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Why Heather du Plessis-Allan doesn't regret that gun story

NEXT sits down with Story host Heather du Plessis-Allan to talk new beginnings and why she has no regrets over that controversial gun story.

NEXT meets Heather du Plessis-Allan, presenter of TV3’s Story, in her Mt Eden apartment in Auckland.
“It’s what one would call a studio apartment,” says du Plessis-Allan in a faux posh accent once we’re inside.
The place itself looks rather basic. One bed, one bathroom, one table. And one very large portrait of recently reinstated Minister of Corrections Judith Collins, in which she has Day of the Dead-esque blue eyes painted on her closed eyelids.
The portrait, which the presenter bought at an auction, lies on the bed, but 31-year-old du Plessis-Allan plans to hang it above the bed in due course.
Her husband, journalist Barry Soper, wasn’t keen on it taking up wall space in their Wellington apartment so for now it’s almost quite convenient the presenter has moved to Auckland. Well, partially.
Since being headhunted by TV3 to co-present current affairs show Story along-side Duncan Garner, du Plessis-Allan has had to reorganise her life, now splitting her week between Wellington and Auckland.
Leaving Wellington on Monday morning, she spends three nights in Auckland before returning to Wellington on Thursday night. On Fridays she works from their Wellington office. Logistically – it’s not easy.
“Making the last flight on a Thursday is a mission. It’s at 8.30pm and I finish filming at 7.30,” she says.
“I missed the bag check-in this week because now the wardrobe lady has decided that I have to leave my clothing that I was wearing in the studio. I was being sneaky and running off,” she concedes.
“Now she’s like ‘oh no, get that off’. I’d had it down to a fine art where I could wear my jeans but just running upstairs and taking my top off and putting another top on takes so much extra time. So it is so tight.”
There are other issues too. She has had to buy two sets of everything: two moisturisers, two toothbrushes and is currently running two sets of wardrobes.
“For the first time in his life my husband has more clothes in the wardrobe than me,” she quips.
Du Plessis-Allan has been making the weekly commute since August last year when the newly formatted Story launched in the 7pm spot previously held by the revered John Campbell.
They’re big shoes to fill – and recent ratings show the average audience for the series to date is 188,400. But according to Throng Media, in October 2014 Story was delivering smaller audiences than even Campbell Live did at its worst the year before, with 10,000 fewer people watching it than its predecessor.
This means it’s sliding even further behind the 7pm time-slot front-runner, TV One’s Seven Sharp, which is worrying given current affairs programming is looking increasingly like an endangered species, both globally and in New Zealand.
Fronting a current affairs show was never the grand plan. Having been a broadcast journalist for over a decade, du Plessis-Allan was well versed in general reporting before becoming the roving reporter on Seven Sharp.
In 2014 she landed her dream job as TVNZ’s political reporter. But when TV3 called, she sat up and took notice. So did her TVNZ boss, who busted her in her meetings with TV3’s Duncan Garner and head of news Mark Jennings.
“I moved because you don’t get an opportunity like this very often. These jobs don’t come up,” she says. “I don’t think you can turn down an offer like this because it is such a fantastic opportunity – and it’s a really interesting challenge.”
Happy with her decision to jump ship to the competition, she was still nervous about the transition from being a working journalist to a studio presenter – especially with a show that’s only half an hour.
“I’ve done [presenting] before and it can be unsatisfying – I didn’t enjoy it. So when TV3 agreed that I’d be able to report and present – I was sold. You get the best of both worlds because you can go out and meet people, construct stories, and still get your hands dirty,” she says.
“You can’t be a journalist and be across everything unless you’re out there understanding issues and making phone calls – that’s the only way to keep in it.”
The presenter knows how to keep in it, making headlines herself late last year for a story she did on New Zealand’s lax gun laws. Testing the theory to see if she could buy a gun online by filling out a form with bogus police details she soon received a .22 calibre sporting rifle in the post. It was that easy.
However, the experiment landed her in hot water with police, who investigated forgery and “obtaining by deception” charges – crimes carrying maximum sentences of 10 years and seven years respectively. They have since opted not to charge her, following the investigation, during which they searched her Wellington apartment for handwriting samples.
TV3’s owner MediaWorks has stuck by the show and du Plessis-Allan, saying it was in the public interest to expose a “flaw in the mail-order gun system”.
Police have since changed the mail-order system for gun purchases. Du Plessis-Allan maintains she stands by the story.
“The fact that anyone – of any age, of any character and of any stability – could buy a gun with only a pen, paper and the available cash is very concerning. Nothing about that is okay,” she says.
Sitting with her Story co-presenter Duncan Garner.
But although it’s a win for the intrepid journalist, the ramifications are very real.
“My mum keeps asking me what’s going to happen next. I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night worrying,” she says.
