She's appeared in Shortland Street and such films as Whale Rider, In My Father's Den and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. She's the famous face of the 'How Convenient' Four Square ad. She's a domestic violence survivor. A champion of her community. And she's battling cancer.She is Mabel Wharekawa-Burt and she's as sharp and sassy as they come.

Mabel Wharekawa-Burt still hasn't opened the New Year Honour she received three years ago.


"Well, why do I want it for?" she says with a flap of her hand.


"They should give it to my community. I was going to take it down to the Information Centre but they don't have anywhere to put it at the moment. I have great difficulty in accepting things as an individual and I think all small-town kids do."

Wharekawa-Burt, or Aunty Mabel as she's better known, is Katikati's most popular aunty.

I was reminded when I met her of something Te Puna author Tommy Kapai Wilson once wrote: "She really is one person who could talk a light bulb into turning itself off."

The Stroke Foundation, Ngaiterangi and Ngati Ranginui and other social and health agencies have all benefited from Aunty Mabel's passion for her community, and the woman can talk.

"I waffle, because everything I waffle about, is worth waffling about."

One of the causes she rightfully should waffle about is the plight of Women's Refuge.

Aunty Mabel bears the scars of 13 years of suffering.

Her first husband took to her with a knife and visible white lines run from both thumbs to both wrists.


Is she is a stronger person today?

"Oh, I think so. It takes a little bit of time to move on. I mean, even now, my second husband sort of pays for what happened there. He does, because it keeps rearing its ugly head. Negatives always rear their ugly head and bugger it, I've got these," she says running purple fingernails over the lines.

"The good thing is that I warned him: 'Bugger off but don't bugger off too far, because soon I'll get over this'."

Do not let let anyone know

George, her husband, is a "wonderful", understanding bloke.

They married in 1982 and Aunty Mabel says her choice shocked a few people. "Because I was so radically Maori and then I go marry someone who is British! A coloniser! I married him! And I'm still married to him - 30 years.

"I say to my husband because he's blonde like you: 'When I'm out there with my taiaha, do not get out of the car. Do not let let anyone know. Because a lot of people don't know he's white, let alone British."

What does George have to say?

"Get over yourself, and other things."

Together the couple raised nine foster children, alongside Aunty Mabel's kids from her first marriage, two of whom were whangaied, the Maori tradition of adopting out a baby within the mother's extended family.

"I had six from my body and I gave two to other family members in different circumstances," she says.

Aunty Mabel herself was a whangai baby, raised by her aunt and uncle.

"You're getting yourself in a real mess here," she warns.

The entire community helped raise her

"There was two sisters who married two brothers. The older couple didn't have any children so they went shopping in all the families and said 'I'll have that one, that one, that one, and that one'. So, I was raised by an uncle and aunt but my parents lived next door."

Aunty Mabel says the entire Katikati community helped raise her, as her house was near Te Rereatukahia Marae.

"My childhood memories are of just wandering between anyone of those 22 homes. Sometimes they'd be eight of us in the same bed... everybody was an aunt and uncle, everybody was my parent. I believe, like many marae kids, that is the environment that's true for Maori as far as an upbringing, and maybe we've done something wrong because the others have stepped outside it?

"I think all these mongrels who are abusing their kids, they stepped out or perhaps they never stepped in? Maybe that's our fault in that we haven't tried to integrate them in this way of living," she ponders.

Get your own bloody line

Everything Aunty Mabel does, she does for her community. And that, she says, is why she did the television advertisement for Four Square.

When she was growing up in Katikati, Four Square was: "The post office, it was the community centre, it was everything. It had a couch in it, it was where parents talked. They didn't do much shopping as far as I remember.

"When they were getting a hiding from the big chains I thought, 'I'll do this one.' It's the only ad I've ever done. I mean 'how convenient' has now become a catch phrase of New Zealand society, it just drips off everyone's lips."

Does she say it?

"Oh, no. I hate being recognised and this is not about me being humble, I'm not a humble person. They walk up to me and go 'how convenient' and I say 'get your own bloody line. Bugger off'.

"They say things like 'you were so good in the ad', and I say 'thank you, I got paid thousands'.

"Everything I've done on TV I've done for a purpose ... everything is about building relationships within communities."

What about her role in Whale Rider?

"I wasn't even supposed to be in there, love," she says, flicking her hand at me.

Aunty Mabel, Katikati College's first Maori prefect, has no performing arts qualifications.

But having starred in Shortland Street as Aunty Buzzy and in the movie Jubilee, she developed a relationship with South Pacific Pictures and they called on her as a Maori adviser.

" ... They just wrote my part in so that I could go but it evolved."

