Michele Hewitson Interview: Michelle Boag

By Michele Hewitson

Michelle Boag says she doesn't need much sleep and often gets up at 3am or 4am and starts working. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Michelle Boag says she doesn't need much sleep and often gets up at 3am or 4am and starts working. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Michelle Boag made one of her grand entrances - and she was only walking into her own boardroom.

She was wearing - you have to ask - Adrienne Winkelmann and Ferragamo shoes and a jacket in eye-popping blue with puffy shoulders to the ceiling that she picked up from a place called the European Fashion Studio, which is where she shops when "I go to do more economical shopping".

She says she has no idea what she spends on clothes. "A lot less than I used to." Which was how much? "Too much."

She had a jar of her famous home-made plum jam in each hand, and plonked them down: one for me, one for the photographer. What a gracious gesture. She said: "I figured you'd be bribable."

She's got the cheek of the devil, and the stories to prove it. I'd asked if she had John Key's cellphone number and of course she does, but "I usually text him."

Not at odd hours like Andrew Williams? "No. I had lunch with Andrew Williams. I invited him to lunch because I'd heard that he muttered, 'Oh, that Michelle Boag. Grr, grr,' so I ran into him in the street and I said, 'Hello, Andrew. Lovely to meet you. I'd like to take you to lunch,' and he said, 'Oh, okay', so we had lunch and it was lovely and he was charming and I said to him, 'I just want you to realise I'm not Dr Evil'."

That story, and that she told it, tells you pretty much all you need to know about how she operates.

When I phoned her some weeks ago, to ask for an interview she said she'd ask her husband. He was in a hospital bed at the time.

This seemed a funny thing to do. I'd have thought that the last thing Boag - who may or may not be the most powerful woman in Auckland ("it's not me") - would seek permission of anyone to do anything.

"He's a good Kiwi bloke ... so he'd like his mates to know ... he wears the pants."

I looked sceptical. "He would say on some things yes and on some things no."

Anyway, he said "yes".

Then she phoned and said her client, the Auckland Transition Agency, which is using her company, Momentum, to recruit Super City Management, was taking out newspaper ads on the day the interview was intended to appear, and that an interview would be a bad look.

But she'd love to do it sometime soon, because, really, she wanted to interview me.

That is a prospect at once disarming and terrifying - both of those approaches are well-honed weapons in her impressive armoury. Ask Andrew Williams.

I phoned again: it still wasn't a good time, and then it really wasn't a good time. She is also on John Banks' SuperCity mayoral campaign team so anyone, particularly her, could have seen that it was only a matter of time before somebody shouted "conflict of interest".

Labour MP Phil Twyford did and after a process involving mutterings of murky dealings, she stepped down from the recruiting. So I thought she'd have gone to ground. I should have known better. She never does for long.

There was a story about her this week in My Generation and the bit I really enjoyed was the titbit about how every year she makes, and gives away, 400 jars of plum jam.

Your average domestic goddess might settle for 40. 400! Huh, that's nothing to her. She makes Nigella look like a slacker; she made me want to go and lie down for a week.

What a nice story, I said, possibly a little sarcastically. "Yeah, and that's unusual, isn't it?" Is it? "Oh, I don't know. I don't have any complaints. I find a silver lining in any cloud. I'm relentlessly positive."

Everything is about her image. She said: "My profile is my livelihood." Could she say that nice story wasn't calculated, for her image? She gave me one of her looks, of which she has an impressive repertoire.

She said, scathingly, "Well, no. I couldn't prompt her to ring me up." Then she grinned. "But I did think, 'Oh well, that's not going to do me any harm!"'

Not after the ATA spat, no. Oh, that. She was very grateful to Phil Twyford, she said, because he'd freed her up to do much more profitable work.

To my raised eyebrow she said, "Well, he did! And the other thing he saved me from doing was having to tell a whole lot of people I know really well that they didn't get the job."

Spin, spin, spin. She said, airily, "I told you I could find a silver lining in any cloud."

She gave her silver lining philosophy within five minutes, an excellent tactic because you can ask about the two things which ought to have been career botch-ups - the Winebox inquiry and her involvement in the covert filming of Winston Peters and her presidency of the National Party before National's catastrophic election result of 2002 - and she'll not merely silver the lining, but add ermine and diamonds.

