Michele Hewitson interview: Wallace Chapman

By Michele Hewitson

The new voice of Radio NZ on Sunday mornings is a devoted people-watcher and big fan of Noam Chomsky

The Fijian Baptist minister's son is a mostly frugal man, but happy to shell out big bucks for luggage. Photo / Greg Bowker
The Fijian Baptist minister's son is a mostly frugal man, but happy to shell out big bucks for luggage. Photo / Greg Bowker

Wallace Chapman, the new voice of Radio New Zealand's Sunday Morning, was wearing Kermit-green trousers, an ink-blue shirt and natty brogues. Does it matter what he's wearing?

It certainly does because what people wear is a serious business. Also, he got the trousers and the shoes in Avignon, on his honeymoon, in November. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd researched the shopping opportunities before booking his honeymoon.

He is very interested, you might say earnestly so, in fashion and his hobby is going about taking snaps of stylish people on the street. He goes up to them and says he likes what they're wearing, and asks if he can take their picture and gives them a card. Mostly they say yes.

He puts these pictures on a website and it seemed to me that there was a preponderance of stylish good-looking women but he spluttered and said the pictures were of "good-looking people, good-looking people", and that 50 per cent of them were male. Yes, all right but why does he do it?

He's been doing it since 2010 when one day he was sitting on the bus: "Going 'how can I combine my love of people-watching and photography?' And I thought: 'Holy shit'!" He could, he thought, take photos of people on the street. "In 2010 it had been done in Chicago, New York, Paris ... But it had never been done in New Zealand and I thought: 'Wouldn't it be amazing to have an archive of people in Auckland and Wellington?"'

Yes, but what's it for? He has a funny laugh: Wheezy and high-pitched, like an asthmatic donkey. Hee-haw, wheeze-wheeze, he went. "Because it's a snapshot of time. If I'd been doing it from 1980, wouldn't it be an amazing resource, Michele? If I could look back to 1981 and see how you dressed?" That would be fairly amazing all right. But I still couldn't fathom what it was for. "It's culture!"

His great dream is to make a book of his snapshots of time. His dream interview is Vivienne Westwood. Even his hobby, which looked, or so I hoped, faintly pervy, turns out to be serious.

Of course it's culture. Of course he'd have some worthy and earnest explanation for taking pictures of people in the street. He might still (just) look more student radio's bFM (from which he was given the biff from the breakfast show, in 2006, after nine months) than tweedy RNZ, but it might be his natural home.

I did suggest that RNZ was a bit uncool for him and he said "Uncool? What's that?" Sunday Morning. "Sunday Morning! No way!" Even he could see it might be stretching it a bit to call it cool. "I don't know if it's cool but I've always loved weekend radio."

He has taken over from Chris Laidlaw who did Sunday Morning for 13 years. Did he love Laidlaw? "Well, I listened ... I'm not going to say I loved it but he did a very, very good interview, for example, with Noam Chomsky."

I laughed like an asthmatic donkey. I knew Noam Chomsky would be making an appearance and he did, 10 minutes in. Of course he loves Noam Chomsky. He has 12 of his books. That seemed a lot but it is not. He has written, I was informed by the Chomsky nut, 130 books.

He used Noam Chomsky to justify having done an advertorial, for chocolate. "I did not!" He did so. He said that Chomsky worked for a university which received funding from a defence agency. "No, no, no. My point with that was that there are conflicts wherever you walk, there are conflicts wherever you go." You can choose the conflicts. "You can." He chose the money. "No, no. I chose paying the mortgage, Michele. Because, if you recall, I didn't have a job, baby!"

Anyway (and I was really just seeing whether the nice chap that everyone says he was, was wind-uppable; he is, to a fairly mild point) no more advertorials for him, now that he is part of the RNZ establishment. There will likely be more of Mr Chomsky who he thinks is a "genius, and I think, one of the most important people, not of our time, but of any time. Not because of great insight but the way he is able to order news and information. So, for example, I use his books for reference materials. His footnotes are incredible!"

He is a man who sees beauty in footnotes, then. He has never, actually, despite the student radio stint (he was the station's creative director before he got the short-lived on-air gig), and the clobber, been at all cool.

He was a funny little boy, a serious boy, a Baptist minister's son, who preferred having a cup of tea and sitting on the floor in the family's Manurewa living room listening to his father talk theology than playing outside with the other kids.

At Nelson College, after his father moved the family to the South Island (he got a whack for saying, "Like f***", when told they were leaving Manurewa) he grew an enormous afro and wore waistcoats and paisley and listened to '60s music. This was seriously uncool, which was possibly rather the point.

