Toni Street and best friend and surrogate Sophie Braggins open up to NEXT about their emotional journey, the reaction of loved ones, and why trust has been key.
Twice in their 23-year friendship, Sophie Braggins has felt powerless to help her best friend Toni Street. The worst time, in 2002, was after Toni's 14-year-old brother Stephen lost his life in a devastating farm accident. The second, just a few years ago, when the broadcasting star was left fighting for her life after being struck down by a rare autoimmune disease.
"Bad things have happened in Toni's life," explains the businesswoman and mum-of-two, who is acting as a surrogate for Toni and her husband Matt France.
"So the way I see it, carrying Toni's baby is actually just a very simple way for me to help. It wasn't a hard decision at all."
But for many of us, the idea of being pregnant with someone else's baby, or relying on someone else to carry your own, is hard to understand. So when one of our best known TV personalities announced in February she was expecting her third child via the unconventional method, it suddenly opened up new conversations. Indeed, until now, surrogacy head-lines stemmed largely from Hollywood.
While 34-year-old Toni, whose health battle had left her unable to carry another baby, was overwhelmed by the public's positive reaction to her surprise news, it also left people with many questions. Just who was this woman who'd come to the broadcaster's rescue? What would compel someone to make such an incredible offer? And how did it all come about?
Their remarkable story really begins back in 1996, when the girls first met at Highlands Intermediate in New Plymouth. They formed an unbreakable friendship, which over the past two decades has weathered tragedies, weddings, babies and everything in between. They're even known as Aunty Tones and Aunty Willow (an old nickname given to Sophie, now 34, back in her school days) to each other's children.
"We're more like sisters," says Toni, as she rests a hand on her friend's baby bump. Stretched out together on the sofa at Toni's Auckland home, their legs intertwined, they're sharing their story in the hope it will help remove some of the mystery around surrogacy.
The effervescent pair never would have imagined they'd find themselves in this situation, but life is unpredictable. And no one knows this more than radio host Toni, who fell seriously ill after the birth of her second daughter Mackenzie in March 2015.
After several frightening weeks, and with her organs failing, she was finally diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome, an extremely rare auto-immune condition. She began gruelling intravenous steroid treatment to save her life, and was advised chemotherapy was the next step – a devastating prospect given it could leave her infertile.
"I'd always assumed I'd have three or four children," says Toni, who is mum to Juliette, five, and three-year-old Mackenzie. "I was naïve I guess, but I didn't have any reason to think it wouldn't work out like that."
In December 2016, tests showed Toni's liver was under attack, and her specialist warned that chemo was again a high probability. Unprepared to risk her fertility, she hurriedly underwent IVF treatment – where Toni's eggs and Matt's sperm were used to create two embryos – only to find her liver had mysteriously settled down.
Thankfully, chemotherapy was off the table again, and Toni began to improve. By the middle of last year, with her condition in remission, her thoughts turned again to expanding her family. She knew pregnancy could kickstart her symptoms, but her desire for a third child showed no sign of waning.
"I went to see my specialist and said to him, 'Am I stupid to even entertain the idea of having another baby?' And he basically said 'Yes'. He said I would almost certainly end up on chemo and beyond that, who knows. It became clear I'd
be crazy to go through with it. The risks were huge."
Devastated, she and Matt, 34, did their best to get on with life and accept that two healthy, happy daughters was enough. But Toni – who hosts The Hits breakfast show – couldn't shake off the nagging sadness.
"I felt really guilty because I knew there are so many people out there who can't even have one baby, and my heart breaks for them. But I was just feeling hollow, like I was grieving almost and I couldn't move on. At the same time I felt really frustrated with myself for not being content with what I had."
Doctors mentioned other options, including adoption or surrogacy, but at that stage they seemed out of reach.
"The thing with surrogacy is it felt like something people in America do, like Kim Kardashian and Nicole Kidman. I didn't know anyone who'd gone down that route and it just didn't seem possible."
But Sophie had other ideas. While having two children (Isabella, eight, and Theo, six) was "absolutely the right thing" for this New Plymouth-based businesswoman and husband Michael, she knew how much another baby would mean to Toni.
