Love her or loathe her, Judith Collins is one of the most interesting politicians around. With her bouffant blonde hair and steely glare, she became known as right wing renegade “Crusher Collins”, scourge of boy racers. But last year was, as Her Majesty the Queen would say, an “annus horribilis” for the former Minister of Justice. Forced to resign from her post amid allegations of dirty tactics, the Papakura MP became a political pariah. The Beehive effectively told her to buzz off and she kept a low profile while investigations continued.
Until, in November last year, Judith (56) was cleared. Relief, mixed with a dash of euphoria followed. And now she’s talking exclusively to the Weekly, offering a rare glimpse into her life with husband of 30 years, businessman David Wong-Tung (59), and their 22-year-old son James. It’s the first time they’ve done a joint interview. But now, on the sunny deck of their cool and quirky 20th-century modernist house in East Auckland, flanked by their beloved 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier Holly, is as good a time as any for Judith to pay tribute to her “rock”.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have got through it if it hadn’t been for David,” she says. “I remember him saying to me one day, ‘You don’t have to do this – there is life outside, you know. With your experience and qualifications, there are so many other things you can do.’ I thought that was really nice of him – but I also thought ‘I can’t give in because I’m not a quitter.’ If there was truth in what was being said that might have been a different story, but there wasn’t.”
They’ve just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary and Judith proudly shows David’s gift – some large hooped diamond earrings. “He rang and said he had found me something. He texted me a photo and I thought they were excellent!”
“And what did I get?” asks David, grinning.
“You got a happy wife!” Judith shoots back. “And a happy wife is worth a lot, isn’t it, David?”
She’s not the most likely Juliet on the block, nor he the most convincing Romeo, but their love affair reads like a Shakespearean plot. The youngest of five siblings who grew up on a farm in rural Matamata, at the age of 20, pretty university student Judith fell madly in love with her handsome Chinese-Samoan beau, then a 24-year-old rugby-playing police officer and law student, after being introduced at a party.
“I thought he was extremely attractive and very charming,” says Judith. “I liked his ambition and the fact that he was born in Samoa and grew up on a beach!”
But this being 1970s parochial New Zealand, her dad, who passed away 20 years ago, didn’t like David’s racial heritage one jot. “I was bitterly disappointed that he had such entrenched views,” she says sadly. “Up until then, I’d always thought whatever my parents said was absolutely right.”
After six years together, they realised things wouldn’t change, and decided to elope to Hong Kong – following a five-day “pre-honeymoon” in Bali. Three decades on, they still remember their big day fondly. Judith, who had never been overseas before, wore a silver skirt and an embroidered cream silk top – “a simple but classic outfit that would still look fine today”, she laughs.
“We had no witnesses. We had to borrow two members of staff from the registry office. It was just the two of us, which was great! And Dad was fine after we married,” she continues. “He knew he’d lost the battle. I think he was more worried that people would judge me the way he did. But we proved you wrong and then some, eh Dad?” she says, looking up at the sky with a grin.
At the moment, around her work for the constituents of Papakura, she’s studying for a post-graduate diploma in health and safety through Massey University.
“One of the things I quite like about Judith,” begins David, as his wife hoots with laughter at his phrasing, “is that she’s interesting. She’s always got something on the go. I would find it really hard being married to someone clingy.”
“I’m definitely not a clinger,” grins Judith. “Though I’m very big on hugs. If members of the public want to come up and give me a hug, it’s all good!”
The hugs helped her through “the Troubles” as she calls the events of last year. “People were on the whole really kind –they’d come to me with cards, flowers – and hugs! Most people are pretty good at working out when someone’s had too much stick.”
She reckons the worst thing that happened was that a couple she door knocked during the election said they would no longer vote for her. “So I stood on their doorstep and told them I wasn’t leaving until they changed their mind!” she hoots.
Comfortable in one another’s company, Judith and David tease each other affectionately. When the make-up artist powders David’s face before they cosy up on their retro love seat, Judith smirks, “You’re not Bruce Jenner, darling!”
She’s not shy of a bit of fun to lighten the mood, like when she was sprung on video in February this year, shaking her booty to an Elvis impersonator. So you like to boogie then, Judith? A hearty chuckle erupts. “Ha-haaaa! I do. I love it, but David’s not much of a dancer, so we don’t go out dancing much.”