His dad, who died of a heart attack at the age of 48, was Fijian; his mum was a nurse, pretty and blonde, "just that classic well-to-do Pakeha". They met after his father, also Wallace, came to New Zealand to study for the ministry, saw her in Grafton, somehow managed to get her phone number and called and asked her out.

Of course she said: "No!" He phoned again and she said: "Why not?" "Ha, ha," said Wallace junior, "cheeky Fijians." When his mum told her parents she was going to marry Wallace, her father left the house and sat in his car outside, for two hours. Many years later, after his grandmother died and his grandfather married again, Wallace junior's step-grandmother said: "'You know, Wallace,' - I can always remember this; I was eight - 'I've just got to say that your father is such a wonderful class of Islander.' And dad goes: 'Well done'!"

He says it is an island tradition to name the first son after the father, but it does get confusing. So he was junior or Wallisi, to save confusion at dinner time and when he was older and girls started phoning and would ask to speak to Wallace and get his father. His father would say: "You want to meet where?" Junior would say: "Dad! Give me the phone!"

What would his dad have thought about his son being the broadcaster whose arrival meant that the RNZ Sunday morning hymns were given the heave-ho? "He'd have laughed his head off." And, because he has never yet met a cloud which didn't have a silver lining: It is much better for the hymns to have been moved because they've gone to the Concert programme, "which is stereo!"

I was trying to imagine him with an enormous afro. He doesn't look at all Fijian and he says he calls himself a Pakeha (he calls New Zealand Aotearoa) but he said that when somebody tweeted, about the new RNZ hosts: "'Here we go. Three middle-class white people step up yet again.' I just laughed and thought to myself: 'Well, not so fast!"' He said: "You should see my nana! She's black! She's a full Fijian matriarch."

His father's ministry was of the poor and needy. He set up a budgeting service in Manukau, one of the first, which still exists. (His mother married again, three years after his death, to another nice man and another Baptist minister, who was Maori.) The family were poor too. They never owned a house and lived in parsonages.

Now he lives in a little house in Waterview which he thinks was a state house in another life. State houses are another of his interests. He saved like the blazes to be able to buy it and he is naturally frugal and takes the bus (he can't drive but claims, at 45, he's going to learn) and makes his lunch.

Could I see his monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag? He went and got it and said: "I've always loved heritage." He paid, he said, $2500 for this bag. I had read $2600. "Ha, ha. Well done. I can't remember."

What would his father have though of his son having a monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag? "That's a really good question." I had a really good answer and it was that he would have thought it was ridiculous. I may have been projecting.

He said: "He would have. He would have said: 'Look how far from the tree you have fallen."' He had always wanted a monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag and he thought he'd treat himself after his Back Benchers TV show had had a good year . And it's "sustainable". Sustainable! Well, it is, he said, "that's sustainable luggage".

I thought he was joking. But, "No. No. People go through 10 bags in their life. I've got this one bag and I'll hand this down to my grandchildren."

He might have bought his wife a Louis Vuitton handbag instead. He might, he conceded, and he did think about it. 'That was at the back of my mind, so for her 30th birthday, I bought her a small Louis Vuitton bag." His is a very large bag. Hers is not monogrammed. "No, they don't monogram those versions." The cheap versions. "No! No! But I actually stand by it. I'm going back to the original point, Michele. You'll go through 10 hand bags in your lifetime and what will I be doing? I'll be using that one."

I think he really believes this and he would, wouldn't he? He's supposed to be a pinko leftie because don't you have to be a pinko leftie to work for National Radio? He said, looking pleased with himself: "I asked Mike Hosking that once. Ha, ha."

He wouldn't tell me how he voted; he won't even tell his wife. "There is one thing I strongly subscribe to and that is the idea of personal responsibility."

He was asked to be the leader of Dotcom's party but of course he turned it down. He said he has no idea why they thought he'd be interested but he was "humbled" to be asked. Why on earth would he be humbled? Because it wasn't every day you were asked to be the leader of a political party, he said. He was just being polite and nice because he always is.

He has never thought about whether or not he could be a tough interviewer. That doesn't interest him. He just wants to be fair.

He says he is exactly the same person on the radio as he is off the radio. "No different at all and that ain't going to change." I wasn't quite sure he was right for National Radio but he's perfect, actually - with his niceness and fairness and his monogrammed eco-bag.

- NZ Herald

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