Ali Mau: Growing Up on Camera, Getting outside her comfort zone and how moving to the country has changed her life

When it comes to telly, Ali Mau has done it all – hosting, presenting, interviewing. And in the background of her high-profile career, she’s also lived the highs and lows of being one of Aotearoa’s most famous faces. Wellbeings chats to her about the challenges of being a celebrity in NZ, the ways she finds her centre now, and how country living has given her a gift she never thought she’d have. 

Hi Ali! Let’s start with this pandemic that’s changed all of our lives in so many different ways – for you it seems it’s opened up a whole new world of living in the country? 

Well yes, I lost my mind completely and decided to leave Auckland, sold my house, and bought a new house – my dream house – after seeing it for only 10 minutes! So I live in the countryside now. The big realisation I had – I guess everyone had – is your life is so impermanent and so easily influenced by outside factors beyond our control. I just kind of grabbed my childhood dream, I’ve had since I was six years old: I’ve dreamed of living on my own property with horses because that’s what I love to do.. And now that’s what I have.

I’d love to go back to the start, your start –  my experience of when I was younger and a 20-year-old starting out in television might be similar to yours. The mindset of the young broadcaster is so interesting – how worried I was almost all the time of doing something wrong. How in your head were you back then? 

My first job in television was in London for BBC World at the beginning of the satellite television revolution, so we’re going back a long way now! I was fronting a TV show called World Business Report, which was then made famous by Richard Quest. It was only a few years after CNN had started 24-hour broadcasting and BBC World satellite was set up to kind of take on CNN. I was 24 and outwardly confident, confident enough to go up to a dude in a bar and say, give me a job and I’ll work for free for the next week – that’s literally how I got the job.

Inwardly though, I was extremely unconfident and unsure of myself, as you tend to be in your early 20s. Of course, working in the media exacerbates that. Working in television is designed so you’re, well, a nice way to say it would be “on your toes”. The real way to say it is that it’s deliberately aimed to foster every little bit of self-doubt you have in yourself so you don’t get too confident, because there’s somebody ready to step into your shoes at any second, as they remind you constantly. 

That’s still a problem that plagues broadcasting and working in the media today. A lot of people see it as a very glamorous job, and I know there’s only a teeny-weeny bit of glamour on certain rare occasions and the rest is hard graft. Times are so different now though, back in my early career all you had to do was be a television reporter, an onscreen reporter or a newsreader. These days, young people coming into the industry have to do everything. They have to shoot their own stories. They have to edit their own stories. They have to write their own stories. So, shout out to them.

When it comes to media jobs, there doesn’t seem like there’s enough great opportunities to go around, which leads to stress?

A lot of people just leave journalism, because they don’t feel that they can absorb the blows. I’m a very optimistic person, I’ve always been that way, I’ve been made redundant four times in my career. That sense that you could be replaced at any time or got rid of is absolutely real. And I have, on a couple of occasions, challenged legally and got paid out. And on another couple of occasions, my lawyer told me it ain’t worth the heartache. Those blows are difficult to take and some people are able to pick themselves up quickly and build something new for themselves, and I’m really fortunate that I am that kind of person.

How do you stay optimistic? Do you have any habits or rituals you’ve learnt over the years that you swear by? 

A few years ago I read somewhere that spending half an hour in a green or blue space gives you eight hours of great mental health, so I started walking the dog on the beach every morning. And now these days I’m surrounded by green everywhere and I’m outside a lot. I don’t use a Fitbit, but my count would be off the charts! There are animals that rely on me and there’s stuff to do all the time. For me I think getting outside really helps. It’s such a cliche, isn’t it, but it works for me.

When we spoke to Mike McRoberts, he talked about reporting negative news every day, so he’d go home and have a drink every night – but he had to give up drinking at the worst of it. How much of a struggle was that for you? How were you able to disconnect and just not take it home with you?

For the past four years I have worked with people’s trauma every single day, which has been a very different experience than just reading the news. I’ve been working with survivors of harassment and abuse, as part of the #metoo movement here in NZ, and helping them to tell their stories. I did get to the point where  I sought some professional supervision, to just of download some stuff. 

Last year, I could physically feel that I was full up to my eyebrows with all of this pain, other people’s pain. I was kind of losing my rag a little bit – not with my survivors – but once I was off the phone. The thing that really helped most – this is gonna make me sound like a workaholic – was having an opportunity to have a break from that work and put my mind to other work which I was incredibly fortunate to stumble across, that was just pure fun. It’s a documentary not in any way, shape or form to connected to my #metoo work. It’ll be staged at the Auckland festival next year, and the ability to do something that’s completely different was very healing for me. 

