For more than 20 years she has been a familiar face – and voice – on our tellies. And while she's featured in numerous ad campaigns over the years, there's one ad Suzanne Paul has fronted that she's never been able to watch.
The much loved Brit-turned-proud-Kiwi is "mad daft" about animals, so says that even the thought of watching one of her ads for Save Animals from Experimentation, which highlight animal cruelty, is too much for her to cope with.
"As soon as I hear it come on telly, I shut my eyes and yell at my husband to turn it off. I just can't bear it," she admits.
But although it causes her discomfort, it's certainly not a cause Suzanne has turned a blind eye to. She admits she has barely slept in the nights leading up to her photoshoot with the Weekly, haunted by stories of animals being subjected to cosmetic testing that she read about for her ambassador work for SAFE.
Suzanne says she thought it was important to learn about what really goes on, in order to help put a stop to animal testing in New Zealand.
"I've been doing my research and there really isn't any need for us to be testing on animals – certainly not for household products, shampoos, cleaners or cosmetics – so we shouldn't be putting up with it. It's a barbaric and cruel practice."
Cuddling close to her newfound furry friends – a pair of rescued rabbits – on our set, Suzanne says it's up to all New Zealanders to make a difference so animals like these two aren't harmed or even killed for the sake of an outdated practice. "I feel like it's everybody's responsibility," she says, "because animals don't have the voice."
It's why she jumped at the chance to be an ambassador for a new smartphone app SAFE has launched, SAFE Shopper, to help shoppers on the go identify whether products have been tested on animals, so they can make more informed shopping decisions.
Suzanne is herself a staunch supporter of brands that do not test on animals and is proud to see that it is the direction many New Zealand and international brands are going.
But SAFE reports that, although New Zealand is on the brink of banning cosmetic testing on animals, an average of nearly 300,000 animals are tested on each year. Although these range from dogs to deer, it's rabbits and rats that form the majority of the number.
While many of us would sniff at the mere idea of rats, Suzanne is happy to rub noses with them on our set, saying the only creatures that make her skin crawl are spiders. "They're the only animal I just can't be dealing with," she admits. "I've held snakes and all sorts. I used to live next door to a fella who was an escapologist at the circus, and he had cages of all types of things for his acts. Once, he put a python through the window while I was having a bath, which I wasn't too pleased about."
Her love of animals has this year seen Suzanne – and her husband Duncan Wilson – take another big step, by becoming vegetarians. "We don't like to ram it down other people's throats, though," she says. "It's just a decision that we made because we no longer felt comfortable with eating meat. So far it's been fabulous. And my husband is a big, strong, rugby-playing guy, so if he can live off plants and still have plenty of energy and look good, then anyone can do it."
But it's her own love of animals that has made 2014 a difficult year for Suzanne. Her much-loved dog Walnut, who had been with her more than 14 years, passed away at the beginning of the year, leaving her devastated. "It broke my heart," she confides. "We had been together through so much and she'd been by my side during some dreadful times.
"Animals are so special. There was a stage in my life when I was terribly depressed and in such a bad way that I truly thought my husband would be better off without me. The only reason I didn't end my life was the dog. I thought, 'What will happen if I'm not there for her? She's old and might just die of a broken heart and I don't want to be on the other side watching that happen.' She saved my life on more than one occasion."
To Suzanne, Walnut was like family. "It's funny," she recalls, "I think back to when I was a child and all the other girls would talk about when they were grown-ups having babies, but I was always talking about when I would have animals."
When Walnut suddenly fell gravely ill, Suzanne made the difficult decision to be there for her in her last days, instead of travelling to Tauranga to be at her brother's wedding. "He completely understood. When I called him and said, 'I don't think I can come to your wedding,' he said, 'Walnut is your family, she's like your child – that's where you need to be.'"
But Suzanne says she's recently had some more joy in her life – she and Duncan have taken in a dog that needed a home while the owner got back on his feet. She's also found a great deal of comfort in her new work ventures – she's putting the final touches to a secret project and is excited that she will soon be able to reveal all. And one thing's for sure – there'll certainly be no animals harmed in the process.
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