Throughout his years playing brilliant rugby for the All Blacks, Zac Guildford's name often dominated headlines off the field. From a naked incident in Rarotonga to his struggles with alcohol and mental health, it's no wonder the sports star felt a little nervous stepping back into the spotlight on Celebrity Treasure Island.
But despite being the unlucky first castaway to be eliminated from the TVNZ 2 series, Zac says he has no regrets.
"I've had a few ups and downs on and off the field, so I guess putting myself back in the public eye was something I wasn't very confident about," he admits. "But I wanted to do it in a good light and show who I am away from rugby and the other stuff."
While he's still playing footy for his Ngati Porou East Coast team, the 30-year-old also works as a teacher aide helping students with special needs.
Easy-going Zac quickly became a fan favourite on Celebrity Treasure Island, while his Kahu teammates Sam Wallace and Eric Murray were branded the competitive bad boys of the series. "I've had some really positive feedback since leaving the show and I guess that's because I'm used to being a team player," explains Zac. "I wasn't out to win – I was just there to have a good time and be a good person."
"If I got far in the show that was a bonus, but others were really out there to win. They're stabbing people in the back to win, but I thought you could have done it in a more genuine, team way. I was just trying to be myself and it would have been nice to have a longer time."
While he says he forged a friendship with radio star and former weatherman Sam Wallace, it was his new buddy and captain who put him into the elimination challenge, which he ultimately lost to Matty McLean. But the sportsman isn't holding any grudges.
"I don't know if Sam did it on purpose, but I got to know him a lot both on and off the island, and he's a nice guy, so I'd like to believe the best in him."
And while saying goodbye so early on in the show was tough, Zac's glad he had the opportunity to bring awareness to the charity he was supporting on the show, UpsideDowns Education Trust. It's a cause close to his heart as his 19-year-old cousin Nesta has Down syndrome.
"It was a great cause to get behind – it gave me something bigger than myself to play for," he smiles.
"My cousin and I grew up together from day dot – our families are pretty close. We facetimed after the second episode and I asked him what he thought, and he was really embarrassed because I said his name, but I said, 'Mate, you don't need to be embarrassed – you're famous now!'
"But he was just saying how thankful he was and how I'm a great cousin for shedding light on himself and more importantly people with Down syndrome, so that was cool."
But the highlight of the entire show for Zac was the friendships he formed with many of his fellow celebrity castaways, including former Shortland Street star Karl Burnett and reality TV veteran Lily McManus.
"On and off the island I've stayed really close with Karl and Lily," enthuses Zac.
"I got to know them really well. Lily and I have similar personalities in terms of being the middle people in team yellow, and we weren't trying to form alliances. She's a genuine person and I get along with her really well."
Having grown up watching Karl on Shorty, Zac says he was a little "starstruck" when they first met, but they quickly formed a close bond. Seeing Karl leave the show early because of his struggles with his mental health was especially hard for Zac.
He explains, "I knew what he was going through because I've been through similar circumstances, like when I was in France playing rugby. Both times I've left early because I've missed family, and it's been way out of my comfort zone.
"I could relate to him straight away and it hit home. It made it that bit harder because Karl and I had gotten close over the time in Fiji and we've stayed close since we've gotten home too.
"We're pretty much in contact on the daily. We're similar people. Even though he's an actor and I'm a rugby player, we're the same deep down."
If you or someone you love is struggling with their mental health, phone Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or visit lifeline.org.nz.
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