Renée Chignell was only 18 when she made her living doing a little bondage and discipline from the spare room of her rented Auckland townhouse. Still only a fresh-faced teen when her middle-aged client Peter Plumley-Walker stopped breathing while shackled to the wall and ceiling in a B&D session gone horribly wrong.
The events of that fateful day in 1989 made her a household name for the worst of reasons.
Almost 30 years later, the woman who introduced New Zealand to the word "dominatrix" in a blaze of sensational headlines can stand completely unnoticed outside an Auckland hotel waiting for Woman's Day to meet her for a chat.
Understandably, that's just the way she likes it. There's something instantly likeable about Renée, now 47. Her cascading mass of honey-blonde hair is piled high on her head. Her eyes sparkle. Her smile is warm. She talks animatedly about her life in the Bay of Islands, her friends and family, and not least, her son, who lights up her world like a supernova.
Gone is the girl who bowed with shame under the strain of public scrutiny while the most intimate details of her life as a sex worker and dungeon mistress were endlessly reported on.In her place is a warm-hearted middle-aged mum who can look back on her teenage self with a load of regret but also compassion. The kind of understanding that only comes with maturity and perspective.
It's something Renée has mostly kept to herself for decades, preferring to leave the past where it belongs.
But on July 15 the docu-drama, Mistress Mercy, aired on TVNZ 1. It was a chance, she says, to tell the world her side of the story from the very beginning.
And from that very beginning, Renée's life was difficult. An only child growing up in West Auckland, her parents Ngaire and Con belonged to a nudist club and enjoyed a busy social life. But behind the scenes, their house was a war zone.
"Dad was a hard worker and a good man, but he had a nasty streak," recalls Renée. "My earliest memory – I was about three – was of walking into the kitchen and seeing what must have been dinner all over the walls, and the floor covered with broken plates. He didn't hit my mother in the face, but he would do other things. Things I don't even want to remember. Things that didn't leave obvious bruises.
"After work, he'd go to the Potter's Wheel pub in New Lynn, before coming home and finding fault in the smallest of things, like his dinner not being hot enough.
"I would get in the way trying to protect my mother and sometimes take a knock. It was a really confusing childhood. If you took the violence out of the equation, it would have been a very different upbringing. It certainly would have been a lot happier."
Eventually, her mother fought back, once hitting her husband over the head with a cast-iron frypan. The couple divorced when Renée was 11. She moved in with her mum, going from St Dominic's Catholic Primary School in Blockhouse Bay to Avondale College and then Lynfield College. Soon after turning 15, she left school for good.
"I can't even remember why," she smiles ruefully.
"I don't recall getting in with the wrong crowd. I was an average student, a normal, bubbly teen. I never gave my mother any trouble. But I remember saying, 'Right, I'm going to earn some money.'"
Renée worked at a petrol station, a gelato shop and a clothing boutique before landing a job at Campbell's Shoes in central Auckland.
It was a specialist shop stocking very small and very large shoe sizes, and a number of "flamboyant, beautiful" transvestites would spend "hundreds and hundreds of dollars" on stilettos.
"I'd never seen a transvestite before," she says. "It was a huge eye-opener." One of her favourites was Clare.
"She did cabaret and told me she had sugar daddies."
One day Renée, by then 16, and her friend Monique were on Karangahape Road when they ran into Clare. She invited the girls to tag along while she gave oral sex in a car to one of her regular clients.
"Afterwards, we saw the money exchange. It was quite a sum. That's how it started."
Soon Renée was plying her trade as a sex worker on K Road.
"The money was a great lure. I'm quite a sensible person. I don't put myself in dangerous situations – or didn't. I made a set of rules for myself and decided to be very businesslike about it.
"Almost all of the guys on the Prostitutes Collective's ugly-mugs list were young – the ones that would beat up the girls, not pay them ... I thought, 'I'm not going to put myself in that situation.'"
The plan was to have only older clients and to build up a base of regulars, but one night she broke her own rules.
"This white van pulled up and it was a guy in his 20s, but he was an electrician with his phone number, his name, everything on the side of his van. I thought nothing silly was going to happen because I could identify him."
The liaison turned nasty, however, resulting in Renée hurling herself out of the vehicle. "I landed on my knees and was quite cut up. It was terrifying. I didn't work for quite some time after that."
When she did, she turned to the relative safety of a massage parlour, then she moved on to a bondage and discipline outfit, The House of Dominance. As a dominatrix, she was "only comfortable with very basic B&D. Seriously hurting people wasn't for me."
It was a bonus that the money was better than parlour work and mistresses don't have sex with their clients. But Renée draws the line at saying she preferred it.
"I didn't enjoy any of it. You stay because the money's good."
Around this time, she met Neville Walker. She was 18 and he was 34, unemployed and generous with his fists.
"We met through a friend," explains Renée. "From the beginning, I was told, 'Watch out for him. Be careful.'
"He just wouldn't leave me alone. One thing led to another and we became in a relationship. I learned pretty early on that I had a mirror image of my father – except worse, much worse."
Several times, Renée tried to leave him, but he always tracked her down and brought her home. The beatings continued. Feeling trapped, she placed a newspaper ad as Mistress Dominique, offering "medium" bondage sessions out of the spare bedroom. Privately, her plan was to save enough money to escape to Australia and start a new life.