But the #metoo work had been incredibly impactful, it’s changed the reporting landscape on sexual harassment in this country for sure. Sometimes though, you just got to go and have some fun. I’m a practical person – I’m the opposite of ‘woo woo’! I have family members that have rituals like journaling.  I don’t tend to do that kind of stuff, but I have pulled back from social media. I used to be very active on Twitter and when you’re very active on Twitter, you find yourself being drawn into arguments with people. I stopped doing that during the pandemic, because I just didn’t have the spoons for it.

It’s interesting that you use the word ‘woo woo; as well because I think for a lot of people, that’s what wellness can be seen as. What do you think is the way to get people to have healthier habits without making them feel they are being preached to?  

We’re all beginning to understand the importance of mental health and the importance of being able to talk about your mental health, be it good or bad, and especially when you’re having an issue. I think my generation –  I’m Generation X by the smallest of margins – aren’t great with that. My children’s generation? Absolutely fantastic. Both of my children have had their mental health challenges in the past. They’re extremely skilled at managing their challenges and have been since they were little, you know, probably with help early on.

I’m not an anxious person, I’m kind of the opposite of an anxious person. I sail along, never expecting anything to go wrong. And then I briefly crash when it does. But during the pandemic, I was visited by this incredible anxiety for no reason, apart from the fact that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket of course, and I couldn’t work it out. I was in Queenstown late last year celebrating a very dear friend’s 50th. In a quiet moment, I described this anxiety to her and she went , ‘It’s menopause Ali’. I went, ‘oh, is that it?’ She said it’s one of the main symptoms. 

So, you know, in a way that’s been quite comforting to know why I was suddenly feeling  gripped by this terrible anxiety. It comes in waves and it’s not connected to anything, and for me, because I have a very common logical mind and I’m used to being able to find out what’s going on, it’s been comforting to know that it’s one of the very few and mild symptoms that I’ve had from menopause.

Well talking about your wonderful kids, I want to get your take on parenting in this new world that we find ourselves in. Are there things that in the last few years have showed up for you? Are there any challenges maybe that you didn’t see coming?

Well, the fact that they both moved to Australia pisses me off!  I’ve always said that in parenting – this has become kind of a stuck phrase of mine – that I’m never completely 100% happy and calm unless they’re both under my roof. I had that during the pandemic for a brief time, which was amazing, as an empty nester to suddenly have your children back. Everything was scary and terrifying and weird, but I loved having them home. I really did. 

They live in Australia, my youngest is at university on the Gold Coast, mainly because he and his girlfriend decided they wanted to be somewhere warm for the university years, which I understand. They could have gone to Otago, but instead they’re at Griffith University, which is in the top 50 in the world. They’re having a wonderful time there, and good for them. And my daughter lives in Melbourne, not really because she wants to but because she kind of has to for her job. There aren’t many opportunities here for the kind of work that she does. It’s the universe’s karma, isn’t it? I’ve lived away from my home in Melbourne for 30 years and now my children, who are Kiwi, live away from me. I don’t like that so much but I’m so proud of them. 

It’s a very deep feeling when you see your children as wonderful, kind, evolved people. It just makes me want to cry. They’re just terrific people, you know? I’m a little bit proud of myself for that. It’s mainly them of course, not so much me. They now also tell you stuff about yourself as a parent that you didn’t realise at the time. Apparently I was quite a strict mother. I thought I was a really cruisey, let-them-get-away-with-anything mother, but no, that’s not how they remember it!

Well that leads me to the last question – we always finish with gratitude. This incredible career, the highs and lows, the constant challenges and comfort zones you’ve had to step out of,  but amongst all that, what are you the most grateful for?

I was gonna say mid 50s – that’s not even true! I’m approaching my late 50s. And for some people, this is a time of life that can be quite lonely. I live on my own with my animals but since I moved I’ve made such an amazing quantity of new friends, which has kind of blown me away a little bit – really good, wonderful warm people who I know if I flicked them a text would be here for me in a minute to help me.

I guess I wasn’t expecting that – I’m fine on my own. I don’t get lonely but I’ve been really surprised at how I’ve been able to make a wonderful group of new friends. That’s through a common interest, and if anybody is sitting out there wondering how you make friends as an adult, I know this is boring advice. You’ve heard it a million times but you know, join something or do something that brings people together. 

For me it’s horses, and horses are very complicated. They get ill constantly, they hurt themselves. You constantly need advice and the people that I’ve managed to gather around myself in my new life out here have kind of saved my situation. I’m really, really grateful for that. I’m quite surprised, I’ve met these terrific people who like me, and I like them and we hang out and we text each other if we don’t see each other during the course of the day. Some of them are neighbours, some of them live 10 or 15 minutes away. It’s been very unexpected, and I’m super grateful for it.

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