MAFS NZ James and Sam: ‘Cruelty has made us stronger’

The MAFS sweethearts have bonded over the groom's sad past.

It was clear from the get-go that Married at First Sight NZ’s James Hunt and Samantha Best were made for each other. Almost immediately after meeting for the first time at their tropical wedding in Vanuatu, they dived deep into the big issues, including personal health matters.

James’ sensitivity around his sleep apnoea came up for discussion, before Sam admitted to suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. It certainly wasn’t romantic, but it set the tone for what would become a relationship of openness, honesty and empathy – just some of the many values they share.

Just married!

“Early on, we realised there were so many things that aligned for us both,” says James, 31. “We had open conversations both on and off camera about our struggles and how we feel, and it created a really safe environment that just continued to blossom.”

In “Confessions Week”, the Christchurch schoolteacher admits he’s struggled with self-esteem throughout his life, to which Sam, 26, responds with compassion.

James reveals it was a combination of events that led to him eventually being unable to look at himself in the mirror.

“It started when I was young,” recalls the British-born groom. “I was good at sports, but whatever I did just wasn’t good enough. That started a rollercoaster of self-esteem issues.”

Over the years, James noticed his friends were getting into long-term relationships, but for him, nothing stuck.

James helped Sam conquer her fear of water.

“I’ve always been the one who gets put to the side by women. I get on with them for a short amount of time, then they just decide, ‘Nah, sorry.’ Some have been very blunt and said, ‘You’re just not good-looking enough.’”

Bullied in school because of his weight, James’ experiences followed him into adulthood, when he developed a turbulent relationship with his body. When he moved to New Zealand, he weighed 112kg.

“There have been quite a few comments over the years about the way I look, like my nose, from people I’ve dated,” he tells. “It sounds so stupid, but it really affected me. I was in a relationship when I was asked to come to New Zealand, but then that ended and I couldn’t go home because of COVID. That was when my weight-loss journey really began.”

James started eating well and going to the gym regularly. It was around this time he also started going to counselling and seeing a life coach.

“My self-esteem was at rock bottom,” says James.

“It got to a point where I accepted that I needed help and just wanted to change because I wasn’t enjoying life at the time.”

But getting to that point wasn’t easy. “I used to shut off quite a lot. I describe it as putting myself in this little imaginary box in my head and just shutting off from the world. But I realised that if I want to meet somebody and do something like go on MAFS, then I’ve got to be open and vulnerable.”

Sam admits she has fallen for James.

It’s something that his bride, Auckland influencer and mum Sam, appreciates about James, but his Confessions Week speech shocked her at the time.

She admits, “It was heartbreaking to hear that someone I really care about and am falling for was ever spoken to like that by women – I don’t think anyone should ever have to hear that.

You could see how much it affected him in his life and how insecure he was. It really impacted him.”

James’ ability to open up about his struggles made both him and Sam feel safe enough to continue being honest with each other. Sam even talked about some of the issues she has with her own body, since the birth of her son Kaelin six years ago.

“It was great to hear her open up,” says James. “I was a bit surprised to hear her say she felt that way considering she’s a content creator and has to put herself out there for work, but when you’re always on the internet, you’re constantly reminded of how you look.”

However, Sam hasn’t experienced anything near what James has, she insists.

“People being so cruel to others is just horrible. But at the same time, I was so proud of him – the fact he’s been working through it and has realised those things are just other people’s opinions.”

And James says Sam’s support has meant a lot to him. Smiling, he confesses, “There was a time off camera when Sam came to me and gave me a massive hug. She said, ‘If there’s any time you want to talk about anything, I’m here.’

That moment made me feel so good, like, ‘Right, I can open up to this person. This is someone I can trust.’”

Married At First Sight New Zealand airs Sunday-Tuesday or you can stream on ThreeNow.

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