As he launches a new TV show, Paddy Gower opens up on regrets, empathy, motivating the All Blacks, the ‘This is the F***ing News’ meme … and growing a mullet.
Paddy Gower is in such deep thought and talking so animatedly that he is ignoring – or completely oblivious – to the hurricane-force water blaster unleashing a torrent underneath the Viaduct restaurant deck.
The tsunami-like noise erupts suddenly. It is so deafening and overwhelming that I fear it will drown out everything else on the digital recorder placed directly beside Gower on the restaurant table.
But not even a fully powered industrial machine can silence Gower. It takes him 15 minutes before he has a proper breather and – after a selfie with another adoring fan – fully acknowledges the horrific din.
“It’s making me grumpy!” he says finally, grabbing his jacket as we hightail it inside.
Paddy Gower is about to be full-noise himself. With a new weekly TV show, Paddy Gower Has Issues, launching this month, he has reached the rarefied broadcasting air of having his name on the marquee. Only a handful of New Zealand TV current affairs shows and stars have been here before – think Holmes, Campbell, Fraser.
It’s creating a new form of pressure.
“I get extremely nervous and I do get stressed out. But this time around, I’m trying to cope with it through maturity. Previously I turned to booze, or I was just generally getting stressed and acting strange at work. Getting grumpy and that kind of thing.”
As we meet over lunch at White & Wong’s restaurant, any nervousness has been parked up, replaced by what seems like an intense focus and an ability to take conversations into all sorts of quirky and curious directions.
Gower’s mind operates on a high-speed cycle. When he’s between conversation points or if he loses track of his thought process, Gower will fill the void with a ‘yeah, yeah’ or a ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ or even a ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’ until he regathers himself and pushes on.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, we chat about life, happiness, and journalism and discuss everything from his new mullet to motivating the All Blacks, to his world-famous ‘This is the F***ing News’ meme.
He barely slows, and I worry by the end of the lunch whether he might still be peckish. We’ve ordered a veritable banquet – oysters, sashimi, dumplings, noodles, bang-bang chicken.
At one stage, the waitress accidentally pours him a wine. He politely demurs.
As he sips on sparkling water, I drop on him that it’s exactly 500 days since his last alcoholic drink. He’s chuffed; he had no idea of the milestone.
He says his non-drinking, highlighted in last year’s all-in and extremely well-watched documentary, has changed his life. Gower is now arguably Warner Bros. Discovery’s biggest New Zealand star.
He is, he says, “very happy”. Abstention agrees with him. A clear mind and no more hangovers. Regular exercise including road cycling and mountain biking.
And he takes great delight in telling people he’s also taken up yoga.
The 46-year-old is also buoyant about the new show – a unique blend of tackling big issues from the studio, frontline reporting and comedic and musical interludes.
Alongside him will be some high-profile personalities - Karen O’Leary, Eli Matthewson and Courtney Dawson. Newshub journalists and broadcasters will make regular appearances.
When he first saw the set, it was a mixture of “overwhelming”, “exciting”, and “weird” feelings. With his own name literally in lights, Gower has sought advice from some of those who have been in similar positions.
“I was on a plane the other day and went to take my seat and Ian Fraser was sitting there. There was a guy in between us. He saw Ian Fraser, saw me and he was like, ‘Hey, do you want me to jump over?’”
The chance encounter was written in the stars, says Gower. Fraser was “amazing … an amazing motivator”.
“He was telling me all these yarns from back in the day when Muldoon would try to get him taken off air – it was a different world, you know. He had really good advice, which was just to enjoy it. That’s what I’ve got to try to do.”
After five years as a roving correspondent for the 6pm news, Gower admits he was “definitely looking for a new challenge”.
He’s determined to prove that current affairs, done the right way, can be successful in primetime. “That’s another big-picture challenge that really gets me motivated.”
He says he is evolving “and this show is the next step”.
“This will be another big twist of the dial, really.”
Referring to his earlier political journalism career at Parliament, first as a reporter and then as a political editor, Gower says: “My style has completely changed”.
He initially tells me “there’s no overall regrets” from those days.
“I quite liked the style that I had while I was there. I was quite proud of it.”
He pauses and reflects further.
“There’s lots of regrets about alcohol and there’s lots of regrets about stress, and there’s some regrets about how brutal I could be at times.
“So overall, I kind of look back at it as … yeah, it’s an interesting question, actually, because I say there are no regrets, but actually, there are a lot.”
And then he says: “Some days I do wonder if I should just never have … what life would have been like if I’d never set foot in that place.”
