Lana Coc-Kroft, comfortable in her own skin

By WARREN GAMBLE

Lana Coc-Kroft's journey from beauty queen to sparring television host has been more a transition of other people's perceptions than a personal evolution.

Lana Coc-Kroft is mock-horrified at the maturing of her screen image.

She's seen references to herself as the mother figure on Sportscafe, the quirky sports show she has co-hosted with rowdy lads for seven years.

She puts her former beauty queen face in her hands.

"First you were a bimbo, now you're a mother - oh God, what happened in between?"

The 35-year-old mother-of-two can laugh at herself and the vagaries of television typecasting as easily as she does at co-host Marc Ellis' clothes.

She long ago stopped "trying to make people like me and understand I was not stupid and I wasn't just all looks and nothing else".

Instead she just got on with it in a television career which has now stretched to 15 years from the time she became the big-haired, big-earringed winner of Miss Universe New Zealand in 1988.

Coc-Kroft talks to us in the make-up room upstairs at the Float bar (formerly Leftfield) where in 90 minutes she will be in the rolling verbal maul of Sportscafe.

After seven years on Sky channels, it has just begun its eighth by switching to free-to-air TV2.

Coc-Kroft does not know yet who tonight's guests will be and prefers it that way. It adds to the spontaneity.

Is it hard to get a word in between the ravings of Ellis, Graham Hill and Ric Salizzo?

Coc-Kroft says she doesn't feel she has to add her voice to the mix for the sake of it, but she is the go-to woman if the director needs to wrap up a segment or bring a topic back from her co-hosts' diverse tangents.

She also asks the questions she thinks a wider, non-sporting audience want to know.

She is no sports nut herself, preferring action to being an armchair fan. She played basketball in her younger days, and is now part of a four-woman surfboat team so she wouldn't become a widow to the surfboating passion of her long-time partner, businessman Steve Gleye.

When she first started on the show, after Salizzo heard her taking the mickey out of someone at a party, Coc-Kroft says she thought she had to know all the latest sporting issues.

"I was studying the newspapers thinking, how do I retain all this information which is really quite boring?" But Salizzo told her the show had enough sporting experts, and needed a broader appeal.

Coc-Kroft says she was also intimidated early on by the quickfire pace of the show, particularly the "stampede" of Ellis' interjections. "But then I just put him in his place and that's fine.

"Our relationship is an integral part of the show for some bizarre reason, maybe because I'm the only female and for some bizarre reason half of New Zealand voted Marc as the sexiest man in the country.

"Personally I don't find him sexy. He's a charming bloke and a really good bloke but ... umm ... "

Coc-Kroft says she has learned not to give Ellis too much information so he could not turn it into embarrassing on-screen ammunition.

But she can also send herself up on screen. For the 300th episode last year she went to an adult shop and bought a very short nurse's uniform in plastic.

"Did you appreciate my sense of humour? You should have seen my partner. He said: 'You never wear anything like that at home and there you go on national TV'."

It was mainly a play on her past image - the waving model on Sale of the Century, the lovely assistant on Wheel of Fortune - and partly to show that after two boys in four years "there was still a woman tucked under there".

"I'm just comfortable in my own skin. I just don't have a need to impress everyone else."

It wasn't always that way for the girl raised in the South Auckland suburbs of Manurewa and later Te Papapa, where her parents ran a dairy.

After she left Auckland Girls Grammar, Coc-Kroft worked in her father's coffee shop in the Customhouse building, where she was spotted by a modelling agent.

She had wanted to be a policewoman or PE teacher, and says she was "very much a tomboy".

"When I was 14 I was five-foot-two [157cm] and I looked like a bloke. I had short hair, no boobs and no waist. When I was 15 I was five-foot-ten [177cm] and I had long hair."

Beauty pageants offered Coc-Kroft a way to get free catwalk experience. The Miss Universe title gave her a career in modelling but she quickly tired of it, deciding to quit after a swimsuit session in the middle of Takapuna.

Her brief modelling career and national profile from the televised beauty pageant gave her an introduction to the small screen with Sale of the Century and later spinning the Wheel of Fortune.

She endured despite the only feedback being from a Television New Zealand staffer who told her she had the most appalling accent he had ever heard.

She took elocution lessons and moved on. Her breakthrough to presenting came after a practice audition tape was seen by former TVNZ chief John McCready and she joined Wendy Botha on the action-adventure show On the Edge.

In it she pushed herself further than she believed possible, from diving with sharks, abseiling off tall chimneys, to throwing herself from helicopters.

Coc-Kroft says she was probably driven by a desire for approval.

"I was so horrified with the Wheel of Fortune image which was so unlike my personality, and how people had instantly boxed me and wouldn't give me a chance."

The break into Sportscafe followed her adventure queen activities, and she has had a diet of presenting television and radio shows since.

Her seven-year radio stint on ZM, where she hosted the Lipstick Lunch with Nicki Sunderland, ended last year, but she says she has learned that other doors open, or she has forced them open.

Coc-Kroft has another TV2 series (which she can't talk about) coming up, and is about to launch into her own business hosting weekly events for women at Float.

She may be a household name but she says it is longevity more than celebrity.

That and the "girl next door" appeal which has people coming up to her and saying "gidday Lana" as if they knew her well.

The only downsides are an "expectation at the way I should be presenting sometimes. I'm still a makeup-less, shorts and T-shirt girl a lot."

There was an earlier phase of unwanted attention from men - she broke the finger of one who grabbed her buttocks.

The death of Coc-Kroft's father, Lance, a couple of years ago brought home to her the importance of living to the full, having no regrets.

Now she is juggling her work and family life with an imminent house move to another central suburb - their renovated St Marys Bay home was sold last year.

Coc-Kroft reveals another motivation for her energy.

"I think I have got this irrational fear that I'm a lounge lizard and I have kind of spent the last 15 years combating that.

"I just think a little part of me would be a really good lounge lizard."

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