A radio stunt in 2013 almost ended Hayley Holt’s career. But the ballroom dancing, snowboarding TV star refused to let it happen. Now, writes Alan Perrott, she’s back and stronger than ever, celebrating two years sober and considering a life in politics.

It was breakfast radio, home to all things edgy and, you know, a bit zany, so why not take an on-air drug test? What could possibly go wrong?

"I guess I just thought," says Hayley Holt, "if this is happening it must be okay, they're not going to throw me under the bus."

It was all jolly japes as Auckland Drug Screening director, Shannon Balzat, conducted his live urine tests while More FM listeners called in with their predictions.

Really, you had to be there. It was hilarious, right up until the moment he announced Holt and co-host Stu Tolan had failed.

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"I think everyone was really tired ... it was a real brain fart moment and I felt like I had to hide. Then I did the apology letter, which I really regret now because it made it into an even bigger thing and I was like, 'how did I get here?'"

After two days of stress, Holt needed a night out and a boxing event in Hamilton seemed perfect - so perfect she was still feeling the effects when she got to work. One F-bomb later and it looked like June 2013 would mark the end of the golden girl's run. She had been suspended.

"Up 'til then I'd thought I could do anything, you know, 'I can give this a go, it'll be cool'. Then I realised I can't keep going through life having a great time and sticking the finger up whenever things go wrong, because life is hard. It doesn't always go your way, especially when you end up being publicly humiliated ... even if that's probably been a good thing in the long run."

Because, in typical Hayley fashion, she didn't just curl into a ball and hate the world. She stopped drinking and went to work as soon as possible.

So it's hard to say which means more to her right now: turning 35 yesterday or her two-years-dry anniversary last month.

Either way, she's happier than she's been in a long time, even if she still hates mornings.

"You know, I never thought I'd never drink. I loved it. I was the party girl, but going sober has forced me to face up to who I really am. I don't always have to be the life and soul of the party. I can just leave and it's okay. So I've realised I'm a lot more serious than I pretended to be, I suppose."

How serious is that? Well, she's back at the University of Auckland (part-time) and is seriously stoked with the 96 per cent she got for an essay on Karl Marx. Politics is her latest thing and let's just say the Green Party might do well to have a chat, even if they've already made the same mistake as many others.

"She gets under-estimated an awful lot," says Ric Salizzo, the self-described High Commander of Prime's The Crowd Goes Wild.

"People see the pretty girl on television and judge her straight away - well, more fool them because there's a lot going on."

And it does happen a lot: people see the model features and hair, then one plus one equals bimbo, or, as the women's mags alliteratively put it, "bubbly blonde".

Even now there will be people who know her only for Dancing With The Stars (after three seasons as a dancer, she's now a judge), or for sports show The Crowd Goes Wild, or for being the former girlfriend of Richie McCaw, or the snowboarder, or the radio host, or even the lanky girl in the gifted class.

But then she's almost made a career from surprising people.

Take her appearance on the reality show Treasure Island in 2007. Holt was there as attractive cannon fodder, someone to take an early bullet, but they didn't realise she's also what she calls "a bit of a tough bitch". So while her teammates squirmed at the feral living conditions, she was revelling in the torment and, at one point, a crew member was reduced to asking, "What are you still doing here?" This hadn't been their game plan.

"I knew she was going to win from the beginning," says lifelong friend and fashion designer Jaimie Webster. "It's that underdog thing. It brings out her competitive side and they never saw it coming. She's determined, super-smart, athletic and charming, and that's an unbeatable combination."

But, if her victory was unexpected, the exposure helped her on to the English version of Dancing With The Stars - Strictly Come Dancing - and encouraged a rugby player named Richie McCaw to ask Holt's agent, Sara Tetro, to arrange a meeting. It meant little to her. As a professional snowboarder, she prided herself on her ignorance of mainstream sports. But hey, what the hell, she even eventually moved to Christchurch to be with him.

If her ignorance meant she met the man before the legend, she eventually saw more than enough of that side through other people's eyes. The poor bugger is never left alone.

"At first, we'd be walking around and I'd say something like 'weren't you a bit rude then? Can't you stop and give them a bit of your time?'. And he was, 'I know. I really want to, but I wouldn't be able to go anywhere'. But it's funny, that was six years ago, and I think [the subject] is more annoying for him now. Anyone who's his ex always gets referred back to him."

She even managed to turn the tables on him. They were on a train in England during her Strictly Come Dancing stint when a little old lady tapped McCaw on the knee: "Excuse me, dear, is that Hayley Holt?"