I won't sit on tables

In February, she did a six-part series for TV3 called Hounds and it will screen in August.

"I went to do that because it was being produced by a company called Down Low Concept and they do that 7 Days programme. Do you like 7 Days? I think it's just the most incredible programme. They are so clever and I said to them: 'Oh please can I come on 7 Days?' But they're still thinking about that."

Is there anything in film or TV she won't do?

"I won't walk in front of someone when they're talking. Can't do that, I'd rather die. I won't sit on tables. They can sue me, threaten me, I don't care. I'll get the bash if I come back here and my Nanny sees that film. I will get raked over the coals."

I used to watch her as a panelist on Maori Television show Ask Your Aunty, where viewers would write in with their problems.

Aunty Mabel was a force to be reckoned with when she heard some of the drama.

"Let me start by this," she says, putting a finger in her mouth to imitate gagging.

"Oh, I'm sorry are my eyes rolling?"

But on other occasions Aunty Mabel offered real words of wisdom.

"I saw it as an opportunity to pass on values to someone who perhaps didn't get them. That I might be the one role model that they had and I really had to watch that I was honest, that I was respectful and that I told it how it was."

The show grew in popularity during the early naughties and began to reach all nationalities.

"For every one problem we addressed it was my guess there were maybe 200-300 people that we would reach with an answer."

In 2007, the panelists were confident of a rollover being commissioned but Aunty Mabel says it all went pear-shaped when she confessed she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer

"Somehow the programme didn't get recommissioned. I wished that I could die," she says.

"I wished that I didn't tell anyone because suddenly it became all about me and I perceived it as I'm the reason that hundreds and hundreds of people now will have no one to go to. I hated it. I just needed to take a year off to try and manage it but I saw it as I bailed."

Aunty Mabel's concern is always for her community.

The one Pakeha thing I take

When she was diagnosed with cancer, doctors gave her a year to live. Now, every October 16th, she rejoices.

She shunned conventional Western medicine and turned to Maori medicine including kawakawa and kumarahau.

Aunty Mabel still has cancer but says it's a "low priority" in her life.

"I take morphine now. That's the one Pakeha thing I take to get me through what I need to do. I've been in bed for two days, I almost cancelled you," she confides.

I tell her she looks healthy.

"Oh yeah that's what people say 'gee you look good'. Oh, I'm sorry how I meant to look? Am I supposed to walk around like that?" she says rolling her eyes back and poking her tongue out.

"Please! 'Oh my God, I could die at any moment'. Bugger off!

"I'm on so many prayer chains in this country, of different religions, that I suppose I can't die. Even when I'm in hospital, I actually text people and say 'stop bloody praying for me, I'm ready'.

"I don't think it's Mabel they love, I think its what I represent."

Aunty Mabel is the returning officer for Coromandel and Waiariki, a member of the referendum advisory group, and handles Maori media for the electoral group. She's also a Justice of the Peace.

She got involved in the electoral process in 1999 when she had concerns Maori weren't participating as fully as they should.

"Every time I have a moan, I like to have some alternatives. I don't just like moaning; you might as well just shut your mouth."

Put poison in to take poison out

Same with the cancer. She won't let it beat her.

She has refused chemotherapy or radiotherapy, saying she saw no reason to put poison in to take poison out.

"I'm just grateful for every day. If ever I were to define my life, I suppose it would be to have faith to live a productive day today. If I get taken out today, then sweet as.

"There's an old Maori saying but loosely translated it is 'from the day we are born, we're dying'. But the Maori saying is 'when man is born, his constant companion is death'. I have no fear, I've got absolutely no fear of death. That other world is absolutely glorious."

What one lesson would she pass on?

"To be of service is the greatest honour in this world because attached to that, is what my parents taught me: if you give, you shall receive.

"I hate this 'we're one people', because we're not. If we're all one people we'd just stay all negative. It takes diverse people to participate and make the wheel turn most effectively."

She bridges both cultures

How old is Aunty Mabel?

"It's none of your bloody business, what do you wanna know for?"

It went in this story, I say holding up a news story the

Bay of Plenty Times

wrote on her in 2008.

"What did it say?"

Sixty-one in 2008.

"S***, all right. Take it off that."

Daughter Dianne Burt says that yep, her mother is "pretty straight up".

"As her daughter and someone who sees her out of the limelight, she can be vulnerable. There is Mabel the mother and Mabel the personality.

"To me, she's just my mum and she's amazing.

"Everyone wants my mum to be their mum."

Katikati Paper Plus and post shop owner Dennis Jensen says Aunty Mabel was once quite "radical" when it came to Maoridom but she's quietened down.

"She epitomises what Maori is all about. She bridges both cultures and she's wonderful."