Acclaimed comedian Justine Smith is a regular on The Project and 7 Days, both on Three. Set to embark on a nationwide 7Days tour in October, Justine has also found fame for her role in the Keep It Real Online advertisement.
My mum and my nana were huge sewers so, when I was young, I was taken to a lot of material shops but I used to get bored, and wander off. This one time, when I was about 3, mum couldn't find me and she panicked. Then she noticed people out on the street looking in the window. She went to see what they were looking at, and there I was, in the window, wrapped up in fabric, doing a little dance for everybody. I was not a shy child.
I went to an all-girls school in Christchurch. I was a super goodie-two-shoes high-achiever back then and only ever bunked school twice. I was too scared of my mother's wrath to be naughty. I didn't get pissed or smoke a joint or get laid or do anything like that till I was about 18. Then I got to Auckland and everything changed.
I had zero clues about what I wanted to do with my life, although I always knew I wanted to perform and, going to art school, to study film and photography, was my way of getting to Auckland to follow that path.
I lied about my age and got a job at The Globe Hotel on Wakefield St where I was surrounded by strong wāhine who wore blue lipstick and had spiky hair. They took no crap across the bar or in life. These women had a huge impact in shaping me and soon I was wearing cherry red Doc Martens and ripped tights with shorts, but from there I waitressed heaps and performing went on the backburner.
I lived in Japan for a year with my friend Brenda from Australia. I know hostessing sounds dodgy but for us, it wasn't and we poured drinks for farmers and their wives in a little farm town, a ski village. We biked to and from work across paddy fields to our apartment and, because we were the only foreigners in town, people used to bring us gifts.
One farmer bought us a watermelon. We were cycling home at six that morning, but we've nowhere to put the watermelon, so I stick it down my tights. We'd also had a few beersies, as you do when you're hostessing, and I hit a rut and fell off right in front of the Seven Eleven.
Boozy Suzy crashes her bike into this newspaper stand looking nine months pregnant, so all these lovely Japanese people on their way to work stop to help me. They say, 'oh my god she's pregnant, call an ambulance.' I know a little Japanese and I say, 'no, no, it's just a watermelon.' When I pulled it out to show them, they all politely backed away.
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I've never been as terrified as I was the first time I tried doing comedy. I was 26 and waitressing at Bohemian with Emma Lange. She used to do stand up at Kitty O'Brien's and she thought I should do it too, although I disagreed. Emma signed me up several times, and the fourth time I actually made it backstage and Emma stood next to me to make sure I didn't run away again. But I couldn't make myself go onstage, so she took me in a firm-fingered, armpit grip, and pushed me through the curtain. My first steps on stage were stumbles and my heart was beating so hard in my throat, I didn't think I'd be able to talk, but I was good at it.
I got a really good reaction from the crowd and the other comics – and this is going to sound so cheese on toast - but, when I walked out of Kitty O'Brien's that night, the sky looked different and I felt my life had completely changed. I had found my thing. Finally, I thought, thank god, I don't have to make coffee for the rest of life.
I got married at 44. I'd known Dan for ages, he was a friend of a mutual comedian friend, Steve Wrigley and, when I visited Wellington, Dan would be there. I thought he was really nice, but I didn't have romantic feelings for him. Then he cut off his dreadlocks which helped, and when he was tour managing a mini-tour Steve and I were doing, he was just so kind. One day in Carterton, I remember this so clearly, we're sitting around before the gig, and he came up and asked if I needed anything. As he walked away, I looked at him with different eyes. I made my first move at the San Francisco Bathhouse after a gig but it was casual to start with, because he was in Wellington and I was in Auckland, then it got serious because it was just too painful to be apart.
Thanks to a happy accident, Disneyland is our thing. We went on a trip to the States, and I had a feeling Dan might propose and I thought he might do it in New York. Our first night in LA, we went to Disneyland and it was so beautiful. We were lining up for the teacups and we hopped in this blue flowery little teacup and he just couldn't wait. He was losing his mind. He pulled out the ring and asked me to marry him. I was choked. I couldn't say anything. His next words were, "you need to answer as the ride is starting" so I said "yes" then we went on the cute spinny teacup ride and that's how Disneyland became our thing. We've since been to every single Disneyland, because for us, it is the happiest place on earth.
After starting on Seven Days, I went online to read the comments. What a mistake. There was so much mean-ness about the women, but no mean comments about the dudes and what makes it even worse, quite a lot of the hate towards women comes from other women. I know now not to read the comments, and New Zealand's female comedy community is amazing and really supportive. Thanks to my experience and age, I've become a bit like an auntie in the comedy community.
If I had to go viral, why did it have to be in a bathrobe with a towel on my head? Although if I'm going to be in a world-famous ad campaign, [Keep It Real Online] I'm glad it had an important message, and wasn't just hustling burgers. We had to be careful too, it's about a kid watching porn, so there's a fine line to ensure there wasn't too much comedy. Although it was super fun to shoot. The two "porn" actors were naked apart from four little pouches between them, but they weren't real porn actors. He's a personal trainer and she's an actor and he was doing that thing with his pecs, making his boobs pop. And I was like "dude I cannot keep a straight face with your boobs dancing around". And I had to keep my coffee cup really still to cover Cassandra's boobs, which was really hard, because when you talk your limbs move.
There are lots of things I wouldn't joke about and there are lots of words I'll never say. These days I also try not to say ladies and gentlemen and instead say "good evening everybody", because it's a different world from when I began. When people ask if comedy is too PC now, has the pendulum swung too far, I say the pendulum is in a pretty good place. I still say some pretty appalling s**t, but I own it, I make it about myself and I never punch down. I think comedy is one of the last bastions of free speech, where people can talk about what they want to talk about, and the audience will tell you what's okay and what's not, because half of what we're doing in comedy is talking and the other half is listening.