Cover story: Paula Ben­nett on weight loss, fear­less­ness... and how she thinks Jacinda is far­ing

As au­da­cious in her style choices as in her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, Na­tional deputy leader Paula Ben­nett is lov­ing her new look. She talks to NEXT about her eat­ing regime, the im­por­tance of mak­ing mis­takes, and how she thinks Jacinda is do­ing

NEXT (New Zealand) - - Contents - BY PHOEBE WATT

Let’s just get straight to it – Paula Ben­nett looks in­cred­i­ble. Burst­ing through the doors of White Stu­dios in cen­tral Auck­land on the morn­ing of our cover shoot, the first thing you no­tice is her size (tiny), and her en­ergy (over­flow­ing). The sec­ond thing you no­tice is the flash of hot pink peek­ing out of the gar­ment bag she has slung over her shoul­der. It’s a fuch­sia pantsuit by Aus­tralian fash­ion de­signer Carla Zam­patti, picked up at David Jones in Mel­bourne while on a shop­ping trip, which she and two fe­male friends were awarded for win­ning the Women’s Mar­lin Fish­ing com­pe­ti­tion in Pai­hia in Fe­bru­ary 2018.

“We were out at sea for two days and in that time we hooked four, and landed two – in­clud­ing mine which was around 120kg,” says the keen fisher. Among the fel­low com­peti­tors was celebrity cook Jo Sea­gar, “who did catch a mar­lin but we caught more, and sooner. So that’s been my claim to fame all year.”

Back to the pantsuit, which she pur­chased af­ter be­ing plied with cham­pagne by the David Jones sales staff. Putting it on and parad­ing it in the stu­dio, she re­counts how, high on bub­bles and a shop­pingin­duced surge of dopamine, she then promptly tripped over and broke her fin­ger – the mid­dle one, which she cheek­ily ex­tends to show off the tape hold­ing it straight.

“That’s prob­a­bly not ap­pro­pri­ate for a woman my age,” she says with a wink.

MP since 2008 for west­ern Auck­land elec­torates Waitaˉkere and, more re­cently, Up­per Har­bour,»

‘That’s prob­a­bly not ap­pro­pri­ate for a woman my age.’

Taupo-born Paula, whose phone ring­tone used to be AC/DC’s Thun­der­struck, is ever the honorary Westie. As such, no one present is shocked by the mid­dle-fin­ger salute, nor by the mag­netic pull a leop­ard-print Zara maxi dress has on her. Pick­ing it off the rack of out­fit op­tions, she talks ex­cit­edly about an­other re­cent pantsuit pur­chase, this one from chain store, For­ever New.

“I walked in and I saw the leop­ard print jacket first, and then on the other side of the store were these match­ing pants. I was like ‘Do these go to­gether?’ And the gor­geous sales girls who were all quite young were like, ‘No… I don’t think they’re meant to.’ I was like, ‘Well, has any­one tried?’” She winks again.

Mak­ing ad­just­ments

She’s noth­ing like the woman we’re used to see­ing on TV or in those Tom Sains­bury Snapchat videos. Paula is cool. For­get the kere­ruˉ-lov­ing, panini-eat­ing, bowl lat­tedrink­ing car­i­ca­ture. Okay, she still loves kere­ruˉ, but her cof­fee is a trim flat white, and she would prob­a­bly de­cline any panini on of­fer. “I don’t re­ally go for carbs any more, mainly be­cause they fill me in­stantly, and then I haven’t got much good­ness in me,” she says, al­most 12 months since gas­tric by­pass surgery re­duced her stom­ach vol­ume to “two thirds of a pie”.

“That’s my ca­pac­ity,” she ad­mits, ex­plain­ing that, to eat said pie, she would cut the pas­try off the front, eat all the fill­ing “and enough pas­try that it tastes good”, then leave the pas­try at the back. Not that pies are part of her diet these days.

“I’m very lucky in that I can still eat a wide va­ri­ety of foods,” she says. “I’ve got a sweet tooth, so I can eat choco­late, and if I re­ally wanted to, a small hand­ful of fries. But that’s prob­a­bly all I’d be able to eat for a cou­ple of hours. I don’t have food envy, I wouldn’t sit there and go, ‘Oh it’s all right for you, you can eat that burger and chips, and I can’t.’ I would much rather eat prawns and salmon. You gen­uinely don’t have the same crav­ings.”

Other than that, she main­tains that she is the same per­son post-surgery. “This body is just a dif­fer­ent ves­sel car­ry­ing me around. I’m no dif­fer­ent, I still laugh at the same things, I still cry at the same movies, and [the weight-loss] hasn’t made me hap­pier than I al­ready was. If you’re chang­ing be­cause you think it might make you happy or a dif­fer­ent per­son, then I’m not sure it will.”

Hav­ing lost 50kg to date, she’s dis­cov­ered a few mi­nuses of be­ing less-than plus-sized. “You skinny peo­ple never men­tioned how frickin cold it is! I’ve lost my Pink Batts!” Shop­ping wasn’t that fun to start with ei­ther, “be­cause all of a sud­den you need a new ev­ery­thing, and you’re not sure where your body is go­ing to wind up. So you might find some­thing you re­ally like and then two months later it doesn’t fit any­more.”

