Rock chick Karyn Hay on her new­found free­dom

It’s more than 30 years since Karyn Hay first hit our screens and airwaves. The former rock mu­sic pre­sen­ter talks to Nicola Rus­sell about her lat­est chap­ter, empty nest syn­drome and why she re­fuses to be­come “re­signed to age­ing”.


She’s best known as an out­spo­ken ra­dio host, the re­bel­lious rock chick who fronted Ra­dio with Pic­tures and an award-win­ning au­thor – but Karyn Hay is also a mother-of-two who is fac­ing the wrench that comes with a loom­ing empty nest.

With her el­dest son Seth (21) in the Air Force train­ing to be a fighter pi­lot, and 18-year-old Fabian mov­ing to Welling­ton next year to study at Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity, the West Auck­land home she shares with hus­band An­drew Fagan is set to be a lot qui­eter.

“I’m a bit sad about that,” she says. “It goes so very quickly. You hear it all the time – ‘You don’t want to miss your chil­dren grow­ing up’ – but I don’t think you re­ally un­der­stand or re­alise that un­til you are at the end of it. When they are eight, 10, 12 it is so busy and then it is over, it is gone. They still need you but you have a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship with them – they are not phys­i­cally there.”

Karyn, who left Ra­dioLIVE in

March to write books, says while she is de­lighted to be do­ing what she loves, she is also pre­par­ing to spend a lot of time alone. Her hus­band An­drew, front­man for cel­e­brated Kiwi pop band The Mock­ers and a keen sailor, is cur­rently at sea work­ing on a sup­ply boat to the Pit­cairn Is­lands. On his re­turn he plans to pur­sue some per­sonal sail­ing ven­tures.

Like many in the same po­si­tion, Karyn is won­der­ing if she should be sim­pli­fy­ing her liv­ing quar­ters – a thought that came to her re­cently while she was on the roof, at night, clear­ing gut­ters dur­ing a storm. In her gum­boots.

“I do like be­ing in na­ture, al­though I wouldn’t mind liv­ing in an apart­ment for a while. It would be eas­ier than climb­ing up on the roof on a win­ter’s night when it is gale-force winds out­side and buck­et­ing down. As I was up there I was think­ing, ‘Hmm, I didn’t tell any­one I was up here and I may slide off the side,’” she says in be­tween hoots of laughter. “Din­ner was cook­ing down­stairs and I thought per­haps if there is a burn­ing smell and there’s no one in the kitchen some­one will re­alise that I am ly­ing un­der my rimu tree with a bro­ken neck!”

She likes that she can still get up there though, and, at 58, says she doesn’t want to be­come “re­signed to age­ing”. She cer­tainly hasn’t so far. Dressed in a glossy sil­ver suit for The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly photo shoot, she looks half her age, with the swag of her Ra­dio with Pic­tures days still strong.

“I like hav­ing the abil­ity to still get up on the roof. I love that pi­o­neer woman as­pect – not be­ing help­less

or hope­less. If I have to do it on my own, I will. I know it is a bit fool­hardy at times though!”

She’s al­ways been prac­ti­cal – she had to be handy when liv­ing on canal boats in Lon­don, where she and An­drew were an­chored on and off for about a decade from 1987 (with some re­turn stints home to New Zealand). She moved there af­ter five years on Ra­dio with Pic­tures. She’s said many times that fame was not her thing.

“We did two lots of six years. It was An­drew’s idea – a very good one, be­cause it is so ex­pen­sive liv­ing in Lon­don and it was a bet­ter en­vi­ron­ment than a flat. We ac­tu­ally lived in a boat­yard for a long time be­cause we were hav­ing the boat done up, so it took years to get into the water; it was up on blocks.”

Like her phys­i­cal health, she says her men­tal health is strong these days, but she did strug­gle ear­lier in her life. “Break­downs are par for the course in the artis­tic life; you have got to have a break­down or two with a bit of ago­ra­pho­bia thrown in for good mea­sure!

“It is in­cred­i­bly fright­en­ing be­cause it is un­known,” she con­tin­ues more se­ri­ously. “But if you over­come that, you just be­come stronger. I had de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety and I did get a se­vere case of ago­ra­pho­bia in Lon­don, but even­tu­ally I learnt what all those things were. I put a name to them, found out why they hap­pened. I learnt the ner­vous sys­tem is just an­other part of the body, the elec­tri­cal part of it, and how that can get out of kil­ter.”

She needed more as­sis­tance with post-natal de­pres­sion, which she had for two years af­ter giv­ing birth to

Seth. “It’s harder with post-natal de­pres­sion – you just can’t stop, and it’s ex­ac­er­bated by lack of sleep.”

How did she cope with that?

“Pills. And you have to carry on; sto­icism comes into it be­cause you have some­one de­pen­dent on you so you don’t have any choice.”

In Karyn’s case, knowl­edge has been power. “I came to a point in my life where I thought that’s never go­ing to hap­pen to me again, be­cause I un­der­stood what caused [men­tal ill­ness] for me – not nec­es­sar­ily in other peo­ple, but I knew how I set my­self up for that. The line in [her book] Emer­ald Bud­gies, ‘Books have saved me again,’ is very much me.”

Books are piv­otal to Karyn’s life. They opened her world grow­ing up in the lit­tle dairy fac­tory town of Waitoa, Waikato, where she found her es­cape in lit­er­a­ture, and over the course of her broad­cast­ing ca­reer they have been her cre­ative out­let.

