When Samantha Hayes was offered her dream job as TV3’s six o’clock news anchor, there was one call she had to make before accepting the role. That call was to her parents in South Otago.
The TV career woman is also a family oriented country girl who values her mum and dad’s advice. The Australian Women’s Weekly visited the family farm with Sam to find out how her life of city glamour fits in with her strong rural roots.
Each time Samantha Hayes turns her car into the rocky driveway of her Aunt Sonia’s Otago farm, climbing towards the rolling hills and expansive paddocks and catching a glimpse of the white buildings with their red roofs, she experiences something incredibly special.
“I feel anticipation and excitement,” explains TV3’s newest six o’clock news anchor. “I guess it is just happiness. I absolutely love being here. I feel very lucky to have been able to spend my childhood in a place like this.
“I almost feel as if I have two different lives,” she continues. “I have this life in Auckland with the perceived glamour of television, and there’s this other side of me that would like to own a couple of horses, dogs and a little shaggy Shetland pony, not wear make-up and live in gumboots. How beautiful would that be?”
Before now, Sam hasn’t allowed her family to be interviewed by the media but when The Weekly asks to visit the farm where she spent so much of her childhood, she agrees – the opportunity to bring her two worlds together being too good to miss.
At the remote, 650-hectare sheep and cattle farm in Lawrence, 20 minutes from her home town of Milton, she is just as she’s described – gumboots, jeans and no make-up, her porcelain skin radiating with the glow of happiness she gets from being in this treasured location with her horses and close-knit extended family.
She is at her most peaceful in her South Island haven. If she needs to calm herself before she goes on air, she transports herself here mentally. As she did when she found herself in tears moments before reading the 9.30pm Newshub update in which she was to announce her beloved colleague Hilary Barry’s shock resignation.
And a few weeks later, when she was asked to take over Hilary’s role of six o’clock news anchor, it was home she called to discuss the decision with her parents, Sheena and Paul Hayes, and her aunt, Sonia Lyders.
“Ever since I was 17, when I started working at TV3, it has been in the back of my mind that one day I would love to read the six o’clock news,” says Sam, who has presented Newshub Late, Newsworthy, 3D and Nightline. “I had to stop and take stock of the situation and I needed my family to do that.
“I spoke to Mum and Dad about it a lot. It was a really good balance – Dad is a real hard-arse, so he was all about making sure I got the best possible deal, whereas Mum’s opinion was, ‘You’ve always wanted this, this is your moment, come to an agreement as quickly as possible,’ and Sonia just said, ‘We love you, we are so proud of you and whatever you decide is the right thing.’”
Afterwards, she also called the mentors who helped shape her career – former TV3 bureau chief, Gordon McBride, and former head of news, Mark Jennings.
“Back when I was presenting Nightline, Mark and I had a meeting at a café, and he wrote down on a napkin what he thought the course of my career might be like to get to this job. He asked me to do jobs that would build up my credibility – reporting experience and studio experience – so I would be ready to step into the role when it became available. These jobs don’t come around very often – and there is a certain amount of being in the right place at the right time. Luckily it has worked out for me.”
Alongside presenting the news, Sam will continue doing news stories – a stipulation she made on taking the job. If she is surprised by the appointment so early in her career, her family are not. Asked to describe their daughter growing up, they speak of a driven, independent child, who has always embraced the opportunities that have come her way.
When we arrive at Aunt Sonia’s welcoming farmhouse, it is humming with people. A large group sits around a long table, sharing lunch. Sam says this is a regular occurrence – the farm has an open-door policy for neighbours, farm workers, family and friends.
It’s a core part of what she loves about Milton and Lawrence, where “the people down the road aren’t just your neighbours, they are people you really care about”.
The flame-haired presenter was ensconced in the outdoors from day dot – Paul and Sheena (who are at the farm to meet The Weekly) made sure of it. What they didn’t have in money they made up for in time spent with their children, Clinton, Sam and Katie.
