Catching up with our reality TV winners

By Dionne Christian

As a new series of New Zealand's Next Top Model gets underway, Dionne Christian catches up with four Kiwi reality TV winners about how the shows have changed their lives. She finds that, for some, winning isn't everything.

Misty and Quintien Calder's dream house proved to be a problem for her health. Photo / David Fairey
Misty and Quintien Calder's dream house proved to be a problem for her health. Photo / David Fairey

"Your life will never be the same again" has become the great catch-cry of reality television shows. Spurred on by the chance to compete and win a lifestyle change most of us can only dream about - be it a new house, husband or singing career - otherwise cautious introverts become overnight extroverts.

But is life really changed forever once the cameras stop rolling and TV viewers move on to the next big thing? Canvas revisits some past winners to check what happened next - and whether the reality was all they hoped for.

Misty and Quintien Calder
Mitre 10 Dream Home 2008 winners

Sitting cross-legged on her Auckland Hospital bed, Misty Calder still manages a warm smile despite the events of the past year.

Three years ago, she and husband Quintien, their six children and extended family were the toast of Taranaki when, as the Yellow Team, they built and won their five-bedroom house in series 9 of Mitre 10 Dream Home.

But last year Misty, 30, was diagnosed with an allergy to dust mites so severe that it progressed from constant and niggling hayfever-like symptoms to anaphylaxis. This is the most severe allergic reaction a person can have and can be fatal without promptly administering a dose of adrenaline.

With Misty starting to experience regular anaphylactic episodes, the Calders rented out their dream home and moved closer to Taranaki Base Hospital in New Plymouth. For the past six months she has travelled to Auckland every week for "desensitisation therapy".

Misty spends an average of four days per week in hospital, being injected with very small doses of dust mite allergen. The amount of allergen is gradually being increased until Misty becomes desensitised to dust mites.

It could take months, so Quintien is taking time off from his barbershop business to look after the couple's children, aged 6-15.

"Winning the house and being mortgage-free allowed us to purchase the barbershop where Quintien worked," says Misty. "It's been a blessing. If Quintien hadn't been able to work shorter hours while I'm having this treatment, the strain on the family would have been enormous and I would have worried a lot more about how my kids were faring while I'm in hospital."

Ironically, Misty's condition might have been worsened by the move into their "dream home". The Calders once lived in a house that was so cold they hung blankets on the lounge walls and extra blankets over the curtains to keep warm. So it's not surprising their new home was to be well-heated.

But dust mites thrive in warm conditions. While doctors believe Misty has always been allergic to dust mites, her symptoms were mild until about a year after the move. "We made the house super-warm, with not so much ventilation."

However, the extra warmth did improve son Eliason's chronic asthma. The win has also allowed the couple to send their kids to schools of their choice and support them in sporting and artistic endeavours. They paid for their oldest son, Sunne, 13, to travel to Australia as part of a Basketball New Zealand development squad.

"These are things we simply never would have been able to do before," says Misty.

The couple entered the contest, encouraged by Quintien's customers, because they had "absolutely nothing" to lose.

What floored Misty the most was public reaction. One day she was followed by so many people in a local supermarket, staff stepped in so she could finish her weekly shop in peace. "And you know, young children sometimes aren't always on their best behaviour in public."

She was warned not to read online comments when the show screened but couldn't resist taking a look and found she'd become the show's villain.

"I just cried and cried when I read what people wrote. Some of it was personal and deeply hurtful. I am an emotional person and I'm quite honest so I would say what I was feeling because that's what I think I should do. But I was targeted for it."

Misty and Quintien went to the grand final - filmed four months after they finished building, and decided by public votes - expecting to lose. She recalls feeling completely overwhelmed when they were announced as the winners and able to move into the house that night.

"I would encourage people to put themselves forward for a show like this, but also tell them to have a group of trusted and close supporters around them."

Ben Lummis
NZ Idol 2004 winner

These days Ben Lummis is almost unrecognisable as the softly spoken and baby-faced 25-year-old who hit all the right notes to win New Zealand Idol in 2004. He's shaved his head and got a full-length tattoo (of musical notes) on his right arm, which is considerably more toned than it was seven years ago.

