Sophia Nash, a beautiful car crash – and how she escaped alive
Model, entrepreneur, mum – and alcoholic. 27-year-old Sophia Nash hit rock-bottom in prison last year. Now she's the face of a new social campaign encouraging Kiwis to talk openly about addiction.
Laughing, they stepped out of TriBeCa restaurant in upmarket Parnell.
The young model who had walked for Trelise Cooper and Bendon, notorious for her aloof party attitude, now carving herself out a niche as a Sunday paper gossip columnist. Her new and eligible boyfriend, the 37-year-old chief executive of Nova Construction.
The restaurant had called them a taxi, she recalls, but Jonathan King waved it away. "Oh, no no, we'll drive."
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Skirting around the edge of the CBD, they turned into the Bullock Track, the steep street that leads up from Western Springs to Grey Lynn. They were nearly home, and accelerated up the hill.
The powerful Audi RS5 4.2 FSI Quattro topped the crest and swung to the left but didn't take the corner. The white sports car leapt across Old Mill Road and ploughed through a fence, across two properties, and embedded itself deep in a garage, wrecking the Toyota RAV4 inside.
"We went to turn and obviously didn't make it," Sophia Nash recalls. "It slid and missed a tree by about half a metre that would have killed me.
"I smashed my head through the windscreen. Then when I tried to get out of the door, the doors were completely crushed in and we were pulled out of the wreckage and taken to hospital."
She was in hospital for two days. While there, she says, she got the call from the editor of the Herald on Sunday, dumping her and her estranged husband Thane Kirby from their contract writing the paper's notorious Spy gossip column. He was concerned about endorsement promises they'd made to a jeweller in exchange for $20,000 in diamond rings.
"That was pretty devastating."
These were rings they were meant to show off for the women's magazine photographer at their celeb wedding. Except they didn't even legally marry: Sophia forgot the wedding licence.
Stinging, sacked and separated.
And this, extraordinarily, was not yet the lowest point of Sophia Nash's battle with alcohol.
Now, ahead of a social media campaign being filmed this week to raise awareness about out-of-control drink and drug use, Sophia has decided to speak out.
Sitting on the back deck of the small home she rents in St Marys Bay, her long legs and bare feet curled beneath her, she says the "Anonymous" part of alcoholism support groups has simply not worked. Inspired by provocative UK journalist and addiction researcher Johann Hari, she says the best way she can help herself is through the catharsis of talking about her life-shattering experiences.
More, she says, that's also the best way she can help others who are going through the debilitating illness of alcohol addiction.
THE GREATEST, GAUDIEST SPREE
"Whenever you feel like criticising anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
That advice, opening F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, stands as true for today's fast set as it did for the rich and beautiful young libertines of 1920s upstate New York.
The indulgent parties, the money, the constantly-refreshed glasses. For Gatsby's wild and carefree Long Island circle it was Prohibition-era gin cocktails; for Sophia it was Kumeu River pinot gris. Back then, the jazz age; now the electronic dance beats of George FM.
Then, a yellow two-door coupe in a flurry of dust and blood ... For Sophia, a wealthy property developer boyfriend with a $170,000 Audi.
And always the gossip. Making the gossip. Writing the gossip. Living the gossip. Dishing out the stinging criticism; suffering the judgement and rebukes of the watching public.
Unconsciously echoing the American novelist, Sophia says: "Society makes it very easy for people to reprimand someone else if they do not fit in with social constraints. Who sticks up for someone else? People just don't do it. So I make it a thing for myself.
Sophia and her friends lived their louche lives in the public eye. "Unfortunately, if people are spreading rumours about you, you begin to distrust everybody, and it's quite painful."
But it wasn't always this way. Sophia, too, grew up poor. Her parents separated; she moved to Kohukohu in the northern Hokianga with her mother. They were often hungry.
Her mum joined the religious movement Adidam and moved to an ashram in west Auckland. They were vegan. Sophia took salad sandwiches made from sprouted grain bread to school.
Her dad, a Ducati motorbike racer who had won every title there was in New Zealand, lived a fast-paced life with his new partner in Texas, USA. Each New Zealand summer, he'd fly her over. He had a microwave, a television, Coca-Cola, muscle cars …
Sophia was 10 years old, on a trip to Mexico, when she first got tipsy. The restaurant waiters asked no questions of the girl who ordered one Corona, then another, then two more. "I think the people I was with just didn't realise, they thought it's all good, she's fine."
She loved the feeling. "It was a buzz."
By the time she was at college in west Auckland, she and her mates would buy 40-ounce bottles of Kristov vodka, for just $10.99 each. "It was about who can drink a 40-ounce on their own."
Her mother was ill, bedridden. Sophia was looking after her mum and her cousin's two children. She talked her way into a job at McDonald's though she was only 14.
