good.” Actually, two different grooms did this, so it may not be an entirely original gag.


Penny Ashton, 39, is another celebrant who’s turned the job into a bit of a performance. Her 12-year, nine-applications quest to become a celebrant ended only when she convinced the DIA there was a need in  the community for a celebrant who could dress up in costumes and provide unconventional ceremonies for adventurous couples. 

The Auckland poet, actor and comedian has done six weddings since becoming a celebrant last September. Her rate is $600. In November she’s going to dress as a ringmaster for a ceremony at Rainbow’s End fun park (“corset, top hat, big skirt, boots”). She can marry you dressed as a medieval queen if you like. Her latest stage show is a Jane Austen-inspired musical, so if anyone needs an early-19th-century-themed wedding, she’s got the bodice.

Ashton isn’t sure why the DIA is sometimes such a strict gatekeeper of the supply of celebrants. Sunday asked the DIA if there was a policy to keep a lid on the number of celebrants, or if applicants were screened on criteria such as age, location, ethnicity or whatnot. In response, a spokesperson said appointments are made “in accordance with the statutory criteria”, and applicants “that do not meet the criteria are not appointed”. 

Anyway, Ashton’s offer to dress up for weddings swung it for her. One caller made tentative enquiries about her doing a wedding while dressed as Elvis. “I’d have thought I’d make a better Marilyn.”

You don’t have to be a performer to develop a sideline in weddings. Alana Srubar-Vernon, 28, is a PhD student working for Plant and Food Research in Auckland and Palmerston North.

She became a celebrant partly because a friend asked her to do their wedding, and partly because she’d found her own wedding so frustrating. Srubar-Vernon married her Czech husband in Scotland two years ago, and had to fight with her celebrant over every little deviation from the conservative template.

“I wanted her to say, ‘You may kiss each other,’ not, ‘You may kiss the bride.’ She wanted to stick to the script. It was very annoying.”

Alana Srubar-Vernon takes no more than travel expenses for officiating at a wedding. “I consider it an honour.”

Marriages rules in the UK are bizarrely strict. There are squillions of churches where you can marry, but civil ceremonies are allowed only in specially licensed venues, which tend to charge handsomely for their use. (Exceptions are made if you marry in a prison, a psychiatric hospital or on your deathbed.) 

In most parts of the UK, outdoor weddings are banned full stop, even at the licensed venues.

In New Zealand, by contrast, just about anything goes.

As Ashton puts it: “The only legal thing in the ceremony is: ‘I, full name, take you, full name, to be my legal wife/husband.’” Aside from signing a bit of paper and having a couple of witnesses, “You can do what you like with the rest of the ceremony, which is fantastic.”

But even in chilled-out New Zealand, there is conservatism lurking, says Srubar-Vernon. One of her couples had been told by another celebrant that involving their children in the ceremony was “not appropriate”.

“I said, ‘What!? That’s crazy. They’re your kids!’”Srubar-Vernon heard of another couple who had to scramble for a new celebrant three days before the wedding, when the original celebrant cancelled upon learning she’d have to walk up a hill for an outdoor wedding.

Srubar-Vernon has done six weddings since being appointed in late 2011, each time for nothing more than travel expenses. 

“I consider it an honour. I don’t understand how celebrants charge so much. The last thing someone needs for their wedding is a huge debt.”

She says it’s reward enough that she gets to places she wouldn’t otherwise see, and meets interesting people. At one ceremony the couple constructed a large, heart-shaped sculpture out of pumice as they said their vows. “It was amazing.”

Like Ashton, Srubar-Vernon had to argue her case before the DIA gave the nod. She pitched on the basis that young couples might want the option of a younger, more open-minded celebrant, then proved it by collecting petition signatures and conducting a survey via Facebook.

Unlike Ashton and Gilmour, Srubar-Vernon hasn’t bothered applying for the right to officiate at civil unions. “I am in protest over civil unions. I’m very pro-gay marriage, so I’m waiting for the law to come in so I can do gay marriages as well.

“I have a couple of gay couples who are interested in using me when the law changes. They’re holding out against civil unions too.”

Gilmour has performed just one civil union, for a lesbian couple. He too looks forward to marriage equality. “It’s a bit unjust that a heterosexual couple can have a civil union, but a homosexual couple can’t have a marriage. They pay the same taxes. And some of them do my hair really well.”

Ashton has been doing civil unions since 2003. Last year she was celebrant for TVNZ journalist Hannah Ockelford and her partner Toni Horne.

Marriage or civil union, it’s “just the most beautiful work environment”, says Ashton. Especially compared to a comedy gig. “I don’t get heckled. Everybody’s happy. Everyone wants to be there – for the most part.”

Gilmour feels the same.

“I love it. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, when I was at the height of my comedy career, if I’d be a marriage celebrant, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. Now, I can’t imagine not being one.”

Sunday Magazine