“Sam was always on the go, she never stopped,” says Sheena, a calm, steady woman who grew up on a sugar cane farm in South Africa and came to Milton with Paul when Sam was 16 months old and Clinton was four years old. “She was really determined. I would put them in woollen hats, a Swanndri and boots and just let them go in the garden.”
Paul, who grew up in Milton, met Sheena during a 12-year stint away from the little town. The jovial, engaging man, who is happiest in the outdoors, says it took some extra effort to keep young Sam safe during their regular bush excursions.
“We used to dress Samantha in a little red-checked jacket that Sheena had made and we had a harness with a snap link on the end of it – to stop her plunging off steep bush tracks into the river!” says the 66-year-old retired logging contractor, with a hearty laugh.
“We would take the kids up the back of the forestry where I used to work, find a shunt road with good deep snow on it and plonk the barbecue right out there in the snow and cook sausages.”
“People thought we were daft,” Sheena, 61, says with a grin. “Paul would tow the kids in a canoe behind the car.”
“Sam was always the spokesperson if they wanted to go and do something,” Paul continues. “She would come and eyeball us and say, ‘It is time to go on a ‘nicnic’ (picnic).’ As soon as the van started up it would fill up with dogs and kids. We went off to the beach once with someone else’s child! We got halfway there and I went, ‘Who the hell are you?’ and they went, ‘This is such and such’– we had to take the little bugger back.”
The house was always full of animals – there were the family pets and Paul would bring home wild animals from his hunting excursions for the kids to play with.
“Sometimes we’d catch little pigs, and I’d bring home young possums and rabbits. We had a couple of goats too, but they would tear up the garden and bugger the roses!”
Then there were the horses on the farm.
“I remember the first time we put her on a Shetland pony called Taffy,” says Sheena. “We were down by the hay barn and she took off with Sam clinging to her – she just hung on.”
That was the beginning of Sam’s love affair with horses.
“She was five or six when she started coming up here,” says Sonia, 70, who ran children’s horse camps on the farm for 20 years.
“She was very quick to learn how to ride. She was a brilliant help; she could go out with a bunch of children and know exactly what horses they’d need. The kids loved her – she has this rapport with them and is able to relate to any age. My grandchildren just adore her.”
Sam says that relationship with horses shaped her childhood.
“They teach children responsibility,” she says. “You can’t slack off one day because you can’t be bothered – horses need to be fed and they need the right covers on.”
Sonia gave Sam her first horse, Ballerina, at seven and Sam took it upon herself to visit all the neighbouring farmers to ask if she could ride her through their paddocks.
“I know how to shut the gate,” she told them. There have been many others since – “Danny Boy, High-Jinks, Pepsi, Zach, Jemima, Calypso, Dawn, and Spud (show name Leonardo),” she reels off.
Sam has a special bond with Sonia, who is like a second Mum.
“Sonia is amazing. She doesn’t take any shit but she is one of the kindest, most extraordinary women I know.”
Because of her experience, Sam was often given the most difficult horses to ride. Although she took on the task with gusto, she admits to feeling something very different.
“I don’t know if I have ever told anyone this, but for years I was terrified of horses. I feigned being confident – I used to get so nervous at breakfast thinking, ‘I’ve got to ride Whitney and Whitney has just had her foal weaned and she kicks other horses and I might fall off,’ but I would just get on and do it.”
She says the ‘fake it till you make it attitude’ got her through.
“Mum and Dad have always said, ‘You can do anything if you put your mind to it,’ and I guess I heard that enough times that it sunk in.”
It is testament to her parents’ support that her mother encouraged Sam’s hobby despite being allergic to horses herself.
“She spent my entire childhood with me down at the paddock, at one-day events, at the showjumping and dressage champs. She was amazing. She’d get really stuffed up and take antihistamines – it can’t have been pleasant!”
Sam says it’s difficult to imagine bringing up her own kids in the city.
“It is idealistic, but if I have kids I want them to have the same upbringing as I did. Maybe I need to buy some land out west [Auckland] and commute.”
As well as the farm, there were outdoor adventures city kids can only dream of.
