Celebrity News

Rachel Hunter’s kiwi love affair

Supermodel Rachel Hunter has found love in New Zealand’s great outdoors.

Rachel Hunter is best known for gracing red carpets and magazine covers as one of the world’s most glamorous women. Photographed around the world in designer outfits and exquisite jewels, she’s a regular at A-list events like the Golden Globes, and will go down in history as being the face of some of the modelling world’s most iconic shots.

But New Zealand’s favourite supermodel says she’d happily trade the trappings of celebrity life for the down and dirty world of conservation if she could – even if it means being judged harshly for her actions.

“I truly love this country. My childhood was spent getting lost in the bush at the back of my garden, building huts, rescuing worms from puddles and playing in a country with no natural predators,” says Rachel (42). But she was astonished when she released a kiwi into the wild in Hawke’s Bay this month and her efforts to help were met with some cynicism.

“I’m pretty new to the world of conservation in New Zealand, so I know I’ve got a lot to learn about it, but the day after I released the kiwi felt a bit like Judgement Day,” she smiles wryly. “Although it took us almost 12 hours to get to Maungataniwha Forest because of bad weather – we had to drive for hours as the helicopter couldn’t fly in – and I don’t get paid for any of this work, I got accused of only helping to get publicity.

Honestly, if I want publicity, I’ll get drunk, climb on a table and lift my skirt up. It would be far more effective!”

The delightfully warm-hearted and upfront model is no stranger to controversy. While she has undoubtedly received her fair share of accolades, she has taken a barrage of criticism in the past for everything from her decision to model lingerie to her acting ability and her clothing designs.

“I have been on the receiving end of some pretty harsh critics for some of my decisions. You’d think I’d learn,” she says. “But when it comes to helping look after the place I grew up in, it’s not about me. It’s about the animals.”

Rachel’s passion for our furry friends is no secret – she’s been helping save gorillas around the world for more than a decade. But a chance meeting at a charity function in New Zealand last October resulted in a decision by the Kiwi model to bring her much-needed help closer to home – and she wasn’t expecting to be criticised for it.

“During Richard Branson’s charity dinner, somebody asked him how New Zealand is perceived overseas. I realised that while we are seen as this beautiful country that’s clean and green, we’re in danger of losing many of our iconic animals. That our grandchildren may never see a kiwi or a kakapo is terribly sad. We are in danger of losing the very bird we are named after.”

That night she met Simon Hall, chairman of the Forest Life Force Restoration Trust – the privately funded kiwi breeding organisation for whom Rachel released the 100th kiwi into the bush two weeks ago. She agreed to become its patron. “I just wanted to do my part,” she adds.

The truth is Rachel agreed to work with the trust because she truly cares about the country she still calls home. “I’ve been asked why I’m getting involved when I haven’t lived in New Zealand for 20 years, but I really want to learn more about the issues facing the country,” she insists. “I was a bit shocked to realise how much I don’t know. I haven’t even been to Fjordland, and as part of my education about this project, the Department of Conservation has suggested I go and see the country so I can learn about what’s needed.”

But while Rachel is hoping to spend more time in New Zealand over the next few years, she accepts that a full-time move may never be on the cards. “I feel torn between countries. I can’t leave my kids. As a mother it’s my rite of passage to be with my children and their home is America,” she explains.

“Liam now has a four-year contract playing ice hockey in Washington state for six months a year, which is amazing, and although Renee comes over here quite a lot, her base is still the US.” But she does feel that now they are older, her options have opened. “Liam’s almost 18 and Renee’s 20, so I feel like I can come over for longer periods. I want to do as much as I can with the trust.”

But while Rachel and her brood may not be able to put down permanent roots, Rachel isn’t rejecting the suggestion that Renee may follow in her footsteps. “At the moment she’s taking a break and just allowing herself to be young before possibly heading back to school next year. But she has a huge amount of compassion and a really gentle demeanour,” she muses.

“She isn’t remotely interested in modelling or being in the public eye and she most definitely has her mother’s fiery spark! But she has an affinity with New Zealand and working to help the country’s natural resources would suit her personality very well.” Just like it suits her mum.

“I personally don’t think I suit all the glamour stuff,” is Rachel’s surprising admission. “I loved holding [kiwi chick] Takamoana. Kiwi are so soft and their legs are so strong. He kept burrowing into my neck – he was so cute. I’d love it if I could leave the makeup behind and run around the forest in a raincoat and gumboots – but I’d probably be accused of having a midlife crisis if I did!”

For now, Rachel is happy to lend her voice – and her face – to an issue she feels strongly about, even if it means taking a bit of flak. “The hundreds of people who work behind the scenes in this field deserve to get support and attention for the amazing work they do.

“The fact is, if we don’t have kiwi hatcheries and conservation programmes, flightless birds like the kiwi and the kakapo are going to become extinct very soon,” she says. “Even if I get bad press, at least it’ll get people talking about it.” But Rachel knows she’s putting herself in the firing line.

“People will [say to] me that if my clothing line isn’t organic, how can I mean what I say? I try and do my bit, but I’m not an extremist about it like a lot of celebrities who support environmental charities,” she says. “I eat meat, I wear leather shoes, but I’m passionate about what I’m doing.

“All I can do is my best to raise awareness and try and ensure the world I grew up in is still available to the next generation. If releasing a kiwi helps, then I’m happy.”

Get The Australian Woman’s Weekly NZ home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.

Related stories