There are two types of island weather: postcard perfect, and apocalyptic. At our NEXT cover shoot, we get both.
Pressed to the side of a rustic fale on a pristine beach, becoming more and more windswept in a once glamorous kaftan, Pippa Wetzell is doing her very best to stay chipper as the sky opens above us. After trying valiantly to make the gale-force winds work for the photographer, we admit temporary defeat as a sideways rain kicks in.
Team NEXT is in Samoa to capture Wetzell in this, her second home.
Wetzell is part Samoan, a fact that may surprise some people in New Zealand, but shocks no one in Samoa, where she’s something of a national icon. She might consider that an over-statement, but at an event for Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), where Wetzell was a celebrity guest, she was second in the speech-giving line-up only to Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi.
Her opening line: “I was going to introduce myself, then I realised I’m related to most of you anyway.”
When I ask Wetzell to explain her family tree, she jokes that no one really can, but there’s a general family understanding that there are “a lot of random branches”.
Her father’s parents are Samoan but both met other partners and went on to have large families, so there’s a vast collection of aunts, uncles and cousins scattered both in Samoa and New Zealand.
Wetzells, Wetzells, everywhere. The mingling of both her Samoan and European roots is well represented by the Christmas feast her family enjoys every year: ham and turkey sit alongside chop suey and taro.
If you were to sum up the two biggest impacts her Samoan heritage has had on Wetzell’s life, it would be fair to say they are food and family. Luckily, her many visits back to the islands are always filled with both.
Wetzell gets a touch misty-eyed as she lists her favourite Samoan dishes she’s been getting reacquainted with on this whistle-stop visit: palusami, a mix of taro leaves and coconut cream; oka, a raw fish salad; and niu, fresh coconut water.
It’s been a longer time in between drinks than normal; in the past, Wetzell visited Samoa every year or two for a family birthday or special event. But it’s been six years since her last visit to the sunniest of sunny islands (impressive storms notwithstanding).
Her youngest child, Taj, has never been and it’s high on her list to bring the whole family back to see the waterfalls and resorts, and bunk down in a fale for a night or two.
While going home to visit the family can have slightly duller connotations for many of us, Wetzell has struck it lucky – she gets to belong to a tropical paradise.
The island is filled with memories for the 39-year-old, going back several generations, and it’s important to Wetzell that her children grow up knowing the other half of their family background.
When her eldest daughter Brodie was 18 months old, Wetzell and her husband Torrin Crowther brought her for a trip and they took a tiki tour around the family plantations.
“We took her to the sites where my great, great great, and great, great, great-grandparents were buried and that was really cool. She was going up to the headstones and kissing them all; it was pretty sweet.”
Family is revered above all else in Samoa, Wetzell says.
“You’d do anything for them. I know that’s not specific to Samoa, by any stretch, but I feel there’s a real commitment to family here. I know it in my own home and I’ve obviously got a lot of my Samoan family back in New Zealand as well.”
You can imagine that her time in Samoa acts as the yin to Wetzell’s Auckland-life yang: high-powered job, three children, a busy, lucky world to inhabit. Things are slower on the island, more special.
“I think they know how to appreciate the smaller things in life, as well – like sharing a meal together, taking care of your family and supporting them.”
To prove her point, the day she arrived in Samoa on this particular trip, she went to a café run by one cousin, only to run into another family member who’s visiting from Wellington.
“The lovely thing about family here is that they don’t lose the ties. There’s this sense of ‘you’re a such and such, and I’m a such and such, so we’re related!’ It makes you feel very embraced.”
Embraced would be underselling it a bit – Wetzell’s Samoan family sounds like a considerably more friendly but just as well-infiltrated version of the Mafia.
Wetzell lists the places her cousins work here in Samoa as cafés, pizzerias, florists, hair salons and travel agencies. One family member is involved in the Chamber of Commerce; another has been made Minister of Finance; and then there’s Uncle Fred, who was involved in bringing the All Blacks to Samoa in 2005.
If you need something here, there’s no doubt a Wetzell who can help you out.
The last time this particular Wetzell was in Samoa was back in 2010. She and her husband were having a quick babymoon before the birth of Taj and flew into the country without telling the family. They arrived at their hotel, unpacked their bags and had just popped out to the pool when they were informed by a staff member that there was a phone call for Wetzell at the front desk.
It was Aunty Sheree: “You didn’t tell us you were in the country! Uncle Norman is coming to pick you up in an hour.”
By the end of the day, Wetzell was reading the television news.
“The English speaking channel,” she points out quickly. “My Samoan is... not good.”
No matter. Not only is Wetzell well-known in Samoa for her family roots, but she’s very popular because both 1 News Now and Seven Sharp screen in the island nation. She is, in every way, a familiar face.
This time around, Wetzell is in Samoa to support the aforementioned Sheree Stehlin, president of the WIBDI, who’s hosting a fundraising garden party to celebrate the organisation’s 25th birthday.
Initially set up to help small businesses, the focus of WIBDI changed after two devastating cyclones hit Samoa, and now its main focus is supporting vulnerable rural families by offering sustainable opportunities.
WIBDI is a long-time partner of Oxfam NZ and, like most not-for-profit organisations, can always do with support, so Wetzell was invited to be the celebrity guest at the fundraiser.
Stehlin, Wetzell says, is one of those women who “makes everything happen”. Case in point, the day before the event, she’s busy cutting up 40kg worth of fresh fish to make oka.
The organisation was set up by women for women, which works with both Wetzell’s personal values and the values of Samoa, a proudly matriarchal society.
To grow up in a half-Samoan household is to grow up strongly believing in the power of females, Wetzell says.
“There’s an immense respect for women here. They’ve always been heavily involved in making things tick – something that can be said of women around the world, but they’re really acknowledged and respected here.
“My dad is a huge feminist; the other day, he wrote in my daughter’s birthday card: ‘Make sure you show those boy cousins of yours that girls can do anything.’ He adores his grandsons, but he has a real thing for seeing girls succeed. As far as he’s concerned, there’s nothing that females can’t do, and I think that comes from being raised by such strong women.”
He must surely be proud of Wetzell, who has covered numerous bases at TVNZ. She started out as a reporter for One News, then moved to Breakfast. She’s been the face of Fair Go since 2013, and is often called to fill in on Seven Sharp as well.
She says she feels lucky to have found a home with the channel, and that she’s been afforded the flexibility to be at home for her three children, Brodie, nine, Cameron, seven, and Taj, five, as well.
“I always wanted to be available for school trips and things like that. I feel like I have a fantastic balance. I’m very fortunate – I do feel like I have the best of both worlds.”
Rightly so – Wetzell’s star power both in New Zealand and her second home of Samoa can’t be denied. At the WIBDI event, a large crowd of colourfully dressed locals sit fanning themselves under the marquee as the temperature slowly rises.
Wetzell takes to the stage to deliver her speech.
After joking that she’s there because “no one can say no to Aunty Sheree”, she launches into a lyrical speech about the beauty of Samoa – the heat, the earthy fragrance of the air, the way the land is so fertile even the fence posts “refuse to be dead and start becoming trees again”.