In a tongue-in-cheek dig at her unwavering confidence as Maori Party co-leader, Marama Fox was once classed as an "expert on everything". Even recently as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, she didn't mince her words when it came to the judges' inconsistent scoring.
Fierce strength has become her trademark. But for the first time, Marama confesses the cost of her meteoric rise in politics has come at a heartbreaking price – the breakdown of her 29-year marriage to husband Ben. It's this that has nearly broken her fighting spirit.
"I had never expected this would be the outcome for our family," she says through tears. "And there is absolute guilt there for me. The pain I have brought to my babies. They have just been in pain. I am consumed by that."
Over the past few months, 47-year-old Marama whirled and swirled with a smile and some feisty comebacks on Three's Dancing show. But unknown to all except her whanau, she moved out of the family home in Masterton just weeks before training began in March.
It was a huge decision for the mum-of-nine and grandmother-of-seven. But it came after separating from Ben, 50, in secret last year and spending the past 12 months failing to patch up the relationship that had suffered at the hands of her political career.
"We'd agreed to separate and we were really good friends, but then it was argument after argument every time I came home," admits Marama.
"It would just blow up and it was getting toxic. And I felt like I had broken us. So I moved out to give everyone some breathing space."
If there's one thing Marama has always been about, it's whanau. From the age of 18, when she and Ben welcomed their first child Jordan, now 29, into the world shortly before their marriage, she admits that motherhood taught her the true meaning of all-consuming love.
And in the coming years, she welcomed eight more children – Jareth Rikihana, now 27, Ririwai, 25, Whatahoro, 23, Manahi, 22, and finally four daughters, Te Ao Marama, 16, Mihiroa, 14, Aromea, nine, and seven-year-old Moeteao.
"I was fully in love with my husband, then I had a baby and was like, 'I am even more in love,'" she smiles. "I always say to my babies, 'I will never not love you.' The scars of my love are etched on my puku. Literally."
Marama's focus for her kids has always been about arming them with a stellar education, a strong sense of self-worth and an ability to question the world when things don't seem quite right. She calls it being a "typical Fox".
And she and Ben, a shearer born and bred in Masterton, had always prided themselves on their united approach to tackling life as a huge whanau, with a staggering 22 family members living in their home until recently.
They'd have regular check-ins and write up five-year plans of what they wanted the future to look like, keeping their life and their love firmly on track. He always supported her ambitions of balancing family life with her career, becoming a school teacher before moving into politics.
"We have had a beautiful life with our family and we've had some of the most glorious family times," Marama says of the man she met and instantly fell for when she was just 16.
"We would be celebrating 30 years together this October."
Marama is the first to admit that something shifted in her when she was elected to join the Maori Party in 2014, soon being named the party's co-leader alongside Te Ururoa Flavell. In her own words, everything changed "so dramatically and too quickly".
"My goal was always that I'd come home for the weekend, from the Friday to the Sunday and then it became Saturday to Sunday," she admits. "Then it was coming home for a few hours just in the middle of the night to sleep with my babies and then I would leave again."
It wasn't just the busy day-to-day world of being a party co-leader in Parliament that began to impact her family life – Marama also found herself overwhelmed by the number of Kiwis who needed serious assistance around the country.
"When people contacted me, I wanted to help," she explains. "They were desperate – they had been everywhere else and got nothing.
"I spent 10 hours on New Year's Eve with a woman who was suicidal. Everything closes down on New Year's Eve. I thought I would go talk to her and she would be fine. But it was 10 hours later in ED. I just didn't want to be the last person to talk to her that day before she walked in front of a train."
But her family, who had for the best part of almost 30 years enjoyed their teacher-mother at the helm of the household, started to feel resentful that she appeared to be more interested in politics and her new career than in them, says Marama.
"There are many ups and downs of raising children. There's a lot of conflict and love. But I've always felt that even when I'd told them off for something, they never left the room feeling unloved.
"Sometimes that would take three hours and we would call it the Fox family lecture circuit. But during Parliament, I didn't have the capacity to spend that time and to do that, so the conflict that arose in family life wasn't being sorted out.
"Yet I had raised them and I had given them all the tools, so then I started to resent them that they weren't doing it."
As 2017 rolled in and Marama was gearing up for the general election, tensions were at an all-time high. It was at this point that she and Ben decided to separate in a bid to diffuse what had become a war zone with "a lot of emotion and a lot of confrontation".
One memory stands out for her. "I was in Masterton for a meeting, but I had to get back for another meeting, so I didn't go home for five minutes. I just couldn't do it and watch my babies cry as I walked out the door again. And my husband told me off about that because five minutes would have made their day, but it kills me to do it. I felt so broken by that."
When the Maori Party lost their seats last year, Marama says she was devastated – not only because of her political passions, but because her family life had crumbled and in the end, it felt like it was all for nothing.
"It was a great personal sacrifice. And I ended up getting a counsellor in the last six months in Parliament because I needed to talk to somebody," she bravely confesses.
But now, as she works tirelessly on launching an affordable housing project to eliminate homelessness, Marama says she can't suddenly pretend she hasn't seen the issues that grip New Zealand.
"We are a tiny country that should not have poverty or dirty rivers, or the abuse and the suicide," she declares.
"We can overcome it. I want to help change that. And it would kill little bits of me to go back to Masterton to do it as it's not quite possible there. I would have to put it all back into a box and lock it up. And I can't now."
Instead, Marama has been living in Auckland. And only recently has the "toxic" environment eased when she returns home to see her children. Now, she and Ben have been able to talk. They want to put their heartache and hurt to one side, and try to navigate a new family landscape."We're best friends now and we've been best friends forever," Marama says. "We have been together since I was 16 and we will always be best friends. There is a bond there that never goes and we just want to be the best for our family now."
Going forward, Marama admits that after the whirlwind that has been her life to date, she needs to breathe, take a moment and finally find out who she is. "I look around our home and everything in there
I have made or bought, but it is his home now," she says as a tear slips down her face.
"It is the family home and I can come to stay. I will sleep with my babies in their bed. But I want to learn how to live alone. How do I even like my eggs? I don't know. I need to know who I am now."