On a warm winter's day in San Diego, The Apprentice Aotearoa star Cassie Roma is relishing the little things as she reflects on a rollercoaster 10 months navigating grief, divorce and farewelling her home of 20 years, New Zealand.
Life back in her small Californian hometown is light years away from the high-flying executive world she once enjoyed in Auckland, but moving in with her parents and watching her 17-year-old daughter Chelsea flourish at her old school have proven healing.
The fresh start has also given the 42-year-old life coach space to explore her identity after spending her adulthood in back-to-back marriages with Chelsea's Kiwi dad Tex and then her ex-wife.
"The day my divorce came through from Tex is the same day I remarried – I'm a walking country music song!" chuckles former Celebrity Treasure Island star Cassie, who has previously opened up to Woman's Day about finding love with another woman after coming out to Tex at age 35.
"Most of my childhood was wrapped up in academics and sports, so I didn't think about romance, but I was obsessed with Elton John and everything queer," she says, adding that growing up in a small, conservative town made her less inclined to consider different sexualities until she started uni in Santa Barbara. "I had dalliances with women and non-binary people, then I met my ex-husband on my 21st birthday."
Cassie relished becoming a wife at 23, then a mum to Chelsea, but she began missing the queer community. After ending her marriage, with Tex's support, she started dating a woman she worked with at Air New Zealand – and Chelsea instantly bonded with her.
"It was like watching magnets come together," recalls Cassie. "She loved and nurtured Chelsea like her own flesh and blood. She was and always will be an amazing mother to her."
Their blended family was a "gift", but everything changed for Cassie last April, when her dying bestie Pete Nelson prompted her to re-evaluate her life. Cassie tears up as she recalls her final days with Pete, who had pancreatic cancer, in California. "You sit with somebody who's dying and go, 'Man, 80 years go by fast.' He kept saying, 'Cass, all I want is for you to be genuinely happy, however scary that might be.'"
Those words echoed through Cassie's mind as she went for a run before returning to Aotearoa. Engrossed in a podcast about leaving relationships by queer activist Glennon Doyle, Cassie was stunned to glance up and lock eyes with Glennon herself.
"I'd been asking for a sign and there's no bigger one than the person in your ear saying, 'You're going to be OK,' then looking up into their eyes. It was the first time I'd smiled in weeks. One day, I'll thank Glennon for saving my life!"
In the whirlwind that followed, Cassie decided to divorce and move back to California, partly so Chelsea could attend university there.
"My ex-wife's the kindest person I've ever met, but I needed to come back to America and not be married after being married my entire adult life. After COVID, I also wanted to spend time with whānau. It was a loving split, but a hard one."
Packing 20 years of Kiwi life into six boxes, Cassie has been grieving for both Pete and her marriage while starting from scratch abroad.
"I left everything – friends, colleagues and the ability to go to New World Birkenhead knowing every item in every aisle!" she laughs.
"I've definitely cracked at times. There's not a week where I haven't been on my kitchen floor weeping. Therapy has been hit-and-miss and I run my own business, so if I'm feeling depressed, I still have to make calls."
Meanwhile, Cassie has started dabbling with dating apps. "It's crazy how many thirsty female firefighters there are in San Diego – they're putting out fires but also starting them! But what I need to do now is what I've never done before – be comfortable in my own self and space."
She says that journey encompasses exploring her gender identity and embracing her tomboy traits.
"I've spent so much time straightening my hair, putting on makeup and wearing clothes that wouldn't make other people uncomfortable. Now I'm embracing my New Zealand nickname, Chad the Dad, which is because I love collared shirts! I enjoy not having to be super-feminine but also not negating the strength in femininity. I'm closer to non-binary than not."
Meanwhile, Cassie's keeping busy with life coaching, her podcast Kindness Warriors and a doco about the Hauraki Gulf, but she lights up most when discussing the Auckland Pride Festival, which will see her return to the City of Sails this month.
"What I learned from The Apprentice and Celebrity Treasure Island was there aren't many elder queer women out there. On the other end of the spectrum, Chelsea's queer friends used to fill our house because they felt safe. It made me realise the power of being visible and open."
Auckland Pride Festival runs throughout February. For more info on events, visit aucklandpride.org.nz.
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