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Peta Mathias fights back: Standing up to sexual assault

The irreverent celebrity chef tells how she has rebuilt her life - in France!

The normally upbeat Peta Mathias lets out an uncharacteristically sad sigh as she talks to the Weekly about her new book – Never Put All Your Eggs in One Bastard. The title – a quote from sassy ‘20s US author and poet Dorothy Parker – refers, as one might guess, to motherhood.

It’s been a favourite phrase of Peta’s for a long while and despite being childfree by choice and, having just turned 68, long past the point of procreation, she finds many excuses to say it. And now, here it is, on the cover of her new autobiography.

Essentially a memoir about her experiences of selling her cottage in Auckland and building a functional home and workplace in the South of France at the age of 67, it is humorous, self-indulgent and at times shocking – not least because it addresses two harrowing incidences of sexual assault.

And while she has referenced the ordeals before, this is the first time Peta has talked about them – publicly at least – in any detail.

“I feel sad that women can’t walk around and be free without the threat of being attacked,” she says, via a rather patchy Skype connection from her new home in France. “It’s not like we are walking around naked. It’s a sad fact that it is all too common these days.”

Peta is candid about the awful experiences, unflinchingly referring to them by name in the chapters of her memoir – including chapter eight, “In which I embrace the social revolution, endure the first sexual attack and dump nursing”, and chapter 11, “In which my Parisian life continues, my mother visits and I endure more sexual assaults.”

The first attack happened in Auckland, when she was 18 and was grabbed from behind by a hefty assailant, who pinned her to the ground and tried to rape her – before her screams scared him off.

“That was the most terrifying one,” she reveals. “It’s like children who are beaten by their parents. It’s not the pain, it’s the emotional damage that happens afterwards and how long it takes you to recover from the fear.

“There is a part of you that thinks that you have somehow provoked it, ‘What’s wrong with me – why has this happened to me?’ But,” she concedes, “men aren’t all animals. Most don’t rape, most don’t even hassle women. It’s just a minority.”

With her parents, Harvey and Ann, around 1970.

The second assault she writes about happened years later, after she had moved to Paris and was returning home from work.

“I managed to talk my way out of… worse things happening to me,” she recalls. “I had trained as a counsellor. I knew the best thing to do was keep calm. A lot of women are so terrified, they keep their mouths shut.”

Peta’s experiences are perhaps why she makes for such a good advice giver – something she’s set to do on her return to New Zealand.

Later this month, she will tour the country with her one-woman show, which includes an agony aunt session, singing and cooking.

Peta during her Joan Baez period in her late teens.

“It’s great fun,” she tells. “I give people a glass of wine and then they relax into whatever unfolds! What usually emerges is ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ and ‘it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings’. You must never let yourself be restricted by age or looks or education because life can be very long. I’m going to live for a long time if genetics has anything to do with it!”

More than ever, as she anticipates her annual return to New Zealand this month, Auckland-born Peta is philosophical about life, after what could be described as a rollercoaster year. While her house in Uzès, in the South of France – where she lives for five months each year – was being finished, she lost her “adorable” father Harvey in May, aged 91.

And although her dad had a good innings, his death was still a shock for Peta, documented with a touching dedication in the book to Harvey, who has “gone to that big whiskey distillery in the sky”.

The former Catholic schoolgirl became a trainee nurse at 17 and incurred a “personality change”.

“It was really awful – horrendous,” she says quietly. “I was surprised at the level of grief. It was very, very severe. I still can’t talk about it without tearing up.”

Happily, though, her Sydney-based mother Ann is still very much alive at 96.

“She’s always been very strong and energetic, and even now she’s old and frail, there’s nothing wrong with her!” tells Peta.

Something of a late bloomer, by her own admission, Peta’s life has taken many twists, turns and career paths, flanked by an ever-changing cast of eccentric friends and lovers. From nursing to counselling, to TV hosting, cooking, writing books and currently hosting cooking tours.

It’s an unconventional existence and as she happily points out, not for everyone – least of all her own family, who balk at her “gastro-nomadic” lifestyle, bouncing between New Zealand and France as well as India, Italy and Morocco. Still, she loves the tours and always ensures they are fun and memorable for her mostly Kiwi clientele.

“My God, there are so many things I can’t say about them…mostly because people are still alive or you don’t want to upset their families,” she laughs.

With such a nomadic existence, it’s little wonder Peta was ready to lay down some roots, though she insists it was more because she gets easily bored.

“Everything was becoming a bit predictable, so I needed a jolt.”

She sold her cosy Auckland cottage and, after months of frustration and bureaucratic nightmares, finally has her new three-storey industrial home in Uzès, where she has lived on and off since 2005.

“What sort of person would be mad enough to sell up in Auckland at 67 and build a house in the South of France?” she laughs. “But as it turns out, I’m not that mad and it was not such a crazy idea.

“When it was done, I just screamed, because it was fantastic and amazing! They say having a baby is a pain that you forget immediately, which is why you have another one, but I will never do another house again! Oh God, no! It’s horrendous. But the most important thing is that the kitchen works really well. I’ve already had a few cooking classes there. It’s a bit like having a dinner party twice a week.”

As a longtime, part-time resident in France, Peta was “shocked” by the recent terrorist attacks – first in Paris and then in Nice.

“It makes you realise it can happen anywhere,” she muses. “I could have been there in Nice. In fact, I was in the very place it happened last year, watching the fireworks.

“In terms of safety, you just have to not go to crowded places for events,” she adds.

“But planes still get blown up, airports are still targeted. You just have to keep walking like you are in a slow-motion movie, where everything is exploding behind you and you can’t see it.”

Throughout the memoir, there’s a sense that although Peta’s life is a life well lived, it has been peppered with many romantic disappointments. After all, as she’s quick to point out, she married a man she didn’t love (a lovely gay Frenchman called Alexy, who sadly died of Aids in the ‘80s), and fell for plenty of men she didn’t marry.

These days, there’s no man to put her non-existent eggs into but that’s okay because “when you get to my age, dating is no longer important!”

“When you get older, you lose your strength and get forgetful,” she admits. “Those are really the only flies in the ointment.”

All things considered, life is pretty good right now. Writing the memoir has been cathartic, but not, she is quick to point out, narcissistic.

“A long time ago, I made the distinction between who I am and this character that I write about, so I don’t have any emotional attachments to writing about myself. It’s just my story and hopefully someone can take something from it.”

The next 10 years, she says, will be much like the last 10.

“I intend to keep writing books, doing cooking tours and shows, and teaching. All the things I’m doing now, but I might start slowing down a bit,” she laughs. “Maybe.”

Words: Carmen Lichi

Look out for Peta Mathias’ memoir Never Put Your Eggs in One Bastard (Penguin Random House, RRP $40).

Join Peta Mathias for the final two dates of her outrageous comedy tour this November:

November 25 – Kings Performing Arts Centre

November 26 – Charles Luney Auditorium

Click here for tickets

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