Celebrity Treasure Island’s Karen O’Leary ‘this hits so close to home’

The Kiwi comedian opens up about finding fame, her long-distance romance and the family trauma that drives her

She’s world-famous for her role on cult comedy Wellington Paranormal and is now starring on hit reality series Celebrity Treasure Island, but until just a few years ago, Karen O’Leary spent her days dealing with toddlers and tantrums at a kindergarten.

“It was something I was very passionate about for 21 years and I’ll always feel like early childhood education is something I can go back to,” she says of her former occupation.

“The only reason I left was because it was getting logistically difficult having two full-time jobs.”

Karen’s second career, in entertainment, came about when the mother of one of her kindy kids, a casting director, insisted she audition for the 2014 vampire flick What We Do In The Shadows, directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.

Despite being incredibly hungover for her screen test, Karen’s comedic timing was obvious and she was cast in a small role as Officer O’Leary. But she and co-star Mike Minogue made such an impact on the big screen, they landed their own spin-off series, Wellington Paranormal, in 2018.

Karen with her Wellington Paranormal co-stars Mike (left) and Maaka Pohatu.

“Having the same name definitely made it easier because I never got my name or my character’s name wrong,” quips Karen, 44, adding that her chemistry with Mike made the show “just so fun” to shoot. “It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve met some incredible people.”

The Kiwi comedy became a global sensation after it was picked up in the US last year, with many new fans raving that it helped them get through lockdown.

Karen tells, “I get so many random messages on Instagram and Twitter. Just this morning, I got one from someone saying, ‘Hi, I do your Spanish voiceover in Spain. I love your work!’

“It’s nice that a light-hearted show from humble beginnings has a following overseas, especially because it deals with some significant issues, like my sexuality or the use of te reo Māori. It sends a good message about what New Zealanders value.”

The fourth and final season of Wellington Paranormal screened last March. Karen says, “It was really bittersweet, but all good things come to an end.”

And she’s still mates with Taika, even though he’s now a Hollywood superstar. “I saw him a while back at a café and we had a lovely hug. We don’t text, but if he has a party, I will go to it.”

Karen was hesitant about appearing on reality TV, saying she sometimes struggles with “the messages it sends out”, but she notes that CTI features a “diverse range of people trying to raise money for good causes” and she’s proud to represent the rainbow community.

Playing peacemaker on Celebrity Treasure Island.

Growing up, Karen was a keen cricketer, but she ended up quitting the sport in her early teens due to internalised homophobia. She recalls, “I had this overwhelming fear that a lot of the team were potentially lesbians, which was unjustified. It was obviously something that was confronting to me because I knew that was the kind of person I was, but I wasn’t ready to acknowledge it yet.”

Fortunately, when she came out as gay, the process was painless, especially with her parents, Steve and Ann. “I don’t want to belittle my journey because I know it’s very difficult for some, but my family was incredibly lovely. When I told my mum and dad that I was seeing a woman, they said, ‘We know, dear.'”

Karen is now in a relationship with saxophonist Eilish Wilson, who has been studying for a Master of Fine Arts degree in California, which has meant long chunks of long-distance romance.

“It’s challenging and we have to spend a lot of hours on FaceTime, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I can’t not be supportive of that – it also means I get an excuse to go on holiday to LA.”

On a recent visit, the couple rented a cabin in the nearby ski resort of Bear Mountain.

“We played Scrabble, cooked a barbecue in the freezing snow and had the best of times,” says Karen, who also shares son Melvyn with a former partner.

Smile, I dare you! With son Melvyn and girlfriend Eilish.

She confirms the 10-year-old is following in her funny footsteps with his “dry sense of humour”, but she adds, “He’s also very good-looking, which I can’t claim because he doesn’t have any of my DNA.”

On Treasure Island, Karen is playing for the Wellington charity Mary Potter Hospice. She explains, “I’ve done a bit of fundraising with them in the past, including a dinner where I auctioned off Ashley Bloomfield, but I’ve also got a dad who has terminal cancer, so that brings it close to home for me.

Keeping her ill dad’s spirits up.

“He’s finished his chemo, but he’s got his ups and downs. He’s not knocking on death’s door, but it’s not going away. He’s just living each day the best he can. We still go to the pub, have a beer and bet on the horses.”

Karen wants to do him proud by getting as far on Treasure Island as she can – and she reckons her experience with young children will help her get the better of her celebrity competitors. She grins, “Dealing with these guys is an absolute piece of cake compared to hanging out with 35 toddlers, I can tell you that!”

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