he­roes

As a young gay boy grow­ing up in a small-town New Zealand, Aroha Awa­rau found a bea­con of light in the form of Oprah Win­frey. So when the plan­ets aligned and she granted him an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, he freaked out and prayed he could keep it to­gether.

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Iwish there was a guide­book that told you how to con­duct your­self when meet­ing your hero. At jour­nal­ism school you learn how to tell a story and be pro­fes­sional in the field, but they don’t teach you how to act when you se­cure an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with your idol, that one per­son who not only in­flu­enced your life but the lives of mil­lions around the world.

It seemed like a dream when Oprah Win­frey granted me an in­ti­mate in­ter­view with her for M ori Tele­vi­sion’s cur­rent af­fairs show Na­tive Af­fairs, where I’m as­so­ciate pro­ducer. Last year, the me­dia mogul was in New Zealand for two weeks shoot­ing the US$103 mil­lion (NZ$142m) Dis­ney film A Wrin­kle in Time, di­rected by Ava DuVer­nay and star­ring Reese Wither­spoon. M ori Tele­vi­sion was one of the few me­dia out­lets to gain a one-on-one in­ter­view with Oprah and Ava while they were in New Zealand and also spent the en­tire day on the South Is­land set with the Hol­ly­wood A-lis­ters.

Oprah is the rea­son I be­came a jour­nal­ist. I copied her in­ter­view man­ner­isms and the sen­si­tive way in which she treated her guests. This was help­ful when I be­came a writer for the NZ Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Day, where I had to gain peo­ple’s trust in or­der to tell their sto­ries of tragedy, sad­ness and tri­umph. On a per­sonal level, I was a devo­tee who would ap­ply Oprah’s af­fir­ma­tions whenever I faced one of life’s many challenges. Her voice of rea­son helped me over­come some tough times.

Now I was go­ing to be face-to-face with the per­son who changed my life and helped steer my ca­reer. I was in­ter­view­ing the queen of TV in­ter­view­ers – and in the medium that made her a legend. The cam­eras were on us and the in­ter­view was about to be­gin. We were sit­ting on di­rec­tors’ chairs on a per­fect sunny day, right next to the aqua-coloured Lake Pukaki with Mt Ao­raki and the snow-capped ranges be­hind us. I was in­ter­view­ing my hero in heaven! We were sit­ting so close to each other that our knees were touch­ing and every time Oprah moved her head, her curly locks would lightly brush my cheek. I was freak­ing out. I didn’t have the tools, or a point of ref­er­ence on how to han­dle this kind of pres­sure and anx­i­ety. But I wasn’t go­ing to blow this op­por­tu­nity. Once the cam­eras started rolling, I stared into Oprah’s eyes, let­ting her gaze be a calm­ing in­flu­ence, and chanted two sim­ple rules in my head: “String words to­gether that make sense and don’t faint!”

I was 9 years old when I be­came one of Oprah’s

big­gest fans. It was 1985 and Oprah was cast in The Colour Pur­ple, di­rected by Steven Spiel­berg. She de­fied the odds even back then, be­cause she was cast in the piv­otal role of Sofia with­out any pre­vi­ous film act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. At the time, she was host­ing a morn­ing talk show that was only broad­cast in Chicago. When Oprah first read Alice Walker’s The Colour Pur­ple, she was so moved by the story about the strug­gles of African Amer­i­can women in ru­ral Ge­or­gia in the 1930s, that she went out and bought all her friends a copy. She vowed that if the book was adapted into a film, she had to be in it and she prayed and willed it to the uni­verse.

Oprah got her wish when Quincy Jones, the film’s pro­ducer, was vis­it­ing Chicago and switched on the TV to see the then lit­tle-known Oprah host­ing her talk show. He knew she was per­fect for Sofia and she was cast in the film, along­side Whoopi Gold­berg in the iconic role as Celie.

Oprah fre­quently tells the story of how The Colour Pur­ple changed her life. The in­flu­en­tial film, which I first saw on VHS, changed my life too.

There’s a poignant scene where Sofia con­fronts Celie, who has ad­vised Sofia’s hus­band to beat her to keep her in line. A de­fi­ant Oprah Win­frey storms through the corn­field to de­liver this pow­er­ful monologue to Whoopi Gold­berg. “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy, I had to fight my un­cles, I had to fight my broth­ers. A girl child ain’t safe in a fam­ily of men. But I never thought I had to fight in my own home.”

This scene res­onated with me be­cause just as “a girl child ain’t safe in a fam­ily of men”, the same was true for a lit­tle gay boy like my­self, liv­ing in H wera. Al­though I had a lov­ing mother who pro­tected me as much as she could, it was still a tough strug­gle to live in a house­hold of mostly vi­o­lent men. See­ing a char­ac­ter like Sofia fear­lessly fight­ing to have a voice in her home was ex­actly what I needed as a child. I felt like that scene helped me sur­vive.

Oprah was nom­i­nated for an Acad­emy Award in 1986 as best sup­port­ing ac­tress. It was an­other cru­cial step that took her from be­ing a poverty stricken child from Mis­sis­sippi who sur­vived sexual abuse to be­com­ing one of the most pow­er­ful women in the world.

I had se­cured the in­ter­view with Oprah by reach­ing out to DuVer­nay who, as well as direct­ing Win­frey in A Wrin­kle in Time, is a good friend of hers. Both women have a con­nec­tion to indige­nous cul­tures and spoke highly on so­cial me­dia about the tra­di­tional M ori wel­come they re­ceived when they ar­rived in New Zealand. DuVer­nay, one of Hol­ly­wood’s most soughtafter film di­rec­tors, has said she watches M ori Tele­vi­sion on­line. Her favourite show is Game of Bros, a com­pe­ti­tion with Poly­ne­sian mus­cle men vy­ing for the ti­tle of the ul­ti­mate war­rior. Thanks to DuVer­nay and Win­frey’s con­nec­tion to the indige­nous cul­ture, M ori Tele­vi­sion was the only New Zealand sta­tion to visit the set and in­ter­view the Hol­ly­wood pow­er­houses. In fact, Win­frey had tears welling in her eyes when she spoke of the land and the M ori peo­ple’s con­nec­tion to it.

It’s been a year since I met Oprah. Na­tive Af­fairs will screen the in­ter­view to­mor­row be­fore A Wrin­kle in Time opens here next month. So how did it go? I asked her about the time Don­ald Trump said he wanted Oprah to be his vice-pres­i­dent. I also got a ques­tion in about her DNA test which found that she has Na­tive Amer­i­can an­ces­try. And there was a fun ex­change where I taught Oprah to say: “Kia ora,” along with that other tra­di­tional Kiwi say­ing: “Sweet as.” I didn’t faint.

So I was happy. The only feed­back my pro­ducer gave me was that I let Oprah ram­ble. I was so busy pan­ick­ing in­side and try­ing to act nor­mal that I it didn’t oc­cur to me to cut her off at any stage. And if the only thing I did wrong was not in­ter­rupt­ing Oprah, I can live with that. Aroha Awa­rau’s in­ter­view with Oprah will screen on Na­tive Af­fairs, M ori Tele­vi­sion, to­mor­row at 8pm.

Aroha Awa­rau and Oprah Win­frey had their chat on the shores of Lake Pukaki.

Win­frey in The Colour

Pur­ple, which had a big im­pact on the young Aroha Awa­rau.

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