She got angry, she got choked up, she made jokes and she got choked up again. She refused to answer questions. She got choked up again. She called herself, "A positive pixie," on more than one occasion. She didn't apologise for anything and she walked back one of her most famous apologies. She told me not to get nervous. She interrupted regularly. She asked if she was scary. The whole thing was a quite intense emotional ride. At the end, we walked to her car and discovered she'd parked in Kate Hawkesby's spot, for which she didn't apologise.
During her professional nadir in 2014, during which she was given multiple warnings by the Prime Minister and became a key antagonist in Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics, she reportedly cried on the phone to gossip columnist Rachel Glucina. I remember reading that story at the time and being sceptical, because she did not come across as a crier in the way, say, James Shaw or David Seymour do.
What is the space, if any, between how we see a person and how they want us to see them? And do either of these things bear any relation to who they actually are? I struggled with these questions throughout my time with Judith Collins. Is there any other politician in the country whose reputation so precedes them?
Earlier this year, Simon Wilson wrote of her, in this newspaper : "More comfortable at war than at peace."
Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien said of her: "There are a lot of people in that caucus that just do not like her and do not want her to be the next leader of the National Party."
Last year, Duncan Garner wrote of her: "She brings anything but that level of warmth, she brings fear and an evil giggle,"
In 2012 in The Listener, Guyon Espiner wrote the following astonishing lines: "An inner struggle is clearly being played out between Judith Collins' competing eyebrows. The right eyebrow is steady and authoritative. The left is highly volatile. As she looks into the camera, the left soars – quite independently of its partner – to heights that verge on flirtatious suggestiveness. Beneath all this, her eyes – a dangerous mix of green and blue – glow like some fissile material."
It's hard be sure exactly what Espiner's intoxicating language-cocktail of danger and sex and nuclear threat was implying but it didn't sound good.
I asked Collins, 60, if she thought she was tough: "No, I don't think I'm tough," she said. "I think what I am is that I am strong. I'm strong because I've had to be and because I've learnt to be and because the other thing is, because I don't spend my life thinking if I'm not compliant, if I don't do as I'm told, then I won't get ahead in life."
I asked how she felt about being described as a fighter: "No I don't like that," she said. "I'm just someone who stands my ground. So I don't go after people. I don't want to end up in arguments or fights and things. I personally find conflict not that pleasant, but I have learnt now not to take the fall for anyone else."
KiwiBuild promise: Judith Collins calls for Phil Twyford's head
She had turned up nearly 40 minutes early for our interview. When I went to meet her, she was sitting alone, well away from the reception area where most guests sit. She had her back to the door. She had with her a tote bag from Harvard, where, in 2013, she'd completed a leadership course.
In the days before we met, there had been much speculation she was about to roll Simon Bridges and assume leadership of the National Party. Prior to that week's caucus meeting, under heavy media bombardment, Bridges had refused to say he trusted her. It looked like it could happen any minute.
I thanked her for meeting with me in the midst of all the drama. "Interesting times for you," I said.
"Yes," she said. "Kiwibuild."
That was a joke. Her sense of humour is something she describes as "wicked" and she frequently employs it in the service of having a crack at her political opponents, particularly, currently, Phil Twyford.
"When I'm dealing with Phil Twyford, questioning him, I just stick to the very straight questions," she said. "I never add anything in to them. I don't need to: Phil's inability to answer them says it all."
I told her this felt like a very Judith Collins-type dig: "It's a little bit funny …"
She cut me off: "It's actually really funny."
Her childhood and upbringing as the youngest child of hard-working, Labour-voting farmers near Matamata is fairly well-known. She and her siblings were encouraged to speak their minds around the dinner table and would frequently argue with each other and their parents.
"My dad used to say to me when I was a little girl, 'Don't let anyone make you feel less than them.' He would say things like, 'Your father is a World War II veteran - you have as much right to be here as anyone else.' He would say that to me as a little kid and I always was like that."
She went on: "And when I was very little, I used to stammer, as a child. I had a speech impediment and my mother used to say to me - she would hold my hand and say: 'Say I stammer.' As soon as I did that, I could say anything. She'd say, 'Just acknowledge you've got a problem and it will go away.' Guess what? Do you hear me stammering now?"
