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Jenny-May’s milestone: ‘I’m ready to face the future’

The Breakfast host is emotional about her decision to stand with her ancestors
Jenny-May wearing Blue sitting on a wooden picnic benchPhotos: Emily Chalk

After marking her 50th birthday and receiving her moko kauae (traditional Māori chin tattoo) in April this year, Jenny-May Clarkson is celebrating a newfound sense of freedom leading up to Matariki.

Smiling, the Breakfast presenter says it’s been a liberating experience to welcome the milestone birthday and embrace being unapologetically herself.

“As I turn 50, I’m acutely aware of how much time I’ve got left. There’s now an urgency about the way I live my life,” she shares.

“My dad [Waka Coffin] was very humble and instilled in us that we’re only here because of our tūpuna [ancestors]. I was always very thoughtful about what I did and said, and how it would reflect on my family.

Jenny-May standing amongst bushes wrapped in a long red cloak
Jenny-May’s journey has included a health overhaul. “I’m starting to see the benefits,” she says.

“I still have that in mind, but I’m also learning to be a bit more me. There’s more willingness to explore who I am at 50, and I’m finding the freedom to express myself more than I have previously and not being afraid to say things.”

This discovery has also inspired the former Silver Fern to encourage her eight-year-old twin sons Te Manahau and Atawhai more than ever to be authentically themselves.

“With my tama [children], it’s about finding balance between humility and respect for those who went before us, and expressing themselves,” says Jenny-May. “I want to lift my boys up and celebrate everything about them. I don’t want them to wait as long as me to celebrate being Māori and proud of where we come from.

“For me, it’s coming a bit later. But I’m getting there and there’s no doubt receiving my kauae is a huge part of this transformation.”

A black-and-white image of Jenny-May looking into the distance with windswept hair
The day Jenny-May received her moko kauae.

Jenny-May explains that seeing other wāhine wearers of the moko kauae always makes her feel a deep sense of belonging.

“I grew up with my marae less than 100 metres from home and my mum [Paddy Coffin] is still there. I saw nannies with kauae on marae and there was a comfort in it. It was like somehow you were a part of them and they were a part of you.”

However, it wasn’t until recent years she started to contemplate receiving her own.

“I never thought I would be a wearer of kauae, but life has its twists and turns, and when the thought started to come and go, I sat with it in my puku [tummy].”

Then come Christmas 2023, Jenny-May realised those feelings weren’t going anywhere, so she first confided in husband Dean, who was instantly supportive. Next came discussing the decision with her mum, whānau and friends.

“I wasn’t looking for anyone’s permission but, for me, it was important to acknowledge and listen to their thoughts and fears for me. I was fortunate that I had really positive and encouraging conversations. It wasn’t planned, but it all came together with me turning 50 in April this year.”

Jenny-May wearing a blue dress, wrapped in a traditional cloak and standing in amongst the bushes

With her mum Paddy, older sister Alicia and husband Dean by her side as she lay on the tā moko table, Jenny-May’s mind turned to whānau members no longer with her.

“I thought about my grandmother, who I never met, and about my dad, who’s been gone for six years. My dad and I had a lot of robust conversations. He always reminded me, ‘I am him and he is me.’ I get emotional when I talk about my dad, but I was thinking, ‘Look at us now, Dad, and how far we’ve come.’”

After just over an hour, her moko kauae was complete and Jenny-May sat up to Dean’s warm, smiling reaction.

“I broke down in tears,” remembers Jenny-May, who openly shares it took a while to adjust. “It was overwhelming, so I just sat with that and then asked him, ‘What does it look like?’

“I was taken aback a bit. I think she is beautiful, but I was just getting used to it every time I caught my reflection.”

A collage of Jenny-May revealing her new kauae to her mother and husband
Jenny-May gets a hug from her mum and husband.

Then an all-consuming fear set in for 24 hours.

“I think it was around work. Being a public face, wondering how people in my community would view me and react or respond. It was a debilitating fear. I remember lying in bed and I did not want to get up and face the world.”

