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Career

Rachel Hunter on being single, her love affair with India and why she never feels alone

''This is a very fulfilling time for me, but yes, I’m still single. I’m sure it’ll change soon. I’d like it to.''

By Emma Clifton
I can only assume that when Charles Dickens wrote the sentence, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," he was also attempting to do a magazine cover shoot in India during the hottest week on record.
A small team of us have descended upon Rajasthan, the colourful, soulful heart of the country, to celebrate the release of Rachel Hunter's debut book – part travel diary, part wellness manual, based on her life-altering experience shooting the first series of her TV show Tour of Beauty.
It was a job that not only changed Rachel's direction in life, but also introduced her to India – a country that has held a special place in her heart ever since.
So of course, where else could we shoot our cover for this very special issue?
Our week in India turns into the one that breaks all previous temperature records.
So hot that mandatory curfews are enforced in parts of Delhi. So hot that water starts to run out. So hot that every local we chat to chastises us for picking the worst week possible to visit Rajasthan. So hot, in fact, that we can only shoot from 5am to 8am, or late in the evening, or we risk heatstroke.
As we set up to do the very first shot with Rachel, a quick succession of unexpected yet hilarious events begins, each of which makes it clear that this will be a shoot unlike any other.
Our team of five are in a turret perched on the far corner of an old Indian fort, with Rachel – in full halo-hair glory – in front of the camera.
It is 7pm and approaching magic hour, the sudden burst of golden light that makes everything look like, well, magic. But while the light is slowly fading, the temperature is not; even at dusk, it's still a stifling 39°C.
It's so hot, in fact, that our photographer's camera shuts itself down and needs to be rested on an air-conditioning unit.
A warm wind buffers the turret as all eyes track Rachel moving gracefully in front of the camera, a supermodel at work. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see it.
A large monkey is making its way towards us along the very edge of the palace's roof. We have been warned of the monkeys – well-trained around tourists, they like to steal your stuff.
Slowly, quietly, the non-supermodels among us start gathering up phones, sunglasses, spare camera parts without a) alerting the monkey that we're onto him or b) disturbing the shoot going on behind us.
We go to shift everything inside only to realise that we've been accidentally locked out and are now stuck in the turret. Then, with perfect only-in-a-movie timing, there's a power cut.
"India beats the ego right out of you," Rachel says later on, sitting on a hotel bed.
"There's a beautiful way that plays out in India. We all take things so seriously but there's this great play that happens. That's India – there are cows standing in the middle of the street. You turn the corner and you see something totally heart-wrenching and then you turn another corner and see something beautiful – and within both of those moments, there's a kindness of the heart. You come here, you have arrived at your destination, the process that unfolds is your path. That's the beauty of India."
There are more moments that verify this than can be counted during our week-long shoot, one of the most memorable being on the streets of Jaipur one day at 5.30am.
We are up early to beat the crowds and Rachel is standing in front of the famous city gates, dusky pink in the early morning sun, when a young cow comes up and starts nuzzling her.
It's a delightful moment, and Rachel leans in close for a cuddle – the rule, 'Don't touch the animals in case of rabies,' is something she breaks about 12 times an hour.
Then, just as our photographer snaps a postcard-perfect shot, the cow head-butts Rachel, hard, right in the crotch. She starts laughing.
It may seem surprising, considering the impact the country has made on her, but it was only four years ago that Rachel first visited India, for the debut season of Tour of Beauty.
At that stage, the show had become something of a life raft in a time of flux – Rachel's two children, Renee and Liam, had left home, her engagement to ice hockey player Jarret Stoll had suddenly ended and, after a successful couple of years as a judge on New Zealand's Got Talent, her career had stalled.
Throw in a couple of serious health problems that left her bedridden for months and it's fair to say it was a rough time.
On September 9 of this year, Rachel turned 50, and she can now look back on her 40s with the clarity that only hindsight delivers. She says those difficult times often deliver a message that's been a long time coming.
"Everything I had done beforehand was the reason I ended up here," she says of India.
"Those s... times that happen to us are some of the biggest gifts – and the biggest teachers.
"Whatever energetic force you want to believe in, for the most part, we all go through the same stuff, we all experience hard times. Whatever our soul is experiencing, we have to get through that. But also, are you going to make that choice of learning that lesson? Are you going to go totally left field and give something new a go?"
When asked to define what her previous life stages were about, she says it's the moments of great transformation that jump out.
"When I was 15, that was a big moment. I had a serious blood disorder, Mum and Dad broke up and I started modelling. Then 29 was another… I left," she says, referring to the end of her marriage to singer Rod Stewart.
"I would say that from my 40s until now, it was almost like being told, 'You're going the wrong way, we're going to whack you again.' Every year! It was like 'No, you're not getting married again. No, that's not going to happen. Now your kids are going to leave home, but now you get to have this beautiful job… and then your mum's going to die.'"
But following that time of turmoil, she says, "the great surrender comes. And then things settle down."
India has played a crucial role in the new direction she has taken – learning the ancient ways of yoga and meditation for years, and then sharing her tools around the world.
"It was like this jigsaw puzzle that was all spread out but then started to click together – it just took a lot of intense work to get it to fit."
This growth of her spiritual side was something Rachel was very reluctant to share with the world.
