Let’s just get straight to it – Paula Bennett looks incredible.
Bursting through the doors of White Studios in central Auckland on the morning of our cover shoot, the first thing you notice is her size (tiny), and her energy (overflowing).
The second thing you notice is the flash of hot pink peeking out of the garment bag she has slung over her shoulder. It’s a fuchsia pantsuit by Australian fashion designer Carla Zampatti, picked up at David Jones in Melbourne while on a shopping trip, which she and two female friends were awarded for winning the Women’s Marlin Fishing competition in Paihia in February 2018.
“We were out at sea for two days and in that time we hooked four, and landed two – including mine which was around 120kg,” says the keen fisher. Among the fellow competitors was celebrity cook Jo Seagar, “who did catch a marlin but we caught more, and sooner. So that’s been my claim to fame all year.”
Back to the pantsuit, which she purchased after being plied with champagne by the David Jones sales staff. Putting it on and parading it in the studio, she recounts how, high on bubbles and a shopping-induced surge of dopamine, she then promptly tripped over and broke her finger – the middle one, which she cheekily extends to show off the tape holding it straight.
“That’s probably not appropriate for a woman my age,” she says with a wink.
MP since 2008 for western Auckland electorates Waitakere and, more recently, Upper Harbour, Taupo-born Bennett, whose phone ringtone used to be AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, is ever the honorary Westie.
As such, no-one present is shocked by the middle-finger salute, nor by the magnetic pull a leopard-print Zara maxi dress has on her. Picking it off the rack of outfit options, she talks excitedly about another recent pantsuit purchase, this one from chain store, Forever New.
“I walked in and I saw the leopard print jacket first, and then on the other side of the store were these matching pants. I was like ‘Do these go together?’ And the gorgeous sales girls who were all quite young were like, ‘No… I don’t think they’re meant to.’ I was like, ‘Well, has anyone tried?'” She winks again.
She’s nothing like the woman we’re used to seeing on TV or in those Tom Sainsbury Snapchat videos. Bennett is cool. Forget the kereru-loving, panini-eating, bowl latte-drinking caricature.
OK, she still loves kereru, but her coffee is a trim flat white, and she would probably decline any panini on offer.
“I don’t really go for carbs any more, mainly because they fill me instantly, and then I haven’t got much goodness in me,” she says, almost 12 months since gastric bypass surgery reduced her stomach volume to “two thirds of a pie”.
“That’s my capacity,” she admits, explaining that, to eat said pie, she would cut the pastry off the front, eat all the filling “and enough pastry that it tastes good”, then leave the pastry at the back. Not that pies are part of her diet these days.
“I’m very lucky in that I can still eat a wide variety of foods,” she says. “I’ve got a sweet tooth, so I can eat chocolate, and if I really wanted to, a small handful of fries. But that’s probably all I’d be able to eat for a couple of hours. I don’t have food envy, I wouldn’t sit there and go, ‘Oh it’s all right for you, you can eat that burger and chips, and I can’t.’ I would much rather eat prawns and salmon. You genuinely don’t have the same cravings.”
Other than that, she maintains that she is the same person post-surgery.
“This body is just a different vessel carrying me around. I’m no different, I still laugh at the same things, I still cry at the same movies, and [the weight-loss] hasn’t made me happier than I already was. If you’re changing because you think it might make you happy or a different person, then I’m not sure it will.”
Having lost 50kg to date, she’s discovered a few minuses of being less-than plus-sized.
“You skinny people never mentioned how frickin cold it is! I’ve lost my Pink Batts!”
Shopping wasn’t that fun to start with either, “because all of a sudden you need a new everything, and you’re not sure where your body is going to wind up. So you might find something you really like and then two months later it doesn’t fit any more.”