Radio star Cam Mansel was buying food for his rabbit at his local pet store when a teacher recognised him. Introducing herself, she explained how one of her students had been struggling with his sexuality until hearing Cam on ZM's Late Show.
The 30-year-old broadcaster recalls, "She was like, 'You said something that resonated with him and really helped him.' It was an incredible moment that I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Helping others navigate identity struggles means everything to Cam as his sexuality has attracted vile slurs and death threats, as well as seeing him bullied throughout his school years, when he was teased about his weight with nasty comments that still haunt him today.
But as he proudly rocks a bright tee in support of anti-bullying campaign Pink Shirt Day, Cam hopes to show anyone facing bullies that the horrendous time will pass. "I went through stages where I felt super-alone and had no friends," he recalls. "It felt like it would never end, but it does – and it builds resilience."
Thanks to drama class and the school band, Cam was a confident kid until classmates started commenting on his body when he was around 9. "Kids go through stages where they grow out and grow up, but I had a grow-out phase and became quite a chubster," he says, adding that the bullies dimmed his love for sports.
"I was good at basketball, but the coach benched me every game and my teammates told me I was so fat, I wouldn't be able to jump. I ended up quitting. I wish I hadn't allowed others to take that pleasure out of my life, but getting hassled for my weight every practice didn't make me feel good. The more people said mean things to me, the more I believed it."
Cam eventually adopted healthier eating habits and began cycling, but the bullying got worse in high school, when homophobic taunts made him dread walking through those gates.
"People called me fairy or f****t. I got bullied for my sexuality before I even knew what sexuality was. They'd say, 'You're gay,' but I hadn't even thought about that. Their comments really made me question myself, but it wasn't until uni that I fully accepted it."
Adding that he had girlfriends in high school, Cam continues, "For so long, I tried fighting it because I thought it was a bad thing, and I didn't want to let my friends and family down. I thought if I told people, they would resent me for it."
But after he came out to his best mates, Cam realised he wouldn't lose loved ones by sharing he's gay, so he told his sister Megan, then his parents Ann and David. "It hasn't been a walk in the park, but they have been super-supportive and knowing I have their support means everything," says Cam, adding that his brother Brad's reaction was, "That's freaking cool!"
As for how he conquered school bullies, Cam says turning up to mufti day wearing Nike Air Force sneakers, which were popular at the time, proved a pivotal moment. "People's reactions to me completely changed, which is the most ridiculous thing," he laughs.
"I went from being an outsider, to losing some weight and wearing particular shoes, then having people want to be my friend. I just thought, 'This is weird. I'd rather be friends with people who genuinely care about me.' That was a massive lesson."
Finding authentic friends, largely through drama class, helped Cam gain confidence, but he notes that while the bullying has made him a more empathetic person, it's also had a long-lasting negative impact.
"There are aspects of body dysmorphia I still struggle with. Because I spent years of my life being told I was fat every day, even when my body changed, I still heard those voices in my head."
And while being in the public eye has attracted new bullies – like a listener who was unhappy ZM had employed a gay host and sent a death threat via Facebook – Cam's grateful to have radio as a platform to support other people who are struggling and to be a media role model to the LGBTQI community, which was something lacking when he was younger.
"I just watched the Netflix show Heartstopper, which is an amazing representation of a gay relationship, which I wish had been a thing when I was growing up," says Cam, who's currently single but hoping "Prince Charming sweeps me off my feet".
He adds, "Now Australia has the world's first bisexual Bachelorette, the first same-sex couple just danced on Dancing With The Stars NZ and people are embracing diversity on TikTok. It's great for young people to see that no matter what their sexuality is, they can do awesome things with their lives!"
Wear a pink top on Friday May 20 to support Pink Shirt Day and help stop bullying. To register or donate, visit pinkshirtday.org.nz.
• ZM's Late Show With Cam Mansel airs 7pm to 10pm weeknights.