Body & Fitness

Breakfast’s Jenny-May Clarkson opens up about healing after grief and being true to herself

''There are days where things don't affect me at all, and then there are days where I'll be overwhelmed with sadness.''
Jenny-May Clarkson

For someone whose favourite saying is “Get s@!* done”, it might seem a little out of character for Jenny-May to arrive late to our photoshoot, but she has good reason.

After the fire at the SkyCity Convention Centre saw the TVNZ building evacuated, Breakfast on this particular morning may have looked and sounded a touch different due to a last minute change of studio.

Everything else though, was seemingly in place.

Hair curled and makeup done, she was rocking a vibrant floral jumpsuit that we see her in later that morning after their emergency de-brief.

What you couldn’t see, was that minutes before the cameras started rolling, the news presenter was in a pair of jeans and a grey tee, and given their quick evacuation, clothing options in the makeshift studio were nil.

That floral jumpsuit was not part of the plan, nor was it part of the show wardrobe, nor was it part of Jenny-May’s personal wardrobe – it was straight off the back of her producer.

That’s showbiz. This woman gets s@!* done all right.

While this type of attitude does foster incredible adaptability, resilience and determination, it’s not long into our conversation before she explains that it also led to her unravelling.

When her older brother Jeffrey was diagnosed with bowel cancer, Jenny-May was by his side throughout the appointments and treatments.

Two years after the initial diagnosis, she said her final goodbyes to him in July last year.

Staying true to her motto, she returned to work after only a couple of days of his passing, assuring herself that because her big brother was no longer in pain, everything was okay.

However, it became clear that there was far more going on beneath the surface when mid-way through reading the live sports news, she began to experience shortness of breath and panic attacks.

A mere three months later, the presenter also unexpectedly suffered the loss of her cherished father Te Waka.

“That really sent me into a bit of a tail spin,” she reflects.

Seeing her counsellor, who could put into words exactly how she was feeling, prompted the realisation that unless she wanted to remain stuck in the same place, suppressing her grief wasn’t the answer – she needed to be open to it.

“There has been a lot of work and healing that has gone on between then and now, and a lot still to go. The journey, as much as I hate that word, is far from over. There are days where things don’t affect me at all, and then there are days where I’ll be overwhelmed with sadness.

“If I feel like crying, I’ll cry. I won’t necessarily understand why or what has triggered that overwhelming feeling to shed some tears, but I’m okay with it. I don’t hide from it, I just allow it to happen. It’s all part of my healing process.”

Husband and former pastor Dean has been her rock from day one, and his unshakeable support has been an immense source of courage and strength.

“If he wasn’t so supportive, vulnerable and loving, then I would probably still be that same closed-up person who was very reluctant to let anybody in,” she says, looking back on her feelings of uncertainty and fear as she uncovered a new aspect of her identity.

Now, she speaks with a sense of self-assured strength.

“Actually, this is who I am. Being vulnerable is a hard thing to do – it’s hard for most of us – but I find it very easy now.”

Between rolling out of bed at three o’clock each morning and arriving at TVNZ by 4.30am for her new role on Breakfast, the Bowel Cancer Ambassador sets herself up for the day with a simple 30 minute routine – 10 minutes of movement, 10 minutes of mindfulness, and 10 minutes of gratitude journalling.

“It’s all about being present, understanding where your body and mind is at in that moment, and then instead of thinking about what you don’t have, writing down what you’re grateful for and what you do have.”

Given the range of hats Jenny-May, 45, has worn so far in her career – from Silver Fern and policewoman to sports commentator and news presenter – do these gentle practices come naturally?

“No, I’m still a bull in a china shop,” she replies with a grin.

“Working in this industry, I understand the complexities of being in the public eye, and sometimes you can be really hard on yourself and just want to hide away. But I know now how important it is to slow the mind.”

Where she previously had a habit of ruminating over negative thoughts and letting things snowball, she is now able to recognise that kind of unhelpful self-talk, notice it and just let it go – something that has done wonders for her mental health.

Often accompanied by Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra podcasts on her morning drives to work, Deepak’s mantra has also become part of her daily routine and something she reaches for in those fragile moments of self-doubt.

“I am beneath no one, I am fearless, and I am immune to criticism,” Jenny-May repeats aloud each day for strength and comfort.

Being immune to criticism doesn’t mean that you are not open to learning, she explains – it’s about understanding the difference between hurtful or unhelpful comments and constructive opportunities for growth.

With their three-year-old twin boys, Atawhai and Te Manahau, and Dean’s daughters Libby-Jane, 14, and Leah, 12, there is never a dull moment in the Clarkson household.

Luckily, Jenny-May can see the humour in the madness, cracking jokes about how quickly a three-year-old can fly off the handle about the wrong spread on their toast.

“Some days, well, most days actually, I feel like I’m drowning,” she laughs

“You just don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you. Every day is a challenge with our little ones, with our tweens, and making everything work in terms of a blended whānau – it’s something we have to work at every day.

“We haven’t got anything down-pat and we are constantly questioning whether we are doing the right thing, but I guess what we rely most on is that our hearts are in the right place, even if we don’t always get it right.”

Since the beginning, she and Dean have tried to keep communication lines open and honest with the four children, tackling each day as a united front, as one collective unit.

Labels like ‘step-siblings’ are of course fairly conventional now, but being connected by halves is not the way Jenny-May sees her family.

“We are all one. Having a half-sibling or whatever, that’s not part of our world view, our values and how we see our whānau. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a bit of this or a bit of that, we are all connected.”

With her athletic physique, years of being an elite netballer and the swift pace of each outfit change during the shoot – no questions asked, no mirror needed – one would think that Jenny-May is a beacon of body confidence.

So it comes as a surprise to hear that how she truly feels is another story.

“I’ve always had real struggles around body image from when I was young,” she says, and to this day still has moments of insecurity about her body and the way it has changed since becoming a mother.

“I think over time, maturity has allowed me to see it for what it is; that my value isn’t based on what I look like and whether I have a flat stomach or not. Back when I was younger, I definitely was more concerned about how I looked and how people perceived my appearance.”

Dean, who loves her body because of the changes, not despite them, has allowed her to see herself in a new light.

“He loves my body because life came from it. I carried our boys and that is such a privilege.”

When it comes to Jenny-May’s food philosophy, she is all about balance and moderation.

Although she keeps her sugar intake to a minimum and is sipping on ketones while we chat, that’s about as far as the diet goes.

“I can’t be bothered doing a strict diet like that,” she laughs.

“I try to make good choices and I know what good choices are for me and my body, but the reality is, when I’m tired, it’s a constant fight with my inner self.”

With her and Dean’s shared love of health, movement and community, they run the Clarkson Community Hub out of their garage – taking group workouts, te reo Māori and self-defence classes, and morning mindfulness sessions.

“Connection is everything. It’s a massive part of wellbeing and having connections with people in the community gives you a greater sense of purpose.”

Despite losing two of her loved ones in such a short space of time, her connection to community, spirit and Māori culture has been a guiding light, shaping everything that she does.

“I know that my father is not physically here, but he is with me every day – I hear his voice and the things he used to say to me.”

Guilty of caring too much in the past about the opinions of others or passing judgements herself, life for Jenny-May is now about authenticity, connection and constant personal growth.

“I know better now, so I want to do better. Some days I am way off the mark,” she chuckles, “but I own that.

“You have to be truthful enough to yourself whereby you can say, this is just me.”

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