Sophie's career achievements are impressive; she is CEO of law firm Govett-Quilliam, chair of the Taranaki Chamber of Commerce and co-owner of PR agency Renown. But from the very start, she had total confidence she could fit a surrogate pregnancy into her work and home life.
"I'd had good pregnancies and I knew I could do it. I purposefully didn't overthink it at that stage. I'm the sort of person who makes a decision and sticks with it. I don't give up easily," she explains, matter-of- factly. Toni notes that her "logical, not overly-emotional" friend has the perfect temperament for surrogacy.
"She's incredibly driven. I've never met anyone else like it, she's a machine. And she sticks to her word every single time."
Without even running the radical idea past Michael, managing director of construction company Clelands, Sophie fired off a text message to Toni, telling her she'd love to be her surrogate.
"I one hundred percent meant it. I felt Toni needed to know it was an option for her. And I didn't need to consult with Michael at that stage," she says, firmly.
"We are our own people and we make our own decisions. But I also know him pretty well and I knew he'd be supportive."
Toni immediately wrote back along the lines of "Thanks, it's an incredible offer, but we couldn't do that to you". Over the coming days, Sophie wouldn't let up, bombarding her with messages urging her to consider it. Toni finally phoned her friend and after an emotional conversation, insisted she talk to Michael, 34, before it went any further.
"My biggest concerns," says Toni, "were for Sophie's health, because any pregnancy has risks attached, and I was also very worried about the impact it would have on her children, husband and parents. She also has a really big, busy job. There were a lot of people who could be affected by this and I couldn't have carried on if any of them were unhappy."
So, Sophie waited until the kids were in bed, poured her husband a glass of wine and sat down for a chat. "I actually felt quite excited to talk to him about it," she says. "He was a bit shocked, but he was positive right from the start. He said it's a huge thing to do, but if we were going to do it for anyone, it would be for them."
In the meantime, Toni and Matt visited Fertility Associates on a fact-finding mission. They learned that surrogacy laws in this country are extremely tight, with approval needed from the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ECART). Commercial surrogacy is illegal, meaning surrogate mothers can't be paid.
Even lost earnings from time off work can not be reimbursed. Toni and Matt were also shocked to learn that the surrogate is the legal mother until the child is adopted. That means they have to legally adopt their baby, who is 100% genetically theirs, from Sophie and Michael at 10 days old.
"For that reason, I just can't imagine in a million years doing this with someone I didn't know as well as Sophie. The trust required is just so huge," says Toni, who admits she's unlikely to have considered this course of action with a stranger.
And after spending time with Toni and Sophie, it's clear to see their friendship is like no other. They can't help but giggle over the unfairness of Sophie having to opt for tea over a glass of rosé, and laughter and tears flow readily as they reminisce about growing up together.
"The first thing I thought when I saw this tall, grasshopper-like creature with the white-blond hair and long legs was, 'oh no, she looks fast,'" laughs Toni, recalling the first time she saw Sophie, who'd returned to New Plymouth aged 11 after four years in the Pacific Islands. "I'd come second in the cross country in form one, and form two was my year to win it!"
Toni needn't have worried; she took out the win. And the gregarious girls became inseparable.
Unsurprisingly, the high achievers flourished at school, with Toni becoming head girl and Sophie a house captain. In sixth form, Sophie started going out with Michael, head boy of the local boys' school, and at weekends, they'd play netball and go to surf lifesaving, gathering afterwards with friends at Toni's family farm for parties and sleepovers. It was an idyllic time.
"Life was pretty perfect," admits the star. "We were just in this bubble of happiness."
But on January 7, 2002, just before the girls were to head south for university, their world was shattered with Stephen's quad bike accident. It was the third tragedy for Toni's parents Wendy and Geoff Street, who had already suffered the loss of Toni's twin brother Lance at 18 months old from leukemia, and a baby girl who died at just a few days old a couple of years later.
"It was life-shattering," recalls Sophie. "Everything changed from that moment."
With her parents' encouragement, a grieving Toni bravely continued with her plan to study commerce at Lincoln. Fortunately, Sophie and Michael were just 30 minutes away at Canterbury University, and while they remember feeling at a loss as to how to help, Toni insists she wouldn't have survived without them.