If it was a moment her 7-year-old self might not have fully appreciated, the prospect of one day being recognised might have made her formidable first dance teacher easier to handle. Da Kapita, mother of Hugh Lynn (Herbs' manager, music promoter and entrepreneur), was, says Holt's mother Robin, terrifying.

"She was a neat old lady, very strict. She didn't just teach her kids how to dance - one was only 2 - she taught them how to behave. She was one of those women parents are petrified of."

It wasn't cheap, with Holt's rapid rise demanding new dresses, new shoes, constant preening, even more lessons and the weekly pre-class hamburgers. This burden fell to Holt's father, Murray.

After building their family home in Epsom (it featured in the last series of The X Factor), he went on building as much and as often as possible to keep the money coming in.

But it wasn't easy on his daughter, either. Ballroom dancing is demanding and there were occasions when her feet bled so much her shoes ran red. So, was it fun?

"Well, I loved dressing up and I got to play a character for a day. I enjoyed that. It's quite theatrical and I know people saw me as a bit of a tomboy, but it was more that I was a bit lazy on it. If someone else was dressing me and doing my makeup then, yeah, it was a lot of fun."

It helped that she adored winning and regularly competed in Australia and Malaysia, even if it was something she rarely shared with her friends at Epsom Girls' Grammar.

"Hayley kept it pretty hidden," says Jaimie Webster. Friends since the third form, all Webster knew was that she was never available at weekends and often arrived at school with fake tan, fake nails and bleached blond hair. "But then she was always incredibly disciplined in everything she did and had a very methodical brain. She was absolutely gifted like that. She got 100 per cent in School C maths. I'll never forget that."

But, by 16, Holt's commitment was wavering. Her older brother, Logan, was snowboarding. She wanted to join him, if only as a break from the pressure.

Mum Robin recalls one day, not atypical, on which she drove her daughter to a modelling shoot in Parnell (painting her nails at every red light on the way), then back to Aotea Square to skateboard, then on to dance practice. It was fun, if exhausting, so they decided on one last push and partnered Holt with her new dance teacher, David Yeates, a veteran on the New Zealand and British dance scene.

They'd barely begun work when they went professional and headed to the World Cup of ballroom, the Blackpool Dance Festival.

It was a total shock for an 18-year-old schoolgirl. After six weeks of intensive and expensive coaching in London they dived into a weird, perma-glitz world where the show never ends and no one leaves their room without frocking up in designer suits, sequinned dresses, war paint and jewellery. For possibly the first time, Holt was intimidated.

"All the women were late 20s, early 30s, and were just these glamorous, amazing creatures. I really felt on the outer."

She turned up to their first meet-and-greet event in her baggy skate gear.

Now, out of her depth and a total unknown, Holt and her partner weren't expected to pass the first round of 350-odd couples, but they did and kept on going.

"It was mindblowing, really," says David Yeates, "and once Hayley realised she could do this, she started to take it all in her stride. She was just amazing, so young, but she could do things a lot of experienced dancers can't do. I had people asking me where I'd found her."

They eventually finished 19th, well beyond anyone's expectations.

It didn't end there. Back home, they promptly won the New Zealand nationals (one official saw Holt lounging in her skate gear and sniffed, "You bring a whole new meaning to professional") and qualified for the US Open, in which they finished sixth. After only a few months as a combo their potential seemed enormous.

So Holt quit. "She asked to meet me in some bar," says Yeates, "and told me that she didn't want to carry on. I just went 'so be it', but I was gutted."

Their Blackpool success had not only earned them entry to the following year's competition, they'd done enough to skip the draining opening rounds. They would have been genuine contenders.

"Yeah, it was hard but, you know, that was still the best time of my career, a total highlight, and we're still great friends."

For her part, Blackpool meant Holt missed much of her final school year, which proved just the excuse to leave. She got early entry to the University of Auckland and tackled a history degree. Besides, sticking with dancing would have meant not only taking on the exorbitant costs (don't ask how much, they're not telling), she and Yeates would have had to move overseas and commit to the international circuit.

Hayley Holt and Peter Urlich dancing the waltz on Dancing With The Stars in 2008. Photo / Supplied
Hayley Holt and Peter Urlich dancing the waltz on Dancing With The Stars in 2008. Photo / Supplied

No, she wanted to go snowboarding with her brother and even university lasted only eight papers before she kicked off a new routine of off-season odd-jobbing while doubling up her winters in Wanaka and America. But even her odd-jobbing was non-standard. Mostly, she worked as a hammer hand for her father. On one occasion an inspector arrived on site and pointed to some work, "over there by your boy", only for his jaw to drop when she stood up. Otherwise, it was all snow business.

