Key Points:

Dame Cheryll Sotheran, who used to be known as Te Mama, and less affectionately as Chernobyl, is now New Zealand Trade and Enterprise sector director, creative and tourism.

This is not a very alluring title and it is, comparatively speaking, a low-profile job for the formerly very high-profile Sotheran. I still have no clear idea what she does in this job, which is partly my fault because I was much more interested in what had happened to her.

After she resigned suddenly as Te Papa's inaugural chief executive in 2002, she seemed to vanish - poof! - just like that, from the face of the Earth.

About all we learned at the time was that she was ill and she didn't intend to talk about it. For much of her time at the museum she certainly looked ill, as well as bad-tempered. She polarised opinion, both inside and outside Te Papa.

She says now, laughing, that "Chernobyl was supposed to be my nickname, though when I asked afterwards nobody would own up to it", Well, no, nobody would, would they? She was supposed to be very scary indeed.

She doesn't look very scary today. She looks a little pixie of a thing, with a mischievous, happy face. Her face has completely changed in the way that people's faces do when they leave stress and unhappiness behind.

"Thank you for saying so."

Hers was such a well-known face that she was often recognised - "I used to notice [being noticed in] the supermarket" - which you'd think might be a bit irritating while also being flattering and possibly addictive. It was also fleeting, much to her obvious delight.

"I don't notice it any more, and it might just be that I don't notice it any more. But I don't think so."

She very much likes the idea of being unrecognisable, and if she didn't work in the public service (she revels in being a born bureaucrat too) you might suspect she chose that achingly dull job title for its very dullness.

Not that she is dull, despite her best efforts to present herself in that light. Her stock answer, when asked about her private life, used to be that it was boring and predictable.

"Ha. Did I say that? Well that was the old grumpy me. My private life is fabulous but it's very family-focused. It's not flashy or glamorous or any of those things, it is actually about gardening and cooking and it's about my kids and my kids' kids."

She has two daughters to former husband Michael Pritchard and two young grandchildren, "so it's not boring and predictable. Why I said that I don't know."

What rot. I know exactly why she said it and so does she: to keep people out. "Mmm, I totally do. But I don't say it any more."

Her former job is not even mentioned in the publicist's pitch suggesting we might like to talk to her. It doesn't need to be, because her name will long conjure controversy, even though she has done her best to achieve a comfortable anonymity.

Now she does things like the Better By Design Summit (May 2 and 3), which is for CEOs and senior managers "to discuss issues about design, innovation and management with particular focus on how to manage the integrate design across business to accelerate growth and performance".

It is, she says, "a totally business-focused programme" and she is totally business-focused in her job with the long title. I ask her about this summit but it is too totally business-focused (with that sort of jargon) for me.

Her job is something about "the thinking is and was that New Zealand should stop looking at transactions on a broad trade front, so not particularly differentiating where companies came from ... " I give up.

Although Sotheran could no doubt bang on about this stuff all day, she doesn't appear to care too much. I thought she might be a bit defensive about being asked about the Te Papa days but she isn't at all. Perhaps it's like talking about some other person she feels only distantly related to.

She watched the Gaylene Preston documentary Getting to Our Place last year for the first time since she'd watched a rough cut in a room with board members, an experience so traumatic she can only remember it as a blur.

On a second watch she was "appalled at how bad-tempered I looked. I looked very humourless, very driven, but very humourless. It was awful. And upsetting for about five minutes.

"But how could I have let myself be so ... you know, dug in to the stress and just lose my sense of humour? You know, I do have a sense of humour and it did go into hibernation but it's alive and well now."

What did go so wrong? I wonder whether she had a breakdown but she says no, she didn't, only her health broke down. She doesn't want to say what was wrong, although I had read that it was diabetes-related, but anyway she was very ill. She says it still upsets her daughters so she'd rather not have any more about it in print. I think it might also distress her because, "oh, I did it to myself".

She was so busy controlling work things that she neglected herself and she was a control freak. She made it hard on herself, she says, because during major renovations, "if I'd been less driven then the visitors would have experienced noise and dirt and confusion and I wasn't having it. I just wasn't having it".

And when Sotheran isn't having it, she really isn't having it. "In those days, yeah!"

She has not changed beyond all recognition. She used to be bossy as all hell. I ask her if she is still and she muses, "A bossy dame ... Oh, I'm less bossy now than I used to be but that's because I have such a high-performing team. And it's completely different when you don't feel that you have to take responsibility for absolutely everything."

But did she really? Perhaps she was so bossy that nobody else dared try to take responsibility.

"Phew. I only had a very small circle of influence and I did, regardless of what the impression was, I did delegate."

I do like that "regardless of what the impression was". She has always been described as tough as old boots, and so what if she was? "Well, so what if I was, yes. I could be as tough as I needed to be if I was focused on getting a result that was required. And what is wrong with that?

"You're quite right. We're right into the world of peculiar stereotypes there. Females are not allowed to be all of those things, are they?"

Even allowing for that perception, it seems extraordinary - and quite obviously to her too, because she talks in a way that is both amused and appalled - to recall the public vilification of Sotheran.

If you hated Our Place, you hated her. "We had to build a profile and it was Te Papa and not me, but it had to build a profile around that. It was very new and actually quite a radical and risky brand exercise." Which became about her.

"There wasn't anything I could do about that. If I could have done it another way, if I'd had the brains to think of doing it another way, I would have.

"The nature of building brands is profile; you have to have a face. I saw it as part of the job but I definitely didn't see it as a bonus."

Even her great big gong, being made a dame, was tarnished by the "awful things that were said". David Lange, whom she was at university with and kept up an acquaintance with, said, "Some woman became a dame for running an entertainment parlour called Te Papa". That, she says, "hurt quite a lot".

She likes being a dame but God knows why, because she doesn't seem to milk it anywhere near enough. People don't call her dame because "I don't want them to. I can't see the point in it".

Her colleagues call her Dame C though and she doesn't mind that. "It's slightly parodying it and it is, you know, recognition but with a bit of irony."

So she got her gong, which was "about affirmation for the project" and that was nice.

But she also came out of the Te Papa experience sounding like a gruesome boss, which nobody could enjoy. There is, she says, "only a small percentage [of truth in that]. I didn't do an awful lot of yelling and screaming but yes, it was true that if I came across wilful non-performers who were in critical positions ... I could be very focused".

I ask whether she was heartily disliked and she says, "It was hard to be dispassionate about it because I felt so dreadful and when you feel like that everything's out of perspective".

"I can only go by what people say to me now, that people really missed me and still do. I'm just going to hang on to that."

At the end of an hour, off she goes, to do whatever it is she does, this smiling, good-tempered woman, "happy to have something as anonymous as sector director which nobody understands". She was engaging and generous in talking about a time she might prefer not to unearth. Still, if I worked for her I'd take good care that she never caught me loitering in a corridor.