Anyone expecting sweet-faced Miriama Smith to be the pushover judge on Prime's new variety show New Zealand's Got Talent is in for a surprise. With $100,000 up for grabs, the actor/TV presenter says she wants to make sure that only the best acts get through.
"I guess because I'm the female, people could think that I'm going to be the nurturing one," says. "But I'm not like Paula Abdul on Idol who just oozes niceties. I always make suggestions and encourage people but I'm tough, too. I'd take each new act as they come but always ask myself do they have the `wow' factor and are they entertaining?"
New Zealand's Got Talent is the local version of an international format that has been successful worldwide. It starts tomorrow at 7.30pm on Prime. The public will play catch-up with the regional auditions and then can have their say for the semifinals and, of course, the overall competition winner.
The show is hosted by radio/TV presenter Jason Reeves and The Crowd Goes Wild's Andrew Mulligan. At the judging table Smith will be joined by former NZ Idol judge Paul Ellis and former Radio with Pictures presenter Richard Driver - and both men agree that Smith is tougher than she looks.
"I was really surprised," admits Ellis. "But then, as an actress, she knows first-hand all about auditions and how you have to put everything into them, just like a job interview."
Fans of talent shows always like to see a bit of conflict at the judging table and New Zealand's Got Talent will be no different. The judges are all different people with different tastes and Driver says after an initial period of "sniffing each other out" they are now talking straight and telling each other what they think about each act and "openly disagreeing".
Everyone is expecting Paul Ellis to reprise his straight-talking New Zealand Idol personae and to play the nasty Simon Cowell role of the trio. But he says he is much gentler on this show "because we are not giving away a career".
While Ellis says there are no meanies on the show, his fellow judges say he is the most "direct and honest of the three".
"A lot of times he said what we were thinking but as New Zealanders we are not used to that because we're used to being nice all the time," Smith explains.
Driver, who now runs the Documentary Channel on Sky Television, says he is probably the most diplomatic of the three.
"The judges sit with the audience behind them and while some people are relaxed others are deadly serious about the talent of their friends and family. Early on, I found it hard not to be swayed by the mood of the crowd."
In addition to her auditioning experience, Smith came to the show direct from competing in Dancing with the Stars and so says she knows first-hand what it is like to be judged by a panel and also the nation.
Fans of that show will probably not be surprised to see the tougher side to Smith; she was a strong competitor on Dancing with the Stars, making it through to the final three. She jokes that her touch rugby team also know all about how competitive and steely she can be.
In addition to winter touch, Miriama loves yoga and working out and she says fitness is a big part of her life. She has a Bachelor of Sport and Fitness from Waikato University and a Postgraduate Diploma in Communications from Auckland University of Technology adding further depth to her experience as a presenter on shows such as Destination New Zealand, House & Garden and Intrepid Journeys.
Smith's introduction into the entertainment industry came when she was a teenager and her mother sent her to a modelling and deportment course. "She didn't want me to be a tomboy but I just went because there was a prize."
The head teacher suggested that with Smith's bubbly personality, acting would be a better career and after securing an agent, the outgoing teen secured work on TV commercials. An ad for Rose's chocolates was a particular highlight she says because she got to take all the extra boxes home to friends and family. Since those early days she has appeared in four feature films and many television shows including Shortland Street, Hercules, Serial Killers and Mercy Peak - the latter a personal highlight for the actress because of its strong cast and compelling writing.
Smith lives in central Auckland with flatmates and is single. Marriage and kids might be on the cards one day but for now she is focusing on her career and a passion for travel. She says she gets her dose of kid fun by being a hands-on aunt to her brother's children, who live in Maketu in the Bay of Plenty.
"When I go to visit, my niece invites all her friends over to see `Aunty Miri from the telly' and they just stand and stare at me like quiet little mice."
Her nephew rang her recently because he wanted to interview a famous person and she says he was a pretty tough interviewer who stumped her with a question about her most embarrassing moment. She gave him free rein to write but then got worried about what he might invent. "I was relieved when he said `Aunty Miri don't worry, I just said that you were embarrassed about the skimpy outfit that you had to wear on Dancing with the Stars'."
While the British version of Got Talent was famous for finding opera singer Paul Potts and the US version for the antics of celebrity judges David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osbourne, Smith says the Kiwi show is all about the local talent.
Kiwi contestants range in age from 6 to 76 years and their acts run the gamut from hip-hop dancers to pop singers, jugglers, acrobats and even a man who plays the trumpet while riding a unicycle.
Smith and her fellow judges were impressed by the talent and display and say New Zealanders will enjoy the show's entertainment value and its family-friendly focus. Especially in such gloomy times with bad weather, a looming election and recession dominating current affairs.
Smith says: "It was great to travel around New Zealand and see people from Taihape, Motueka and all the rest. In the Auckland region there was a lot of diversity, probably because of the bigger population. Christchurch was interesting and Wellington showed its roots as a cultural hub." She says the depth of talent around the country is such that the standout contestants come from all over New Zealand. And while the judges agreed on some choices, there was strong debate over others.
Although Driver and Ellis have music industry experience, they are quick to point out that singers and musicians will get no special treatment.
"I'm probably tougher on singers than the others because I know what it takes to have a successful career.
"But overall I made sure I was wearing my V for variety hat," Ellis says.
Adds Driver: "I was only in a band for five years so was hardly in the industry long and since then I've had a really varied career in television direction and production. I've programmed telethon and children's TV shows so I've got a very broad outlook."
It's amazing Driver has time for the show given that in addition to running a television channel, he has five children. He says they are anticipating his appearance on the show with a mixture of "embarrassment and excitement".
The younger ones are also showing an entrepreneurial streak, asking Driver to sign New Zealand's Got Talent posters and other merchandise which he suspects they will be selling at school.
Such enthusiasm from a notoriously hard-to-please generation has to bode well for the show, especially given it has such a big public vote component.
* New Zealand's Got Talent is on Prime tomorrow at 7.30pm and repeats Friday at 8.30pm.