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Channel Feature: Interviews

Pippa Wetzell, Giving it a Fair Go

Supermum? No way, Pippa Wetzell would protest. What she would say is that family is one of her priorities, and that, like so many working mothers, it's a constant balancing act to give enough of yourself to work, children and partner.

“One of the opportunities I have with Fair Go,” she says, as we chat over coffee, “is that it’s a part time role for me, which TVNZ has been wonderful in helping make happen, because I always wanted to be available to help with school fairs, and school trips and [other activities]. It was one of the things that was really important to me. My mum was one of the mums always involved in those sorts of things and I really cherished that as a kid so I always wanted to be in a position to do that with my children.

“Everyone talks about that balance and I’m really lucky – it’s not perfect by any means and I don’t think it ever will be. As I get older I come to realise that and am grateful for what we do manage to do, and try not to feel guilty about what we don’t manage to do. You always feel you’re failing in your role as a mother or in your paid employment.”

In so many respects, Pippa Wetzell, TV personality and Fair Go front person, is no different from any other working parent. Her husband Torrin, a lawyer, also has a busy work schedule. “You run into problems,” says Pippa, reverting as is her wont, to the third person, “when you both need the other to give you a bit of support and you’re both in the middle of something. But we don’t tend to dwell on those things too much; it’s just one foot in front of the other.”

That said, she coaches a school netball team, was heavily involved in the recent fundraising fair held at her children’s school, and manages to juggle involvement not only in school activities but as ambassador for two charities: Bellyful and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Trust.

Pippa would be the first to admit that the saving grace in their household is that they live in a community where they have strong support. When it was time for Pippa and Torrin to purchase a house, there was little questioning that they would return to their North Shore roots. “We knew that on the not-too-distant horizon, children would probably be on the scene and appreciating, at that point, the value of family.”

“It’s hard when you’ve grown up here and experienced it, not to want it for your children. The beaches are so accessible, and the parks. There’s a lovely community feel and wonderful facilities. You’ve got everything. I often say to the kids, ‘we’re so lucky’, and they go ‘oh mum, you’re always saying that’. They don’t appreciate it yet but they will. I am mindful of them understanding and being grateful for what they have.”

It’s not only the beaches and parks Pippa appreciates, but the proximity of family and the long-term friendships she has with former school friends.

“People have histories and all sorts of different connections… When I took my first daughter to kindergarten I remember thinking, some of these kids will be your friends for life. Some of you will go [as she and her school friends have done] in different direction at different times. And you’ll end up coming back together… It’s really lovely. When I’m here I’m Cam’s mum, Brodie’s mum, Taj’s mum, Lynn’s daughter-in-law or Carol’s daughter or the Pippa that people knew from intermediate or high school. You are who you are; you’ve got a long history and you’re not Pippa Wetzell of TV.”

“We’re so lucky. Mum’s so handy and she’s around a lot, and Torrin’s parents; the kids walk to their house from our house.” One of Pippa’s sisters also lives locally, as does Torrin’s sister, “so the kids have their cousins. We take the presence of extended family for granted.”

The strong sense of family may derive in part from Pippa’s Samoan heritage. (Her father is New Zealand-born Samoan; her grandmother, now 90, was born in Samoa.) Growing up, she says, family was always “very warm, and everyone was welcome. That to me is just normal; how families were. You did lots with family – and food was always part of that. To this day it still very much is. It’s something I’m really keen for the kids to have an understanding of too. One of the lovely things is that they are old enough to know [their great-grandmother]. She’s such an amazing woman; she’s been very inspiring with everything she’s been through.”

Pippa attributes much of what she’s been able to achieve to the support of family, right back to her days at Takapuna Grammar School, when she, her older sister and her younger sister all achieved the distinction of being appointed head girl. ”I never felt any pressure; just that we were always encouraged to try our hardest, and we had huge amounts of support.” Trying he hardest is a philosophy she’s carried through into her television career.

After school, she completed a communications degree because it would open a number of career options. “I never had a master plan – not past getting through the next six months!”

While she was studying, she did a bit of TV work, and when she’d completed her degree she heard about an opportunity to work the graveyard shift at TVNZ. “I wasn’t particularly interested, and didn’t at that point think TV was right for me. I didn’t see myself going into journalism.” But once she’d started, she was hooked. “I really enjoyed it and I had some opportunities, and it’s just developed. You just have to do your best and try your hardest. It seems so simple doesn’t it? But I don’t think I ever wanted to be involved in something where I wasn’t giving it a shot.”

Having survived the 11pm to 7am solo stint – the “most junior person in the newsroom, there on your own, keeping tabs an what was happening in New Zealand and oversea, and looking forward to when the Breakfast crew arrived about 3.30 or 4am” she moved on to Breakfast, a stint as a reporter for ONE News and back to Breakfast as a back-up host, and then co-host with Paul Henry. At about the time Paul Henry left, Pippa had resigned as she was pregnant with her third child.

But even with three small children, television drew her back, working on a now-defunct 4.30pm news bulletin. “It was two afternoons a week and with three kids under five, it was very appealing!” she laughs. “I said to my boss at one point, if you can get me out of the house a couple of days a week at the witching hour, that would be great. And he came back to me and said he could do that!”

“Then the opportunity at Fair Go came up. Fair Go is 40 this year, and it’s such an iconic programme.” It was a bit daunting, she admits, but “you put your head down, and you’re busy and you just get on with it. I think that’s how I tend to deal with things: just one foot in front of the other."

Fair Go, she says, has much broader appeal than might be expected. “Numbers in the younger demographics are incredibly strong. Which is great,” Pippa says. She thinks this might in part be due to the appeal of the “in-depth well-crafted” television that Fair Go offers; a counter to the ubiquitous instant footage of “facts” available through any number of channels. “Young people are savvy. You get to know what forms of information you trust.”

After four years on Fair Go, Pippa remains “amazed at the number of times people come to us with issues they haven’t been able to resolve in any other way. You’d think that now, with social media, people would be able to have their problems solved, but in so many cases we are still the last resort. People have tried everything and they come to us and we manage to get things resolved for them. Though not always, not by any stretch.

“What I love about Fair Go is that the show has a relaxed quality about it, but there is some strenuous journalism underpinning everything because you have to be absolutely sure of what you’re doing.

“We have a story meeting every week; we discuss the merits of everything as a team. It’s difficult, you get things that come through and you’re not in a position to be able to help everyone. We sort out a number of [issues] offline. And sometimes it’s not a story for us, but one of us can make a couple of calls and perhaps resolve it.”

Just as Fair Go turns 40 this year, so has Pippa. Did that prompt any soul-searching?  “I don’t think so. I was really excited about turning 40. My oldest was born just before I turned 30; my 30s were amazing but were full of young children.” She admits to rather madly trying to have a 30th birthday party with a fractious baby – and “pretty much gave up on birthdays during my 30s”.

Now, with a 10 year-old, eight year-old and six year-old, “I’m more than happy to turn 40. It’s like a nice kind of bookend. The kids at the moment are at the ages where they’re old enough to do anything and young enough to want to do it with us. Everyone says enjoy those years. And we are. It’s heaps of fun and it’s really neat doing stuff, and it’s also fun just hanging out at the beach with them.”

Which perhaps will be one of the things she and her family will do on Mother's Day.

By Christine Young

Channel Magazine: Issue 76 May 2017

Features articles by Christine Young