In a new TV series, entertainer Pio Terei explores the Te Araroa trail between Cape Reinga and Bluff, meeting locals along the way. He talks about selling cars and a country that’s growing up.

1. Before you got into comedy you were a car salesman - how long did you do that for?

Fourteen years! I sold light commercial trucks, which I really enjoyed. It was a predominantly Pakeha industry and I learned a lot from business people - how to operate a diary, answer the phone, be professional. But I don't think I was that good as a salesman. I was a counsellor seller, people would tell me what sort of vehicle they wanted and I would try to talk them into the one they needed.

2. What was your childhood like?
I reckon I had one of the best childhoods in New Zealand. I was adopted by my auntie and uncle. We lived in a Maori Affairs house in West Auckland. Played sport, played the guitar, went to school most days. Dad drove a truck, Mum stayed at home, he planted the garden, we helped him, we went to church on Sunday, treats were few and far between, but a lot of New Zealanders in the 60s and 70s were in the same boat. We were blue-collar folk, you know.

3. Have you ever felt that people try to put a Maori stereotype on to you?
Yep. Because I've worked in comedy people often misread me - I remember buying a couple of bottles of Oyster Bay, which is a nice drop of wine, and when I signed for my card the girl said "oh that's a Maori pen, it doesn't work". I felt like head-butting her. If you're going to make jokes like that, you'd better have a relationship with that person. I don't get comments like that very often now because I think as a country we're growing up.

Advertisement

4. Was it tempting to play to those stereotypes when you started in comedy?
No, not really. I'm not mocking others who choose to do that Uncle Tom sort of humour, but my father would turn in his grave if he thought I was strengthening those stereotypes. You see, we were taught, not that we were better than other people, but that we were certainly just as bloody good. When publicity hits the papers about a Maori family that's done something really bad, issues with children losing their lives and stuff, I see my kids coming home from school and I see a weight on them because they're Maori. And I tell them that's not Maori behaviour, that's just bad behaviour. That happens to people in those socio-economic groups everywhere and the media is going to lay it on us, so we have to be tougher than them, bro.

5. What were you like at school?
I certainly enjoyed the social aspect. I played in bands. I would make people laugh and be a bit of a larrikin which can, you know, affect one's performance around exam time. I went back and did a second year of sixth form because I was in the First XV and they were going to Fiji.

6. What does your Catholicism mean to you?
I have to be completely honest, I'm not going to be the next Pope. But church was the marae when our people moved to the cities from the country. We gravitated to that comfort zone. It was a big part of our wider iwi, there was Uncle Michael, Auntie Theresa. My name is not Maori, it's Italian. If you Google it you will find it was Saint Pio who had the marks of the stigmata.

In his latest show Te Araroa: Tales from the Trails, Pio Terei explores the country in a little red Corvette.
In his latest show Te Araroa: Tales from the Trails, Pio Terei explores the country in a little red Corvette.

7. Can you relate to the corporate types you meet in your work as an MC?

Yeah, easily. A lot of these guys who are in the top end of their corporate careers, they've come through the ranks. They're a similar age to me so I'll sing a Doobie Brothers song or an Eagles song and they'll know exactly where I'm coming from.

8. How fluent are you in te reo?
My parents didn't speak English at home, they were first language te reo speakers. So as far as listening goes, I can say I'm fantastic, but as far as speaking it, I'd say I'm 70 to 80 per cent fluent. We foster the language in our house. When we go back north to where we come from, I say to our kids, "look, I don't care what you're saying, as long as it's in Maori, and if you get it wrong we'll unpick it at the end of the day". If I want my kids to grow up as complete New Zealanders then they need to speak this.

9. How did you meet your wife, Debbie?
I sort of knew she existed in the wider neighbourhood, I knew her brother and stuff. I saw her one day and we were chatting away. I said, "hey look, I gotta go to this wedding next week and I can't find anybody to go with me". She said, "well, you'll need to find a drunk and blind woman". But she did come with me to the wedding. We've been married 25 years this month.

The secret? Quality time together and quality time away from each other. Now that the boys have got older I said, "okay love, what do you really want to do? Are there any trips you want to take?" She said she wanted to go back to Hawaii. I said, "great, let's go!" And she said, no, she wanted to go with her girlfriends. And she had a wonderful time.

10. What kind of parent are you?
My boys [aged 23, 20, 16] would say I'm a bit of a spinner. Not temper-wise but I'm a bit intense. You know, when they were younger I'd say, you got nine out of 10 for your spelling, I'm going to call the head of Maoridom and get him to carve your name in the meeting house! "Dad, give it a rest." And I'm still like that. I'm a bit intense but that's better than not even being there.

11. Who did you meet on the trail who has stuck in your head?
So many great people. There was this old Maori guy up north, he was a beekeeper and the brother of the political pioneer Matiu Rata. I just fell in love with the guy. And this raw foodist, up in Matakana, this very beautiful, switched-on Pakeha lady. She made us these drinks out of stuff in her garden. I mean, I eat pretty healthy anyway but I've been using some of her recipes, just in my drinks you know, the spinach and the silverbeet. I got one of those blenders for Christmas and I'm into it.

12. Green smoothies?
Does that mean you live in Grey Lynn?No, I live in Henderson Valley - we've got a few acres out there, we're surrounded by the bush and we've got chooks and sheep. The tuis wake us up in the morning. And then I go to the airport and get on a plane. It's awesome. I love New Zealand - and it's changing out there. Globally, this country used to be a gangly teenager but the pimples on this teenager are clearing up.

Te Araroa: Tales from the Trails, a seven-part series starts Friday, March 13, 8.30pm, Maori TV.