It was only when The Australian Women's Weekly approached her last year to talk about her journey that she decided to tell all.
"I felt like I'd been caught out – Hidden in the Himalayas – and this is all going to go pear-shaped, because people are going to think I'm f..ing weird."
It was the same battle her mother, Janeen Phillips, had gone through. When Janeen was battling the cancer that would end her life in 2017, one of her regrets was that she'd never felt comfortable enough to step out of the spiritual closet.
So when Rachel decided to go public with her spirituality, she knew she was, in her own way, "changing the ancestry" from how her mother had expressed this side of herself.
"It doesn't need to be a scary thing," she says. "There is no separation between being spiritual and being human. It seems to be that people see [this side of me] as 'spiritual'" – she waves her hands around – "but no, it's just me. I'm still going to laugh, I'm still going to joke. I'm still going to swear."
A treasured snap with her beloved late mum, Janeen.
When I ask her how she decides her career moves, she laughs. "What career? Is that what that is?" Then she grows serious.
"I feel like I have to honour this path that I'm on right now. It's kind of like going into the bush. I don't know where the track is going exactly, but I know the general direction and I trust that it's taking me somewhere good."
She may snicker good-naturedly at the idea of her journey being a career but there's a reason Rachel Hunter has been a household name for decades.
There's also a reason her very famous life has avoided the kind of clichéd downturns you might expect from someone who became a supermodel as a teenager and married a rock star at 21.
There's been no rehab, no fall from grace; her children with Rod Stewart couldn't be further from the kind of Instagram influencers you might expect millennials of their background to be.
Renee, 27, is a dancer, Liam, 25, is an ice hockey player currently based in Queenstown, and despite the soft American accents from their LA upbringing, they're about as laid-back and Kiwi as it comes.
Long before actress Gwyneth Paltrow coined the term "conscious uncoupling" for her drama-free divorce from singer Chris Martin, Rachel and Rod were walking the walk of splitting up while remaining a family. Rachel credits this to a sense of humour and a strong belief in community.
"I was a young mother, and I had great security from having a great husband. There was lots of humour, there was always a lot of laughter in the house. It's funny – we had that great sense of community, even though it seemed like it was a 'model, rockstar' life. We were travelling for a lot of it and there was always a great sense of community in the band – we would always eat together and I always brought the kids with me on the road."
Every Christmas, some assemblage of the Hunter/Stewart family gathers.
Last year, Rachel posted a video to social media of her and the kids decorating their tree in LA to Rod's Christmas album.
"That family is just an extended family, and it always has been. Again, if I wanted to change my perception of it, I could make it really awful. You have a choice as to how you see those hard times. Sometimes to be able to shift the perspective and perception of a situation is important."
It's perhaps the reason she has remained grounded despite being on the road for huge stretches of time. Her life is split between New Zealand, Los Angeles, India and wherever her kids are. Home really is where the heart is – and she's perfectly comfortable with that.
"When I was in the process of trying to sell my LA house the first time, I packed two suitcases, thinking, 'This is me for the next year.'"
The suitcases contained a couple of fancy outfits if she needed them for an event, then a bunch of clothes for teaching and learning yoga. That was it.
"I let go of having to have 'stuff.' I have my books – my yoga books and my journals – and that's all I need. And my toothbrush. Sometimes my pillow, but I lost that," she says, with a laugh.
It would be easy to attribute Rachel's single status to her nomadic life.
"Many people go" – she puts on a suggestive voice – "'Wow, you're going back to India all the time, what's going on?' Why does everybody think it has to be a romantic thing?
"I'll tell you what it is – it's sitting in the Himalayas. This is a very fulfilling time for me, but yes, I'm still single. I'm sure it'll change soon. I'd like it to. Any psychics out there that want to weigh in?" She laughs.
"No, I'm kidding. I don't want any more psychic information."
Rachel Hunter's Tour of Beauty is available at all good book stores or visit www.rachelhunter.com
Besides, she says, you can't feel lonely in a country like this. Without knowing why, it was the place she made a beeline for after her mother died.
"I remember walking out of the airport and then thinking, 'Holy s..t' I rang my sister and said, 'Coming to India alone, what was I thinking?!'"
But then she took time to rethink the word "alone".
"We're not alone," she says. "We have everybody. We can't be alone – we're on the planet. And you can never be lost – you're on planet Earth. If you're on the train and it's going in the wrong direction, get off. You can always get back on another train. You can never be lost – there's always another path, there's always another way."
It was on her first solo train ride in India that she started to relax into the idea of travelling by herself.
"At first, it was that conditioning of, 'Oh my god, what will happen? It's midnight and I'm by myself!'
"And then all that flashed in front of me were the beautiful, smiling faces of the people I'd met so far. You always have to be wise and keep your common sense, of course. But there's always somewhere to go. There's always somewhere to be fed. There's always somewhere to sleep. And someone will always take you in. I got on the train and there was a family on it, and they shared their dinner with me and we had the most amazing trip."
This ability to find friends everywhere served Rachel well on Tour of Beauty – that, plus her curiosity about, well, everything.
"Being able to sit down with people who live different lives – that's special. Deep conversations create great intimacy, and intimacy has become a harder thing for us to achieve.
"When I came out of India, I called the first tour, 'Beauty of the soul.' That's where it is – beauty isn't limited to the external, it's all of that. So it was really looking at all the aspects, and that evolution of beauty, because it just keeps growing.
"Who is the most beautiful, what is the most beautiful – that's always changing."

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