Michele Hewitson interview: Hannah Tamaki

By Michele Hewitson

Destiny Church's glamorous face is devilishly amusing about her fame.

Hannah Tamaki is very protective of her 'Honey', the bishop. Photo / Richard Robinson
Hannah Tamaki is very protective of her 'Honey', the bishop. Photo / Richard Robinson

Is Hannah Tamaki too glamorous to be the president of the Maori Women's Welfare League? That's one question that has been posed about her controversial and occasionally farcical bid for the presidency. There have been the wigs and the boas and the High Court case in which her right to stand was reinstated but 10 Destiny-stacked branches were ruled invalid.

As to whether she is too glamorous to be president, I wouldn't have a clue. I bet hardly anyone else would either, because hardly any of us know how glamorous or otherwise the good ladies of the league are. But if the league has an image at all, it's probably a rather dowdier one than the one the bishop's missus presents.

She had the mickey taken out of her glamour when some of the league ladies turned up at a meeting in platinum blonde wigs and feather boas. She said she was thinking about wearing a feather boa for the interview - but she doesn't have one.

She says she thought the mockery was funny and her husband, Bishop Brian Tamaki, thought it was hilarious.

Although telling me he said, "Oh, honey, come home and cuddle the grandchildren," suggests that he thought she might have been hurt. What wasn't funny, she says, is "what they looked like, because that didn't look very glamorous. Ha, ha, ha." Oh miaow, "Yeah!" she said. Then, because she is campaigning and her campaign motto is "be nice", she said: "No. Girls are allowed to dress up and play games."

And, by the way, she never said she was too glamorous. "It was Maori men ... and they'd say: 'You know, Hannah, you don't have the right look', and I'd say, 'well, what do you have to look like?' They'd say: 'Well, you're not supposed to look like Dolly Parton.' I certainly don't look like Dolly Parton!" It was hard to tell. Had she had her boobs done? "These are all real. Do you want to touch them? I'll take you in the bathroom!"

She and her two minders - known, as all her confidantes are, as "the girls" - shrieked with laughter, not for the last time. I laughed too, but a little nervously - I wouldn't have put it past her to have taken me into the bathroom. She has a knack (if that's the right word) for making you feel you're at a pyjama party, playing truth or dare, instead of at an interview in a crowded cafe. She tells you stuff you might not want to know. So, she's drinking a soy latte, she'll tell you, because "somebody said to me when you get to 50 and you start going through the change of life, that soy's actually quite good for you".

I was having a good look at her to see how glam, at 50, she really is. (Nowhere near as movie star-ish as her campaign picture, which she says she didn't choose: the girls did. She would have chosen, she said, deadpan: "a more glamorous type one". Cue shrieks of laughter from the girls.) She says she hasn't had any work done on her face. Yet.

"I've always said I'm going to go to Thailand when I'm 50. But now that the media is watching me so badly I'll have to wait until I'm 55!" I didn't really think she'd had any work done, but I did wonder if the bishop had had a little facelift. "No, but he probably needs one! Don't put that in! He'll kill me!"

She said she used to tease "Bishop" about being interviewed but now that she's the one being interviewed, "I'm like, 'oh. I don't think that's really funny."' I suppose she means that being interviewed is supposed to be an ordeal, but she obviously loves it. She said she never thought I'd be interviewing her, meaning that Brian is always the one to be interviewed.

But, ha, ha, because I did interview him in 2004 - and got her as well. She wandered in, casually, in that way that was not at all wandering or casual, presumably to make sure he gave the right answers, and to check that I wasn't being mean to him. She is fiercely protective of him and I've long thought, along with almost anyone who has met them, that she is the power behind the bishop's throne.

She knows that's the perception and, of course, she emphatically denies it - admitting it would mean you were no longer behind the throne. She says that saying she is the brains as well, is "mean", because Brian is very smart. (If you say things she doesn't agree with, she says "that's mean" or, "you're fuuunny" or, "you're a nut, Michele, saying that!" All of which adds to the sensation of that pyjama party.)

Her goal in life "was to get Brian to where he really wanted to be"; which does sound like an admission of where the true power lies. "Well, they say that the person that sleeps with the person is the one that makes the decision!"

And the chorus cackled while I thought: Oh God, please don't let her start going on about their fabulous sex life. She is quite capable of it (as is her husband) and I heard her on Willie Jackson's radio show this week making a terrible joke that doesn't bear repeating in full: it involved being under the bishop, frequently.