Yes, says Lummis, he works out and while he may look a little different, he's still a committed Christian who believes in doing good works, inspiring others and making music.

He's now a youth worker for the Youth Horizons Trust and helps wayward teenage boys sort themselves out. He says his background allows him to break down barriers and find common ground with the boys more quickly than others might.

"They like that I won Idol. It gets them talking to me."

Lummis has only good memories of his time on the show, saying he would "most definitely" do it all again. He got to work full-time in the music industry for around four years, released one of the country's biggest-selling singles (They Can't Take That Away) and toured New Zealand, and a chunk of the world, because of his Idol status. He's also owned a couple of very nice cars, thank you.

"When I was no longer on TV every week, obviously that made it a lot harder and because when people don't see you all the time, they think you're not doing anything. But I was busy."

One highlight was touring with fellow finalists on the New Zealand Idol Live! road show. Recognised wherever he went, Lummis didn't mind being confined to hotel rooms and concert venues.

"In terms of getting recognised, it went to a whole other level after I won Idol. The tour was just crazy with crowds of people wanting autographs and mobbing us. I couldn't go out in public unless I had security people with me.

"For those first three months, I was living out of a suitcase and I loved it. I like hotels. I liked having my own room, kicking back and watching satellite TV and ordering room service. It was great."

That same year, Lummis was flown to Athens to perform at the New Zealand Olympic team's official dinner. He got a free ticket to the opening ceremony.

"I was blown away. I couldn't believe I was in Greece watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics. That's something that never, ever would have happened without Idol. I felt truly blessed."

Lummis says his faith kept him grounded and helped him to deal with inevitable disappointments. Although his debut album was certified triple platinum, he was dropped by his record company Sony BMG three months after its release.

It's a decision he says still puzzles him and says his potential to learn more and to develop as a singer/songwriter was stymied as a result.

"I guess the biggest disappointment was the attitude of the music industry. I think they figured I was a guy who got a lucky break because I was on a TV show and everything was given to me. The feeling seemed to be that there were other artists out there who deserved success more than I did."

Lummis eventually became his own manager, booking his own gigs and appearances and learning about the day-to-day realities of life as a working musician. He kept making music full-time for four years before starting his present job but continues to work with other artists and to sing.

And he still gets invited to perform and to speak to young people. He says the ability to possibly inspire others and make a positive change is a privilege and one of the best things to come out of Idol.

He admits there are times when he still feels as if he has to prove that he's not just a TV karaoke singer.

"When I sing, they go, 'wow! You're really good - you can sing!' I get tired of having to explain myself because I'm still here and I'm still doing what I love."

Mat Follas
British MasterChef 2009 winner

Mat Follas won British MasterChef in 2009, a year before New Zealand started screening its own version of the hit show. Unlike NZ series winners Brett McGregor and Nadia Lim, there was no cookbook deal or car on offer for the British winner.

Instead it's all about the kudos, says 44-year-old Follas, who was reaised in New Zealand. The father-of-three went into the cooking competition wanting to change his life. At the very least, he wanted to get through to the final to make a name for himself and switch from working in IT to running his own restaurant.

A fan of foraged and seasonal food, Follas' MasterChef winning menu was a starter of trio of wild rabbit, a main course of spider crab with hand-cut chips and sea vegetables and, for dessert, lavender mousse with hokey-pokey honeycomb and a blackberry sauce.

Two years on, Follas owns The Wild Garlic, a neighbourhood bistro in Beaminster, Dorset. The food is fresh, so much so he changes the menu on an almost daily basis, and brings innovative twists to classic dishes.

The restaurant has won rave reviews from acid-tongued critics for the likes of The Telegraph, The Guardian and Olive Magazine. It's been recommended in The Good Food Guide, listed in the Michelin Guide and won an AA rosette in its first year. As Follas says, achievements like this are almost unheard of for a professional cook let alone an amateur-turned-pro.

"I like to think I would have done it anyway, but without MasterChef it would have taken a whole lot longer. Winning MasterChef gave me an enormous jump and a huge head start but I knew we had to be able to deliver.

