Her life as New Zealand’s “First Lady” might seem glamorous – a whirl of staying at Balmoral, royal wedding attendance and dinner with Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, but Bronagh Key is a woman who is happiest behind the scenes.
There’s nothing she likes better than rolling up her sleeves and helping out.
That is why, for the annual guide dog Red Puppy Appeal, you may come across her out on the street, standing anonymously with the other collectors, rattling a can for donations. And just like in previous years, many passers-by won’t even realise who she is.
“I’ve noticed over time the recognition factor has increased, but generally not,” says Bronagh. “I guess that’s because I’m totally out of context. People usually see me with John.”
Over the past seven years that her husband has been our prime minister, Bronagh has had to get used to playing a role in public life. She admits it’s not something she’d have chosen for herself.
“It wouldn’t be right to say I don’t enjoy it, but I have never made any secret of the fact I’m more backward in coming forward,” she says.
“That public role has always been the part that has been the biggest challenge for me. I’m fine at doing it. I will happily go out and chat to people, and enjoy meeting them. But my natural instinct would be not to do the more public engagements.”
It’s not that she is shy – in person Bronagh is warm and friendly. As she smiles for the Weekly’s photographer, with nine-week-old guide dog puppies Norah and Nixie scrambling over her knees and licking her face, she seems completely relaxed.
But the “normal” part of her life is what she enjoys the most.
Even being an ambassador for the Blind Foundation, it is important to be more than just the famous face of their campaigns.
“I live quite handy to their Auckland office, so if they get really busy, they will give me a shout,” explains Bronagh.
”I’ll come in and help sort the mail in the morning – I’m really good at opening envelopes, it’s my speciality! Sometimes I’ll get on the phone and organise where the collectors are going to be. The Foundation has been great. They treat me like part of the team.”
Bronagh became involved with the Blind Foundation shortly after John was voted in.
“It was around the time organisations were starting to approach me,” she recalls.
“I was still finding my feet a bit and, I’m not sure why, but the Foundation felt like a really good fit. It’s not that I have personal experience of blindness. We’re very fortunate that no one in my family has had issues, apart from John’s mother who had glaucoma [a leading cause of preventable blindness] when she was older. But that was caught before it became too serious.”
Her own eyesight has always been good, although at 52, she now needs reading glasses.
“I have about four billion pairs positioned around the house and I still can’t find one when I need them. The kids keep saying I should put a pair on a string around my neck, but I’m resisting that.”
Bronagh has seen for herself the difference a guide dog can make in the life of someone who is visually impaired.
It takes two years to train puppies like Norah and Nixie, but there is no guarantee they will master all the skills required to get through the tough tests and obedience lessons. That is one of the reasons that there is a 12-month wait for a guide dog.
“Like a lot of organisations, they struggle to get the funds in every year and need people to support them,” tells Bronagh.
The Blind Foundation is her only ambassadorship. While she also helps out with the charity Look Good Feel Better and with Diabetes NZ, Bronagh has been careful not to take on too much as her family has always been her priority.
In the past, John has paid tribute to her as the one who created stability for the kids and stopped the family disintegrating, freeing him to get on with his high-stress job.
Now her children are grown up and don’t need her as much, things are changing.
Daughter Stephie is almost 23 and living in Paris creating art under the name Cherry Lazar, and her son Max is about to turn 21. While she doesn’t quite have empty-nest syndrome, since Max still lives at home, she admits there has been a shift.
“Stephie has been away for a long time. She was 17 when she left for France. And Max is at university, so is much more independent. I think I’m just there to do the washing and provide food now! The dynamic has changed a lot.”
Even though Bronagh has more time on her hands, she is still cautious about taking on extra responsibilities, for a very good reason.
“It might sound strange but that caution is what helps us hum along,” she explains. “It’s good to have flexibility because the one thing with John’s job is that it isn’t very flexible. But when he does have downtime, it’s nice that I’m not totally bound with my side of things. I’m quite happy to be the one who doesn’t necessarily rush off and get a full-time job.
"Part of you might think, ‘I’d quite like to be out doing this or that,’ but actually, it really works for me to have flexibility. I’m able to travel with John now when he goes away, which I didn’t do much of before. I get to see a bit more of him.”
When they manage to get some time together, what the Prime Minister and his wife enjoy doing is the same stuff as the rest of us.
“We’ll go on big walks together or go out for coffee or dinner,” says Bronagh. “In winter, we like to blob out and watch a TV series like House of Cards.”
An average day for Bronagh tends to begin with some exercise.
“The one thing I’m reasonably selfish about is that I’ll go to the gym every week morning if I’m in Auckland. I do a mixture of cardio, weights and Pilates. After that, every day is different. Often there is a mixture of work and managing all the normal things. Tomorrow I’ll have to go to the supermarket or else there’ll be no food for the family. I do a lot of the house-cleaning, washing the floors... all those exciting things.”
Down-to-earth Bronagh admits her life can be one of extremes.
“Once, I went from staying in Balmoral Castle to flying to Paris, andthe next morning I was on my hands and knees in Stephie’s flat scrubbing the toilet,” she laughs.
Still, she views it as a very privileged position to be in.
“I get to experience amazing things and meet interesting people,” she says. “And I’m not only talking about the flashy, glitzy things. Christchurch was my hometown and it really sticks in my mind going there after the quakes and meeting people who had been involved. You learn a lot from being in those situations.”
Being a prime minister’s wife requires certain qualities, admits Bronagh.
“I think you have to have a good sense of self, be reasonably independent, have a sense of humour and a thick skin – although you learn that as you go along. Also, you need a reasonable amount of energy. And you need to feel comfortable chatting to people from all walks of life and be prepared to try your hand at different things.”
One of those things might be wrangling a couple of energetic puppies when you’re really a cat person. Bronagh never had a dog growing up – although her dad Joe now has a retired guide dog called Wellie – and New Zealand’s “First Pet” is a 14-year-old cat called Moonshine.
“Moonie’s always been a bit of a dog-cat, really,” says Bronagh. “She follows me everywhere round the house. She’s getting on now – in fact, she’s starting to look a bit scraggy. She’s losing her sense of balance. She’ll go to sleep on the arm of the couch, and sometimes, you’ll hear a thump and she’s fallen off.”
When the Key family heard that Bronagh was going to be spending a morning cuddling guide dog puppies, there was the same reaction from everyone.
“The standing joke for the last few days, including from Stephie in France, has been ‘Moonie’s not going to like this,’” laughs Bronagh.
Words: Nicky Pellegrino