Paddy Gower and Karen O’Leary are changing the face of news

As they get to the bottom of the nation’s issues, the TV pals are discovering things about each other

They’re both proud Generation Xers with a huge sense of social justice, who live in Wellington and have carved out careers in television.

But the most common thread in Paddy Gower and Karen O’Leary’s lives has been that for many years – in their different roles as a journalist and early childhood teacher respectively – they’ve fostered an easy connection with strangers, often becoming unlikely confidants.

That relatability and readily wanting to champion the underdog has always been part of their charm.

“To be honest, I think gaining people’s trust is a special gift I’ve been given,” explains the host of Three’s Paddy Gower Has Issues, a weekly show that investigates social issues such as bullying, obesity and cancer.

“When I was growing up, my mum was a receptionist at a doctor’s surgery, and people would always confide in her and she’d be helping them with their problems. She was a very empathetic, trustworthy person. So I get it from her.”

A Paddy-back ride and working with a legend – Karen can’t believe her luck!

It’s a sentiment which resonates with Karen too, whose role on the show is to bring a comical touch as community investigations reporter. Sadly, Karen’s father passed away recently, which meant she had to attend his funeral the day before the very first taping of the show.

“My dad was very much like Paddy’s mum. One of his special powers was he could talk to anybody… often slightly odd people. They would just be drawn to him. I’m the same. I know a lot of secrets about a lot of people,” she grins. “But I think it’s because I’m genuinely interested in them.”

Adds Paddy, “Yeah, I’ve been amazed at how people open up to Karen on screen. A TV vox pop is actually really hard to do in New Zealand. People are very shy. They see a camera and treat you like you’re looking for a donation for a terrorist group.

“But they’re not running away from Karen. When she goes out to talk to people in the street about ridiculous things, like what they’ve bought at the chemist, she has such a high hit rate.”

Paddy, 46, admits to even spying on his hilarious co-host in the early days of filming.

“When she first started – and I was really suspicious of whether she’d be any good or not – I’d sneak in and ask the camera crew, ‘So what’s she like, guys?’

“Everywhere I’d go, people would tell me, ‘Karen’s so good, Paddy. Sooo good.’ I was like, ‘Okay, okay, I get it already,'” he jokes, feigning mock jealousy.

Since being paired up for the current affairs show, the new mates say its concept is quite simple – come and have a yarn about your concerns with Paddy or Karen.

“Lots of people wondered what the heck I was up to, doing such a ‘boring’ topic like literacy for our first show,” he explains. “But I knew from mums – because mums have been the ones who have mainly been coming up to me for a long time – that there is a problem with the way we teach reading in this country. They said, ‘You’ve got to get to the bottom of it.'”

Of course, since the programme has aired, more members of the public are approaching them with different issues and the show’s email inbox is overflowing.

“There’s some incredibly strange, quirky stuff coming in,” shares Karen, who found fame playing Officer O’Leary in the internationally popular series Wellington Paranormal.

“One person wrote in and said he wanted his own postcode. He asked us to help him get one because he thought that would make NZ Post deliver the mail faster.”

For Karen, who grew up wanting to be a newsreader, joining the show is a “dream come true”. Idolising iconic broadcasters from the 1980s like Philip Sherry, Judy Bailey and Fair Go’s Philip Alpers, young Karen would make her two sisters film her pretending to read the news on the family’s video camera.

Ever the professional, she’d always sign off her bulletins with “Karen O’Leary… 1 News.” She explains, “Three wasn’t invented then! Presenting the news was my life’s ambition and now – I don’t know how – I’ve weasled my way into it.

“Television journalists are my version of celebrities, so whenever I bumped into one – John Campbell, Mark Sainsbury and yes, even Paddy Gower – I asked them for a selfie.”

Coincidentally, during our interview, Mark Sainsbury is leaving the same café. He stops to say hi and shake hands with the pair.

“We’ve got to match Sainso and be as good as him when he was on Close Up,” muses Paddy, once Mark walks away. “I just can’t grow a decent moustache, though.”

“Well, I can,” deadpans Karen.

When the Weekly asks what issues rile her, the 45-year-old is quick to answer it’s when people are shown prejudice or intentionally excluded.

“Having worked as an early childhood educator for more than 20 years and being a member of the big ol’ rainbow community, I’ve always been very keen to advocate for people, especially those who have been discriminated for no good reason. That boils my blood,” she says. “I also see how language is so important in terms of shaping people’s ideas and perceptions. We can always use words that mean everyone is included.

