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Jess Tyson on the importance of being brave

Why the reality star rose to the challenge, opening up about her most devastating experience

By Aroha Awarau
It's been three months since former beauty queen and Māori Television journalist Jess Tyson competed in Celebrity Treasure Island. The experience of being on the reality TV show has lifted her public profile and more people are recognising her on the street.
But the Whanganui-born broadcaster was not motivated to compete on the hit TVNZ show because of the fame and attention. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, Jess started her own charity, Brave, to raise awareness about sexual violence involving young children. She said yes immediately to being one of the 21 celebrities to compete on Treasure Island because the contestants had the chance to win $100,000 for their chosen charities.
"I did relatively well on the show, and the reason why I got so far was because I was motivated by raising awareness and money for Brave. I had such a strong connection to the reason why I was there that it helped me keep my focus and pushed me even harder."
Jess showed heart and passion on the show, and was one of the fiercest and strongest competitors. She made the top six, losing the competition to comedian Chris Parker. She did, however, win four mini challenges on the show and raised $20,000 for Brave. The programme also gave her the opportunity to speak about her charity and share her story of surviving childhood sexual abuse.
Thanks to Celebrity Treasure Island, Jess raised $20,000 for her charity
"When I opened up about the abuse on national TV, I felt vulnerable and exposed knowing there would be thousands of people watching," she admits. "But I knew that it was important
to share my experience.
"After the show, I've had people say to me that I've helped them come to terms with their own abuse, realising that it's okay to talk about it after they saw me being so open on TV."
The 28-year-old says she was seven years old when the abuse started. Her mother noticed that Jess was not her usual self and asked if there was anything wrong. The scared seven-year-old confided in her mum, who took action immediately.
"My mother saved my life because she stood up and did something about it straight away. I know so many girls who aren't believed."
The abuse caused Jess to lack confidence. But as a teenager, she found a way to express herself through competing in beauty pageants. She won her first crown in 2008. Ten years later, Jess made it all the way to the Miss World New Zealand stage and triumphed.
Pageant princess
It was at the contest that she found the strength to talk publicly about the abuse for the first time.
"It was really hard for me, and I broke down and cried. That was the turning point for me because Miss World New Zealand gave me the chance to finally speak up."
Jess went on to represent New Zealand at the Miss World contest in China and made the finals. She now regularly speaks about her experience through Brave, where she visits schools around Aotearoa to advocate and raise awareness of sexual violence.
Jess has a special bond to another celebrity, singer Stan Walker, who has opened up about the sexual abuse and family violence he suffered as a child. Stan is Jess' brother-in- law and the Take It Easy hitmaker married her sister Lou last year.
"He's so down to earth that I sometimes forget he's famous," tells Jess. "He makes my sister very happy and that's the most important thing. He's not only an amazing singer, but he's also an incredible person who has helped others by sharing his own story of sexual and family violence."
Famous family ties: Kess and brother-in-law Stan
Today, Jess' five-year journalism career at Māori Television is flourishing. Her job has inspired her to speak te reo Māori, which she has been learning for the past 10 years.
She'll also be presenting a truly special series on Māori Television titled Te Ngākau Tapatahi: Dame and Knights Special, where 20 Māori dames and knights talk about their lives and illustrious careers.
The series features candid interviews from influential Māori leaders, such as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and her Celebrity Treasure Island mate and All Blacks legend Sir Wayne "Buck" Shelford.
This is one of Jess' first major roles as a presenter and she says it has given her the opportunity to develop her television journalism skills.
"There are many shows out there that are for pure entertainment and are fun to watch. This show was different because I was talking to people who made a huge contribution in our lives. It was such an honour to hear their stories," enthuses Jess.
"They all made a difference in their own unique way, whether it be the revitalisation of te reo Māori, or working in the defence force, or changing laws that benefit our country. Yes, there were some celebrities in the mix, but they were much more than that."
Dame and Knights is a 10-episode series, screening weekdays at 12pm from January 10 on Māori Television
Need to talk? 1737 – free call or text 24/7 to talk to a trained counsellor Lifeline – 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757
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Healthline – 0800 611 116
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Information about suicide prevention can be found at mentalhealth.org.nz/suicideprevention

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