For over two decades Neil Waka has been a familiar face on our television screens. Currently head of corporate affairs for Coca Cola Amatil, Waka is about to start hosting a new current affairs show Te Ao Tapatahi, screening 7am weekday mornings from July 22 on Māori Television or online at www.maoritelevision.com.
'My dad was in the military and I spent a lot of my childhood in Waiouru. Back then it was the biggest military base in the country and it was an amazing place to grow up in. Me and my four siblings spent a lot of time exploring and hiking in the back blocks of the military training areas with our gang of mates. We sometimes came across unexploded munitions and would dare each other to touch them - which is crazy when you think about it now. I would run away from home from time to time, but it was a cold place, so I usually ended up back home pretty quickly.
'Because I grew up with violence, I did have some violent tendencies - my parents splitting up probably didn't help - so my father put me into martial arts at an early age. I really loved sports, I loved to fight and martial arts was seen as a way of trying to channel my aggression. I don't think I was angry, I just really enjoyed physical contact sports, and I had a lot of energy.
'I wanted to be a news anchor from an early age. When I was 13 I even wrote to television asking for a news reading job but, where I grew up, no one around me did that sort of thing so it was only a pipe dream. There wasn't anyone who looked like me reading the news either, so I put that dream to one side and pursued radio.
'Following a short stint on Radio Geyserland in Rotorua, I was accepted into Broadcasting School in Wellington. After graduating top of the class, I was posted to The Tonight Show, but I felt I was failing there so I asked to be sent to a smaller region. I knew I needed to learn to communicate properly on radio and that if I couldn't do that, I'd probably end up leaving the industry.
'I was then sent to Whāngarei, Greymouth and on to Gisborne but in Gisborne I reached a point where I wanted a new challenge so I decided to fulfil my dream of becoming a cop. I had uncles in the police, and it had always been something I'd thought about. In the run test, I thought I had no problem, so I took it nice and easy until the recruiting sergeant drove up and told me I was way behind and would probably fail. I literally sprinted the rest of the way and only made it with a few seconds to spare - almost dying in the process - but I was accepted. At the same time I got a job offer from TV3. I went to the police recruiter and he said, 'No one lasts in TV, so we'll put your application on hold and as soon as you finish in TV, we'll send you down to police college.'
'Within three months of starting as news presenter on Nightline, TV3 turned upside down and went into receivership, and because I was struggling in the big metropolis of Wellington, I went to the boss and said I needed to be posted to a smaller place.
'My early 20s were difficult. I was thrust into the public eye, in front of the camera as a young presenter and reporter, and I became a 'celebrity'. It wasn't what I signed up for, but that became my life. I lived my life onscreen, but I didn't know who I was, so I became a caricature of myself, being 'Neil Waka' instead of just Neil. My wife used to laugh because I'd wear a cap and glasses whenever we went out, not because I thought I was cool, but so I could be me. Every time we'd go out, people would stare, which is part and parcel of that career path, but it can be difficult. You can't cry about it either, you just have to carry on. Kiwis are mostly lovely though, and they're not usually overly demonstrative towards celebrities, unless they've had a few drinks.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
'When I left TV 10 years ago, I naively felt I could just be Neil again, which was unrealistic. I'd been on camera for 22 odd years and I still have people come up to me and ask, 'Are you Neil Waka?' Then if I say, 'Yep,' they'll tell me their grandmother loves me.
'I've been asked twice to do Dancing With The Stars, but I've always said no because it's not my thing, although never say never. If it was a hip-hop version I might be interested, not because I can do hip-hop, l just love that style of dancing. Not to demean anyone who does Dancing with the Stars, but the women are sensational and the guys are like accessories, which doesn't mean the guys who do it aren't good, but it's just not something I could authentically give myself to.
'I left TV3 after 11 years and spent some time in the States with my brother, but I needed to come home for my son. Then, for some reason, I was shortlisted to join the board of TVNZ. I had no idea what boards were about, so I attended the government board of directors' course but then I ended up working for TV One News for around 11 years before heading into the corporate world.
'Being Māori is who I am, but I grew up not speaking Te Reo. My nanny spoke to us all the time in Māori, but my father was of the age where he wasn't allowed to speak Te Reo at school, so he learned later. Returning to broadcasting with Māori TV has the added benefit of enabling me to continue my Te Reo journey. It might not be easy, but the planets have aligned for something really special to happen.
'Broadcast media, particularly television, the people making the decisions have dragged the chain on diversity particularly for Māori and Pasifika people and now, more than ever, they're scrambling for them. The question needs to be asked, 'Do the people on our screens reflect our communities and if not why not?'
'Before going into TV, when I started out, I actually asked, 'Am I allowed to go on TV? Are Māori allowed to be news anchors?' Because you can put people in positions, 'Oooh look, we have our Maori department, we've got our Maoris', but, unless you have diversity in mainstream prominent positions and unless the people making decisions believe diversity is important, nothing changes.
'I've had my share of haters, but I've never talked much about that. People only see the glamorous side of TV, but I've had racist letters - you wouldn't believe the racism I've experienced through my career. That's a part of life that many people never have to endure. But I'm an optimistic realist, and that's why I'm taking everything I've got to Māori Television. There will be challenges, but the possibilities of what this can be really gives me hope for the future of broadcasting.