As a story, it was very on brand - the forging in childhood of the fighting instinct, of someone tough enough to overcome the impediments that could have prevented her becoming a successful lawyer, businessperson and holder of high political office. But then her tone softened and she said, "I have a memory of me standing at the dinner table - standing, because I was so little - and not being able to speak. Not being able to get the words out."
Over those two sentences, her voice wavered, caught and cracked, her eyes began to redden and it took her a couple of breaths before she could get the next sentence out.
She said: "You tend to remember trauma."
I asked: "Why was that traumatic?"
"Because I couldn't speak," she said, her voice still full of emotion. "Because I couldn't say what I wanted to say. Because I couldn't get the words out. Most of us don't remember happy memories so much as we remember the traumatic ones and that was a traumatic memory."
Then, as if she had just remembered something about herself, she added, "But then traumatic memories make you stronger."
Collins entered Parliament in 2002, after her friend, former National MP Annabel Young, suggested she put her name forward for the new seat of Clevedon. Before making the decision, Collins sounded out some people for their thoughts, including incumbent Warren Kyd.
"But really the final straw," she said, "was when somebody told me I shouldn't do it."
I asked who that was.
"It was a bloke."
"Not your husband?"
"No," she said. "My husband said, 'Don't let other people tell you what to do.'"
I asked if politics was what she'd expected it to be.
"I don't know what I expected it to be. Fortunately, I have always had a very strong work ethic and fortunately I have always viewed work as really enjoyable no matter what I've done. I guess I probably would have expected over the years to see more of a feeling of, I don't know what - maybe kindness every now and again would be nice."
She added that New Zealand politics was lucky to have the kindness it does have, when compared with, say, America or Britain. "One of the things I've learnt in politics, in my years there, is you don't have to dislike someone just because their views are completely wrong."
I said that, again, that felt like a very Judith Collins comment.
"Doesn't it though?" she said. "That's because I made it myself."
I said, "There's a very nice element to it that could also be read as having an undercurrent of a dig at someone in particular, maybe."
"No no no," she said, "I don't care about personalities. No. I mean, for instance, I get along with quite a few people on the other side of Parliament, even if I don't agree with them on lots of things. It doesn't matter. You don't have to dislike people. That's all part of growing up really isn't it? You learn not to worry about that."
I asked her: "Is Simon Bridges up to the job?"
She said, "Yes, of course, yes." Rather than elaborating, she began talking to the makeup artist, who was applying the finishing touches before the photoshoot.
Eventually Collins returned her attention to me and said, "I interrupted you."
I said, "I think we were talking about Simon Bridges."
She said, "Yes, you were. Yep. Perfectly fine."
That was the end of the discussion about Bridges.
Her father died when she was 35 and her mother died when she was 40. She dealt with their deaths, she said, by not dealing with them, by pushing them aside in the short-term to deal with the immediate bureaucracy of death and then to focus on the demanding, all-consuming work of being a mother and lawyer. Then it hit her.
"I remember my husband went and bought this book and gave it to me to read just as I was about to fly off to the United States for work. So I was a lawyer at that stage, and company director, so I was off there to do some work, and I started to read it on the plane and I just burst into tears. I think that's the …"
Again her voice thickened with emotion.
"It's really hard …"
She was struggling to get the words out. Eventually she stopped trying. "Yeah, it's really hard."
I asked, "What was the book?"
She said: "It was called Adult Orphan." She laughed. "It actually talks about the fact that suddenly you're no one's child. So you grow up a lot when you have kids and actually you grow up an awful lot when your parents die, and suddenly there's nobody else."
I asked if the deaths of her parents had changed how she approached life.
"Yeah," she said. "I actually went for it more. So before that, when my mother was alive, I would never have gone into politics because my mother was more left-wing than me and she would have been upset and she also used to say she didn't like how people were so nasty to each other in politics, and she thought they would be nasty to me. 'No, Mum! They've never been nasty to me! No! Right."
Later, she said: "Sometimes I think in politics we can go after, enjoy the game so much we forget there's actually a human on the other end, and that's something that I've learnt. People forget that."
She also said: "I think there have been times when I have got very interested in the game and that was a very long time ago. My view these days is, 'Remember these are just people.' But it doesn't stop me holding a minister to account, does it?"