This has landed her in a po­si­tion she never thought she’d be in – try­ing to keep weight on. But see­ing how ec­static she looks in her Carla Zam­patti suit, you can un­der­stand why.

“Peo­ple will love it or hate it,” she laughs. “But I like clothes like that.”

It’s a bit of a theme for the po­lar­is­ing 49-year-old. She had the same at­ti­tude to­wards let­ting her hair go grey last year, in spite of her friends’ reser­va­tions.

“They just thought if I’d done it in my thir­ties I might have looked trendy, whereas in my for­ties it could age me. But the main­te­nance was just get­ting so time-con­sum­ing. It got to the stage where I was need­ing the roots touched up ev­ery four weeks and I just thought no, you’re all in or you’re all out.”

They’re words she’s lived her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer by, carv­ing since day one a brash, ballsy and of­ten con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure (social wel­fare re­form, here’s look­ing at you). But af­ter eight years in gov­ern­ment and, in some senses, on the leash, it would ap­pear that be­ing the deputy leader of the op­po­si­tion is a dif­fer­ent ball­game.

“I fre­quently write tweets and delete them be­fore press­ing send,” she re­veals on the sub­ject of self­cen­sor­ship. “But at the same time,” she adds, “when you’re ad­vo­cat­ing for some­thing, you can’t over­think the con­se­quences, other­wise you’re not go­ing to take risks and do your job and be as good as you could be in your pro­fes­sional life. You’d be frozen by fear and achieve noth­ing.” She says she’s got­ten bet­ter at strik­ing the right bal­ance. “I like to think I’m pretty fear­less. I also like to think I take re­spon­si­bil­ity when I’ve stuffed up, I’ll put my hands up and go, ‘Yup, I’m not per­fect.’ But at the end of the day, I’d rather be mak­ing the odd small mis­take than not do­ing any­thing at all.”

‘You skinny peo­ple never men­tioned how frickin’ cold it is! I’ve lost my Pink Batts!’ ‘You can’t over­think

the con­se­quences, other­wise you’re not go­ing to take risks

and do your job’

Rea­sons to feel proud

There’s no deny­ing Paula is a doer. We’re all well-versed in her back­story – of Tainui de­scent, the teen sin­gle mum and for­mer wel­fare ben­e­fi­ciary who went on to land a seat in par­lia­ment in 2005 as a Na­tional List MP, then beat Labour to the elec­torate seat of Waitaˉkere in 2008. An MP for Up­per Har­bour since 2014, Paula has held a num­ber of hefty port­fo­lios, but is per­haps best known for her con­tro­ver­sial 2012 social wel­fare re­forms as Min­is­ter of Social Devel­op­ment. Un­der the changes, sole par­ents on the DPB would be ex­pected to do part-time work when their youngest child turned five, prompt­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of ‘pulling up the lad­der be­hind her’ – hav­ing ben­e­fit­ted from social wel­fare her­self, but now deny­ing it to oth­ers in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. But whether or not you agree with her de­trac­tors, there’s no deny­ing Paula has achieved a re­mark­able amount in her 13 years in pol­i­tics.

“Since De­cem­ber 2016, I’ve been the deputy leader of the big­gest po­lit­i­cal party in the coun­try and I think, to be in that po­si­tion and to have the con­fi­dence of my col­leagues and a good per­cent­age of New Zealand shows that I must be do­ing some­thing right. And I’m go­ing to own it and be proud of it.”

Con­fi­dence for Paula has come with age. “I didn’t get to where I am by luck. I did think that for a while – that I was the right per­son in the right place at the right time. But as you get older, you go no, ac­tu­ally, I have a par­tic­u­lar set of skills. I’ve worked in­cred­i­bly hard and I’ve grabbed op­por­tu­ni­ties, and I’ve made more of them. That’s re­ally been the key to the many suc­cesses I’ve had.”

She feels that she and other fe­male MPs have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to not only set an ex­am­ple to women for own­ing their achieve­ments, but for com­bat­ting work­place sex­ism.

‘I’ve grabbed op­por­tu­ni­ties and I’ve made the most of them, and that has been the key to the many suc­cesses I’ve had’

“Ir­re­spec­tive of our pol­i­tics, I know there’s strength in us bind­ing to­gether to try and make it bet­ter for other women. I think we have a gen­uine role to play there. Hav­ing said that, so many of our male MPs would have zero tol­er­ance now for things that might have hap­pened in the past. Si­mon [Bridges] is a re­ally dif­fer­ent leader. He’s younger and he doesn’t even con­sciously need to en­sure that I’m get­ting a fair go as a woman, be­cause it just wouldn’t oc­cur to him to be any other way.”