“Like when my son Melvyn [now aged 11] started school, the teachers would always refer to ‘mums and dads’.

“It didn’t really bother me, and Melvyn didn’t care either, but it’s not that hard to say ‘whānau’ or ‘caregivers’. If you’ve always been someone that fits into ‘the norm’, then you don’t think like that because you’ve never had that as a challenge. But for me, I was always keenly aware of it because of who I was.”

Paddy points out that he, too, has learned about using inclusive language from working with Karen. He explains, “Yesterday we were having a meeting to organise the show and she hauled me up on something. I was calling one of the bullying victims a girl and Karen was like, ‘Hang on, why not just say ‘children’, that’s more inclusive.’

“It’s a great influence that she’s having on our mahi [work] behind the scenes. She’s certainly solving my issues! And she brings her heart. As a teacher, she’s had a daily exchange with families from all walks of society, who have shared their lives with her.”

Blowing their own horns! “I’m not just funny, I’m O’Leary-ious,” says Karen.

Karen only dipped her toes into acting when a mother of one of her kindy kids – who happened to be a casting director – noticed her needle-sharp wit and suggested an audition.

It landed her the part of Officer O’Leary in the 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, co-directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.

Since then, Karen’s desire to use her profile, and make this country a more inclusive and representative place, has somewhat been inspired by the Topp Twins, Lynda and Jools. The Miramar-born comedian says she has a great friendship with the sisters and not only because Lynda played her on-screen mum in Wellington Paranormal.

“For a lot of people of my generation, they were kind of like the only visibility we had in terms of people that were gay or lesbian in any kind of entertainment.”

Fortunately, when Karen told her parents that she was seeing a woman, they lovingly said, “We know, dear.”

The mum-of-one is now in a relationship with saxophonist Eilish Wilson, who has just returned to New Zealand after two years away in California, studying for a Master of Fine Arts degree.

“Eilish arrived back on my birthday last week,” tells Karen. “Long-distance is a great challenge for a relationship. But I think we ended up succeeding incredibly well. It’s very nice to have her back, and move into our new house and get a puppy from the SPCA.”

Paddy’s tickled pink to be working with Karen, too. “She brings her heart.”

For now, as a newbie to the world of current affairs, she’s made the discovery that being a reporter and teaching small children are not so dissimilar – they both demand empathy and a cool head under pressure.

And she reckons there’s no better mentor than Paddy, whose recent documentaries on drug and alcohol use in New Zealand have been hits.

“I knew he was incredibly passionate about what he does,” smiles Karen, “but to get to be part of that and learn from him, I feel incredibly lucky.

“Well, Karen wasn’t here five years ago when I had a massive ego,” he admits. “There are times in this kind of role where you do get a big head, and I’ve suffered from that in the past and got grumpy about things. But I’ve been humbled a lot and tried really hard to not have an ego.”

“That’s interesting,” ponders Karen, “because I’m thinking about getting a massive ego…”

Once Paddy stops laughing at this comment, he responds that while his co-host is incredibly funny (“Ah, I’m not just funny, I’m O’Leary-ious!”), he loves the insightful comments and context she gives to the more serious stories as well.

“Thanks, Paddy. Wow, I can feel my ego is already starting…”

Paddy Gower Has Issues screens Wednesdays at 7.30pm on Three and ThreeNow.

Quickfire with Paddy Gower and Karen O’Leary

Before this show came about, did you ever bump into each other in Wellington?

Paddy: Yes, once at a charity event for Skylight Trust. People bid on us individually in an auction and I went for a lot more money than Karen did! But I think I actually got ripped off because I was purchased by an organisation rather than an individual, so then I had to go and give a presentation to 20 people.

Karen: Whereas I got “bought” and taken to lunch by two lovely old lesbians who I still remain friends with. We had a great old time.

This series runs for 10 weeks – will it be a regular thing?

Paddy: We’ll be coming back on again before the election. I’m looking forward to seeing Karen in the white-hot heat of a political campaign.

Karen: I’m ready for that.I’ve always secretly wanted to be a politician and initially studied politics. But the more I think about things, and the more politicians I now know and talk to, I think a) it seems like a lot of hard work and b) I can probably achieve a lot more change outside the tent rather than inside the tent.

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