As Woman's Day arrives at Paula Bennett's home on Auckland's Te Atatu Peninsula, slipping off our footwear as we come in the door, the former deputy prime minister's distinctive voice calls, "Don't take off your shoes unless you want to lose them!"
Half a second later, the reason for the warning becomes clear as a little black blur, the MP's 10-week-old Labrador puppy Charlie, arrives to greet us with a leopard-print slipper hanging out of her mouth.
"I've stopped her biting my ankle with those teeth, but she's just discovered digging," sighs Paula, 51, as she ushers us in. "I found her in my herb garden the other day and I wasn't happy. I'm not a gardener, but I did some planting over lockdown and it's the only thing I've ever grown!"
The politician has wanted a dog "for ages", but it wasn't until May, when she was overthrown as deputy leader and campaign manager of the National Party, that she figured she had enough time on her hands.
"Overnight, I went from working 80 to 100 hours a week to more like 30," smiles Paula, who resigned in June and officially became an ex-MP after the election. "But Charlie's such a time waster – throwing a ball, keeping her entertained and pretending to train her has kept me busy. She's a bundle of energy and naughtiness, and we're besotted."
Famously a former solo teen mum on a benefit, she continues, "I'm having flashbacks to motherhood. I've been up in the middle of the night feeding her, but it feels like she's got to the naughty-teenager stage very quickly.
Just recently, Paula began her fresh chapter, starting a new job in real estate as a director of strategic advisory in commercial and industrial property for Bayleys.
Speaking to us at the end of her first day in the Wynyard Quarter office, she admits "I was a little scared, but I made it to work on time, found my desk and everyone's been really kind. I said to them, 'I'm going to come back tomorrow'. We should all take that as a win!
"For the past yew years, I've been the one who's known where all the pieces fit and now I'm stepping into something new, I've realised how much I don't know and how clever everyone else is. There are nerves, but it's exciting that I've got so much to learn."
Paula's "amazing friend and mentor" Sir John Key was the one who recommended her for the role. "He's given me heaps of advice – a lot!" she grins. "He's encouraged me to move on. I was apprehensive about leaving politics, like, 'Are my skills transferable?" But he just laughed, 'You'll have choices. Think carefully and don't leap at the first thing."
The former PM was right. Paula nods, "I ended up having a number of options – in recruitment, which I used to do and still love, and in media. But this job felt nicely outside of my comfort zone."
The new gig will also give her more free time.. She enthuses, "There's no doubt the pressure is off me. Having stepped back, I can see how all-consuming politics was. I loved it, but in some respects, it was quite selfish – it was hard on the people around me. I couldn't guarantee I was going to be at a family functions. It takes a physical toll too. I wasn't getting the sleep I needed. It was just adrenaline keeping me going.
"Now there's a whole lot of room in my life for family, a puppy and I'll definitely be doing some fishing – we're just getting the boat ready. I'm hoping we can have some meetings on it!"
During lockdown, as well as studying for her real estate licence, Paula spent precious time hanging out with her grandchildren, her 33-year-old daughter Ana's kids Tia, 13, Nate, six and Hunter, five.
"It's been neat just picking them up from school," she says, before waving her arm down the corridor of the home she and Alan, 61, moved into late last year. "You have to check out the toilet before you go. I've also been doing some home decorating and it's the only room I've finished."
For the record, the wallpaper is bright yellow, featuring a pattern of scantily clad retro pin-up girls, and there's a black chandelier hanging over the bog. Paula laughs, "It was my lockdown project and it completely doesn't suit the house – it's bonkers!"
Paula was also busy in the kitchen during lockdown. "The thing I nailed was gnocchi, which I'm quite proud of, and I was baking, but I had to stop after a week or else we'd end up rolling out of the house," smiles the politician, who underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2017.
"I definitely ate a lot more and I reckon I put on about three kilos. I tried running, but it was too hard on my knees, so I've just been walking and using the cross-trainer. I've managed to lose two of those kilos, but the other one, I feel like she's decided to stay.
"I'm just so conscious that's how I got overweight. I got used to having another 3kg, then another 3kg and eventually I'd gain 10kg. I'm determined it won't happen this time. Anything up to two kilos is OK, but if I get over that, it's time to think about what I'm eating. But I'll never want to be one of those bitter, compulsive people who's not enjoying life."
Speaking of bitter, Paula denies feeling betrayed when she and former National leader Simon Bridges were rolled by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye. "But I certainly felt hurt for a couple of weeks as I tried to get my head around it and work out what was next to me.
"I went up to the Kaipara Harbour by myself just to switch my brain off. Whenever I felt myself thinking too much, I'd either go kayaking or go for a walk. I counted it up and in three days, I ended up kayaking 16 times! Getting out on the water is my calm space."
Asked if she allowed herself a slight smirk when Todd and Nikki were dispatched by Judith Collins and her deputy Gerry Brownlee less than two months later, Paula insists, "I only felt kind of sadness for both of them. No-one wants to go through that. But I did have a wee moment where I thought, 'I must've made it look too easy!'
"I know the hours involved and the full-on complexities of dealing with everything – the decision making, different personalities, public pressure and media scrutiny. I've always known it was a hard job and if you're good at it, you make it look easy.
"I'll never have another job like it. You really don't know what each day is going to bring. You're in the eye of the storm. There's the buzz and energy. But I'm so ready to go! At the moment, I feel like I'm in Hotel California – you can check out, but you can never leave!
"When the election date changed, I found myself in the job for another four weeks. I reckon I was the only National Party member saying, 'Please don't put the date back!' I felt like I was in Hotel California - you can check out, but you can never leave!"
Since National's crushing defeat in the election, it's been "a really emotional few days" for Paula who adds, "A loss that big is pretty brutal because it's a lot of people losing their jobs. I completely respect the decision the public has made, but these are people I worked with and care about, and they're heading into Christmas with an uncertain future."
She didn't give Judith any advice during the campaign but has since been in touch to offer support. "I have a lot of respect for the work she's done, particularly in the past few months. It's the hardest job in politics, the Leader of the Opposition, and even more so as a woman. I've advised my colleagues to just take a breath and cool their heads, but they're politicians, I don't know if they'll take my advice!"
Is Paula glad to be out of the Beehive? "Really glad!" she laughs. "I've felt that way since I made the decision. I've been really lucky to fall into a great job and now it's someone else's turn to have a go. With anything in life, you have your moment and you grab it with everything you've got. I didn't want to leave my job, but I thought, 'Well I can't do anything about that - I can only change how I react to it.'
"Now it's finished, it's important I don't look back with anything except absolute pride about what I've done. The election was confirmation I've definitely made the right decision for me and my family."
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