When you have a long chat to Magnolia Kitchen's Bernadette Gee, you could be forgiven for thinking you were talking to the main character in a romance novel come to life.
For a 35-year-old Kiwi woman who has just released her first cookbook – which is so popular, her publishers ordered a reprint before it was even on the shelves – Bets, as her friends call her, has had an extraordinary existence.
"As someone who failed at high school, never went to university and was pregnant at 18, there is a strong feeling for me that this was all just meant to be," says Bets as she looks around her gorgeous café in Silverdale, just north of Auckland.
Stroking her new book, she smiles, "It never leaves my side. I take it everywhere with me!"
You may know Bets from her hugely popular Instagram account @MagnoliaKitchen, where she posts pictures of her cakes alongside details of her busy life with three children and a fast-growing business, which started with her selling cakes at West Auckland markets.
She has 181,000 followers, which she credits to the videos she started posting in 2016 of her icing and making cakes. Many of her followers are from overseas and when they land in New Zealand, they head straight for Silverdale to try her creations.
"New Zealand Tourism should get in touch!" laughs the woman who also posts her bold daily lipstick choices and her candid interactions with her kids – which can involve a fair bit of swearing.
But behind the success story, Bets has had her share of setbacks. In 2009, when she was working as a payroll officer, she began feeling numbness in her left hip and the sensation slowly spread down to her leg.
"My friend was nagging me to go to the doctor, but I just thought it would go away. Then one night it got so bad, I rang my mum in tears, asking her to take me to A&E."
Bets spent 10 days in hospital while tests were done and she left with a diagnosis of a precursor to multiple sclerosis. "They told me that it might never happen again, but if it did, then that meant I had multiple sclerosis."
At the time, Bets was living in a central Auckland apartment with her young daughter, Charlotte.
"I was so scared," she recalls, wiping away tears. "I had to teach my six-year-old how to call an ambulance and who to call to look after her if she couldn't wake Mummy up. It was awful."
Before Bets fell ill, she'd been spending a lot of time online with a man she had never really met, Harley Gee.
She tells, "Harley and I had been in the same group of friends and been at the same parties, but weirdly, we'd never actually talked face to face. We became Facebook friends while he was in Canada, snowboarding and working as a cook in Whistler, and we started to talk throughout the day."
Their online chats soon turned into Skype dates. "I'd get ready from the waist up for those," laughs Bets. "Make-up and a nice top, then pyjamas on the bottom. He hates me telling this story, but as we got to know each other, I sent him barely clothed pictures that sealed the deal. I looked really hot, but once I sent them, I immediately regretted it. But it turned out he really enjoyed those photos!"
Harley planned to come home in 2010, but though Bets was more than open to the possibility, the pair never talked about becoming a couple. "And then that was when all hell broke loose and I ended up in hospital with MS," says Bets.
"Harley was amazing during that time. We talked online while I was in hospital, but he also rallied my friends and got them to bring me hugs from him. He was my rock. What my pics did for him, his support did for me!"
A few months after getting back to normal life in her apartment, Bets was getting ready for another Skype date with Harley. She recalls, "My friend rang me and said, 'Hey, you should get really dressed up for this date – all of you, not just from the waist up.' I thought she was just being a bit weird, but I put on a nice outfit anyway."
The Skype date time came and went, and there was no sign of Harley online. Bets fired off impatient messages while she waited and then the doorbell rang.
"This voice said, 'Hi, can you buzz me in?' I was in complete shock because it sounded a lot like Harley, who was supposed to be in Canada. He'd told me he had just started a new job on a golf course!"
Bets let Harley in and 40 seconds later, they met for the first time. "Of course we kissed," laughs Bets.
"We hadn't talked about starting a relationship, but that first meeting was amazing. My friends had been in on the surprise and he hadn't even gone to see his family – I was his first stop after two years of being overseas."
They hung out with friends over the next few weeks before officially becoming a couple. Bets smiles, "I knew this was my forever. We've been together 10 years this year."
Bets tells how he's been "the most amazing stepdad" to Charlotte, now 16, and the pair now have two little boys of their own, James, five, and Edward, three.
But unfortunately, after James was born, the MS returned, confirming her diagnosis.
"I don't let the disease define my life," Bets insists.
"I don't do anything differently by taking supplements or going on a special diet. I get monthly infusions of a very expensive drug, but there are no dramas. I just live my life as I want to because I don't think it deserves much brain space unless it's physically stopping me from being a mum and doing my job, which it isn't."
For now, Bets is living her dream of running a café and creating beautiful cakes. She grew up in her parents' health food store, standing on a stool from the age of five to serve customers, and now she includes her children in her business too. Charlotte works at Magnolia Kitchen and the boys already know how to use the coffee machine.
Bets is a self-taught baker and still has the Edmonds Cookery Book on the shelf in her office that her sister gave her for her 19th birthday.
"People think this business is a get-rich-quick scheme, but it so isn't," says Bets. "I do it because I love it. Though, to be honest, about twice a year, I don't love it when I haven't slept for a week from stress and wonder what the hell I'm doing! But I've somehow created something that people want and that's a very good thing to be doing."
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