Celebrity News

Sense of an ending: Tui McBeath

Tui McBeath was born in Invercargill in 1948. A former panellist on the TV show Beauty and the Beast, she talked to Hannah Sperber while in the end stages of motor neurone disease and died, days later, in Christchurch, on April 5.

What have you loved doing in your life?

Singing. I’m not a natural singer – I sing flat and don’t notice – but in 1999 I joined an a capella choir and how I loved it! Then, one dreadful night, the choir leader phoned me to say a member of the choir was concerned about my tunelessness: “Perhaps you could have some singing lessons?” She struggled to tell me I was no longer welcome in her choir – I had to help her articulate it.

But I found a singing tutor, Rachel Bayliss, who taught me during my work lunch breaks, and who invited me to sing in her all-female a capella choir. Hallelujah! I used to fly up the stairs on Thursday nights with my music folder under my arm, to be warmly greeted by the fabulous women who made up Women in Harmony.

I was an alto and as I stood in my place, hearing the harmonies and the beauty of our combined voices, the stresses of the day disappeared and I was transported. Singing was pure joy, a pleasure so profound.

Are you religious?

I was baptised and confirmed an Anglican, but after reading the Bible from cover to cover I decided I believed none of it. I was 14. I read widely and voraciously and my 14-year-old opinion has held firm as I’ve read scientific theories of evolution and the Big Bang. I face death with no expectation of everlasting life or meeting up with my family members who have died. It’d be lovely, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

What have you cared about most?

My weight and my appearance: too skinny, no boobs, too fat, fashion, make-up, jewellery. Looking my best has been something I have cared about all the way through and this will continue until my last day of life.

These are also the things I wish I had cared less about.

What has made you proud?

The births of my two children, without a doubt. I’m so proud of them – Annabel and Simon – and my two grandchildren, Enzo and Frankie. No question! Annabel was born when I was 28. In the hospital, they called me an “elderly primigravida”, which means old to be having a first baby.

How much has life changed for New Zealand women in your lifetime?

Hugely! My elder sisters wore handbags and gloves. As a 60s chick, I wore stretch trousers and miniskirts, and fell in love with the Beatles.

As I worked, travelled and grew into my adult self, I became a feminist. I could see women being treated as secondary and questioned why. I was forthright and gave my opinion freely and still do. There’s still a way to go in regard to women’s salaries and women on boards and as CEOs. I hope young feminists keep advancing.

Tui, around 23, after returning to New Zealand from living in Copenhagen, Paris and London, and backpacking through Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

You were a glamorous TV panellist in the 80s on Beauty and the Beast with Selwyn Toogood.

That was a wonderful experience that lasted five years. I used to forget the national audience, and answer viewers’ letters as freely as if the cameramen and my fellow panellists were the only people listening. So it came as a surprise when my family and I went on holiday and I was recognised the length of the country. It was a programme ahead of its time as we discussed subjects that had been taboo.

What was a memorable career moment?

I was a foundation staff member in the Koru Lounge. One late night, I thought there were no guests left, I was tired and had sore feet. The last flight was ready for boarding, and because I had no guests, I picked up the microphone, announced the flight…“and would you gin-swilling motherfuckers get your arses on board right now”.

The horror of my life: three heads popped up from behind a couch.

What was a low point in your life?

I was at my lowest ebb in 1987 when my first marriage was breaking down. I remember driving to the gym and as I approached the railway crossing with the red lights flashing and the barrier arms down, the temptation to end my life by smashing into a fast-moving train was briefly very real. But I made it to the gym, and exercise became my way of dealing with a divorce.

What would you do if you had five more years up your sleeve?

Live life to the max! Tell people I love them, celebrate something every day, paint more, sing more, and write more. I don’t think I could laugh more than I always have.

Any good laughs lately?

I’ve had so many good laughs. I have laughed so hard I’ve peed my pants on numerous occasions. I’ve had fits of the giggles often, sometimes inappropriately. My friend Ann Lockhart recently pretended to be a submissive wife when her husband came home. She kept it going for quite a while and I was struggling to breathe as I doubled over with laughter.

It was so not her usual way of relating to her husband, Blyth… We were beside ourselves laughing at her fawning antics.

Above: Tui, about 40, on the set of Beauty and the Beast with mother Gwen Fox and host Selwyn Toogood.

What has romance meant to you?

I love romance! I am romantic and I love hearing about others’ romances. When I met my second husband [Don McBeath], it was a whirlwind: red roses from him to me and from me to him. Courtship, hand-holding, home-cooked meals interrupted by the need to dance slowly together.

Restaurant meals with beautiful wines, tram rides, long walks; we swept each other off our feet. Within three months we were married. Nineteen years on, I don’t think I’d sleep if I didn’t hear him say, “I love you.”

How do you feel about being at the end of your life?

I think this is something we all wonder about. I’m sad to be leaving my wonderful husband, my awesome children and grandchildren, all of my family and my fabulous friends. Otherwise, I’m at peace and feel calm about approaching death. I have had a rich and full life and for that, I am thankful.

I leave behind a legacy in my children, my paintings and stories of my memories. MND [motor neurone disease] is incurable and always fatal. It is slowly and inexorably locking the essential me inside a body that doesn’t work and a brain that is as it always was.

How would you do things the same or differently if you had your life over?

I’d change nothing at all. Je ne regrette rien!

Tui McBeath refused nutrition and hydration from March 28 and died on April 5. She was very open about her decision and extremely passionate that a better, doctor-assisted option should be available.

Words by Hannah Sperber

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