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
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.
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.