“When I was in primary school, my Uncle Richard would drop Dad, my brother and I in Fiordland and fly away (in a helicopter).
"Dad would say, ‘Just follow me, don’t stand on any twigs, try not to make noise,’ and he would shoot a couple of deer and then we would sit on the side of the hill and wait for Richard to pick us up. During that time Dad would talk to us about the different trees, native birds, and what you might do if you were stuck out here overnight.”
It’s yet another contrast that Sam, who could beat all the boys at school in shooting and was a fabulous fisherwoman, became vegetarian at 10 or 11 – she says that was born from the deep respect for living creatures her dad instilled in her.
“Dad believes if you are going to shoot something then you’d better be eating it – it is not okay to be shooting something for the sake of it. If he gets a few trout, he’ll smoke them and take them to people around town. He is always filling up people’s freezers.”
Although work demands mean Sam must be in the city, she’d love to live rurally.
“I have to be in Auckland because that is where the studio is, but if I could beam the news up from somewhere in South Otago I probably would do that.”
And while she is dedicated to her career, she has on numerous occasions dropped everything and flown to her family. She was at her father’s bedside when he was diagnosed with cancer, late 2014 (he has since recovered) and when her Uncle Ross (Sonia’s husband) died from cancer she left TV3 for weeks to be with her family.
She got the news while at Cape Kidnappers doing a story on a takahe breeding programme. He’d been sick for some time, and Sam had been manning the Dunedin office for TV3 as much as possible so she could spend time with him. But the news still came as a deep shock.
“We were coming down off the cliffs when my phone started beeping and I had this news that Rossy had passed away. I opened the door and jumped out of the moving vehicle, sat in the ditch and just lost it.” She stops, choking up at the memory. “My poor cameraman took me to the airport and I came straight here. TV3 was amazing because I didn’t go back to work for two or three weeks.
“Rossy would have loved this,” she says of our magazine team visiting the farm. “He would have loved that the farm he spent his whole life working on was being showcased.”
She admits her emotions run close to the surface, a trait that annoys her, but reminds her she’s staying real.
“As much as I get frustrated that I get upset so easily I don’t ever want to change that, because it is who I am and it is my measure that I haven’t become hardened.”
It's easy to look at Samantha Hayes, with her beauty, brains and poise and wonder what she can’t do. Add in her composure on national television, her already impressive background in news and current affairs at just 32, and the stunning outfits she is seen wearing in the social pages – and it’s hard not to feel a little inferior. You might even wonder if there is a human behind that well-polished machine.
Until you meet the off-air, away-from-the-spotlight Sam – the warm woman who laughs easily and makes self-deprecating jokes, the sensitive person, the down-to-earth, horse-mad girl who describes herself as being a ‘country bumpkin’ when she came to Auckland at the age of 22.
“I have many, many weaknesses,” she says. “I don’t do enough exercise, I drink too much at times (not to the point that it is dangerous or anything, but you know!). And I have a to-do list as long as my arm with things that have been there for six months.
“If you look at people’s life on paper – or on their social media – it is really easy to think, ‘Oh wow, doesn’t everyone have a fabulous life.’ That is not the case. Everyone has days or weeks that are not going to plan, and quite often things get derailed.”
The comment is poignant because Sam has recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend, cameraman Hayden Aull. She speaks highly of Hayden and wants to be respectful of his privacy – but she admits the break-up was tough, and she leaned on her friends and work.
Work? How does one get in front of the camera when feeling fragile? That’s when we glimpse the woman who left home and school at 16 to do a journalism course and during her internship at TV3 got a rock star to admit to being an alcoholic in her first on-air interview.
“We all have our good days and bad days, and sometimes the last thing I feel like doing is sitting in the studio in front of that camera,” she says. “But I’ve learned over the years to treat the doorway into the studio as a sort of portal and I just leave everything else at the door.”
Many of Sam's family are present during our day on the farm – her 14-year-old cousin Jake is zooming around on a farm bike, the picture of rural freedom, and another cousin, Nadia, 16, is sponging up the work of the photographer and make-up artist, wondering if she would like to do that sort of work one day.
