Steak, chips and Maorioke with Suzanne Paul

By Michele Hewitson

By MICHELE HEWITSON

Suzanne Paul is giving a good impression of a moa in the death throes.

The real, or rather the real fake, moa is collapsed on the floor of Paul's Rawaka Maori village. It has a pink plastic hole in its side. A model eagle is supposed to sit and peck at this plastic wound while the moa writhes.

Paul has removed the eagle to a dark corner. She thinks it will frighten children.

"Ooh," she squeals, doing her dance of the dying moa, "ooh, it's horrible."

Oh, I don't know. I'm rather taken with the moa. And I think it might make a rather good photo: Paul with the moa draped about her neck like a feather boa.

She is not having a bar of that sort of silliness, thank you very much.

When I phoned her about doing an interview she sounded quite cross and said she couldn't be bothered. She was sick of journalists turning up to talk about Rawaka, being ever so nice but then going away and writing nasty things.

She also didn't want to see any more photographs of herself on a building site. Or, presumably, any more photos of her with props that make her look "ticky-tacky" - to use a phrase that has her seething.

But, in the end, she says, "Oh, all right" and to come along to Rawaka on Thursday morning.

By then she has cheered up remarkably. This is rather brave because her village is still looking far from finished given that it was due to open last night - after the opening the week before had been postponed.

It still looked like a building site to me, but she was thrilled to bits to be drinking her first cup of coffee from the espresso machine - she's been drinking instant and bringing a little packed lunch.

When I say, gingerly, "Umm, are you really going have it finished in time?" she says, "Oh yes. I can barely contain myself."

It would turn out that she had to. As we went to press, I phoned the village. A recorded message said the opening had been delayed again, until April 23.

The first day I phoned, "I was probably having a bad day". She has had a few lately: the village has been called culturally questionable.

Paul is perplexed, but cheerful. She skips about the gift shop, looking at the goodies and talking about how someone came in the other day with "Maorioke" DVD discs and how she thinks a "Maorioke" session of Pokarekare Ana might be a nice way to wind up the evenings after dinner and the show.

"I'll probably be ripped to pieces." She has been already, but "I don't care".

She's not silly. She knew full well that when it was announced that the girl from Wolverhampton was going to open a restaurant with boil-up and hangi and Maori culture on the menu it was going to cause a bit of a stink.

What did she know about Maori culture? What does she need to know? she counters. That's why she consulted experts.

God knows why she wanted to do it at all. If she'd sat down and written a script for the most difficult, mad-cap venture she could possibly have devised, this would be it.

Then if she'd wanted to make it even more of a challenge, she might have chosen a derelict 1960s restaurant which long ago became a sort of joke. Inside the old Fishermen's Wharf, the shagpile carpet and the mirrored ceilings in the caretaker's bachelor flat have gone.

The dining room wallpaper is now faux flax. Downstairs, the toilet doors are still covered in the original padded vinyl.

A lot of money has been spent but it still looks like, well, Fisherman's Wharf. "I thought if we took on this place we could keep that really old look."

You will be able to get bubble'n'squeak because Paul likes it, and steak, egg and chips because the staff like it. "Nothing too healthy."

Rawaka is not so much a business venture (although, of course, it is ) as one of Paul's grand passions. The best inventions and discoveries usually come, she says, "because something's lacking in your own life".

She came up with the Natural Glow product that made her fortune because she wanted "a makeup you can brush on and look suntanned".

Rawaka looks exactly like the sort of place Paul would like to go of an evening.

And she has her own stage, with her own Mika-trained dancers. "Ooh, the costumes," she breathes.

They're going to have trouble keeping her off that stage. This is the girl who used to charge the neighbourhood kids "a few pence" to sit on the dustbins and watch her perform. And the woman who went to Les Miserables 28 times and would go backstage and say to the cast "if anybody's sick, I know every song".

She is a famously awful singer, but "I'm good in a chorus because I'm very loud".

Paul gazes up at the restaurant stage and says, "I wouldn't mind getting up on opening night and doing a bit of a poi, or something".

What she plans to do at Rawaka, aside from paying a huge undisclosed amount to set it up, is work in the gift shop. Which brings her full circle - her first job was in Woolies.

Her parents were both factory workers and where she comes from all her girlfriends "got married, to the first one that asked you in case nobody else asked ... had children, put their name down for a council house".

"But I always said, 'No, there's got to be more than this'."

Paul arrived in New Zealand 13 years ago with no money or contacts, and now lives in a house with seven loos. She thinks her surfeit of bathrooms might have something to do with the fact that she grew up with an outdoor toilet and no hot water.

I say I hope she hasn't got airs and graces and she grins: "If I'd said to my family or friends in Wolverhampton, 'I'd like to go to London and be on TV', they'd say, 'Getting a bob on yourself, are you? 'Oo do you think you are?' That's the thing about being working class - even the working class don't want you to better yourself."

She heard Michael Caine being interviewed recently on the subject of working class made good. "He said that if somebody rich becomes famous they don't have to buy their parents or their brother and sister or their friends a house because they've already got one. But when you're working class you can't suddenly be having holidays and living the life of Riley when everybody is living in abject poverty."

She has several properties - she won't say how many - but her mum and other family live in some of them.

What she really likes doing is shopping - and spending: "I don't do window shopping."

Her next big dream is to pay Ben Elton $5 million to come to New Zealand with his family to write a sitcom "starring me."

With anyone else, you'd think, "You're living in cloud cuckoo land", but with Paul anything's possible. Even an opening night at Rawaka.

When she came to New Zealand she realised that people didn't immediately think: Wolverhampton. Outdoor dunny. She's a bit rough. "And I thought, 'God, you could just make anything up, couldn't you?'."

In a way she made Suzanne Paul up. Some of it is her telly personality but that is just an even larger-than-life version of her already larger-than-life personality.

The endearing thing about Paul is that she doesn't pretend she doesn't absolutely love being rich and famous. She knows she is a show-off. She adores red carpets and dressing up and being photographed.

Just not, thank you, with a fake moa - which is beginning to look like an albatross - around her neck.

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