And there are more surprises. It turns out Judith is a massive rugby fan – both league and union. “I converted David from the Blues to the Chiefs,” she says, proud of the victory. “I grew up with rugby. When I was little, I wanted to be an All Black! I couldn’t have married a man that didn’t love rugby.”
The couple – he calls her “Jude”, while she calls him “Dave” sometimes, but mostly “dear” – frequently go to live games to cheer on the Chiefs or the Warriors. David’s cousin, New Zealand heavyweight boxer Joseph Parker, is responsible for her latest unlikely passion: boxing. The whole family regularly attend his fights. “He’s wonderful, a really lovely guy,” she says proudly. “I really respect him. He calls us ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’.”
Her skin is impressively flawless and there’s barely a wrinkle. Come on Judith, you use Botox, right? A smile and a wink. “Lots of water and sunblock, those are my secrets,” she says. “And I don’t smoke – I never have. Also, I’m blessed with my mother’s genes – she always had really good skin, but she had a dedication to glamour too. Even though we lived on a farm, she’d put make-up on every day. It’s that and the fact thatI rarely put my face in the sun. I haven’t since I was 16.”
It’s all the more surprising, then, that she contracted skin cancer a few years ago. This time, the family genes worked against her: “My father used to get a lot of skin cancer. We’re very fair, my family, so I’m really careful these days.”
In her own environment, Judith – who cooks and cleans every night – is soft, warm and maternal. A cushion in the lounge – “Mothers make a house a home” – suggests her son James agrees. She gave birth to him at 34, working at her own law firm up until the last minute, despite being hospitalised for toxaemia. “Seeing James for the first time was the best thing I’ve ever experienced,” she reveals solemnly, though she admits the pregnancy and birth were “horrific”.
“The birth was far too natural because the epidural failed,” she recalls. “But it was all worth it. It’s a pretty amazing thing, having a baby. The love you feel for your partner or spouse is one thing, but the love you feel for your child should be greater than that in my opinion. Isn’t that right, dear?” They both laugh as David nods his head.
“We do everything for James,” Judith continues, who says she’s “an overly protective, motherly kind of mother”. “Moving here was for James. We loved our home in rural Auckland, we loved the people, but he’s at university and driving back and forth on that road is very dangerous. We’ve only got our boy and we’d never forgive ourselves if anything happened to him.” She adds quietly, “He’s everything to us.”
Minutes later, their 1.85m tall “gentle giant” makes an impromptu visit. Thoughtful, quiet and passionate (especially when it comes to explaining the differences between fantasy and sci-fi), Judith says the three of them have a very close bond, though chess fan James thinks politics is “silly”.
“We don’t really talk about politics, but he probably thinks I’m too soft on some things,” laughs Judith. “His interests are a bit different from ours.”
“James enjoys economics and finance – he’s much more of a numbers man,” says his father proudly.
Judith reveals that David’s mum Flory, who passed away following a battle with motor neurone disease in 2011, was a crucial part of raising James. She split her time between living with them in Auckland and her home in Samoa – where David’s sister Eunice and Kiwi husband David still live.
“Samoa suits them very well,” says Judith, who admits that her grasp of the language is limited to a friendly “Talofa!” “I remember the first time I went with David,” she smiles. “I was working at my law practice and I was worried about sending faxes! After about four hours of trying in the heat, I just thought, ‘Why am I worrying about work?’ It’s just such an extraordinarily relaxing place, I had no choice but to switch off.”
Not for long, though. Her extensive CV – and David’s – both indicate workaholic overachievers. They agree their ambition is why they work so well as a couple. Maybe it’s because Judith almost didn’t survive her mum’s pregnancy. Not for the first time, her eyes tear up. “I’ve never said this publicly before, but I think a lot of the way I am comes from the fact that I’m not really meant to be here,” says Judith. “My mother was so sick in her pregnancy with my sister Barbara that when she became pregnant with me, the doctors urged her to terminate. And the weird thing is, my mum normally did exactly what doctors told her to. But for some reason, she decided to keep me. So I’ve always felt very beholden to her for that. And I’ve always known I am really, really lucky to be alive. And for the next, however many fabulous years I’ve got left, I’m going to make the most of it!”
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