Recalling the confronting experience, Jenny-May tells as quickly as the heavy feeling set in, it disappeared.

“When I woke up my husband asked me if I was okay,” she tells. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want how I was feeling to be true. I rolled away and when I rolled back over again, it was like the weight had been lifted. In that moment, he could see my vulnerability and fear, but minutes later it was gone.”

There were a few more anxious moments to navigate around the first time being on Breakfast with her moko kauae, but Jenny-May felt ready to face the world.

“I stay away from feedback, but people have told me it’s been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “Of course, there are some highly inflammatory words and emails. There always are. But I was really conscious our audience would take time to get used to it, just as it took me time.

A press image of Jenny-May and her Breakfast co-hosts
With Breakfast co-hosts Chris Chang and Daniel Faitaua.

“My hope is they see me and how fortunate we are to have this beautiful moko as a representation and expression of who we are.”

Unexpectedly, it has also been the catalyst for reprioritising her wellbeing.

“It’s hard to explain. After I got my kauae, I started making a concerted effort to sort out my physical health and nutrition. A real strength sits behind that and it’s part of the gift from my kauae.” 

Focusing on her health feels particularly important to Jenny-May. She’s reflecting on her brother Jeffery, who passed away from bowel cancer when he was 56 in 2018.

“Now I’m getting towards the age when he died, it’s really poignant. It makes me dial in on my own health,” says Jenny-May. She recently had a routine colonoscopy and needed a polyp removed.

A polyp is a common, small growth on the lining of the bowel that can develop into bowel cancer.

Thankfully, the broadcaster’s results returned clear. However, the staunch advocate still won’t shy away from talking about how important it is to get checked.

Jenny-May's sons standing on either side of their grandmother in front of a tree
Sons Atawhai (left) and Te Manahau with their gran Paddy.

“I want to stay here as long as I can for my boys and hopefully even my mokopuna [grandchildren]. I still have my mum at 50, and know how important that relationship is for me. How it grounds me having my mum here. I want that for my sons,” says Jenny-May. She candidly talks about the challenges of perimenopause and the impact it has had on her and her whānau.

“Perimenopause sucks!” she exclaims. “Nobody could have prepared me for how you lose yourself within that. I’ve spent a year and a half trying to figure everything out and only this year have got things right with perimenopause.

“I’m at a stage of understanding how that was for my whānau and friends with me all over the place with my moods, and how important it is for me to be well.”

It means she has had to challenge her own beliefs about aging. She’s committing to exercising and eating in a way that makes her feel healthy and powerful.

“I was an athlete, but I thought, ‘I’m getting older, I don’t need to be lifting weights any more and I had ignored my nutrition,” explains Jenny-May, who routinely wakes at 2.30am for work.

Reintroducing lifting heavy weights, higher-intensity workouts and being more aware of food and sleep, and how that affects her energy, has had a dramatic impact.

“A lot of work, time and effort goes into it, but now I’m starting to see the benefits,” she enthuses. “I do sometimes think, ‘You know this stuff, Jenny-May. Why didn’t you get onto it earlier?’ But I’m just glad that I’m here now.”

Jenny-May surrounded by her husband and their children in front of the back garden fence
With Dean, the twins, and stepdaughters Libby-Jane and Leah.

With Matariki celebrations on the horizon, Jenny-May is looking forward to being with cousins in her hometown of PioPio. It’s a time for reflecting, remembering those who have passed and preparing for the future.

The plan is to hold their own hautapu, a ceremony offering karakia [prayer] and kai to the Matariki stars, and visiting her brothers and dad at their uru pā [Māori burial ground].

But as we head into the Māori new year, Jenny-May says there’s no bucket list to tick off. She explains, “I have always lived in the moment.”

Instead, she determines to experience as much joy as possible and appreciate every moment with her beloved family.

“I’m focusing on whānau and trying to be a good mum and wife,” says Jenny-May. She’s also particularly excited about her sons starting kapa haka this year.

“I’m happy being present, enjoying my boys, exploring the new freedom I have connected into and pushing boundaries with that. I just want more of what I’ve got.”

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