She’s pub­lished two nov­els – her first, Emer­ald Bud­gies, won her the Hu­bert Church Best First Book Award in the Mon­tana Book Awards in 2001; she was made a Sarge­son Fel­low in 2004 and in late 2016 she pub­lished March of the Fox­gloves, which topped the New Zealand best-seller list.

De­spite her ob­vi­ous tal­ent and love of writ­ing, Karyn says un­til now writ­ing full time was not an op­tion.

“I don’t agree with that ar­gu­ment that cre­ativ­ity shouldn’t go out the win­dow when you have chil­dren. I think we live in a spe­cific en­vi­ron­ment in New Zealand, where if you are a re­spon­si­ble par­ent and you want your chil­dren to have a rea­son­able stan­dard of liv­ing – school trips, new shoes and break­fast, lunch and din­ner – that is go­ing to re­quire money.

“Else­where in the world there are big­ger re­sults for your work if you are good at it and it won’t af­fect your cre­ativ­ity – but it does in New Zealand. There’s no huge ad­vance here, no four or five years guar­an­teed work in the art field. The peo­ple who get Cre­ative New Zealand fund­ing are huge names – and they prob­a­bly need it. To pur­sue a life in the arts is still de­pen­dent on hav­ing some re­sources.”

So she con­tin­ued to work in broad­cast­ing un­til her chil­dren left high school – but ad­mits

Be­ing in talk­back is like be­ing a politi­cian.

she of­ten felt torn. “Work­ing re­quires a lot of your ac­tual phys­i­cal time; if you are re­ally in­ter­ested in do­ing some­thing else, you are al­ways yearn­ing to do that other thing.

“You want to be able to stop, take your­self away from your desk for a while and then go back to it, but to be still think­ing about it rather than hav­ing your at­ten­tion pulled into some­thing else.

“In talk­back, you have to be al­ways aware of cur­rent af­fairs and news – you can’t have a week when you check out, you just can’t af­ford to be­cause you can miss the ac­tual nuts and bolts of a story, and some­one will know those nuts and bolts and catch you out.”

It’s a job where you have to wear a thick skin – one Karyn says it’s been nice to shed.

“Dis­cussing and hope­fully solv­ing a few of life’s prob­lems is a great job and that as­pect wasn’t dif­fi­cult, but you have got to be able to hold your own. It is like be­ing a politi­cian – you are go­ing to be abused even if you are the nicest per­son on earth. What­ever way you look at it, some­one is not go­ing to agree with you. [Leav­ing that] is like com­ing out of an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship – it takes you a cou­ple of months to re­alise you are free.”

She spent eight years on Ra­dioLIVE host­ing the evening show with An­drew be­fore the pair were told in 2015 that their con­tract had ended. Karyn fought to stay on and did the show solo for an­other two years.

“It was such short no­tice and be­cause both of us were do­ing the same job I had to re­main be­cause we hadn’t had enough time to re­ally ad­just our life,” Karyn ex­plains. “I have never been on the dole be­fore and I didn’t feel that was a route I wanted to go down.”

In March this year, though, she left in the way she wanted to – to fo­cus on be­ing an au­thor.

“It has been re­ally good to have a break from talk­back. I left un­der my own terms. I had just had enough of it; I wanted a bit of free­dom.”

Karyn Hay first met An­drew Fagan at the Sweet­wa­ters Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, where he fa­mously curled up at her feet dur­ing her in­ter­view with him. They didn’t start dat­ing im­me­di­ately – she was see­ing some­one else at the time.

“He was very un­usual. I re­mem­ber think­ing that. I liked him be­cause he was amus­ing but I didn’t spend much time with him be­cause I was work­ing. Then I kept see­ing him ev­ery­where – I think that might have been or­ches­trated on his be­half.”

Thirty years later they are still to­gether. Asked what the se­cret is, Karyn is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally frank.

“Well, I like him,” she says. “I like him as an in­di­vid­ual be­cause he doesn’t toe the line and he hasn’t done that in­dus­try-wise in New Zealand or in his ac­tual mu­sic ei­ther, and he’s re­ally in­tel­li­gent, so yeah, I like him.

“I also haven’t seen him all year

[due to his sail­ing com­mit­ments] – so maybe that’s the se­cret!” she says, grin­ning.

Work­ing to­gether was by no means easy. “It was par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult be­ing on air when we were hav­ing an ar­gu­ment – there was a vast dif­fer­ence be­tween the mic be­ing on and the mic be­ing off and what you are say­ing to each other.”

There must have been a lot of de­brief­ing, I sug­gest. “De­brief­ing? That’s a eu­phemism for…? Yes, a lot of de­brief­ing, plenty of it!” she says, hoot­ing with laughter again. “Like me say­ing to him, ‘If you ever do that to me again I will kill you!’”

It may be three decades since she fronted Ra­dio with Pic­tures but it’s safe to say the re­bel­lious rock chick is still alive and well in Karyn Hay – and we can’t imag­ine her get­ting off that roof any­time soon.

Karyn and her hus­band An­drew Fagan in 2008.

ABOVE: Karyn in 1992. RIGHT: Karyn (left) with ac­tress Danielle Cor­mack on the red carpet as they ar­rive at the Voda­fone Mu­sic Awards in 2011.

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