Dancing With The Stars star David Letele’s secret weapon

The dedicated community leader reveals how his family keeps him strong after struggles with mental and physical health

Their wedding song was much like his boxing career – brief. David Letele, aka Brown Buttabean, was dreading all eyes being on him when he had his first dance with wife Koreen. He’s thankful their

boy Fabian cut in only a few bars into Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together.

But now the Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year and Today FM host is taking to the dancefloor in front of more than a million Kiwis on Dancing With The Stars NZ – and this time, he can’t be saved by his son!

“It’s a common misconception that people in the boxing game have good footwork,” the 42-year-old tells Woman’s Day during our photoshoot at his West Auckland home. “They think I should be a good dancer, but I wasn’t even a good boxer – I just worked really hard! I’ve never been a dancer. If forced to, I’d do the robot!”

After losing custody of his sons, it was Dave’s mission to get his boys back – and he did with Koreen’s help.

Dave is now rehearsing between 15 and 18 hours a week with his dance partner Kristie Williams.

“It’s full-on,” says the dad-of-four. “Everything I do is for my family, but what I’m doing at the moment is taking me away from my family. I’m lucky I have Koreen, but we don’t have any time for each other.”

Fighting against both poverty and obesity, Dave is a social entrepreneur and the leader of the large-scale bootcamp programme Buttabean Motivation (BBM), which has two gyms in Auckland, with another opening in Tokoroa soon.

Thanks to DWTS pro Kristie, the ex-boxer’s finding his groove.

Inspired by Dave’s 90kg weight loss, BBM provides a lifeline for severely overweight people wanting to turn their lives around. He also runs an Auckland community kitchen for impoverished families.

“It’s what I do every day, from morning to night,” he says of his work. “I wake up inundated with a tonne of messages and calls for help. I’m lucky I have a great wife. Without her running the house, it wouldn’t be possible. We’re a team.”

While dancing is way out of his comfort zone, Dave is stepping into the ballroom in order to raise the profile of Just Move, the charity that oversees all his philanthrophy.

“Our family is blessed that we own a home and that we’re not stressed about money,” he shares. “But only a few years ago, we were in a sleepout with no kitchen – me, Koreen and three of our boys.”

The pair met when Dave was, by his own admission, “in bad shape physically and even worse mentally”. Then living in Australia, he’d lost custody of his three sons and was incredibly overweight when an old school friend, Joseph Parker’s boxing promoter David Higgins, became so worried about Dave’s mental health, he flew him back to New Zealand to get help.

With sons (from left) Tavita, Brook and William.

“My relationship broke up, which was my own fault,” confesses Dave. “I’d always think about my son Tavita – when I left, he gave me a look like he knew he wouldn’t see me for a long time. It still gives me nightmares. I was crying myself to sleep every night, but I used that as fuel. I wanted to be better for them and get them back.”

Under David’s wing, Dave joined a gym and lost 32 kilos from his 210kg frame. He then accompanied his friend to Germany to watch Joseph fight.

“I was a massive guy with tattoos and a shaved head, and the boxers all wanted to see what I weighed. I did too because any time I jumped on scales at home, it always said ‘error’. I was 178 kilos.

They were like, ‘Oh, man, this guy is so fat!’ but I was going, ‘Yeah, I’m the man. I’ll take on anyone!'”

David nicknamed him the Brown Buttabean after larger-than-life US boxer Buttabean and it was after a warm-up fight for Joseph back in Aotearoa, seven years ago, that he posed for a photo with Koreen. After she tagged him on social media, he messaged her straightaway. “Meeting Koreen was a godsend because it just gave me some happiness,” he grins.

Koreen, now 37, had her own hair and makeup salon in Parnell, Auckland. She recalls, “I didn’t understand why this guy always wanted to come to my house, but then I stayed at his and I realised why.

He’d told me he had no money, but I just figured everybody says they’re broke!”

Dave was living in a community home in Clendon Park, alongside convicted rapists and murderers, but Koreen quickly fell for the big guy with the even bigger heart. “Dave was different from other guys,” she explains. “We were brought up differently, but we had the same values.”

Marrying soulmate Koreen in 2017.

Indeed, Dave’s community work is a far cry from the life of his father, who was a patched gang member at 13 and went on to become president of the Auckland Mongrel Mob. Back then, Letele was a name to be feared.

His younger sister struggled with meth, says Dave sadly, and his older sister, “the best of all of us”, was jailed for fraudulently helping low-income families get home loans that also benefited her financially.

While in prison, she got stomach cancer and Dave successfully campaigned for her release on compassionate grounds. She died six months later. “She really suffered from the actions of our surname.

My father was a mobster, a bank robber.”

It gives Dave shivers when we point out that his charity work has now made the Letele name something his kids can be proud of. “It’s amazing to think it’s now something positive.”

Five years ago, with the help of Koreen, Dave got full custody of his sons William, 20, Tavita, 16, and Fabian, 13 – and the couple now also share four-year-old son Brook.

“My three oldest boys aren’t hers biologically, but she loves them as her own, which is so special,” Dave smiles.

Dave’s new moves are a hit with Koreen!

No day starts without him kissing Koreen goodbye and telling her he loves her. She says, “Dave’s a superhero, a loving dad, a selfless provider and a giant teddy bear.”

Koreen has loved watching her husband rehearse for Dancing With The Stars and is shocked at how much he’s improved in a few short weeks. “I’m like a dance mom,” she laughs. “I always wanted a daughter to learn dancing and now I’ve got Dave!

“I was scared when he said he was signing up. The first time I saw him dance, Kristie was like, ‘OK, Dave, go down on your knee, turn around and pop back up,’ and he replied, ‘I can’t do that – I’ve had nine knee operations!’ But just one week on, they looked so good together!”

And Dave admits he’s surprising himself, adding, “I’ve got more rhythm now than I had when we started. I like the waltz because I just stay stiff like a door, which suits my style!”

Irrespective of his dance rehearsals and long hours running BBM, Dave is determined to keep Saturdays free for his family – be it an impromptu road trip or an outing to the pools. However,

a recent planned brunch had to be canned because Dave was so exhausted, he didn’t wake up until 2pm.

Even on the day of this interview, the Māori-Samoan star is tired from spending the previous night helping a man buy essentials for his blind, deaf and autistic son.

“That money would otherwise have gone on my mortgage, but I get paid good money for public speaking, so I can do that,” he says. “It’s better it goes to their family. It’s going to bring a lot of good. It’s my purpose to help other people. It’s an urge.”

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