And then, buying sushi at the Imax cinema complex in Queen St, her luck seemingly changed. Lean, nearly 178cm tall with gold eyes, the fast food worker was scouted by Amanda Betts – the owner of Red11 model agency.
The opportunities came fast. Catwalk, commercial, some editorial. Trelise used her as a 16-year-old clothes horse to show off her new season collection to her most important buyers. Wearing a blonde wig and a bikini, the 17-year-old Sophia rode bareback down Muriwai beach for a controversial Burger King TV ad.
She moved to Sydney. Then to London. Her dreams were coming true. And when real friends were far away, a glass of wine was always close.
By the time Sophia returned to New Zealand, she says, a good night out was seven bottles of wine. Back issues of the Sunday Star-Times' About Town pages show a long-haired solemn-eyed Sophia at a Huffer fashion label function, at the Marr Factory fashion show, at the Youth Runs Wild show, cheek-to-cheek with friends, always glass in hand. She was just 19, and she'd made it.
She and her boyfriend Thane Kirby, the DJ founder of George FM 14 years her senior, developed a certain don't-give-a-damn insularity. Him with the dark Von Zipper glasses, her with the pout and the Marlboro Lites, both with a drink in hand.
Sophia was cool, emotionally shielded. She didn't care. She never cried. One friend called her "the Icebox".
"I was just being an arsehole to people, saying really inappropriate things. Swearing at people."
The bad behaviour only strengthened the couple's brand. There were invites, freebies, endorsement opportunities and trips to dance parties in Fiji.
Their daughter Honey was born in 2010. Postnatal depression set in but the parties continued. Little Lola arrived the following year.
Lying together in bed, Thane said, "I suppose we should get married now."
He may even have taken off his dark glasses.
WATER INTO WINE
Sophia sorted out their wedding in April 2011. The venue, the flowers, the couture lace gown by wedding designer Anna Schimmel, the custom-made rings, the media deal ...
Thane, she says, had just two jobs: to get himself a suit, and to book a hotel room for their wedding night.
In the end, she had to drag him down to Crane Brothers tailors the week before the big day for a fitting.
And on the night, after she threw the bouquet too high and it lodged in the rafters at Mantells, she turned and asked him which hotel they were going to.
He hadn't booked one. So his brother quickly rustled up a room at the Rendezvous, a pink inner-city business hotel with a drained swimming pool, across the road from the Auckland police cells.
But Sophia was in no position to judge: she had forgotten to pick up the wedding licence. "I was getting my make-up done and I went, oh fuck."
In the end, the wedding that Woman's Day reported wasn't legally a wedding at all. They just signed a scrap of paper.
Rumours flew of suppliers fooled into providing freebies for what was nothing more than a sham wedding. The truth, says Sophia, was that they loved each other, they had two daughters, they married in the eyes of their friends and family that day. It meant a lot: Sophia even restrained herself on the champagne. "I wanted to remember the day."
And the actual legalities? They were completed in the registry office in the AA tower building in central Auckland some months later. Woman's Day didn't turn up for that one.
Sophia and Thane were penning a fortnightly gossip column for the Herald on Sunday – but they were always better in front of the paparazzi cameras. They got married. Then they split up. Sophia met her new property developer boyfriend. There was the car crash. Days in hospital. Days in court. (A judge threw out the three driving charges against Jonathan King).
Sophia recognised her life was veering out of control. So she ditched the boyfriend and tried to quit the drinking. She was eight months sober.
She started a new business, Delivered Nutrition, supplying restaurant-standard ready-made organic meals to busy professionals. Meals were delivered on Monday and Wednesday mornings: roast vegetable salads, vanilla chia seed puddings, raw power salads and cold-pressed juices, the critics raved.
Life was going well. She bought herself a gun-metal grey VW Tiguan 4x4, the first new car she'd ever purchased.
It was May 2014. "I decided that I could probably now handle having a glass of wine. The night I crashed, I'd actually only had three glasses of red wine, but I just don't metabolise wine at all.
"I dropped my cellphone that was playing music down the left side of the car and as I leant over to pick it up, I swerved and went over a little sign and smacked into the back of a car. I smacked my head on the steering wheel.
"I woke up and thought, what's everybody doing here, what's everyone worried about, it's totally fine, I just smacked into something. That was not the case: I'd completely written off my car.
"That was the start of my demise, I think. I had absolutely reached my limits. That was the fucking last straw that camel could take. I had built this really beautiful life for myself, and then I had just annihilated it – myself."
Sophia was admitted to hospital. After she was discharged, police charged her with drink-driving.
In the subsequent months, she veered between sobriety and binge drinking. She considered taking her own life.