I asked if she lay awake at night during the Winebox fiasco but that was, to her obvious delight, the wrong question. She doesn't need much sleep and often gets up at 3 or 4am and starts working.

That always seems to me to be an alpha being trait but she says it's just metabolism. She told me she had a childhood fantasy about what it would be like if she was the only person in the world who didn't need sleep.

"Think of all the things I could do while everyone else was asleep!"

A shrink would have a field day with that. I just felt thankful she sleeps at all. I had been going to ask whether she had any regrets about the Winebox, but I didn't bother.

"No. Because I don't."

She was castigated by the PR Institute for her role in the Winebox. So she quit. Presumably because she didn't want to be judged.

"No, what is it, 12 years later? And here they are welcoming me as their major sponsor because I'm giving them money. You know, they've suddenly forgotten all that and the ... people who were sanctimonious about me are being all friendly."

So she's giving money as a sort of pay back. "No, no. It was a business decision."

She denies being a grudge bearer or a good hater. "No. But I've got a very good memory." You could say that.

"I remember all the people who got sanctimonious and those people ... no one would ever have heard of them and they have never done anything substantial in their lives."

At which point I put my head in my hands and said, "Michelle, Michelle, Michelle."

She laughed gleefully and said, "but I didn't tell you about Maurice Williamson! When Maurice Williamson said I was a boil on the bum of the National Party that had to be lanced, then believe it or not, that didn't affect me terribly. I laughed."

It's human nature to be affected. "I know. But if you don't let it affect you then that makes them powerless." But how do you do that? "I just think, 'oh, what the hell! He's stupid."'

It's fair to say she doesn't devote much time to navel-gazing. I asked if she'd examined her relationship to power, and her fascination with it, and she said she never thought about it. She just loves the adrenalin.

What does she do, actually? The photographer asked me how to describe her, for the caption, and I said I didn't have a clue. She builds networks but there's no use asking how.

"I don't know. I've been around a long time and know lots of people and I have a huge network. A huge network."

When thriller-writer Lee Childs was in town last week she got him a helicopter. How? She said, enigmatically: "My network. And then I rang up the owner of the ASB building and said: 'Please can we land our helicopter on your building?"'

She said, cleverly, getting in first, that her huge network "makes it really difficult for me to go somewhere or deal with a company and not know someone in the scene".

This brought us rather neatly to conflicts of interest, and how she must have known her ATA contract and her relationship with Banks was a bad look.

She maintains she never discussed appointments with him because she's only interested in him winning. Does she think people will believe that?

"Well, I'm telling you. Why would I say it if it isn't true?"

Surely, though, she stuffed up? "Oh, possibly ... Look, nobody's perfect. Did I anticipate for one moment that silly old Phil Twyford ..." No. I'm not going to encourage her. I hope the nice, caring, jam-making Boag is not being nasty.

"Well, he's nasty to me!"

You try stopping her. She said, conspiratorially, "I'll tell you something about Helen Clark, if you promise not to write it."

I said, "go on then", which wasn't a promise of anything. "You have to promise." I wasn't writing about Helen Clark. "Yeah, well, that wasn't an answer but you won't want to write it because it isn't very nice."

So of course she told me and it's that, according to her, Clark couldn't "use the words 'Michelle Boag' without using the words 'Tory bitch' in front of them."

She loves this story. "Of course I do! I love the fact that I got under her skin so much."

She is terrifically good at telling you things which have the whiff of insider gossip, but only a whiff. She only told me the Clark story so I'd put it in.

It's a good story, so I have. I told her I was going to, to see what she'd say. She said, swiftly: "She'll deny it." You can't out-trick her but you can have fun trying.

Can she be both the nice jam-making lady and the tough-as-old-boots Tory bitch, or what you will? "Absolutely!" she said.

She eye-balled the photographer on the way out and said: "I'm very sensitive about photos. No double chins. That's why I gave you the jam."

She ought to be a monster. She can be a monster. But she's so funny who could possibly care?

- NZ Herald

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