‘There’s strength in us bind­ing to­gether to try and make it bet­ter for other women. I think we have a gen­uine role to play here’

What’s not okay

Paula says she’s seen Par­lia­ment change dra­mat­i­cally over the past 14 years. “In the first three or four years, if there was an in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ment di­rected at me, most of the time I’d think, ‘It’s just not worth it. I know what I’m do­ing and I’m not go­ing to bite back.’ I wouldn’t put up with it now. Not any part.”

At the same time, she’s aware that some mud­sling­ing is par for the course when Par­lia­ment is in ses­sion. “It is a re­ally ro­bust en­vi­ron­ment and on some level, you do look for weak­nesses in oth­ers, and go with that. Cer­tainly, I’ve said things I re­gret but it’s hap­pen­ing less and less [in the House].”

She even has some words of praise for Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern. “I ad­mire her as a mum with a big job, jug­gling fam­ily and lots of peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions. I imag­ine there are many times she wishes she could go and have an­other cud­dle with that gor­geous lit­tle girl. Pro­fes­sion­ally, I also ad­mire her com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, and I think the way she’s able to por­tray modern New Zealand is pretty cool.”

As for her weak­nesses, “It’s that day-to-day man­age­ment of what is es­sen­tially a big, fast-mov­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion that I think lets her down oc­ca­sion­ally. Be­ing able to lead a team and get the best out of each of them is some­thing that maybe I’ve got more ex­pe­ri­ence in.”

It sounds a lot like some­thing some­one gun­ning for the top job would say. But be­fore you start think­ing Paula has de­signs on be­ing the next Prime Min­is­ter, think again. “At the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer, be­com­ing Min­is­ter of Social Wel­fare was my goal. Now my goal is to do my ab­so­lute best for the coun­try by work­ing with my cau­cus col­leagues, de­vel­op­ing pol­icy, and fill­ing in for the leader.” She pauses, sens­ing, per­haps, that I’m un­con­vinced.

“I’m hands-on,” she con­tin­ues. “I like look­ing at the is­sues in de­tail and do­ing all the re­search, and work­ing with great peo­ple to im­ple­ment change. I’m not say­ing you can’t do that as Prime Min­is­ter, but you’re spread a lot thin­ner. So no, be­ing the prime min­is­ter is not one of my goals.”

Her re­sponse is en­tirely pre­dictable. Af­ter all, given the in­ter­nal squab­bling in the Na­tional Party trig­gered by for­mer MP Jami-Lee Ross last year, it’s not like she’s go­ing to say she’s eye­ing her boss’s job. Fully aware that it’s the deputy’s job to keep the wheels turn­ing, she com­ments that at times of cri­sis “you just pri­ori­tise work, to be quite blunt”.

And asked whether loy­alty to the party has ever been a bur­den, she’s res­o­lute. “I’ve never had any sort of doubts about what we stand for, or what our val­ues are. As with any work­place, there’s al­ways go­ing to be some good de­bates and there will al­ways be peo­ple I dis­agree with. But you agree more of­ten than not.”

Be­sides, the de­bates are fun, she says. “That’s why we go into pol­i­tics, be­cause we’ve got opin­ions.” The down­side is when cri­tiques get per­sonal. “You do sign up for that, so there’s no point com­plain­ing about it. And I don’t mind when peo­ple crit­i­cise some­thing I’ve done or some­thing I’ve said, but they some­times for­get that you’ve got a fam­ily and if things get nasty, they’re go­ing to read all of that too.”

Paula’s fam­ily mem­bers deal with her high-pro­file sta­tus in their own way. Hus­band Alan Philps, who she dated in her early twen­ties and then, af­ter a sepa­ra­tion of some 20 years, mar­ried in a low-key cer­e­mony in Piha in 2012, is no­to­ri­ously ab­sent from her pub­lic life. It’s tempt­ing to as­sume he is fiercely pro­tec­tive of his pri­vacy, but Paula says it’s much more straight­for­ward than that.

“He doesn’t usu­ally feel like sit­ting around at a fancy din­ner and lis­ten­ing to me speak… again. He hears enough of me at home,” she laughs.

And daugh­ter Ana, who was 18 when Paula en­tered pol­i­tics, will al­ways see her as Mum first.

“You don’t change to them. You’re in the mid­dle of some­thing and a text comes through and it’s: ‘Have you seen my blue shirt?’ I’m in Welling­ton, I prob­a­bly haven’t been home for two days, but what al­ways got me is that I usu­ally did know where it was!”

And Paula’s own mother will still put her in her place. On the day she landed that prize-win­ning mar­lin, Paula de­scribes sit­ting on the back of the boat with waves go­ing over her head. “Ev­ery­one was sea sick – I threw up over the side at one stage.” But when pho­tos from her mo­ment of vic­tory came out, Paula’s mum only had one com­ment. “She couldn’t be­lieve I was wear­ing a black bra un­der a white T-shirt. To be hon­est Mum, you might want to know I hadn’t show­ered that morn­ing ei­ther!”

Per­haps she’ll ap­pease her mother with more ap­pro­pri­ate un­der­gar­ments when she de­fends her fish­ing ti­tle in March. But given her un­apolo­getic ap­proach to fash­ion, I wouldn’t count on it.

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