Her estranged husband Thane made his way up and down Ponsonby Rd, handing out his cellphone number and asking bar managers to call him if she turned up. Time and again, in breach of her bail conditions, she would go out drinking; he would call the police. Repeatedly, perhaps 10 times, she was locked up for the night in the cells at Auckland Police Station – just across the road from the hotel where she and Thane had spent their wedding night.
"Going to the cells is shit. You sleep on a foam mattress that's possibly covered with other people's blood, just 1cm thick on a concrete slab. Then you wake up in the morning and you have to go to court, and you look like shit and you feel like shit."
She went into rehab, but didn't last long. She started popping her prescription benzodiazepines and went "a bit ape-shit on them". She and a friend got stoned, then made their way from rehab down to the nearest liquor store. She bought a quick premixed Midori and Baileys, then moved onto the gin and tonic mixers.
"It didn't even take one drink before I was completely fired up. I tripped over, smashed my head on the concrete and knocked myself out again. They put me into an induced coma. They did not know if I was going to live or not."
As she lay for 12 hours in a coma, an angry friend took a photo of her and posted it on Facebook, an uncompromising attack on those who enabled and supported her drinking. "Sophia has lost everything," he wrote. "If you see her drunk or out of it just call the police. The kids would love her to be alive this Christmas."
She came to, but that was one of the last times she drank. The police were sick of the repeated drunken bail breaches. She was sent to Wiri Women's Prison in south Auckland for two weeks, a short sharp lesson. The remand wing was full, so she got thrown in with general population.
She walked into the wing, a scared new inmate, cowed by the crowd gathering around her trying to suss her out, trying to get her nicotine-slides. Then she heard a call: "Hey, Sophia, what the fuck are you doing in here?" It seemed she had spent so much time in the cells that she now had friends inside.
She learned to trade some of her eight daily slices of gluten-free bread for sugar for her tea. She learned she could sell her nicotine slides for $5 apiece.
The day she walked out, she painted her nails and ordered a drink. Police picked her up and she was back behind bars 24 hours later.
"Prison is the lowest of the low. It was the biggest gift that I was ever given. It was my rock-bottom. It made me grateful to be part of my life again, to be back with my children again, that the alcoholism was going to be with me for life. I cannot get rid of it, I cannot pretend it's not there, I'm going to have to be more responsible."
THE DARK DAYS ARE OVER
It's 5pm and 24C in the shade. Honey, 5, and Lola, 4, are back from holiday programme and preschool. Sucking on a dummy, Lola climbs into her sheepskin-covered pushchair, and Sophia takes them for a walk up to a dairy on Ponsonby Rd, for ice creams.
"To be separated from the two loves of my life was unquestionably the most horrendous experience of my life," she says. "Now, they are my absolute No 1 priority and I will never stop making up for that."
Thane is still a big part of their lives – tonight the pair are taking the girls out for Chinese, a chance to warn Thane of the upcoming newspaper and social media publicity.
Filming begins this week on the social video campaign, a series of five-minute clips featuring the likes of Sophia and Tiki Taane that will roll out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They are conceived by Richie Hardcore, a well-known adviser with health agency CAYAD (Community Action Youth and Drugs).
Richie grew up with an alcoholic father, a traumatic experience that persuaded him to be drug and alcohol-free as an adult.
"We want to bring it out in the open, not just addiction but also abuse," Richie says.
The old strategy of keeping alcohol abuse quiet and anonymous hasn't worked: "To quote my friend Mike King, secrets make us sick."
"In New Zealand we have an unhealthy understanding of what's normal with drinking. Ten beers in an evening is not normal and healthy. We're not saying, don't drink. We're saying, know your healthy limits."
Back on the deck, littered with children's toys, Sophia has changed into a long t-shirt. The lawns are freshly mowed. A chicken lies half-forgotten on the barbecue.
"People still debate whether being an addict is an illness," she muses.
"So it's about speaking up. There is a huge stigma around it, but I don't think that's helpful. How is it helpful to isolate that person more, and not give them support?
"You're probably bound to judge me if you know of me. Well, this is the reality. This disease can come and steal your life no matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter how much money you have. It doesn't matter, because anything you do have, it will take. And then it will take your life.
"I've never really publicly spoken about any of the rumours that have been circulating for years and years now. I'd rather shut up and keep going. But I think it's important for me to have a voice. I've earned that with my sobriety. I've earned the right to stand up."
She doesn't judge others any more. And she doesn't care what others think of her. "I'm proud of myself. I've worked really hard to get here. I'm okay with my life and I'm not going to apologise any more. It is what it is. It's my story."
The pack of Marlboros sits beside her, but she doesn't light up. She watches through the glass of the ranchsliders as her daughters play inside.
"I almost lost them for ever. That last drink when I went into a coma, that was pretty close. The next time that happened, I wasn't going to be as lucky. Or I'd have killed myself under the influence. Or I'd have my children taken away from me."
And finally, she cries.
- Sunday Star Times