FRONT OF HOUSE
Fiona McDonald returns to the stage this month and talks to Chris Schulz about her other life.
She’s been performing on worn wooden stages and beer-drenched carpets in venues across New Zealand and Australia for decades.
Right now, Fiona McDonald’s stage is a little different: a polished floor in a three-bedroom Kingsland home with elevated views, plenty of storage and a CV that sits around the $1.2 million mark.
“Have I sold this yet?” chirps McDonald, speaking in a tone so cheery it suggests we’ve just become best friends, even though Canvas has just met her. “No. We will though.”
McDonald is wearing a blue suit and heels that echo off the walls when she moves around those shiny floorboards. At 52, she jokes it’s her “corporate rock chick” costume.
It’s an image that’s a far cry from her previous lives: first, as the voice of the 90s fronting excellent bands Headless Chickens and Strawpeople; then, in the 2000s, as a TV star with stints on The Big Art Trip, NZ Idol and Ten Years Younger, as well as a series of commercials. Today, Matthew, she’s a real estate agent. Why? “My partner said, quietly, ‘Do you think it’s time you got a job?’ I said, ‘No! I don’t!’ Once I digested that request, I thought, ‘No, fair enough’.” REAL ESTATE wasn’t McDonald’s first choice. Once she’d decided she couldn’t return to music and television, she wrestled with what to do.
“I was like, ‘What are the options? Music? That never made me any money. TV? Been there, done that. You have your time in TV,” she says.
“I was a stay-at-home mum. If that was going to change, it had to be potentially financially rewarding enough . . . I also wanted flexibility so I could continue being at home after three o’clock.”
She thought about property investment and started going to open homes.
“They say you should follow your passion. As all Aucklanders do, I’ve always followed real estate. As soon as I thought about it, it felt really right.” SO SHE studied online, aced her exams and last September, listed her first property through Barfoot & Thompson. Since then, she’s sold four, and has two more listed.
In Kingsland, her open home has finished and the front door’s been locked. Canvas casually pushes McDonald on how much it may go for. $1.4 million? $1.6m?
She smiles. There’s a brief chuckle, then she looks away, grabs her open-home signs, and loads them into the back of her car. The question remains unanswered. It was a test. She passed. And she knows it. Real estate has become the go-to career for many in the entertainment and sporting industry seeking a midlife makeover.
Remember league legend Logan Swann? He sells property for Ray White Remuera. His website boasts about his “highly ethical approach” to sales.
He shares an office with Jayne Kiely, who hosted 10 seasons of Mitre 10 Dream Home.
“Her gregarious manner and quick wit made her a hit with viewers,” boasts her profile page. Now, she’s “absolutely committed to serving the real estate needs of Remuera.”
Former Shortland Street and Outrageous
Fortune star Shane Cortese sells on behalf of Sotheby’s in Takapuna and Herne Bay. Nearby, Blam Blam Blam bassist Tim Mahon operates out of Barfoot & Thompson’s North Shore branch.
Perhaps the most high-profile celebrity convert is Sally Ridge, a TV personality whose private life made headlines throughout the 2000s thanks to her relationships with Matthew Ridge and Adam Parore, and her friendship with Nicky Watson.
She sells inner-city homes and apartments for Bayleys. Her website boasts about her “tenacity, creativity and people skills”.
“It was the next direction in my life I felt like I needed to take,” she told the Herald after listing her first property in 2016.
Then there’s Three sports reporter and presenter Hamish McKay, who recently chucked in his 20-plus year career in journalism. Now he operates for Bayleys Real Estate in St Heliers.
He toyed with the idea over 10 years, finally taking the plunge in 2016, around the time the housing market was turning. He says it’s a “slow grind”.
“If you come into this game thinking there’s anything other than an apprenticeship to serve, you’re kidding yourself,” he says. He’s playing a long game, mentioning his five-year plan, sevenyear targets.
But: “I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been a few speed bumps along the way.”
McKay admits his TV profile helps when
it comes to attracting listings. He believes his former life as a journalist isn’t that far removed from real estate.
“I spent 20-25 years earning the trust of the Richie McCaws, the Jerome Kainos, the Carlos Spencers and the Grant Foxs of the world, in the same way that I earn the rapport and the relationship with vendors,” he says. “They’re both relationship games.” He might be doing it a little tough but McKay says a career in real estate has one key factor going for it: freedom. That’s something his job presenting sports news didn’t have.
“For the best part of 10 years, I was confined to being in one place at one time, at 6.30pm till 6.50pm each night, and there was a daily delivery of goods,” he says.
“I had some great moments, world cups and the like.”
Now, he gets to eat dinner with his family. “I never knew what that was like. I have three teenagers, one’s gone to university, I question myself a lot: was it worth it?”
Aside from an occasional radio show, McKay has severed ties with his previous life. He’s still an All Blacks fan, but doesn’t mind if he misses a game. Real estate takes up all of his time. Except around dinner.
But Fiona McDonald hasn’t cut all links. This month, she’ll perform with the Headless Chickens when they reunite for a headlining performance at The Other Ways festival in Auckland.
She’s also working with Paul Casserly on a new Strawpeople album, their first since 2004.
“This one is going to take as long as it takes,” she says, when asked when it will be released.
“It’s not like the old days. I’ve got kids, we’re both really busy.”
McDonald says her real estate career is completely separate from the music. She scoffs when asked if she’s ever thought about using her
McKay has severed ties with his previous life. He’s still an All Blacks fan but doesn’t mind if he misses a game. Real estate takes up all of his time. Except around dinner.
delightfully evil Headless Chickens chorus from George — “Let’s make a deal / Or I’ll hurt you you know” — to finalise a house sale.
But, for a brief moment, in front of a Grey Lynn do-up with a CV of $1.6 million and an outer layer of faux brick cladding peeling away, her two lives suddenly collide.
“If you were a lovely villa, and you had this on you,” says McDonald, pointing at the fading frontage, “what song would you sing?”
Without waiting for a reply, she breathes in, then bellows a famous Engelbert Humperdinck song with so much force it could knock you off your feet.
“Please release me,” she sings, extending the song’s syllables into full force eruptions. “Leeet meee gooo.” A painter across the road turns his head. A door opens down the street and someone peers out. A woman driving past stares for slightly too long.
Grey Lynn, it seems, just got its first taste of this corporate rock chick. HEADLESS CHICKENS PERFORM AS PART OF THE OTHERS WAY FESTIVAL, K RD, AUGUST 31.
Fiona McDonald and the late Grant Fell from The Headless Chickens.
Clockwise from above: Shane Cortese; Tim Mahon, left, with band Blam Blam Blam; Hamish McKay; and Jane Kiely.