She might be 50kg lighter than she was a year ago, but in many respects, National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett is just as big as she ever was. Big voice, big personality and big heart. So it's no surprise that when it came time to celebrate her 50th birthday recently, she decided it was an occasion worth shouting about.
"Three parties! " she says gleefully as she welcomes Woman's Day into her West Auckland home, which is nestled into the bush down a long, private driveway in Oratia. "There was a dinner out with my girls, my colleagues threw me a surprise party in Wellington, and in the school holidays I'm taking my family to a little bay up north to really celebrate.
"I'm going to sit back, and let the men run around after me and the girls. I'm hoping there will be roasting of marshmallows and plenty of chardonnay. You only turn 50 once, so I figured it was a milestone worth celebrating!"
And there's a lot to celebrate as the MP for Upper Harbour muses on what this birthday means to her. Yes, there's the weight thing – Paula dropped a staggering 50kg after undergoing gastric bypass surgery in late 2017 – and there's no denying she looks incredible.
There's also the fact the former teen mum and beneficiary has climbed the ranks to become one of this country's political heavyweights. But while she's proud of her career, ask her what her greatest achievement is to date and the answer, firmly, is family.
"My most favourite things in the world are my husband and family," Paula says with a smile. "I'm incredibly proud of the relationships I have with them all."
She's talking about husband Alan Philps, an old flame who she reconnected with and married at Piha seven years ago, her 32-year-old daughter Ana, who has three children, Tia, 12, Nate, five, and Hunter, four, and her stepdaughters Willoe, 18, and Kassie, 33, who is mum to Ivy, seven, and George, one. Together, she and Alan, 59, have thrown themselves into making their blended family work, and it's clear they all share a close bond.
"It's been a piece of cake," she says. "You just have to love the children. That's all kids need – love. And the good thing is, that doesn't have to go two ways. I said to my stepdaughters at the very beginning that they didn't have to do anything – they didn't have to love me back. But yes, I'm sure they do love me now, which is wonderful."
A quick glance around Paula and Alan's home shows she's very much a hands-on granny or "Yaya", as she's known by her grandchildren. There's a rocking horse in the corner and Spider-Man-themed plates in the drawers. Playdates and sleepovers are a regular thing here at Paula's place.
"They come to run around and make a mess. You can never see too much of your babies," she says, before admitting that making time for her family amid her gruelling work schedule is her biggest challenge. "I try to see them every week. That's the goal."
Sometimes, though, when the balance is threatening to tip, Alan will give her "the look".
"It's a look that I've come to know well," Paula laughs. "It means, 'It's time for us.'"
And she admits her hubby doesn't always see the best version of her. "I'll get home after a week in Wellington, and he might want to chat and catch up, but I just flop onto the sofa and turn on Shortland Street. I'm done!
"But we love and support each other in everything. He accepts he married someone who likes to work 80 hours a week and reluctantly takes any holidays."
Paula – who glides around the house in a silky, floral dressing gown as she prepares for our photo shoot – appears to be a woman with unrelenting energy.
She bounds up the stairs to grab her portable karaoke machine (which sits on her bedside table next to Michelle Obama's autobiography), before dancing back down belting out a tune at the top of her lungs. She might be 50, but she's certainly showing no signs of slowing down.
"I feel happier, healthier and fitter than I have for the last 15 years, so in that respect, I don't feel like I'm headed towards old age at all," she enthuses. "I feel great!"
Paula is at pains to point out that while she loves her fab new figure, she was never unhappy as a larger woman. In fact, she loved the way she felt she was making a splash when she entered a room.
"A man said to me the other day, 'Promise me you'll put some weight on before the next election,' and I totally got what he meant. It's that idea that you can really own a room when you're big."
Her biggest motivator for the operation, which reduced her stomach by two-thirds, was years of painful arthritis in her knees and feet.
She knew that if she didn't do something drastic, she could have ended up in a wheelchair. And now, with far less weight to carry around, she's feeling better than she has in years. Shopping is a lot more fun and she feels people probably judge her more kindly.
"You do get treated differently," she muses.
It takes work to maintain her current weight – Paula swears by 12-hour fasting, meaning no food from 8pm till 8am, and she must eat small portions to avoid feeling sick. While the odd treat is OK, good, nutritious food feels a lot better, she tells. Thankfully, a glass or two of chardonnay is just fine!
"It's taken a while and it certainly hasn't been easy, but I'm at a point where I've worked out what works well for me and what doesn't," she says, offering around a platter of cheese and her homemade seed crackers. "I make them every weekend – they're a lot healthier than chippies."
While she walks often, Paula's promised herself that this year she'll take up "proper" exercise.
"If I say it out loud, then I have to do it," she says with a wink.
"It's about forming the words and hoping they'll become a reality! I'm thinking maybe boxing classes. I love swimming, but there's the whole going-out-in-public-in- your-bathers thing. No-one needs to see that!"
Paula's milestone birthday, as well as Alan's approaching 60th, has prompted the couple into thinking about the next stage of their life. They've decided now is the time to make some bold changes – they've put their house on the market and while they'll remain in Paula's electorate, they'd like to be a little closer to town.
But downsizing isn't the aim. In fact, they're looking for somewhere to share with Paula's beloved parents Bob and Lee Bennett.
"If you can look after your own, then you should," she says emphatically. "Families should stick together as much as they can. And to be honest, my mum is a great cook, so it's going to work out well both ways! We'll be all looking after each other.
I'm definitely part of that sandwich generation – you're juggling jobs, family, older parents, grandchildren … There are some days where you don't know if you have another piece of yourself to give. But I actually feel really lucky to be in this situation, surrounded by all my family."
Paula and Alan, who works in construction, have also been talking about where they see themselves in another decade's time. While Alan would like to slow down a little, Paula is determined to work for at least another 15 or 20 years. And no, for the 100th time, she doesn't have designs on the top job of leading National!
"It's flattering that there might be people who think that I could, but actually, I get to decide my career, and I don't think it devalues my contribution and what I'm doing that I don't want to be the leader."
Paula is certain, though, that by the time she turns 60, politics will be in her past. Quite a statement for the ambitious politician who worked her way up the ranks since first running for Parliament back in 2005.
"Simon Bridges is a whole lot of fun to work alongside and I do feel like I'm still contributing a lot," she says. "But by the time I'm 60, well, I think we should all know our own use-by dates."
While her next career will likely be business-oriented, for now, Paula's very content as Simon's right-hand woman and feels she still has a lot to give. Like all New Zealanders, she was horrified by the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch and has spent time supporting her own constituents, many of whom are Muslim. She praises Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's response to the tragedy too.
"She's been really strong and has had the right response at the right time."
Paula is proud of how far Parliament has come for women. "It's changed so much, even in the past five years. I see very little, if any, sexism any more. It's equal opportunity based entirely on merit."
She clearly loves her fast-paced life in politics and is rightly proud of all she's achieved. But if someone had told her 25 years ago, as she was raising her daughter on her own and struggling to know which direction to take, that she'd end up here, she wouldn't have believed it.
"I've crammed a lot into my 50 years, so it's pretty exciting to sit back and think about all that," Paula tells.
"My career in politics, and even being Deputy Prime Minister for a short time, wasn't something I expected I would or could do at all, so it does feel like I have accomplished a lot."
But again, when it comes time to focusing on what really matters, larger-than-life Paula always comes back to family.
"I think surely 'to love and be loved' is the goal we all have in life, so in that respect, I feel incredibly lucky."
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