And then another pause before more reflection.
Chief among his regrets is the way he treated former Labour leader David Shearer.
“I was really, really ruthless at times. Like [with] David Shearer … it sounds ironic … I would actually like to … I don’t know, it sounds random, but I would actually like to say sorry to him if I ever saw him again. Being the great humanitarian that he is, he’d probably accept it.”
Shearer was the leader of the Labour Party between 2011-2013, but often faced a media barrage - none more so than in 2013 when he held up two dead fish in Parliament, arguing about the National government of the time’s plan to change recreational fishing rules. The stunt was subject to much ridicule.
Gower says he was probably trying to come out of his mentor and great mate Duncan Garner’s shadow at the time and wanted to make a mark.
“I think that at times I went too hard in places, and I wasn’t necessarily thinking about what I was doing or reflecting on anything.”
This self-reflection, and his emergence into broader frontline general reporting and documentaries – meeting “real” New Zealanders – means, he says, that he’s approaching the new role with maturity.
“It [Parliament] is a ruthless place. I really have learned over the last few years that I’m not like that and I function better when I’m more empathetic and caring, not just on TV, but just in general. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to bring my personality out and be more myself.”
Gower is now a bona fide ‘celebrity’, constantly approached for selfies – or by people harbouring news tips and ideas.
And, of course, he is always having his most famous line yelled at him in the street.
“This is the f***ing news!”
The meme stems from a skit that Gower performed for an Auckland Law School Revue. Inside a university library, Gower is filming a ‘live news cross’, when a student yells from behind, ‘This is a f***ing library’. His response: ‘This is the f***ing news!’
It’s been watched millions of times on social media, around the world.
“You know, I’ll never escape that, bro. I would hear it – I reckon, no word of a lie – every day. I’ve decided to just embrace it.
“You’ll walk past someone, and you’ll get 50 metres down the road and they would have seen you 50m back, and then there’ll always be one in the group who, you know, you’ll hear it off in the distance.”
Eventually, he says, it will be a good title for his book.
Having been out on the frontline in recent weeks, Gower’s “vibe” is that people are not quite in election mode, yet.
He has hosted two live election debates, the first in 2017 between Jacinda Ardern and Bill English and the second in 2020 between Ardern and Judith Collins.
He can’t remember a thing about the first one other than a conversation with his dad at the end of it all. He was that zoned out.
For the 2020 debate, he enlisted the help of former All Black Conrad Smith. Gower knew Smith and his family from his days growing up in Taranaki. They have remained close, even raising funds together in a charity road ride.
Gower had a couple of Zoom sessions with Smith. “I was coming at it from a completely different angle – I was looking for new ways to invigorate myself and to lift the performance.”
Smith spoke to Gower about visualisation – looking ahead, in the All Blacks’ case, to different plays and outcomes on the field and, in Gower’s case, the types of questions and responses he wanted from the political debate.
Smith also taught him to compartmentalise any errors – don’t worry about them in the moment. Don’t get derailed; wait for an ad break; push on.
“It’s always the simplest thing that is the best part. He told me, ‘When I went out to play a test, I would always just smile when I was coming out on the field – I was so happy to be there’.
“That was probably the best lesson out of all of it; it was just like, ‘Okay, get out into the debate and smile because this is awesome. Try to enjoy it’. Whereas with the first debate, I don’t even remember what happened that day.
“The whole thing was just a blur. You know, it’s all sort of blurry, and Dad’s sitting there with a Steinlager in his hand going, ‘Great job, mate, great job’.
“I’m like, ‘What the f*** just happened?’”
A few weeks after the 2020 debate, Gower helped the All Blacks in kind by speaking to them in the week before the test against Australia at Eden Park. The test was on a Sunday, the day after the general election, and eight months after the Covid pandemic had started, bringing with it a series of lockdowns.
Gower had been invited along to one of the All Blacks’ social get-togethers. He was asked to moderate debates, involving different moots, between individual All Blacks. He remembers prop Joe Moody turning up with pages of notes, well-prepared, and eventually winning.
At one stage, Gower spoke to the All Blacks more generally. “I just said to them, just remember when you’re playing that people this year have had lots of stuff taken away from them with the lockdowns, and when the game’s on, on Sunday, it’s going to be the exact opposite. You can give something back to them when you’re out playing.
“I never thought anything of it again. And then, of course, Caleb Clarke pops up on The Project and remembered it.”
Clarke, who played a barnstorming game that day, credited Gower’s chat as a motivating factor behind the All Blacks’ 27-7 win.
