It’s a moment that Campbell Johnstone once thought he’d never be able to experience – down on one knee, proposing to the love of his life, Ben Thomson, as a rainbow of hot-air balloons rises slowly against the dawn sky.
As an All Black and a closeted gay man, such a magical moment seemed impossible for so long. But after publicly coming out this year, Johnstone, 43, is finally living his best authentic life – and as he tells Woman’s Day just hours after his proposal, he’s never felt so content.
“I couldn’t be happier right now,” he says, turning to Thomson and smiling. “It’s been such an incredible and crazy year! It’s a good way to celebrate.”
While he expected his story would resonate in Aotearoa, Johnstone had no idea his admission would go global, with media coverage of the interview airing in countless countries and thousands of messages making their way into his inbox.
“It’s been a really rewarding and humbling few months,” he says. “It seems to be helping people, which is the main thing. I’m still getting messages even now thanking me for what I’m doing, which blows my mind. There were two just yesterday – one from Brussels saying how he wished he had someone like me around when he was growing up.
“I mean, that’s the power of the All Black brand, right? It’s not that it’s Campbell Johnstone – no one knows who Campbell Johnstone is. It’s that I was an All Black.”
Of course, Johnstone’s admission was no surprise to his nearest and dearest. “They were probably more shocked to find out I was an All Black,” he quips dryly. But he had Thomson’s full support.
“I was so proud,” says Thomson, 35. “As awesome as it was to come out, it’s still kind of sad that it has to happen. We talked about it more and more as time went on, and we realised that this could help a lot of people. Then it was finally the right time and, of course, it changed nothing for us – it’s not like we were hiding our relationship.
“It was simply good timing in the sense that Campbell had someone – me – in his life to support him through it and that makes a big difference.”
Johnstone agrees, “It makes it a lot easier when you have someone at home who’s hugely supportive. We didn’t know how it was going to go. Turns out it was amazing and 99 per cent positive, but you can’t know for sure.”
The pair have been together as a couple for two years, after first crossing paths at a pub in Cambridge in 2016.
“We met there and spent a bit of time chatting, but I was moving to London and Campbell was moving to Spain to coach rugby,” says Thomson.
“We caught up a couple of times when we were in Europe, but we both came back to New Zealand in 2020 because of Covid. Then we caught up again after the lockdowns and quarantines, and we haven’t really been apart since.”
At the end of last year, they moved in together in Napier.
Thomson and Waipukurau-born Johnstone say that this relationship is different from ones they’ve had in the past, and that they quickly realised they’d found “the one”.
“You just know, you know?” laughs Johnstone. “It’s relaxed, it’s easy and it’s simple.”
Thomson adds, “We’re both very easy-going, there’s never any drama and it’s always felt so easy – just like it’s meant to be. Nothing has ever been a problem.”
While they’re both very chilled guys, Thomson’s extroverted personality nicely balances Johnstone’s more reserved nature, with the former athlete much preferring to stay in the background and chime in occasionally.
“I’m more outgoing and Campbell’s a lot quieter, but he’s getting better at talking to strangers,” laughs Thomson. “And with all the public speaking he’s doing these days, he’s doing really well.”
“But other than that, we’re pretty similar,” Johnstone adds. “We both come from super-supportive families and we’re very family-oriented.”
As well as their whānau, sport is a very important part of their lives – Thomson used to ride horses professionally and Johnstone is still involved with rugby.
Travel is also a huge passion for the pair, which is why an engagement in Turkey had been on the cards for months.
Johnstone had already asked Thomson’s parents for permission. “His mum said, ‘Of course you can – go for it!’ His dad got up, gave me a hug and said, ‘That’s really cool’. They were both pretty excited for us. The hardest thing was to find a moment when Ben was not around his parents, so I could ask them!”
While Johnstone gave another nod to tradition by getting down on one knee, Thomson admits he already knew the proposal was coming.
“We’d planned to do it on this trip at some point – and when you loop a photographer in, you need to know the exact time and place!” laughs Thomson.
“It’s pretty typical of us to be so organised, to be honest. We almost did it on our Europe trip last year, but it took longer than we thought to get the ring sorted. You only do it once, right?”
And when the couple were thinking of perfect places to pop the question, both agreed it should be Turkey.
“We knew the photos would be amazing with the balloons and the landscape,” explains Thomson. “Of course, we would have been happy anywhere, but we thought the background here would be amazing – and it was.”
Which is how Johnstone and Thomson found themselves waking up at 4.30am to drive to the bottom of a valley in Cappadocia to watch the region’s famous hot-air balloons take off. Against the glow of the balloons’ flames, Johnstone dropped to one knee and asked Thomson to be his husband.
“It was a bit of an off-the-cuff speech, really,” Johnstone says. “I just said, ‘Ben Thomson, will you do me the honour of marrying me?’ and he said yes, obviously. I was concentrating on not dropping the ring while I was putting it on. It’s quite a fiddly process!”
“It was very Campbell – it was an incredible moment,” smiles Thomson. “And we followed it up with the best day, following the balloons around, taking photos in different spots, and then going out to the canyons and national parks.”
“We don’t feel any different – it probably hasn’t soaked in yet,” shares Johnstone. “It’s so far, so good!”
As they finish up their dream holiday in Egypt, Israel and Jordan, focus will soon switch to wedding planning, which Thomson will take the lead on.
“We haven’t really thought too much about it, but it’ll probably be somewhere in the South Island because that’s where our families are,” he says. “And obviously, it’ll be outside of rugby season.”