"When you say a very long time ago …"
"I just think there are times when I've had to learn to pull back because it's really important to keep focused on, what is this actually all about? This is actually all about representing people. It's about either in opposition holding a government to account or in government doing the best job that you can to get stuff through and you've always got to remember there's a person on the other side. There are occasionally times, even in opposition, I sometimes look across and I think, 'Is that person on the other side actually okay?'"
"Is there a time specifically that you're thinking of?"
"I'm thinking about someone now and occasionally I pulled back a bit because I think that person is actually personally struggling."
"Who is that person?"
"I'm not going to say that. That is not fair to them. So I think it's good to remember that."
I told her I wanted to bring up Simon Pleasants. Her voice changed. I would characterise it as a fighting tone. She said: "So why don't you?"
Pleasants is the public servant whose name and title Collins provided to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater in 2009 and who Slater subsequently accused on his blog of leaking sensitive information about Bill English. Pleasants later received death threats. The reason we know about this is because Nicky Hager got access to communications between Collins and Slater about the affair and published them in his 2014 book Dirty Politics.
Collins said she gave Pleasants' details to Slater because she was asked for them. She said she didn't know how Slater planned to use them. She pointed out, correctly, that the privacy commissioner subsequently cleared her of wrongdoing and that Pleasants himself made a public statement accepting that she made no allegations about him.
She said: "What I think is awful is when someone like Nicky Hager" [her voice broke on his name] gets stolen information, which is then characterised in a certain way against someone like myself or John Key and then uses that without ever asking for an explanation. That is disgraceful. So that is something I'm very concerned about. So I don't do that to other people and he did."
I asked, "How do you feel about the fact that Simon Pleasants received death threats?"
She said: "I understand that that happened. That is a terrible thing to happen to him. I know what that's like because I get them on - I wouldn't say a regular basis - but I get several every year, and it's very awful."
I asked if 2014 was her worst year in politics: the year of Dirty Politics, the Oravida scandal, and her resignation as a minister following the release of an email written by Cameron Slater saying she was "gunning for" the director of the Serious Fraud Office, Adam Feeley.
She said: "It was a concerted year-long attack and I actually think what was really interesting is how when people undertake that sort of concerted year-long attack that, if you can withstand that, if I can withstand that, I can withstand anything. And I came out of that completely cleared in the Chisholm Inquiry, which was a tremendously difficult time, but I provided every piece of information: my personal emails, my phone records, for six years - every electronic device that I had was searched through.
"Can you imagine how that feels like? [Here her voice again began to waver and break]. And you're talking to me about privacy? Every single electronic resource I had was gone through, six years' worth, and you know what? I came out of that completely cleared - so exonerated - and Justice Chisholm said there was no evidence. It was totally untenable those accusations made against me."
Chisholm's investigation, though, had nothing to do with the allegations in Dirty Politics. Neither the book nor Hager's name appear in the text of the 34,000 word report (Hager's name appears in two footnotes). The Chisholm report was not an investigation into the contents of Dirty Politics but specifically "into allegations regarding Hon Judith Collins and a former Director of the Serious Fraud Office, Adam Feeley", which came to light when Slater's "gunning for Feeley" email was sent to Key's chief of staff by person/s unknown.
She went on: "So it was a tough year but my husband, my family, my friends were absolutely with me and I am very, very fortunate to have such a wonderful family and wonderful friends. And I knew I was right."
I asked if she had also been right on the scandal of her taxpayer-funded trip to China, during which she had dined with a Chinese border control official, the owner of Oravida - a company her husband was a director of - and the company's managing director. The public perception was of a conflict of interest. Her argument was that she was just having dinner with friends. Key publicly chastised her for not being open about the meeting.
She said: "If you know that you're right, things will come out okay. And again I was cleared by the cabinet office at that stage as well, but of course that wasn't reported as well as the smears."
"You did apologise over it though."
"I was told I had to apologise."
"By John Key?"
"Yeah, which was interesting, because, you know, sometimes you just have to do what you have to do but I tell you what: I won't apologise for things that I haven't done again."