"It's a lifestyle really. It becomes who and what you are and I've always been attracted to the outliers, the abnormal. I know Mum was heartbroken when I stopped dancing - and I was pretty blunt - but the jumps, the tricks and the people, I loved all of it and I wanted to be really good."

If she now laughs about her mother's worries, the concerns were real. Among her many spills was one head-on collision that cost her a tooth, several stitches and 10 minutes of consciousness. She's also wrecked the AC joint in one shoulder, suffered multiple cases of whiplash. At the US Open's Rail Jam event, she gashed her head badly and, once stitched up, had to be dragged away from making the run that would have put her in the final.

"I'm really paying for all that now. I need regular physio for my hips, back and knees, my shoulder is all out of place, and my balance isn't what it was. The [Dancing With The Stars] judges did a dance routine at the start of the series and I was in pain for three days. So yeah, I'm old and damaged."

Holt's first appearance on Dancing With The Stars, in 2006, came during an off-season spell of dancing for the show's then co-host, Candy Lane, who suggested she audition. It wasn't an easy call, as it meant missing a winter, but the move turned into a homecoming of sorts, with lashings of public attention and the responsibility of guiding an amateur.

"It's really hard on them, because it's so exposing. You're going into this incredibly vulnerable place so they all change over the show. But I was terrified as well - will they forget their steps? What if I'm not good enough? There's a lot of stress. On my first show Candy saw how I was feeling and told me off: 'You're not allowed to be nervous'."

As for how her partners felt, her third and final series in 2008 paired her with DJ and former Th' Dudes frontman Peter Urlich.

"It was gruelling," he says. "I don't for one minute regret the actual experience of doing it, but I didn't enjoy it. I looked like a knob and I think that's where a lot of men struggle, but Hayley, with her absolutely fearless nature - and I know I tried her patience - got me through. It's tough, there are no personal boundaries. You're only centimetres apart most of the time, sweating and breathing in each other's breath. I just wish I could have been better for her."

No worries. Holt was already setting herself up for another career, even if she didn't know it at the time.

Former Sports Cafe head Ric Salizzo had been watching and saw potential when Holt grabbed the microphone to hit back at a stinging attack from the judges. So he invited her on to his new TV3 show, The Sugar Shack, where she impressed enough for him to offer her more work, presenting stories from her base in Wanaka. Her input gradually increased to the point she joined his next show, The Crowd Goes Wild, full-time, to provide expert analysis of the Sochi Olympics.

Once again, this led to another tangent when, in 2011, Holt took on boxing. Her first fight was at the Fight For Christchurch charity event against equestrian and road cyclist Emma Louise Ferguson, followed a week later by a bout against surfer Paige Hareb at Fight For Life. It was one of the scariest challenges she'd faced and even after three months of intensive training under the expert tutelage of Monty Betham and Daniella Smith, she panicked during her first sparring session.

Hayley Holt, left, and Paige Hareb during their Fight For Life match in 2011. Photo / Stephen Parker
Hayley Holt, left, and Paige Hareb during their Fight For Life match in 2011. Photo / Stephen Parker

"I was trying to push her away with my knees, then I was just 'stop, stop, stop' and ripped my head gear off. Oh my God, that was intense."

Her mother was ringside for the Hareb fight, watching through her fingers. Holt won the first round, lost the second but, when the bell went for the third round, her mum knew things would be fine.

"I saw the steely look she gets in her eyes and I knew she was back."

A few frantic minutes later the audience were on their feet, cheering wildly. Some called it the fight of the night.

"That was so awesome," says the still undefeated Holt. "They were so into it and we'd proved all the naysayers wrong."

Any notion of taking boxing seriously ended when she saw the fight for herself: "That was scary. I saw my angry boxing face, the mongrel, and that's a side of myself I don't want to foster anymore. I think it's even knocked a bit of the competitive side out of me. I don't have that desire to prove myself so much."

As for what comes next, she's set on learning more about climate change and how people work. Becoming single has clearly freed up some time and she's focused on adding facts to her observations over years of endless winters. And, if she's realised she isn't quite the leftie she'd thought, she is increasingly aware of issues such as inequality and waste.

"She's a smart cookie, unique," says Salizzo, "and television will only be one part of her story. With her it's a case of one thing always leading to another, so who knows where she'll end up?"

Her mother isn't much help.

"All I know is that is that if I say one thing, she'll do the opposite. She never ceases to amaze me, really. Sometimes I really don't know where she came from."

So, how about Hayley Holt MP?

Holt just shrugs at the notion. "You know, sometimes I wish I'd just been a surfer."

Dancing With The Stars screens on TV3 on Sundays at 7pm with the results show
following on Mondays at 8pm.

- Canvas