Judy Bailey meets Catherine Saunders
Judy Bailey talks to PR legend and TV and radio star Cath Saunders, who was surprised to find herself fighting depression late in life.
COME IN, COME in,” she cries, enveloping me in a warm hug. “I’ve made you some of my special Beauty and the Beast cheese scones.” Catherine Saunders became a household name in the 1970s and
80s as a regular panellist on Selwyn Toogood’s agony aunt discussion show, Beauty and the Beast. She has always been one of those people who instantly make you feel at ease. Her warm, generous, outgoing personality has endeared her to generations of viewers, dating back to the earliest days of television in this country.
She went on to become part of the fabric of our biggest city – one of Auckland’s most effective movers and shakers. It was Catherine Saunders who, as chief executive of The Auckland Visitors Bureau, was instrumental in moving Auckland from its Queen City brand to the more effervescent and definitely more apt City of Sails.
Her skills in marketing and PR are legendary. Fellow broadcaster, Paul Holmes, was once heard to say, “No one can say no to Cath.”
I visit her at home in Freemans
Bay, Auckland, where she lives with her little dog, Dingle, who is curled up on the back of the comfortable sofa, draped ever so delicately behind Catherine’s head, keeping an eye on things. Dingle’s parentage is uncertain, but there’s definitely a lot of Australian terrier in there, although the little dog is named for Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, from where Catherine’s Irish ancestors hailed.
Flamboyant and effervescent, Catherine Saunders has always had the common touch. She knows and loves people and, in fact, that may well be the key to her success.
It is surprising then, that this ebullient woman is just recovering from a severe bout of depression. The illness came out of left field, leaving her feeling lost and helpless.
She tells me she felt something “wasn’t quite right”, around Christmas last year. Her daughter
Amy had just given birth to a baby girl, Catherine’s fourth grandchild.
The following day Catherine noticed a lump in her breast. It turned out to be cancer. At the very time she wanted to be supporting her daughter, she had to take herself off to hospital. It was while she was recovering from a lumpectomy that the depression hit.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was frightened of being around people. I was sure no one wanted to see me. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t even read a book or magazine. I felt like a liability.”
It was her friends and, most of all, her family who helped her through it. The unwavering support of Anthony and his wife Kate, along with Amy and her partner Kenneth, was Catherine’s salvation. She also went to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants. “He told me they’d take six weeks to kick in. He also told me to make sure I went for a walk for at least half an hour each day.” The faithful Dingle was there to keep her company. Catherine doesn’t drive so she enjoys the walking anyway.
She is a brave woman and talks openly about her depression with the same strength, determination and humour that has characterised her life. It has, she tells me thoughtfully, made her more tolerant and understanding of others facing the same struggles.
CATHERINE WAS BORN in Dunedin 74 years ago, not that she’s counting. Getting older, she says, is not for the faint-hearted. She hates it that she can’t wear high heels any more. Catherine is not one to ‘go gently into that good night’ though, and remains firmly defiant of age.
She once told me, “The older I get, the more outrageous my earrings become.” She has a splendid collection of said earrings, all of them huge and flamboyant, and delights in taking me on a tour of her house to see them. One favourite pair was sent by a gentleman from Balclutha, who had made them especially for her – big silver discs sporting three-dimensional Mark II Zephyrs, each with a tiny cowboy lounging on the roof.
Catherine’s dad, Anthony Dowling, was a high-profile Dunedin lawyer, her mother Kathleen, a brilliant pianist. Theirs was a staunchly Catholic family. Catherine was the youngest of three, with two older
brothers. A convent girl, she studied with the nuns at St Philomena’s. “I loved school. The emphasis was on arts, music and public speaking and although it was cloistered and conservative, the nuns taught me that girls can do anything. I have much to thank them for.”
From school she went to university on a teaching studentship. (In the 1960s the government paid student teachers to train.) After two years she decided she didn’t want to teach, and her father insisted she pay back her tuition costs herself. So she sold the treasured piano her aunt had given her – something she regrets to this day – and worked in a café to pay off the debt.
Catherine then set her sights on broadcasting, auditioning as an announcer in Dunedin in 1961.
