Every day since taking on the role as co-host of TV One’s Breakfast, Alison Pugh has received a text from mum Helen with her analysis of the show. And even though the texts sometimes don’t make much sense – “she hasn’t mastered the autocorrect yet,” laughs Ali (27) – they’re a reassuring reminder that she’s got the support of her family as she embarks on the biggest challenge of her career.
“This morning’s one, for example, is hilarious,” Ali says, pulling out her phone.
“'Good morning dear, I say quite a lot, including interviews, very nice'. What does that even mean? She meant to say ,‘Saw you today’. I was like, great. Thanks Mum!”
Ali is still flabbergasted at landing what is one of the most coveted current affairs jobs in New Zealand after enduring a very public job interview for the position – fronting the show for two weeks last month alongside Rawdon Christie. She’s also nervous about her first magazine story – being the ever-humble Cantabrian that she is, Ali doesn’t think she’s all that interesting.
“I hate talking about myself!” she says as make-up artists, stylists and photographers converge around her.
After being assured that she is, indeed, rather fascinating – she was raised by parents who served in Africa as missionaries in the 1970s, left school at the age of 16 to study journalism at the University of Canterbury, and once had to put her hand up a cow’s backside for a story on Breakfast – Ali says she’s excited, but still overwhelmed with her new role.
“I only learnt I was having a trial in late January. I started on Monday, and here I am two days later having this conversation with you!” she says.
It’s five years since Ali started at TVNZ, fresh out of university and determined to make her mark in the world of journalism. From her first role, monitoring the new assignments desk, Ali then progressed to a reporter/producer position on Breakfast, before landing a job on One News back in her hometown of Christchurch.
But it’s this job – by far, the biggest of her stellar career – that marks a new chapter for the down-to-earth presenter.
Currently living out of a hotel room after hurriedly relocating to Auckland to take her place on the Breakfast couch, Ali and her partner of seven years Jonathan have plenty of big decisions to make as they plan their new lives in the big city.
“Jonathan is relocating too,” she says. “We’re not sure where we’re going to live, what suburb to pick. Sam [Wallace, who is Breakfast’s weather presenter] is a real North Shore boy, so he keeps saying move over there. I’m not so sure!” There’s also the obvious lifestyle changes – a 3.30am alarm, no more late nights out and a complete lack of social life – but Ali also realises she’s going to have to give a lot of herself to viewers of the show, something the usually private presenter admits is “very different”.
“You open yourself up a lot,” she says. “On Breakfast, there’s a very intimate relationship with the viewer. But you have to be yourself. New Zealanders can spot a fake a mile away!”
This means she’s had to develop a thick skin fast, but it’s a piece of advice that former Breakfast host Paul Henry gave her early in her career that’s helped her cope with criticism.
“I was worried about some feedback from a viewer, and he said to me, ‘If you’re going to worry about that, you’re in the wrong industry.’ That pretty much instantly cured my fear of being judged. You are never going to please everyone, and once you’ve accepted that, it’s easier.”
And, of course, she has the unwavering support of her proud family, especially her older sister Penny, who lives in Japan.
“She asked me the other day if she can have a photo on the Breakfast couch when she comes to Auckland. I said, ‘Yup, I can arrange that!’”
After watching Paul and former host Pippa Wetzell front the show every morning before heading off to university to study journalism, Ali finds it surreal she’s now sitting on the same couch.
“I really look up to Pippa,” she says. “And Toni [Street]’s been a huge support. She called me last night to talk me through a few things. She’s left pretty big shoes to fill; she’s very treasured by viewers.
“But I used to watch the show religiously before classes. I became really big fans of Jack Tame and Matty McClean, so it was really funny that a year later when I got the reporter role, having watched them and being a massive fan, I ended up being a colleague – and now they’re my closest friends.”
It was when Ali was a student at Burnside High School that she decided journalism was the career for her.
“I took a paper in journalism, and I thought, this is me,” she remembers.
“It was the first thing that really clicked with me. I was always quite a free spirit growing up!”
Although she was already a huge fan of Breakfast, Ali never dreamed about hosting it – instead, she assumed she would end up working in print media.
“When you’re a kid in Christchurch, working at TVNZ seems a bit far-fetched! So I never thought about it. But now I’m back at the place where I learnt everything I know about television, and it feels good.”
That’s not to say there’s nothing left to learn. Ali knows she’s going to make mistakes as she gets used to the astonishing pressure of live telly and she admits she’s already made some.
“Thank goodness I have Rawdon next to me!” she laughs. “But I’m not afraid of stuffing up. There isn’t any room to be scared.”
As well as learning the art of presenting as Breakfast’s eighth host, Ali’s also getting used to the very early starts, but she refuses to call waking up at 3.30am a sacrifice.
“They’re tough hours,” she says, “but having this job is an honour. I’m not really fazed about the lack of social life or anything. It just means I have to look after myself and have some very strict bedtimes!”
While being happy and lively at 6am sounds near impossible for many, Ali’s determined that viewers will see a cheerful, energetic host when they turn on their TV screens, even if it leaves her drained afterwards.
“With a nine to five job, you spread your energy over the day, but with Breakfast, it’s condensed into three hours,” she says.
“You do crash a little at nine, but people don’t want to wake up to a miserable person. It’s about getting a laugh out of someone that early, making their day a little chirpier.”