"It was very hard because everything in me wanted to stay at home with mum and dad and my sister Kirsty, who was only 11. But they were determined I carry on," says Toni, wiping away the tears.
"When we got down there, I was relying quite heavily on my friends. I was only two or three months into my grief and I was in such a state, the whole thing was a blur. When I did have my moments, they were pretty full on and Sophie would bear the brunt of that. I'd be in floods of tears and she was always there, talking things through with me, going over why it happened and what it all meant. I remember many nights all of us just crying to sleep because it was so awful. I didn't want to ring my parents and burden them with my grief, but I'm sure it was a huge comfort to them knowing I was down there with Sophie and Mike."
Another major source of comfort was meeting Matt in that first year of university.
"His dad Stephen had died when he was 14," says Toni, "so he understood what I was going through. We had huge chats about death and grief, and we bonded very quickly."
The two couples became a tight foursome, and after graduating they all moved to Auckland and shared an apartment in the city. Toni landed her first job as a sports reporter at TVNZ, while Sophie started working there too in the HR department.
"It was awesome," recalls Toni. "We'd all cook together, hang out together, then Soph and I would head off to work together. We never got sick of each other. That's the thing about our friendship; it's totally comfortable. I know I could do anything and Sophie would never judge me. I can be at my most feral, lying around in jammies, and it just doesn't matter."
It's this closeness that makes their surrogacy seem so straightforward and natural, they say. Before they gave it the green light, Sophie and Michael travelled to Auckland from their New Plymouth home for a serious talk with Toni and Matt.
"There was so much emotion in the room that night," says Sophie. "We talked about Toni's illness, her family tragedies, our amazing friendships; we even talked about how we'd cope if anything went wrong. The whole thing is incredibly bonding. It's taken all our relationships to a whole new level."
Then began six months of form-filling, counselling, assessments and medical treatment to make the dream a reality. Many hours of individual and group counselling sessions took them through every eventuality.
They had to be in agreement on everything from what would happen if genetic abnormalities were detected during the pregnancy, to who would raise the baby if the unthinkable happened to Toni and Matt. Given Sophie and Michael will be the baby's legal guardians until the adoption is confirmed, they even had to discuss what they will do if the baby has medical issues.
"There were so many things we hadn't even considered like that," says Sophie. "I mean, it seems bizarre to think it would be us giving permission for an operation, even though he's Toni and Matt's baby."
A close mutual friend was tasked with providing references for all parties, while Toni and Matt were assessed by an Oranga Tamariki (formerly CYFS) social worker for their suitability for adoption.
"It was an exhausting process," says Sophie. "But you can see why it has to be. It's a huge thing to embark on."
During this time, new research showed the steroid infusions Toni was having during her earlier IVF treatment could cause birth defects, meaning the frozen embryos they'd planned to use were no longer viable. So she went through another gruelling round of IVF, which resulted in two new embryos, while Sophie started three months of hormone drugs to prepare her body for receiving an embryo.
The couples let very few people in on their secret. "We didn't need others' opinions," says Sophie. "Toni was worried about what people might think or say, but I just kept trying to make her focus on the fact their opinions weren't important. Only ours, the kids' and our parents', really."
Toni confided in her parents early on. "Dad was like 'Wow, isn't Sophie amazing, that's great!' recalls Toni, whereas Wendy couldn't help but worry about the impact on Sophie and her family. Sophie's parents Karen and Martin were similar. "Mum was initially very concerned but now she's 100% behind it. They love Toni as much as we do."
Implantation day arrived in November 2017, with Sophie flying to Auckland to meet Toni and Matt at a fertility clinic. The timings were carefully planned, because the embryo had a small window between thawing and implantation. "It was a stressful journey," remembers Sophie. "There was a cancelled flight and bad traffic, I was sitting in a taxi in Auckland thinking 'oh my god, what if I don't make it?!"
But she got there in time, and the embryo was placed in Sophie's womb. They learned then that the other embryo hadn't survived the thawing process, so this was their one and only chance. With the odds of a successful transfer only 40 per cent, emotion was running high. The couples then went back to their daily life to wait out the agonising 10-day period before a blood test would reveal if Sophie was pregnant.
