Singer Suzanne Prentice is confident she can unseat dancing mayor Tim Shadbolt in Invercargill. If she does, writes Jude Gillies, she'll quit the stage for the council chamber.
Ask anyone on the streets of Invercargill and they will tell you how much they love local singer-from-the-70s-made-good Suzanne Prentice.
In fact, it's hard to find anyone in her hometown that doesn't love her. But, ask how she rates as a mayoral candidate against incumbent all round good-time guy Tim Shadbolt, and the answer is not so forthcoming.
It's true, says Prentice with her trademark niceness; that until this week, few people in her hometown had seen her hard-nosed business side, "and that's the way it should be", she adds. "I try to do things in the nicest possible way - until it doesn't work."
This week, she obviously decided the niceness wasn't working. So she released a recording from December last year of Mayor Tim offering her the deputy mayor's position.
Keeping the recording left on her mobile, she says, was "just business".
She learnt that business long ago, to enable her to survive her 30-plus years in the entertainment industry. In practical southern style, Prentice has managed her singing career herself.
That career, starting out as a tiny 12-year-old with a big guitar singing country and later branching out to "easy listening", has seen her do up to 100 performances a year, singing all round the world with the likes of Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton.
Now, aged 51 and still performing, she regards herself as privileged to have worked among those she calls the "old troopers". Her first trip to London at the age of 17, when she saw Val Doonican, Stephane Grappelli and Ronnie Barker on stage, remains among her most memorable. "They knew the craft of entertaining a crowd."
Rather than becoming a spangly, sequined flash in the pan, Prentice says her own stage survival is due to careful, ethical navigation through career choices - including her national World Vision sing-song fundraiser, Kids for Kids, providing millions for needy kids and portraying Prentice as the wholesome gal from down south.
Talking business again, she says it's a "very fair" financial arrangement for herself and World Vision. Her "reduced fee", she says, reflects her personal commitment to community.
"I'm a practical Southlander and proud of it."
To keep grounded, she always took her two children on at least one overseas trip a year, showing them the glitzy and not-so-glamorous experiences of her working world in the sometimes-shabby dressing rooms of the world's stages. It's been a long but enjoyable journey.
Yet rather than turning to politics in a moment of epiphany, she has entertained the idea for a while. It has publicly ignited her hidden competitiveness. She only made the decision to run for mayor in April this year, but says the offer of the deputy mayoralty came "out of the blue" from Mayor Tim last year. After he criticised her on the campaign trail, she decided to expose his about-turn.
Prentice concedes her only experience in politics is her six-year stint on the affluent Invercargill Licensing Trust, where she and fellow trustees have the happy job of dishing out $10million a year to the community.
She maintains it's her business aptitude she will bring to the mayoralty, to clean up what she slams - in the nicest possible way, of course - as a "virtually dysfunctional" council.
Her very lack of political experience is the promised bonus: "A fresh approach, no preconceived ideas."
It was the same approach Tim Shadbolt brought to Invercargill some 17 years ago, as a blow-in from Auckland. And won the mayoralty.
But, according to Prentice, Mayor Tim's notoriety - the new boy putting Invercargill on the map with his amusing antics - has lost its allure.
Already sounding like a politician, she says it's time for a change: Invercargill can't continue to just rely on Tim for publicity or its state-of-the-art indoor sports stadium and the Southern Institute of Technology's free fee scheme.
Instead, it must capitalise on the region's assets and maintain its 50,000 population - forecast to drop 3000 by 2020 - and leverage benefits from future gas and lignite coal production and the predicted doubling of the region's dairy industry.
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Prentice reckons she has the strength of mind needed for the mayoralty. And she found it through, of all things, body-building.
Anyone picking up a glossy gossip magazine around 2002 couldn't have missed seeing pictures of Prentice's astonishingly slim, tanned and sculptured body.
Dismissed by some as frivolous, she found it very much a mental challenge, demonstrating a "steely side" the rest of the country hasn't seen.
They also haven't seen the Mrs Suzanne Dalton that the people of Invercargill know. Married to policeman Stephen for 33 years, she keeps control on the division between her public and much valued, private family life.
Suzanne Prentice Inc, the brand, gets left at the stage door and, in their comfortable, but not opulent, Invercargill suburban home, she's simply Suzanne Dalton, complete with two miniature schnauzers and a carefully-groomed garden.
Not one to sing just for the money, if she had wanted more, she says she would have made different choices, pursuing more lucrative opportunities.
Although her life seems too normal and cheesy for someone mixing it in the tough showbiz world, it's how she likes it. With both her grown-up children and her grandchildren in town, her idea of relaxing is to spend time with them or in the garden.
Rather than needing the mayoralty money or seeing the role as cashing in on her stage career, she maintains she's standing to serve her city and community, pledging to put singing on hold if elected.
If she wins, she won't be able to leave her public life at the door any more. It will be a 24/7 job, going home with her.
Prentice's billboards are on every street corner, urging locals to vote for her. Shadbolt, by comparison, has few billboards.
Whether that is due to over-confidence or is the sign of someone who's quietly given up, is something Prentice won't speculate on.
But word on some streets is Mayor Tim is still such a dead cert, he doesn't have to advertise.