“I respect the law and – apart from the odd speeding fine – I don’t think I’ve ever been in trouble with it before. So, this is unusual and uncomfortable. I have to keep reminding myself why I’m in this position and that’s because our programme had the courage to do our jobs.”
Du Plessis-Allan comes across as smart, hardworking and down to earth. Her face is animated and she genuinely seems interested in what others are saying.
She is just 31 years old but has a quiet maturity that leads you to believe she’s been around for a lot longer. Perhaps it’s being married to Soper, more than 30 years her senior – an age-gap big enough to send tongues wagging when they first got together.
People said it would never last but they recently had their sixth wedding anniversary, celebrating with cupcakes made by Soper himself. Her husband was one of her biggest considerations when it came to taking the role on Story, she says.
“I spent a really long time thinking about the impact it would have on my marriage. One of the women who I worked with at TVNZ used to commute and said the difficult thing is that you spend all week apart and then you get together and you fight for the first night. And I thought ‘oh I don’t want that’ and actually that’s not how it worked out. I was relieved. Because you never know how it’s going to play out.”
The commute is working so well that du Plessis-Allan has got out of the cooking and cleaning when she’s there for her elongated weekend. And when she arrives home at 10pm on a Thursday night, bags in hand, Soper has got dinner ready and waiting for her.
“It is hard though. It’s hard when you talk to that person about everything and the only thing you can do is call them in the morning. My new thing is I go for a run in the morning and take a picture of wherever I am and send it to him. So he can be part of my morning. He’s got lots of pics from Mt Eden [where she runs]. They all look the same… but it’s the thought!”
With husband and news reporter Barry Soper.
Getting constantly asked about their age gap does annoy the presenter but she realises it’s just because they’re a bit different.
The other most hated question is babies – and whether or not she’s going to have them. She reckons it was in her late 20s when the cacophony of questions about having children reached fever pitch. So much so that she wrote a column about it.
“Maybe that killed it off,” she muses.
She wrote: “Apparently I’m now ready to be a mum. Apparently that happened when I turned 30. I know this because the not-so-subtle pressure to get knocked up started the very next day. I was a little surprised when I asked a colleague for career advice and got the response, 'Well, have you thought about having a baby instead?'"
But babies are very much in her future.
“I’m definitely clucky – all my friends are having babies. We had a baby shower on the weekend and I thought, ‘oh I’d like to have my own’. But I also think... well imagine if I had a child. I could not have taken this job. So I do think you know when you’ve got to a point and you’re like ‘right – now is the time for babies’. And I’m not there yet. I’m getting there. I used to say that I wasn’t mature enough for kids but I think I am now. I’ve kind of reached that point where I feel like a proper grown-up and I could do it without turning into a monster.”
She already has five grown-up step children from her marriage to Soper, and they range in ages from 18 to 33.
The presenter came to New Zealand from South Africa when she was 12.
Her South African mum, and English dad who grew up in New Zealand, met in Namibia. After their marriage broke up her mum married another Kiwi, so even before the big shift to New Zealand du Plessis-Allan was always aware of the place.
She still identifies herself as “a bit of both”, feeling more like an international citizen.
Du Plessis-Allan, referred to as ‘HDPA’ (her Twitter handle) by her co-host Garner, was interested in politics long before she realised journalism was her calling.
For a while she thought she’d quite like to be the prime minister and then perhaps a lecturer in political science, which she ended up studying. It was when she did some work experience at Wellington’s TV3 newsroom that she finally clicked.
The presenter – who’s also due to host a new RadioLIVE Sunday show this year – doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff either but she does believe it’s easier for women to be softer onscreen.
“It’s very hard to be a hard woman on telly… you have to soften yourself up a lot. People like nice people,” she says.
“The biggest problem for female broadcasters is the female audience. It’s the female audience who doesn’t like strong female broadcasters.”
That’s why she thinks it was a brave move by TV3 to choose her for Story.
“I warned them – which is not normally what you do in a job interview. I said, ‘Gosh, guys – you know it feels like a brave thing to do to put in a woman who isn’t reticent’. Mark Jennings [head of news at TV3] said to me, ‘We want to have a woman in there who is going to hold her own for women’. I’m encouraged by that.”
Du Plessis-Allan is relatively young to nab such a sought-after role but she’s non-chalant about it.
“Look at Toni [Street], she’s only 18 months older than me. If you look at the demographic of broadcasters, they’re generally young. Our oldest broadcaster on telly would probably be Susan Wood, and Susan isn’t an old lady so we tend to be staffed by younger people. Hopefully that will change so I still have a job when I’m 80.”
If her current work record is anything to go by, we’re sure we’ll see her on our screens for many years to come.
Words: Sarah Murray
Photos: Michael James Rooke, The New Zealand Herald/newspix.co.nz and supplied
Styling: Sonia Greenslade

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