"If the food had have been rubbish, the critics who were coming into see what a TV show winner could do, would have savaged us and that would have been it."

But Follas had to contend with an unexpected ingredient in his plan when the global financial crisis hit. It was a risk to open a business in an industry which can be among the first to feel the pinch as cash-strapped consumers cut back.

He says being a New Zealander helped in that he probably has more of an adventurous streak than some and used "Kiwi ingenuity" to plan his restaurant. As well as an appealing point of difference in using foraged foods, he made the restaurant fun and family-friendly; one which would build a local clientele who would stay loyal long after memories of his MasterChef triumph faded.

Follas admits that at times the atmosphere he has created has been at odds with the expectations of MasterChef viewers. On a recent Saturday night a couple of out-of-towners complained about the noise from a nearby table where a 40th birthday party was in full swing.

"The gentlemen seemed to think as MasterChef winner, I should not allow my restaurant to function like a neighbourhood one where local people can have a few and have a good time, but that's what it is."

He got a taste of what might public reaction might be like before the public knew he had won. (Because the series was filmed six months before it screened, he had to keep quiet about his win.) On holiday, he and his family attempted to walk through the streets of Padstow, Cornwall but were stopped so often by well-wishers they couldn't get anywhere. Follas describes it as a bit of a shock.

"There was one particularly belligerent gentleman who was simply not prepared to let it go when I told him I couldn't possibly tell him if I did indeed win. I did think things were going to get unpleasant but he eventually backed off."

He says having six months "heads-up" gave him valuable time to think and plan. His advice to anyone in a similar position is to think long and hard about how to progress if their wish comes true.

Despite the recession, Follas never wavered in his ambition. He says he was burnt-out in his old job and saw a chance to make a change.

"You get to a point where you have to decide to take an opportunity or not. I think it's a shame when people don't. I would hate to go through life thinking, 'what if?"'

While Follas has lived in England for a large chunk of his adult life, he hasn't forgotten his New Zealand roots. He instigated the Kai We Care fundraising dinner where a number of noted British chefs prepared a seven-course dinner to raise money for Christchurch's earthquake recovery fund. To date, the event has raised more than £60,000 ($118,124) with proceeds from an auction still coming in.

Andrew Lockett
Who Wants to be a Millionaire? 2003

Andrew Lockett has always been good at quizzes. Back in the 1980s, he was on a University Challenge team which made the semi-finals; he made it to the finals of Mastermind and he was a regular participant with his mates at pub quizzes.

So when the chance to appear on the Australian version of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? arose, the father-of-three jumped at it.

"I've got a competitive streak and I like winning, plus, like most families, we could do with the money. Our car was well and truly on its last legs and the money offered on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was the best prize that had ever been offered on a quiz show."

Lockett applied to take the trip across the ditch and test his knowledge - and buzzer-pushing abilities - but was almost caught out when the show's producers called to say they wanted him as a contestant. "I didn't have a current passport and had to apply for an emergency one to get over there."

He and wife Brenda spent about 48 hours in Melbourne and flew home with a AU$500,000 ($64,700) cheque. While Lockett's appearances screened over two weeks - increasing the tension for New Zealand fans - he filmed the episodes on the same day.

"It was incredibly stressful, sitting in that chair opposite Eddie McGuire, who, of course, had to pause and take his time over letting you know if you were right or wrong in order to heighten the drama. "It was especially terrifying at first when I struggled with just the second question but then I settled down when I started getting the questions right."

Lockett's last question was how many Dalai Lamas had there been. With $468,000 at stake - he had $32,000 guaranteed - and no more lifelines left to provide additional help, he decided to take a cheque for $500,000.

He simply wasn't prepared to risk what he had won by guessing. Arriving home, there was a short burst of media attention, which Lockett says was a little overwhelming, but life returned to normal fairly quickly.

While he wouldn't call it a life-changing experience, it certainly made things easier for the family. They live in a comfortable but not extravagant Auckland home and, yes, they got the new car. There are times when I honestly wonder how people afford to pay a mortgage. We get to the end of a fortnightly pay cycle and, like a lot of people, the money is all gone - particularly as the kids get older. I am very grateful for all that happened."

- NZ Herald

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