I really shouldn't have mentioned this, but, how shocking. She said: "Oh, come on! But don't you think it was good? Now every man will tell their wife: 'You get along there. You join the Maori Women's Welfare League because she'll be a good influence on you!"

Is she campaigning on the promise of better sex? I wouldn't put that past her either. "Ha, ha! You shouldn't talk about it when you're not married, Michele!"

She had asked, three minutes after we sat down: "Anyway, are you married yet?" In that earlier interview, Brian promised to find me a Destiny husband and she said she thought: 'I must ask Michele ..." She claims she'd even "texted" some bloke she knows to ask how old he was in case he'd do, but he'd turned out to be 27: "And that's too young for you, Michele."

She asked, later, "Have you got cats or dogs?" No. "And not a man either!" She had an idea. Destiny has an event "where all the single people get together. Shall I send you an invitation? Won't hurt, eh?"

Can I say she has the cheek of the devil? She ought to find that outrageously offensive, but I bet she won't. If she can do pious, she knows better than to do it in interviews.

So she now says there's nothing wrong with lesbians: either in the league or outside it. We spent a long time talking about lesbians which made for an extraordinary sort of conversation to be having with the bishop's wife in a cafe.

This was a very convoluted conversation which involved me insisting that she thought that being a lesbian was wrong and her insisting she had no problem with lesbians and that some of her best friends and family were lesbians. Were there lesbians in Destiny? She was sure there had been some. But had they remained lesbians? She hadn't had anything to do with any lesbians but she understood if there were lesbians in Destiny they'd since chosen to no longer be lesbians.

Of course she doesn't really approve of lesbians because the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, but she can get on with anyone and loves everyone and she wishes the league lesbians had come and talked to her. I can see why they didn't: She'd probably have won them over. (Although perhaps not. She has the strange, though undoubtedly not unique idea that lesbians are lesbians because they've been hurt by men, and so understands how they could "be turned off" by men.)

She is supposed to live in a sort of la-la land where she and Brian are like royalty and people stand when they enter a room. She says sometimes they do; sometimes they don't. It depends on the occasion. And don't church members have to give her presents? "No they don't have to give me presents." Do they give her presents? "Yeah." She says she gives them presents too.

Perhaps the weirdest thing I have read about her is that she is to be addressed as Divine Mother. She snorted and the girls rolled their eyes. "Oh please. You know Michele, I've been called a whole lot of mothers, but Divine Mother is not one of them. Honestly."

Does she really call the bishop "Bishop"? "When I'm being cheeky. I mostly call him Honey." (He calls her Baby, and you really did want to know that.) She says her feet are resolutely on the ground and she doesn't have time to sit around counting all the money and demanding people give her presents.

The weirdest thing she told me about herself is that she went hunting with the bishop recently and he wanted them to shoot a stag together. They didn't in the end (some fault with one of the guns) but why would they want to? "That's food," she said, looking at me as though I might be a lesbian. "I have a big whanau." And, "we like doing things together." That, presumably, is romance. I certainly wasn't going to ask.

Let's talk about money, I said. She groaned (the girls rolled their eyes) and said: "Oh, no. Not again!" She has a point: there isn't much point. We got into the usual argument about the taking of money from poor people and she said, well, they don't make people give money and I said, well, if you say that the Bible says that not giving is robbing God, that's just as coercive and she said, she believes in what the Bible teaches ...

This all gets pretty boring pretty quickly, so I said: "Is that your $90,000 ring?" It wasn't; it's being cleaned. But she really does have a $90,000 ring. $90,000! "Yeah. Why not? I've got one lovely ring that my husband wanted to buy me and I wear it with pride and I don't see why I shouldn't be allowed to."

That was the only time she got even slightly defensive and when I pointed this out she said that was the result of having heard it all before, over and over again. She is not beyond getting her own back. When I said, at the end, that the Herald would pay the bill, she said it had already been paid. "I don't want people thinking I'm taking money from the poor!"

I know if I say I liked her and that she's smart and funny, it will be because she's supposed to be a co-leader of a cult and co-leaders of cults should by definition be charismatic and so I must have been brainwashed. What rot. She's just very entertaining company and I'm just off to join that Destiny singles' club ...

- NZ Herald

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