She started on the same day as Bill McCarthy, who would become one of our longest-serving newscasters.
Broadcasting in those days was not a level playing field. Sexism was alive and well. Catherine remembers commentating on the Mobil Song Quest the year Kiri Te Kanawa won. She says, “I was only allowed to talk about the women’s hair, their clothing and the floral decorations in the hall.”
This overt sexism would eventually drive the feisty Catherine to embark on a feminist crusade that would take her the length of the country.
She teamed up with a number of high-profile, articulate women, among them, Dame Silvia Cartwright, Margaret Wilson and Donna Awatere Huata, to campaign for equal opportunities and equal pay.
Of course broadcasting bosses knew they had a talent on their hands and when the new medium of television arrived in Dunedin Catherine was snapped up as the first female reporter on the legendary regional news show, Town and Around. A year later she joined the Wellington version. She was working alongside broadcasting greats like John Blumsky and Dougal Stevenson, doing exactly the same job but for half the pay. Yet she looks back on her early broadcasting career with great fondness. “It was the most wonderful, fun, carefree time. There was a great spirit of bonhomie. We all felt we were breaking new ground.”
After a year on the Wellington show she felt the work was becoming repetitious and she wanted out. It was newsreading icon, Bill Toft, who suggested she take her talents to the Dairy Board. “So I wrote to them telling them they needed help with their marketing and they needed me. I borrowed a tweed Mary Quant suit and a hog-skin bag and gloves to make myself look as agricultural as possible,” she grins wickedly, “and they hired me on the spot.”
She went on to quadruple the nation’s cheese consumption with her ‘Bigger Block of Cheese’ campaign. She then spearheaded the first ever butter marketing campaign, thwarting the onslaught from margarine.
And so began a high-flying career in marketing and public relations, which culminated in her running her own company. It’s a career she never trained for. “I don’t think you can teach entrepreneurship. I’ve always had talented, generous people to work with; it’s all about teamwork.”
It was Catherine who encouraged us to give on Daffodil Day and she played a huge part in that most Kiwi of marketing promotions, The New Zealand Supreme Pie Awards.
IT WAS WHILE she was working in television though, that she met the love of her life, journalist and documentary maker, Bill Saunders, on a course for announcers in Wellington. They married in 1971 and had two children, Anthony, now 42 and a banker, and Amy, 41, who works for Creative New Zealand.
Bill and Catherine made a formidable team. The high-profile media couple complemented each other perfectly – she with her trademark joie de vivre and him with his quiet confidence and elegant wit.
They would have 25 years together before Bill became ill and subsequently died on his 51st birthday.
He had adored his family and they him, so how would they survive this?
Catherine says that for her, the absolute priority was her children. “It was very much ‘shoulders back and head high’. I was simply given some phenomenal strength that enabled me to steer them gently through that awful time and for that I will be forever grateful.” Anthony and Amy went back to university at Otago 12 days after their father’s death and Catherine immersed herself in her work.
“I WAS ONLY ALLOWED to talk about the women’s hair, their clothing AND THE FLORAL DECORATIONS IN THE HALL.”
Not long after Bill died, Brian Edwards rang. “He asked me how I was doing and which day was the worst of the week for me. I told him it was Saturday, the day I always used to get Bill breakfast in bed,” she smiles sadly. It was then Brian offered her the job of producing his Saturday morning show on National Radio, Top of the Morning.
“It was a phenomenal opportunity to work alongside one of the finest broadcasters New Zealand’s ever had.”
In the midst of an overwhelming loss, Catherine found the strength to carry on with support from family, friends and her work.
As we talk, Catherine’s daughter
Amy breezes in with her baby, Isla.
Isla instantly holds out her arms to her grandmother, a huge smile on her little face. The delight is mutual.
Catherine admits that these days she is “very keen on being a grandmother”. Her son Anthony has three daughters and already his mum is taking them out for lunches. She makes them feel special, as she does with pretty much everyone she meets. She is still busy and planning to offer her considerable skills in volunteer work.
With depression banished, she says, “Catherine is back in town.”