Michele Hewitson interview: Tamati Coffey

By Michele Hewitson

Tamati Coffey is not in the slightest bit camp. His "gay trait", he says, is folding things. Photo / Chris Gorman
Tamati Coffey is not in the slightest bit camp. His "gay trait", he says, is folding things. Photo / Chris Gorman

Tamati Coffey had come to meet me fresh from shooting New Zealand's Got Talent so I thought he'd have his telly slap on. But he hates slap and runs away from the make-up ladies, and mostly gets away with appearing on screen all fresh-faced and slap-free.

He must be almost the only person whose mug appears on the telly without lashings of make-up, but you can see how he gets away with it.

He has such a nice face; like a friendly full moon. He is good-looking but not in that intimidating, male model way. He once, many years ago, when he was at uni, went to an agency which signs models and "talent".

"I can remember the meeting. I sat down in the boardroom and two ladies came in and one lady basically sized me up and said 'okay' and she walked out. And the lady that was left over told me the way it works is that you have modelling ... and then you have talent. 'And I'd like to suggest that you go into our talent pool'."

He did some ads, including a Rugby World Cup one which involved standing in a pub, pretending to drink beer, and cheering at a TV screen. He drinks riesling. Is he a rugby fan? "No!" He can look the part.

The part he was looking today was, well, what? He was wearing a checked shirt over a T-shirt, with jeans and a baseball cap on backwards (that was to hide his hair; he'd been shooting up in the wind on North Head and he hadn't managed to escape the ministrations of the hair ladies.) He looked as though he'd stepped out of an advertisement for beer, or BBQs, or the Rugby World Cup, perhaps. He looks like a chap to trust, the bloke next door.

What is this costume supposed to say about him? "Ha, ha. It's meant to say that I'm casual, friendly. It's the kind of stuff that I'd normally wear. Mine has just been through the wash a couple of times."

Somebody wrote that he appears to have slimmed down and camped up for this new series of New Zealand's Got Talent (there, that's two plugs already; left to him there'd have been none. I was going to say that he's utterly hopeless at publicity but of course he's the best publicity there is for the show, which is why he's the host.)

He says he has slimmed down because he got fat because he was working too hard and comfort eating. His dad is a chef and his mum a case manager at the Maori Land Court but they have a sideline in fry bread burgers (chicken, stuffing, aioli, yum) at the Rotorua night markets. His partner Tim is a keen and good cook and he goes home to a "restaurant quality" meal every night. So did he get really fat? "Ha, ha. I was bigger. Not the biggest I've ever been, but yeah, I was a big boy. Food became my friend."

Anyway, he's slimmed down, certainly; he doesn't know what camped up means except that it might be that he is the "wow!" guy, the "big moments" guy and those are the moments that are edited in. "I'm just me. But for the other six hours [of filming] I'm just standing there looking solemn."

He is not in the slightest bit camp. His "gay trait", he says, is folding things. He loves folding clothes and straightening things around the house, into nice straight lines, and putting things away and making the bed. He is a tranquil sort of person who has a tattoo on his arm which reads: Everything is as it is supposed to be ... right now.

"You know, those mini dramas that happen on a day-to-day basis? I think it's easier to let it go."

He is blessed with a naturally sunny nature so he is the perfect host for a family show in which people turn up with some very loose interpretation of talent and are applauded for giving it a go. It is a very New Zealand sort of show, somehow; a DIY sort of spirit runs through it. He "genuinely" loves it, and you can see that you couldn't be the host if you didn't. What he loves about is that: "My nan could watch it. She might roll her eyes ..."

He is on the telly so he has to have an image which is, he thinks, "man of the people". He used to be on What Now, so kids relate to him and he to them. "I think they see me as big brother. I think some of the old ladies think of me as the little grandson, that they're proud of. I think the mothers see me as the possible son-in-law."

All of which seems about right. "Well, I won't be anybody's son-in-law any time soon!"

He said: "I just want to be like everybody else."

