Miriama Smith looking for Aroha

Miriama Smith is looking forward to helping Cupid, writes Elisabeth Easther.
New Zealand actress and presenter Miriama Smith. Photo / Alan Gibson
New Zealand actress and presenter Miriama Smith. Photo / Alan Gibson

It'd be safe to assume that actress Miriama Smith knows a thing or two about aroha. Not only is she a wife and mother, she's also a marriage and civil union celebrant and, more recently, as the presenter of Maori Television's Finding Aroha, she's been learning even more about that crazy little thing called love.

It is billed as a fun new dating show -- "think Tinder on television" -- and the task of giving love a gentle nudge (or a hearty shove) is placed in the hands of the singleton's whanau and friends. With their loved one's best interests at heart, the "panel" is shown two likely suitors from whom they must select the person they think will be the right match.

Given the theme, it's hard to imagine a better host than Smith. Besides being a well-loved star of stage and screen (Mt Zion, Kaitangata Twitch and Filthy Rich), in her role as a celebrant, 40-year-old Smith, who is of Te Arawa descent, has witnessed all facets of love, and it's clear she enjoys helping couples share their love stories with their nearest and dearest.

"The opportunity to meet people and hook them up, well I jumped at it," Smith says, "because it's a nice parallel to what I do."

Having played a pivotal role in so many weddings -- "it's such an honour to be part of people's special day" -- Smith will be using all she's learned to help the show's contestants find true love.

"I think when we say we're ready for love, sometimes our words don't match our energy; people say they're actively looking but when you delve deeper, sometimes they are actually closing doors. They think they're putting it out there but it might be hurt energy, or guarded energy. We have to understand our energy and be open to love before we can receive it."

In the making of this show, no one is harmed, emotionally. At least, not by the producers. No one is subjected to stunts to boost ratings. They are simply couples looking for love, not fame. There are some surprises, though, insists Smith. Not that she'll give any spoilers.

As Smith explains it, Finding Aroha's kaupapa is simple. It's warm and it's kind, a striking contrast to many of today's more radical dating shows where the formats seem to deliberately manufacture drama or stir up tension.

"What happens is, the family or friends will nominate their unlucky-in-love contestant and then they are shown two people, matched on likes, dislikes and age. Maori Television people interviewed lots of singles, and matched people up prospectively, and then the family or best friends of the singleton come on and act as the panel."

After asking the two potential suitors a range of probing questions, including inquiries about their romantic track record, the whanau and friends make their decision.

And at the end of question session, the contestant's panel of loved ones has a little hui and one lucky suitor is selected to go on the date. Will love blossom? Will it merely be a friendly connection? Or will the couple hiss at each other like angry cats? Of course you'll have to watch to find out.

Smith, who has been engaged to former Tall Black Brendon Pongia and, later, former All Black Frank Bunce, but married neither, was fortunate enough to meet her partner through family connections -- Smith's husband is friends with her cousins -- and Smith admits that, "for me, it was easy".

Which is why Smith can see the value of internet dating for people who can't find a good match so close to home.

"That's why things like Tinder have opened a lot of doors for people, but then they can also be spoilt for choice so they don't actually go 'you know what, maybe I should try a little harder'. We're spoilt with this banquet of choices to meet people, which is perhaps why relationships might not work out, or people don't stay," Smith says.

As a young woman, dating and finding love was a by-product of a healthy social life, says Smith.

"I didn't really date. We all just hung out in social or sports groups. Finding a boyfriend was usually accidental as opposed to intentional, because I was a bit of a tomboy.

"Relationships have taught me to marry your best friend -- at least they laugh at your jokes!"

In Finding Aroha, romantic dates range from elegant lunches to white-water rafting, trips to Auckland Zoo and Rainbow's End. The excursions feature some kind of activity, in order to help the conversation flow. Hopefully this helps the candidates alleviate some of those first-date nerves -- which are surely exacerbated when there's a camera crew present.

"I have so much respect for the contestants. I would never have the courage to put myself out there, or let my family or friends choose for me, or do it on national television," Smith says.

She lets slip there are some repeat dates on the show but the big reveals will be saved for the final episode of the series when all the stories will be wrapped up and viewers will learn who, if anyone, found aroha everlasting.

"Everything is so much more fast-paced now and love has evolved in lots of different ways but the essence of love," Smith says, "has stayed the same."

And what advice would she give her child when the time comes for them to navigate that ocean?

"When my son is ready to set out in the world of dating and romance I would suggest he just be himself."

Finding Aroha premieres on Maori Television on Thursday, August 4 at 8.30pm.

- Weekend magazine

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