Lana's leap outside her comfort zone

By Sarah Lang

"I hate watching myself on television!" laughs Lana Coc-Kroft, when asked if she'll be cosying up on the couch to watch tonight's first episode of new TV2 show Who Dares Wins, which she co-hosts with former SportsCafe sidekick Marc Ellis.

Still, she'll be plonking down by the TV in her Westmere, Auckland home, along with property-manager husband Steve, sons Damien (9), Bronson (7) and daughter Tyler (2). Why, given the cringe factor? To show her kids what she was doing for six weeks of summer. "Mummy goes off to work and I try to explain what I'm doing, but it's nice to sit down with them to watch a show they'll think is cool. They're soooo excited."

Perhaps best-remembered for her frock-flaunting gig on 90s gameshow Wheel of Fortune, over the past 15 years the former Miss Universe New Zealand has carved herself a niche hosting mainly adventure and extreme-sports TV shows. Think Mountain Dew on the Edge, Can You Hackett, On the Road, Test the Nation, Across the Ditch and keeping the boys in line for the long-running SportsCafe.

This year, the 41-year-old is back hosting the first local version of globally popular Who Dares Wins. As the title may have let slip, it's a dare-based show which might just win you something: from $50 to a luxury holiday.

In the crowd-pulling "street dares", Coc-Kroft or Ellis rock up to unwary punters in a street, supermarket or shopping mall and dare them to do anything from eating sheep's eyeballs to retrieving money from a big can of baked beans "using your head, not your hands", grins Coc-Kroft. And that's just a taster. Entree is the "mini dares": plucking people off the street and challenging them to do something scary, "like swimming with sharks or shaving their whole body". The main course is even more sneaky.

Nominated by a friend or family member, an unsuspecting Kiwi is surprised on their doorstep or at the office by two of TVs most recognisable faces and a film crew. "People look at you and say 'Are you taking the mickey, is this serious, are you for real?"' It's not just any old luck-of-the-draw challenge - each main dare is matched to the individual's personality and, of course, fears. "It's full-on raise-the-hackles, heart-palpitations, think-you're-going-to-die stuff," says Coc-Kroft.

"We really do push people's boundaries and take them outside their comfort zone, whatever the dare may be. There's no point taking a guy who's quite adventurous on a bungy jump or throwing him out of a helicopter, because he won't get anything out of it."

One such contestant was assigned a very different dare: to do a striptease in a room full of women. "He was absolutely terrified, but to his credit he gave it 100 per cent. The women were screaming and I don't know if I've ever laughed so hard in my entire life!" The twist is if the contestant fails, the dare is thrown to the host to attempt.

Dressed in sporty-but-stylish attire from favourite designer Storm, Coc-Kroft had a blast getting out and meeting Kiwis around the North Island. "Not a lot of TV is natural and unpremeditated but I loved the realness of this show. We don't make them do things three times; it's all real time. It's also warm fuzzies: we don't force people to do things or try to make them look like idiots, we very much want people to enjoy it."

Amazingly, no one turned down a main dare, and only one person pulled out. "Kiwis generally are up for anything and like the idea of doing something out of the ordinary. That was what was cool about it. And it gives you the Dutch courage to go yeah, I could do that. But unfortunately we don't get to test drive it afterwards!" Growing up in a working-class South Auckland family, this onetime bankteller, PA and model hasn't left many fears unconquered, having done everything from parachuting to diving with sharks in her TV host roles. But her biggest challenges haven't involved the adrenalin of the great outdoors.

One thing that really took her out of her comfort zone was tackling radio as a 91ZM host for five years from the late 90s. "I'd been branded the blonde girl on Wheel of Fortune who showed the clothes, so having that physical side removed was empowering because it was just about me and my personality. And man, I had to work really hard: on my diction, humour, my musical and general knowledge." But there's one fear that has taken decades to conquer: stagefright. "Horrendous, nerve-wracking, forget-my-name kind of stuff. I suffered it from right through my childhood and adolescence into my early adulthood and I still experience moments of it now."

Particularly when she takes on gigs as a speaker. "I find literally being under the spotlight traumatic. I wind myself up weeks in advance. You're thinking should you be serious or should you be light, and I'm not a comedian it does my head in." So why do it? "Because it's good for me mentally. You've got to stimulate yourself, otherwise you stay in a little square and become a boring person." There's another fear she's had to conquer, one which touches us all. Death.

In April 2004, while filming Celebrity Treasure Island in Fiji, Coc-Kroft made headlines when she developed a debilitating disease which she originally thought was an infection from a coral cut. "I kind of had this out-of-body experience: I could hear myself getting a bit panicky because I was trying to reach Steve to say I wasn't feeling well and I wanted to come home. Soon I had enormous temperatures, I couldn't walk, my leg had shooting pains like someone had shot a dagger right up it." Flown by helicopter to Auckland Hospital, she was diagnosed with rare, usually-fatal blood-poisoning disease Streptococcal A toxic-shock syndrome and lapsed into a 14-day coma. Her body fought back and, after 6-7 months of rehabilitation, she was back at her Les Mills pump and aerobics classes sooner than anyone expected.

While admitting the illness and the recovery was incredibly difficult, she bats away any fuss. "I've never been one to live in the past and really, most people have something traumatic happen in their lives. Now, it feels like it never happened." There's no doubt Coc-Kroft is a confident woman. But she confesses she's not as extroverted as she might seem. "The Lana who goes to work is not the Lana who's at home - it's like I'm a completely different person." Sometimes she'll walk out of a function or MC gig "and think 'far out, was that me in there?'."

It takes a lot of awareness and energy to keep up a public persona, she says, especially when she's recognised when out-and-about. I'm quite reserved but I try to be friendly because otherwise people are like 'oh that Lana she's a real bitch'." But anyone who's met her will know she's anything but. Coc-Kroft supports a swathe of charities: World Vision, Cure Kids, the Variety Club, the Starship Foundation, the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, Red Cross and many more. And that's not just looking pretty on a poster: it's often time-sapping stuff including speaking, MCing, attending functions, meeting sick kids, whatever needs doing.

Right now she's involved in Flippa Ball, a nationwide water-polo programme designed to improve children's water competency, and you might spot her and cute daughter Tyler modelling T-shirts on posters for the Glassons Breast Cancer Campaign.

"It's easy to say no because we're busy and consumed with our own lives, but if I'm doing something that motivates other people to get involved or to give, you get a chain reaction. And that's the only way these places are going to survive."

In between charity work and being a mum-of-three, it's amazing she fits in any paid work at all. As for the future, she's hesitant to give away anything given the "there-today-gone-tomorrow" nature of TV. "The jobs I've loved the most are the ones where I've had fun with people. I'll never be a newsreader," she says, "and I'm not much of an armchair spectator, because we're just not here long enough."

* Who Dares Wins premieres tonight on TV2 at 7pm.

- Herald on Sunday

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