He meant that he wants to be married, like everybody else. "Because my parents are married and my sister's married and all of my family get married. Why can't I?" He can now marry Tim, who proposed the very minute after the Marriage Amendment Act was passed. They were watching it being live-streamed, on Tim's mum's laptop, in England, and drinking a bottle of Veuve. They are already in a civil union - they had a big flash bash and sold the story to a women's mag. This always seems to me to be a funny thing to do but I suppose the mag pays for the big flash bash. "Ooh! Did they? I'm not sure that I can answer that." He just had, but he says they sold their big day because: "You've got to remember that I never thought I'd have that day. I honestly never thought that, being gay, I'd ever be able to do anything like that. I thought I might be able to have some airy-fairy commitment ceremony on a beach somewhere, with some flowers and that would be my lot. So when the civil union came in, that made me feel that I might get the day."

Oh, good on him. Why not share the day and have somebody else pay for it? He and Tim will "upgrade" to a marriage, but they won't have another big do. He is not really that much of a razzle-dazzle kind of bloke.

He and Tim met at the Family Bar, a gay club on Karangahape Rd. He was on What Now then. So hosting telly for kids during the day and gay nightclubs at night. That's what you might call a balanced life style. "Ha, ha. I'm still an adult! People expect us to go home and play in sand pits and stay up doing jigsaws all night long."

Tim didn't have a clue who he was, having recently arrived from the UK (he was a secondary school teacher who is now training to be a real estate agent.) He was at the bar to break up with his then boyfriend, of four weeks. He saw Tamati, liked him, and slipped him his phone number on a bit of paper where "it burnt a hole in my pocket".

He later sent a text asking Tim if he remembered giving him his phone number, and if his boyfriend knew he'd given him the phone number. I'd already asked if they'd hooked up that first night and he was horrified.

"No! You're quite direct, aren't you?"

I'm quite direct! He told me he always checks out girls (gay guys do, he says), mostly to see whether they've shaved their legs (I have not the foggiest idea why he would care.) He checked out my legs. I asked if they were going to have kids ("yes") and how they were going to go about it and he said: "Don't know. Got a spare uterus?"

I think people think butter wouldn't melt in his mouth - an occupational hazard for telly presenters of shows for kids, and weathermen, which he was on Breakfast for five years - and that he's a goody two shoes (he is, a bit.) I also think - how to put this? Directly, I suppose - that people think he's a bit thick - possibly for the above two reasons, although who knows why?

Also, if he was at all precious he might have been, rightly, affronted at being asked. He wasn't a bit. "I think people are surprised to find out that I've even been to university." But doesn't he mind that? "Nah, I don't mind. It's my trump card. Let them believe what they want to believe."

He is filling in on Seven Sharp and a cameraman told him he thought he was really good on it and he said "oh, thanks man!" He was chuffed. The camera man went on to tell him that somebody said to him the other day that "he doesn't suit it. He's not brainy enough". How kind people are. He's used to it. Being sort of famous is "a blessing and a curse". A blessing when the cabin crew give him a glass of bubbles before take-off; a curse when drunk people tell him his shirt doesn't suit him. He just smiles and says: "Thank you."

He's clever enough, he says, in a tortoise way, meaning he has to work hard. He has an honours degree in political science and he had a job with the iwi relations unit at the Auckland Regional Council. If his life had gone to plan he'd now be working, he says, for Len Brown. When I arrived he was looking at the paper and he said: "Oh, the mayor's in a bit of trouble." And closed the paper very quickly.

He's not a prude, but he is a stickler for behaving properly. He said if Tim had been "looking for some fun on the side" he wouldn't have been interested. "No way!" He made him work to woo him. He set a series of tests. He'd text him on a Wednesday, say, and say: "'We're going to be in Palmerston North this weekend [for What Now] so you're welcome to come down ...' And he had no idea where Palmerston North was but sure as anything, on Friday afternoon, I'd get a text saying: 'Just finished school ... I'll see you in six hours." He even once got him to go to Balclutha! Boy, you have to work hard to woo him. "Yeah! You do."

He always suspected he was gay but tried to have girlfriends. His first crush was on Jethro in the Beverly Hillbillies. Gok Wan, the British television fashion make-over chap, was mad for him when he was here. Well, he got short shrift.

"I did fob him off. Because I love my boy."

He's not at all impressed by fame, least of all his own, which means he's not like anyone else I've ever met who's on the telly. That might be his greatest talent. That and being just a very nice man on the telly, and off.

- NZ Herald

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