With a shared passion for food, their outspokeness and a whanau-first mentality, it would seem Hera Waitai and Tash Whitewood have the perfect ingredients for instant friendship. But when the My Kitchen Rules New Zealand team-mates met as co-workers six years ago, they could not bear being in the same room.
“We couldn’t stand each other,” says Hera, 34. “We both have strong personalities and are highly opinionated, so we clashed.”
But little did Tash and Hera know that these very similarities would bring them together and bond them like family all these years later.
When the duo – who are both marketing coordinators at Te Wananga o Aotearoa in Rotorua – first crossed paths, they were broken women, each on their own journey to find health and happiness.
At 122kg, Hera – mother to son Whakaruru, 15, and daughter Ria-Maieke, 13 – was suffering a myriad of health issues and struggling to have more children.
“I always said I was blessed with one of each, but when my sisters and friends were all having babies, I knew something was up – and sex was not the issue,” jokes Hera, who got together with her bloke Christy 16 years ago.
“I’d suffered women’s problems my whole life, but enough was enough, so I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with endometriosis.”
A second blow came when Hera – who was travelling to Brazil to compete with a kapa haka group at the inaugural World Indigenous Games in 2015 – couldn’t get the airplane seatbelt to fit over her tummy.
But the devoted mum’s biggest wake-up call came when she noticed her unhealthy eating habits and body insecurities were rubbing off on her teenage girl. “At that point, I couldn’t even tie up my own shoelaces,” admits Hera.
“Sometimes my portion sizes were bigger than my partner’s – I wasn’t satisfied if I hadn’t unzipped my jeans after dinner. When I could see my daughter heading in the same direction, I knew I needed to step up and be a role model.”
Meanwhile, Tash had also lost her way. She’d broken off an eight-year relationship and didn’t recognise the person she’d become.
“I had forgotten who I was and what I was passionate about,” the 31-year-old reveals. “I used to paint, write, travel and – believe it or not – I used to love working out. But I got too comfortable. I wasn’t happy with myself and it showed. I’d gone from 55kg to 94kg.”
Over time, the girls learned to work together, but they finally became friends when Hera noticed her sombre co-worker could do with a little cheering up. The next day, she gifted Tash a care package full of mood-boosting treats and the pair have been inseparable ever since.
“For someone I barely knew to reach out like that blew me away,” tells Tash.
“We discovered pretty quickly that both of us were dealing with significant things in our lives and we helped each other see the light. When we were together, the only way was up!”
Becoming each other’s confidants, Tash and Hera motivated one another to reach their goals. They’d skip McDonald’s for healthy packed lunches, walk around the lake in work breaks and when they were feeling blue, encourage each other to count their blessings. They soon started losing weight – with Tash now a svelte 66kg and Hera 69kg.
They are loving their new lease on life. “It was never just about weight loss for me – my journey has been about spiritual, mental and physical growth,” says Tash, who can now comfortably run half marathons. “Has it been easy? No. I’ve struggled, tripped and nearly given up, but I can finally say I’m living life and I love it. I’ve travelled more than I ever have and I’m on a national TV show.”
And the best is yet to come for Hera, who will wed her dream man in December. “After 16 years together, Christy finally proposed and he did it in McDonald’s, over a Big Mac and a cheeseburger,” she laughs. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. If there’s one thing about my man, he doesn’t like to be like anybody else.”
While the girls are eager to take out the TVNZ 2 cooking competition, their next quest is to find single Tash a date to the wedding. “I have about three months to find a partner,” smiles Tash. “And Hera’s only insisted on two things – they must be a male and they can’t be related to me!”
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