Leaving home to live someone else's life for a week proved both terrifying and enlightening for the participants of a new series, writes Angela Barnett.

What's more harrowing than leaving your family and going to live with another, strange family, for six nights on national television? Going on holiday with the unruly tourists? Moving in with aliens? Or stabbing yourself continuously in both eyeballs with nostril hairs?

Wife Swap is one of the oldest reality shows around where we, the viewers, get to snoop into somebody else's life and watch what happens when spouses swap – not between the sheets alas but with routines and rules. The format's always the same: half the week it's house rules, then the new spouse gets to impose her rules, causing some chaos, confusion or - if we're lucky - catastrophe.

The New Zealand creators of the show had to find 16 willing families - no easy task for reticent Kiwis - and it's easy to assume attention would be the motivation. Actually, no.


"None of them were doing it to get on Instagram and get bikini pictures, that's for certain," says the producer Dominic Smith.

Nor is it crazy people who sign up, even if that might make better TV (and actually, we're all a bit crazy). Most who do it have an agenda.

Take eco-warriors Kristy and Davian Lorson. They wanted to show another family - and the whole nation - how to make small changes to be more sustainable. "I found the idea of being on TV a little terrorising but I saw it as an opportunity to talk about issues that are really important," says Kristy.

They were put into a family who were polar opposites in terms of sustainable living but were also evangelists with an agenda - of the religious kind. "We had very different ways of looking at the world. Part of their belief is that everything has been provided by whatever god they believe in so they can do whatever they want," explains Lorson. God vs evolution is a hefty dinner table conversation, then lob in climate change to really turn up the heat. (Can you hear the casting directors rubbing their hands together with glee?)

Same-sex couple Gary Wither and John Borwick wanted to show the world that a gay lifestyle is no different. "People are people, regardless of who they choose to share their lives with," says Wither.

But who moves out of Wife Swap when there are two men? And, actually, who calls a show that in 2019? "Life Swap" would be more LGBTIQ-respectful and Smith is the first to admit the 15-year-old name needs a refresh – but they couldn't change it.

Same-sex couple Gary Wither and John Borwick wanted to show the world that a gay lifestyle is no different.
Same-sex couple Gary Wither and John Borwick wanted to show the world that a gay lifestyle is no different.

Borwick was the one to move out because "he's the cook", says Wither. The gay couple was paired with a Christian couple from an arranged marriage, which sounds like a homophobic version of the Spanish Inquisition but Borwick was left with a new-found respect for arranged marriages and parenting. "Living with my new family made me appreciate how much work goes into raising children," says Borwick. "Now when I get stuck in traffic near a school I salute those mothers, whereas before I would be cursing them for holding me up."

Smith doesn't promise that the show changes lives but he talks about transformative moments. "There's one episode with a single parent who uses the show to move on from mourning the death of a child. It's startling to watch. It's brave to do it so publicly," he says. After discovering 13 per cent of New Zealand households have one parent, they deliberately had a solo parent swap. "We're incredibly pleased with the diversity we got on the show, the real mix of modern New Zealand," says Smith.

Another couple went on the show to smash some myths about blended families. Rebekah Brittin and her partner, Larry Rubaduka, get a lot of questions about their relationship to their two children, which can be hurtful. "I'm Māori, Larry is African and Elijah [one son] is more Pākehā-looking [with a different father] so people make assumptions. I wanted to show that no matter what situation you can all get along. We've taught the boys to always be respectful. Who cares about skin colour?"

The Brittens take on the challenge of Wife Swap.
The Brittens take on the challenge of Wife Swap.

Brittin, who had an extremely detailed manual about how her household ran, was paired up with a family with no structure. "I've been brought up to believe that children need routine because if they go outside of that, they do naughty things."

Without giving away details, Rubaduka says the reunion at the end was fantastic. "We didn't realise until after she was gone how she kept the family together; she's like a superglue. If all mothers went away for a week, when she comes back – oh my goodness - she would feel more appreciated."

And perhaps that's the real, other agenda of Wife Swap.

Wife Swap begins May 30, TVNZ 2.