“It is so surreal, in a way, to be back at the farm at 32 creating these photos,” says Sam, who has been posing for our ‘glamour in the paddock’ shots in a full-length gown, sitting on a horse. “I think if I could have told myself when I was Nadia’s age that this might happen one day I just would not have believed it – because being on television is not what I dreamed about.
“They used to say at high school, ‘What are you going to be?’ and I thought, ‘I’ll be an accountant,’ because I was okay at maths and I had no idea what the options were.”
Sam says Tokomairiro High School’s small size contributed to her success.
“If I’d been at a massive school, I don’t think I’d have had the opportunities or one-on-one time with my teachers, who really cared about us. When opportunities came up you genuinely had a shot at them.”
Like the week-long journalism course at Aoraki School of Media that sparked her interest in broadcasting. Her teacher suggested she try it and the tutors encouraged her to apply for the full diploma the following year.
Her parents said, no way, she was too young to leave home and she had to complete seventh form, but with some persuasion they agreed that if she was accepted (an unlikely possibility given it was mostly for post-grads) she could go.
“I got in and, bless them, they stuck to their word and let me go – that involved leaving home and getting a flat in Dunedin at 16,” Sam recalls.
Paul admits it was hard when Sam first left home, as he missed their robust conversations and shared humour. He also says it was nerve-wracking when he first watched his daughter on the telly.
“Yeah, you think, ‘Woo, what’s that kid doing on there, don’t stuff it up!’” Sheena, however, had no qualms. “I loved it – I knew she was capable of it!”
Sam’s determination is perhaps best summed up in a horse tale. She recalls a childhood horse-riding championship where she just had to complete the cross-country course to win. But it was a wet day, and her horse Leonardo (Spud) was scared of the upcoming water jump.
“We came towards the water complex and he slipped and crushed my foot into the ground. I thought he had broken my bone. Because it wasn’t near a fence I was still clear and didn’t get any demerit points.”
Unable to put her injured foot in a stirrup, she got back on and rode with just one.
“The next jump was the water complex and I thought, ‘I am definitely going to end up drenched,’ but he went through it! We won, but I wasn’t there to get my prize because I had to go straight to A&E. Mum had just bought me new boots and they had to cut them off, because my foot was so swollen.”
It’s this ability to face her fears that has got Sam through crises of confidence and seen her tackle one challenge after another. When she first started at Nightline in 2007, Mike McRoberts asked her what she wanted to do, and she said, ‘current affairs’.
“He said, ‘You can do that,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, I absolutely can’t do that, I would have no idea how to!’” Six years later when she was offered her first current affairs role on 3rd Degree, she turned the job down – still concerned she couldn’t do it.
“[Journalist] Mel Reid bailed me up in the carpark and said, ‘I heard you turned down the job on our show,’ and I said, ‘Mel, I don’t know how to do what you do! I am too young.’ She said, ‘Don’t you tell me that you are too young,’ and gave me a right telling off. The next day I called and said, ‘Okay, I am going to do it.’ I was still terrified but I thought, well, if they are going to let me give it a try I am going to sponge up as much as I can from these people.”
A year later she was co-presenting the show. Now she has come full circle to sit next to veteran Mike in the six o’clock news hot seat. This feels like I am doing what I have been working towards for a very long time.”
But she says while reading the news feels natural, there is a long way to go before she will feel the coveted title is fully hers.
“If we have a chat in a year or two, then I might tell you I feel like the six o’clock newsreader, but right now I feel like I have to earn my stripes. Hilary has left incredibly big shoes to fill and it is going to take time to feel I belong in the role and that the audience thinks I’ve earned it.”
At home, her family are certain she is up for the challenge.
“She’s never backed off,” Paul says of his daughter. “If a problem confronted her and it was something she wanted to do, she would never take the easy way out.”
His nerves have subsided now when he watches Sam present the news.
“I will turn to Sheena as she signs off and say, ‘Nailed it!’” he says with palpable pride. “She didn’t put one foot wrong.”
Words: Nicola Russell