Soon afterwards, new client Peter Plumley-Walker, 51, arrived for his first session, saying, "I've been naughty. I've touched little girls. I need to be punished."
Renée tells, "He wanted to be restrained. He wanted the spanking. He was an experienced slave."
During the session, while Plumley-Walker was restrained against the wall in shackles and with a collar around his neck attached to a chain from the ceiling, Renée left the room. "It was something I often did. It increased the tension – is she coming back?"
On her return, Plumley-Walker was slumped forward, not breathing. She cut him down and Neville tried CPR to no avail. On the one hand, Renée wanted to call an ambulance. On the other, she reasoned, "How are we going to explain this?"
"I simply didn't know what to do. I was panicking, scared out of my wits, thinking, 'Wake up, wake up!'"
Twenty minutes later, Renée's mum arrived with fish and chips for dinner. Renée and Neville closed the door of the B&D room and tried to pretend everything was normal.
"Mum looked at me and asked, 'Is something wrong?' She thought Neville and I had had an argument. I couldn't get rid of her fast enough."
Renée says it was Neville's idea to place the body in Plumley-Walker's Cortina station wagon and drive four hours south through the night, then dispose of it over the thundering Huka Falls.
"I remember very little about the trip except that we argued. We arrived at the falls and the sound of the water was just huge. But my brain has blocked most of it out.
"All I remember about coming home was stopping at a gas station, and Neville buying a pie and a drink. I don't remember getting into bed or what happened the next day or the day after that. I virtually went blank until the police came knocking on the door."
Plumley-Walker's body was found floating in the river beneath the falls six days later and Renée has no idea how much time elapsed before detectives followed the trail of clues to her door.
She greeted them with a strange mixture of emotions – terror because her violent partner had told her to shut up and plead ignorance.
"And finally, relief to be able to say what happened."
Renée describes the three court cases that ensued as "a hell rollercoaster ride".
She and Neville were found guilty at the first trial in 1989 and jailed for life. They successfully appealed, but at their second trial a few months later, the jury couldn't reach a verdict. At their third trial, the jury accepted that Plumley-Walker had died accidentally and on June 14, 1991, they were acquitted.
Renée was buoyed by the support of both her parents and her grandmother Doreen through the trials, but she didn't get off scot-free, serving two years in prison for torching Plumley-Walker's car a couple of days after returning from Huka Falls.
Renée made the most of her prison time by doing correspondence courses but has since grappled with claustrophobia and anxiety.
Ironically, the death of Plumley-Walker – the one event in her life she wishes she could change – is what freed her from Neville. She has not seen him since.
"He can't hurt me any more. I've got that strength now. You can hit me as much as you want, but you're not going to break me. I'm not breakable any more."
Following the acquittal, with media "hiding in bushes", and knowing that her name and face were instantly recognisable, Renée kept a low profile.
She met a new partner, Stefano, quickly fell in love and was three months pregnant when he was killed by a drunk driver.
"It was devastating," she tells. "My one solace was that I was having his son and I knew I was going to make this boy into a lovely young man."
In July 1994, at just 26 weeks pregnant, she went into premature labour and almost lost the baby.
"I refused to let him go. I was by his bed the whole time. He's the best thing that has ever happened to me. I'm so proud he's picked me to be his mother."
A while later, Renée, her mum and nana moved to the Bay of Islands for a quiet life. She reads "anything I can get my hands on", and loves beach walks and pottering in the garden. But she couldn't escape her past completely.
"When my son was seven, he came home from school and asked, 'Mum, what does prostitute mean?' The mother of a kid at school had said that's what I was. I glossed over it somehow and he was fine. I had the proper conversation with him when he was 12 or 13. Enough for him to be able to comprehend it, without going into immense detail."
These days, Renée works as a caregiver and her eyes light up as she tells how much she enjoys it.
"I wish I had trained to be a nurse. I don't hide my past from people. I always sit down with the person I'm about to work for and say, 'Look, this happened. Here it is. I'm telling you everything now so you don't have to hear it from someone else.'
"There's no reason to hide it. I feel like I've got nothing to be ashamed of. Something happened a long time ago when I was young. It was out of my control. There were no bad intentions."
Renée was devastated all over again when her mother died in 2007, followed in quick succession by her nana and father. Six years ago, after a long time single, she met her current partner through friends. Her son is now 23.
She turned down myriad lucrative offers to tell her story over the years "because I want to leave it all behind me" and only chose to take part in the docu-drama because it was going to be made with or without her. She decided that if she agreed to take part, she'd at least be able to have some control of her story.
Renée says she has never returned to the sex industry and admits she's constantly haunted by what-ifs: "What if I had never met Neville? What if I had told Peter Plumley-Walker I didn't have an available appointment? What if I'd managed to escape to Australia?
"Sometimes people assume they know me. But I walk such a different path now. It's made me a quieter person. I get a bit anxious. I can be very shy sometimes. A big spark of me has gone.
"I do worry for my son's future and I hope the docu-drama won't impact on him. He keeps saying, 'Mum, I will always have your back, no matter what. I will always love you. I will always be there.'"
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