When Moni Meredith (née Bree) and Laura McGoldrick first came into contact eight years ago, it wasn't exactly a case of "friends at first sight". That's not to say the actor and the radio/TV presenter weren't highly aware of each other when Laura joined Auckland's Boxing Alley in Parnell, where Moni was a personal trainer.
"We didn't gravitate towards one another would be the polite way to put it," says Moni, 37, who played Detective Natalie Mahoney on Shortland Street until 2019, and who now coaches women through her online training programme Shadow Camp, founded during lockdown last year. "Back then, I had so much trauma and was so competitive and so threatened by other women. I didn't know who I was as a woman and I saw Laura as a threat."
Despite her affable nature hosting The Hits Drive show with Brad Watson and live sporting events for Sky TV, including the Women's Cricket World Cup, Laura, 32, says that while she found herself in awe of Moni's fitness and physique, she too had her guard up.
"I saw this gorgeous, beautiful, strong woman and she had such a presence, which I found to be very intimidating," says Laura.
It wasn't until they both went to an event where they were seated next to one another that they finally broke the ice and realised, beyond the bravado, they actually understood each other on a deep level.
Laura was pregnant with her second child at the time, and Moni, herself a mum-of-two to daughter Quinn'Ava, 11, and son Monro, four, says she sensed the usually gregarious host was in a vulnerable space.
Their conversation took a surprising turn straight away, adds Laura, who found herself opening up to Moni about how she'd come to this point in her life – with toddler daughter Harley, a busy work and home life with Black Cap husband Martin Guptill, and trying to find balance in her life. They also talked diet and exercise, and how that can change when you become a mother. "She listened and she made it really easy to trust her."
"I guess, in my way, I was trying to apologise to Laura for not really giving her a chance," adds Moni, who went on to open up to Laura about the "psychological work" she'd been doing to help heal from a difficult past.
"A lot of relationships that I've made in my life have been at first meeting not great, and all of my deepest friendships have come from that," Moni reflects. "And I think a lot of that is because there's no way to go from that but vulnerability."
As she bravely told publicly in 2020 and has since openly discussed on social media as a way to help other people, Moni experienced a turbulent upbringing, including multiple instances of sexual abuse. It's a past she has worked hard to overcome, not only through therapy and by encouraging others to push through their self-imposed limits in her personal trainer work, but by fulfilling her dream to perform, with acting roles on Go Girls, James Cameron's Avatar and of course our national soap.
But it was through boxing, she says, she found an inner strength and a healthy outlet for anger and stress. She and Laura soon bonded over their love for the sport, which Laura had taken to as a way to harness more energy to power through her early-morning shifts.
"I was so in awe of her after that," says Laura of their first real deep-and-meaningful. She went on to message Moni not long afterwards for their "first date" as friends. Then towards the end of another Auckland lockdown, Laura had her son Teddy and was doing her best to get back into a fitness routine.
"I wasn't doing a great job," she recalls. "I was just proud of myself to be moving, but I thought, 'I need to have a bit of accountability.' And I think Moni could see that. She sent me a message and said, 'Why don't you come and do this with me? Trust me for four weeks. And then, if you're not into it, you don't have to keep doing it, but just try.'"
By then Moni had started Shadow Camp, an eight-week online training programme for women, whereby she'd take participants through challenging shadow-boxing routines, with nutritional and life advice provided along the way. Crucially, Moni also makes herself available offline, so women can message her if they're in danger of "self-sabotaging" their sessions when they're not in training.
Shadow Camp started with about 50 and has now swelled to 350 women, who either found Moni online or heard about her through word of mouth. "The OGs" are a diverse group of women, including mothers who have lost children, women battling cancer, busy high-achievers and stay-at-home mums. Signing up is a leap of faith, not least because Moni describes her training methods as unorthodox but also because she is tight-lipped about what participants can expect of upcoming workouts, part of her arsenal to help women commit and trust the process, rather than trying to control it.
"I'm a very blunt person," admits Moni. "And that must have resonated with some women. I'm trying to teach them to see the flaws in themselves."
One of the things Moni helped Laura work on was letting go of her "grip" of needing everything to be perfect. "Moni encouraged me to listen to my body. Before that, exercise was probably more about punishing myself, not enjoying and embracing what my body was capable of doing."
Not only does she feel a level of comfort knowing she's not alone when pushing through some of the tougher routines, but many of the group support one another with messages.
Moni's "non-negotiable" policy on committing to the Monday-to-Friday workouts has also given her a newfound resilience. "Moni's taught me to turn up, to show up," says Laura. "Do that and you're halfway there. And I really enjoy that feeling of achievement. Sometimes my kids are there and it's a terribly ugly workout with stuff everywhere, but I've done it and I've loved it."
"I just take out the excuses," says Moni, whose own children are often there to witness (and interrupt!) her live sessions. "Being a mum is just one of the roles you play. It's the greatest role you will ever play, but it's not an excuse not to exercise. Sometimes I'm there and I tell the group, 'I'm not feeling great today' or 'I don't want to be here either', or my kid will demand I take him to the toilet half-way through. It's chaos."
She's used to hearing mums grapple with guilt, telling her that they can't work out because their child needs them. But putting yourself continually at the bottom of the list can breed resentment.
"Yes, your child needs you," she says. "But the better function you get out of your body and the stronger your mental health is, the better mum you are."
Laura concurs that since joining Moni's group, which she complements with her favourite boxing classes at the gym, she has never felt stronger, both physically and mentally – and that has paid off in spades for her children.
"I have two kids that love to cuddle Mum, which means I carry them around a lot. And they want to play, and I want to be fit and strong enough to do that. And I like that my kids see me working out. I think it's important."
She's also proud of her friend for having cultivated an online space where she says women can feel safe and empowered. "I feel lucky to be part of it," says Laura. "I'll do whatever Moni tells me! I trust her with my life."
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