I asked why she thought Key had forced her to apologise. She said: "Because it was a difficult situation. We were in election year and that was the right thing to do for the party and for the caucus. So it was a very difficult period."
She said the whole thing had made her stronger, although it wasn't clear if she meant as a person or a political entity, or whether she drew a distinction between the two: "As John Key said to me on numerous occasions afterwards, he realised I was a very loyal person."
She went on: "I have always been loyal and I just think it's a quality I admire in others and it's a quality that is not always reciprocated." She didn't elaborate.
I asked about Bill English's comment, reported in Nicky Hager's 2006 book The Hollow Men, that "she has an unfortunately high estimation of her own competence".
"Oh well," she said. "That was like 100 years ago wasn't it? I actually took it as a compliment."
"Yeah, because he wouldn't have said it if he really thought that I wasn't up to it, if you know what I mean."
"He saw you as a threat?"
"I don't know. You'll have to ask him. So what do you think? Do you think he's right? Really? Seriously?"
I said it wasn't my place to comment.
"No, not mine either. It wasn't my comment and I've never made anything similar back and I don't intend to. I think he needs to answer for his own comments, not me."
I brought up Jacinda Ardern's comment about her, made in an interview with Michele Hewitson in this newspaper in April, 2014. Asked to name someone she doesn't think of as nice, Ardern identified Collins, adding: "She'd hate to be described as nice."
Collins said: "I just think Jacinda doesn't know me at all. If she did she wouldn't have said that. I actually prefer if people like me because I'm just a human being, you know. Just like you, Greg. You probably like people to like you too."
I said that was true.
"Yeah, fancy that," she said. "I tell you what, I won't lie down on the ground and say, 'Tickle my tummy' so you can like me."
Later, in the interview, when asked if she finds it hard reading about herself, she returned to Ardern's comment: "Why?" Collins said. "Why would you say that? You don't know me. What a mean thing to say. I wouldn't say that about her. I always say nice things about her."
I checked that later.
In August 2014, in Dirty Politics, she was quoted as referring to Ardern as "My Little Pony", a term she later stuck by when questioned by TVNZ reporter Jehan Casinader.
On the AM Show in November 2017, talking about Ardern's dealings with Australia over refugees, Collins said, "It's not student politics time. This is where she's going to have to step up a bit. She's going to have to learn from Winston Peters that you actually do have to be a little bit more statesman-like when you're overseas and representing New Zealand."
In February last year, in an interview with Herald deputy political editor Claire Trevett : "But the main thing with Jacinda Ardern, it seems to me, is that it's all about her."
In April last year, she tweeted: "I am so over the virtue signalling PM we have at the moment. 6 months in the job and it's all about her photo shoots and her feelings."
I told Collins she is not generally perceived as "nice".
"By whom?" she asked. "I'm sorry, you're hanging out with the wrong crowd. You mean I'm not soft and cuddly?" She said: "So, if I was a bloke, would I be a nice bloke?"
"What do you think?" I replied.
"I think so," she said. "I have fun."
I asked: "Do you think there are blokes in Parliament who are less kind or more aggressive than you who are getting a freer ride as a result of being blokes?"
"No," she said. "I just think that they're threatened. So sometimes people get very threatened when they're used to having women agree with them constantly to their face but I am unlikely to do that if I don't agree with them."
In Dirty Politics, Collins is quoted as saying: "If you can't be loved, then best to be feared." Nowhere is she quoted as saying you can't try for both.
At times during our interview, she was playful: At one point, I started a question, "Your ability to withstand …" She interrupted: "Withstand what?! Withstand you, Greg!"
At times she was aggressive, even obstinate. She told me she likes to do people "the ultimate compliment" of telling them the truth about themselves and when I asked if she could give me an example, she replied: "No, I won't."
Toward the end of our interview, she asked: "Am I that scary Greg?" then answered her own question: "I am when I look at you like that, aren't I?'
I said, "Yeah, you've got a stare."
She said: "Poor Phil Twyford gets that every day."
I said, "Apparently you did it to Simon Bridges in caucus the other day."
"Did I?" she said. "How would I know?"
In that moment, if I stared hard enough, I could probably have convinced myself that her eyes were a dangerous mix of green and blue and possibly even that they were glowing like some fissile material.