These days, Gower is sporting something of a mullet.
“This is my third one, Shayne. I had one when I was young, I had one in my 20s and now I’ve got one in my 40s. If I could donate it to you, mate, I would.”
He had been inspired by Zinzan Brooke when he sported one for the All Blacks.
“Whenever anyone talks about, you know, ‘How can you be a serious journalist and you have all this entertainment and comedy and stuff?’ I always like to think of it as the Zinzan Brooke model, you know.
“As long as you do the other stuff, there’s nothing to say that you can’t whack off the odd drop-kick. You can’t squash flair.”
What do the bosses think about the hairstyle? Well, he says, they’ll snip it if grows any longer.
He’s returned recently from an extended overseas assignment that took him to the UK and the US, part of his work for two documentaries currently in production. The mullet needs to stay “for continuity”, he laughs.
Gower has spoken from the heart, previously, about his looks, especially when he was growing up and how he was bullied at school about his buck teeth and his appearance. As he got older, he also had acne and “names would get a lot worse”. As he moved into television, the social media comments about this appearance were hateful.
“There’s been thousands of times I’ve been called ugly, or [people have] made negative comments about my looks,” he told The Project in 2019.
“Earlier this year, I was talking to some young students who said they were worried about going into television because of what people would say to them. I told them, ‘Imagine if one of those comments stopped me from what I am doing now. Imagine all of the things I’d miss out on if I listened to those people’.
“I refused to let name-calling get in the way of my dreams. Never let negative talk about the way you look get in the way of yours.”
The mullet will be there for the start of his new weekly show. Other than that and the names of his co-stars, he’s not giving too much away in terms of specific content, or issues they’ll be addressing first-up.
His competitive spirit blazes. Tell me about some of the topics, I say. “That would be the last thing that I would do.”
Over summer, Gower said he came to realise he needed to relinquish control in some areas and trust the team to do their jobs in their expert fields.
“Sometimes you see things and you don’t like them, and you can become a bit of an egomaniac and go, you know, ‘change that colour’ or whatever.
“I just said to myself, I know all the people really well. I have been working with them for a long time, they’re really talented, you’ve got to let the graphics guys do this stuff, these other guys, you know, just let them, let it come up.”
He’ll still speak up if “there was something I really didn’t like, of course”, but it’s clear he’s made a pact with himself. The show will succeed when people are trusted to do what they know best.
That applies in every area – from the technical side such as in lighting and sound through to his bosses. “You’ll appreciate this - sometimes you have to accept that bosses have good ideas.”
He pays tribute to Newshub’s director of content Todd Symons and executive producer Jon Bridges – two “creative geniuses” – for, in Todd’s case, coming up with the idea, and in Jon’s case, driving it.
“I’ve got to stay calm – big things are coming. It’s going to be a completely new thing for me, it’s a branch into the unknown.”
Gower says he wouldn’t be where he is today without Duncan Garner, one of his biggest mentors who got him through his “wobbly” first years in television.
“Nothing would have happened without Duncan. I owe him, he had my back and he got me into this world. He had my back when, in the early first years, I might not have made it. Duncan was the one who dragged me through, protected me, guided me, taught me how to do it.”
They haven’t been in touch as much recently – just “a bit of texting”.
He says the closure of Today FM – Garner was one of many high-profile victims, although he is launching a new podcast with MediaWorks – “sucks”.
“They know this … but it’s got nothing to do with them and their work, you know? They are some of the best bloody journos to walk around in this country.”
So, 500 days without a drink. He was fine, he said, with me (and the publicist) having a wine over lunch.
But, he says, there still has to be a serious mindset change in New Zealand.
After his documentary last year, he said, he did not want to “become Mr Hashtag Sober or anything like that”.
He says he was “blown away, like no topic I’ve ever done” following the documentary.
“In terms of the debate, there is no debate … it’s gone quite quiet. They backed off Chlöe’s [Chlöe Swarbrick] bill. You know, it’s disappearing again.”
It’s deeper than a debate, he says. There needs to be that mindset change, much like there has been around mental health.
“People can look to me. Anyone who’s struggling can go shit, you know, and I will just say, look, I was worse than you or as bad as you. And there is another side and actually, it’s great.”
After an hour and a half, we leave the table as the water blaster roars. “Have I talked too much? You really got me going good.”
Gower talked a lot. He’ll be talking a lot when the lights come up on his new show as well. But you can be sure he will be smiling.
- Paddy Gower Has Issues starts 7.30pm, Wednesday, May 24, on Three. There are 18 days to go.