Real Life

How I Live: Michael Jackson was my boss

She’s driven music royalty, but no-one’s more driven than Rachael Penman herself.

By Aroha Awarau
Rachael Penman

"When I was about 14 years old, I ‘won a wish’ on television show What Now? to dance at the famous Limbs Dance Studio. Unfortunately, at 19, I had to quit dancing due to injury. But I’m still working in the industry, as a general manager for Okareka Dance Company, which creates contemporary and diverse dance pieces based around Maori themes.

Growing up in Feilding, I was heavily involved in local theatre. When I was 19, I decided to move to Auckland to study film and television. Soon after, I managed to land a job as the Rolling Stones’ driver during their New Zealand tour in 1995. That job led to driving another superstar during his visit here in 1996 – the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

We became friends and he asked me to be his personal assistant for the rest of his Australasian tour. He was really lovely and gentle, just like a kid. He even taught me how to use a PlayStation. He loved being around people who didn’t treat him differently because he was a superstar.

 Rachael was Michael Jackson's personal assistant for his Australasian tour.
Rachael was Michael Jackson's personal assistant for his Australasian tour.

Eventually I moved to London and was fortunate enough to use my skills in theatre to get a job as a junior producer with Bill Kenwright. Bill produced the smash West End hits Blood Brothers and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He was also the chairman of Everton Football Club, so every now and then, I got dragged along to games. He told me to look at the pitch as if it were a stage and the players were performing moves.

The first play I produced was Long Day’s Journey into Night, starring Jessica Lange and Paul Rudd. During that time, I also got to meet my favourite actor, Alan Rickman.

My five years in the UK were absolutely amazing – something I’ll never forget. I got to work with some amazing people and produce some fantastic work. However, New Zealand was calling me home and I needed to be near my family again.When I was back here, I became pregnant with my son Kaden and realised pretty quickly that

I wanted to raise him here. That was nine years ago. I settled in Palmerston North but am now based in Auckland.

 Since beating cancer, Rachael has leapt back into work at dance company Okareka.
Since beating cancer, Rachael has leapt back into work at dance company Okareka.

I love being in New Zealand. Being at home was a blessing when I was faced with one of my biggest challenges – cancer. Six years ago, Kaden was in and out of hospital, being treated for prolonged convulsions. During one visit, I collapsed by his bedside. People assumed it was due to exhaustion. I underwent tests and it was discovered I had bowel cancer.

It was a huge shock. That type of cancer is usually associated with a certain lifestyle – being overweight and eating meat, as well as genetics. There’s no cancer in my family, I’m vegetarian and I’ve always looked after myself physically.

Thankfully, the cancer was found early and I had an operation to remove part of my bowel. It’s been a six- year journey. Two months ago, I was given the all-clear. I’m cancer free. I appreciate my life even more and have thrown myself deeper into the industry I adore.

 Rachael with dancers from her company Okareka.
Rachael with dancers from her company Okareka.

Our company Okareka – led by dancers Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete – has a real whanau atmosphere, which is perfect for me, as I’m raising a child. It’s like he’s part of the company.

Our latest work is called Mana Wahine, and features only female dancers. It’s all about the power and courage of women.

Overcoming cancer has made me appreciate how strong women are. It’s an awful thought, but cancer is a common thing and so many women go through it, either as sufferers or when they are supporting loved ones. It’s important for us, as women, to keep healthy and find the strength within ourselves to survive.”

The person I’m most inspired by is... my son. He’s only nine years old and has wonderful conversations and insights to life.

A place in the world that’s dear to my heart... is Vienna in Austria, because of all the opera and dancing – and people always dress up!

Success is... Happiness, and I’m very much on my way to achieving contentment and happiness.

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