"I'll never forget that phone call," smiles Toni, who was the first to receive the news from the clinic. "I got off the phone and was just totally overwhelmed. I didn't know who to call first, Matt, Sophie or Mum!"
The timing was particularly sweet, with the results arriving the day before her final night on Seven Sharp. She'd made the huge decision to give up after four years along-side Mike Hosking, in an attempt to give more time to her family. Working at both ends of the day was taking its toll.
"It couldn't have been better timing. I'd really struggled with leaving Seven Sharp because it was my dream job, but this just made it all feel so right. It's like it was meant to be."
For Sophie, who received the news during a work lunch, the relief was palpable.
"I'd been quite nervous during that wait, so I was overjoyed. We'd all invested so much emotion and energy into it."
A few weeks later, their joy turned to pure elation when they learned they were expecting a son. The significance was not lost on anyone.
Says Toni, "I've lost two brothers, my parents have lost two sons, and Matt has lost his dad. Men are scarce on the ground in our families so it just brings with it this whole new level of anticipation. We so desperately wanted a boy but we hadn't let ourselves believe it might be possible. It's just the icing on the cake."
"It's full circle," adds Sophie. "Because of [Toni's brother] Stephen it just feels so complete."
While Sophie brushes off the fact she suffered some fairly unpleasant morning sickness during that first trimester, Toni says it was hard watching her friend suffer. Care packages and flowers could only do so much. But the sickness passed and they made it to the 12-week scan, when finally they could share the news with the kids. As is often the case with children, Isabella, Theo, Juliette and Mackenzie accepted it without hesitation.
"They had some questions, especially Isabella [eight], but as soon as we explained I'm growing Toni and Matt's baby for them, they've just got on with it. It's really beautiful to see how accepting and non-judgemental children are," muses Sophie.
Toni says Juliette and Mackenzie have been similarly unfazed.
"They know it's their brother, and that he's growing in Aunty Wills' tummy because mummy got sick last time. They don't seem at all confused by it, which is so cool."
While they gently suggested their kids keep the news to themselves for a little while, they were relaxed about it filtering out. "We know what children are like and we knew they might tell their friends, but by that point we were sharing it with our close friends and family anyway, so it wasn't a big deal," explains Sophie.
Toni and Matt are adamant their little boy will be brought up knowing his amazing story, and Sophie is excited about the extra special bond they're bound to have.
"I have had really special times with both Juju and Mickey, but I'm definitely expecting to feel an extra connection."
Due in August, Sophie will give birth via elective caesarean section in Auckland under the care of the same obstetrician who delivered Toni's girls. Having delivered Isabella and Theo naturally, it feels right to do things differently.
"I think it's nice to differentiate between the births of my own babies. It's also very convenient to be able to schedule it in," laughs Sophie, who plans to take two weeks off work around the time the baby is due.
"Given I won't have a newborn to care for, I should be able to recover quite quickly."
She is happy for Toni and Matt to be in the operating theatre to welcome their son; the couple will witness the birth from "the head end". And since skin-to-skin contact is important for mum and baby, Toni will be the first to hold him. As for Sophie, she is confident that when the time comes, handing him over to his mum and dad will be without emotional complication.
"I am very clear about my role in all of this. I'm just helping him to grow, but I will happily move on with my life and get on with it. When people ask me about surrogacy, they expect to hear how hard it is to carry someone else's baby. But it's not hard. It's good and easy and special. We are lucky to be part of it."
While Sophie recovers in hospital with Michael at her side, Toni and Matt will retreat with their little boy for some intensive bonding. Toni could have opted to take medication so she can breastfeed, but she's been advised not to because of her health.
"It's so surreal," says Toni. "We've painted the nursery and bought loads of boy clothes already, but without a bump it doesn't feel real yet. People ask if it's weird that my baby is in another city, or if I have a constant nag to call and check up on him. But it's the opposite. I have a sense of total calm that my baby is safe and well and I don't feel the need to be checking in all the time at all."
Sophie insists she doesn't need special praise for being a surrogate, saying it's as rewarding for her as it is for Toni. As for Toni, she's agonised over how to express her gratitude.
"I've tied myself up in knots over how to ever repay her, but I've come to accept it's not possible. There's no greater gift than life, is there? All I know is I'll be forever grateful."