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Real Life

Kiwi great-grandmother from tragedy to comedy queen

After losing her precious son, Lianne turned sorrow into stand-up

By Rebekah Hebenton
When she stepped up to the mic for the first time at the age of 60, Lianne Karaitiana never imagined she would become New Zealand's next great comedy star. But after impressing Pax Assadi on TVNZ's new talent show 60 Seconds, the great-grandmother is swapping the local open-mic night for a nationwide comedy tour opening for the veteran Kiwi comedian.
"I thought I'd be happy to go home with $500 just to cover costs, so Pax's offer to be his opening act on his tour was absolutely incredible," tells Lianne. "I was blown away. That was the biggest break I could ever imagine."
Lianne, who lives in Carterton, in the Wairarapa, was drawn to comedy after losing her son Shannon in 2018 after after a 10-year battle with type 1 diabetes. She says it was heartbreaking to watch her once fit and vibrant son's health slowly decline and saw comedy as a way to bring some joy back to her life.
"It took a toll on me and my other children," she recalls. "I needed to re-energise and become strong again, to move forward to be of any help to anyone."
Shannon, who was the eldest of Lianne's five kids, was 30 when he had a heart attack, which she says was a shock for the whole family as he was a healthy young man. Not long after, he was diagnosed with diabetes and spent the next decade battling diabetes-related complications.
'I dribble when I'm nervous, so that didn't help!'
"He was on life support four times where we didn't know if he would live or die," Lianne says. "Influenza can really smack people with any kind of severe illness."
One of the hardest experiences for Lianne was when Shannon had both his legs amputated to prolong his life. "Watching him go through that was horrendous, even though it gave him another 18 months of a pretty healthy life.
"There were times where he probably didn't look after himself, but it's a horrible disease. And it's sad that we probably don't know enough or take it seriously enough until it affects us in some really big ways."
Though Lianne says she doesn't like to dwell on the sadness of losing her beloved son at only 40 years old, she gets emotional as she remembers her final moments with him.
"I was part of the group that carried his casket out of the church. When I picked it up, I could hear myself make this really sad noise and I thought, 'A mother or a parent should never have to feel the weight of their child's coffin.'"
It was almost two years after Shannon's passing that Lianne felt she had come to terms with her grief when she saw an ad for an open-mic night in Palmerston North, 100km from her home. After toying with the idea of trying stand-up for years, she knew it was finally time.
With husband Gordon Powell, 77, watching from the crowd, Lianne says stepping up on the stage to do her first six minutes of comedy is one of the scariest things she has ever done.
"I was excited but very nervous and I dribble when I'm nervous, so that didn't help," Lianne laughs.
But the audience loved her and Lianne was hooked, and now makes the 200km round trip with Gordon by her side whenever she can.
"The rewards are amazing," she enthuses. "You come off stage and you're just spinning, you're so happy and exhilarated. So, it's worth every bit of effort."
Lianne says all her material, which she always runs past her husband of 10 years, is inspired by real events in her life and she admits she's got a lot to work with.
The 62-year-old was only 17 when she had her first baby and was stunned at her six-week check-up to discover she was pregnant again.
The shock continued nine months later when she gave birth to not one but two babies, which her maternity carers hadn't picked up on while she was pregnant.
"I had three children under one at 18 and it moulded who I was. Seven years later,I got pregnant again and lo and behold it was another set of twins, so we had five kids. It was a wonderful time – I loved it."
Her two sets of twins, Misty and Troy, 43, and Nick and Sam, 37, are now building families of their own, and between them given Lianne 14 grandchildren and a great-grandchild who arrived last year.
As she nears retirement age, Lianne admits she'd love for stand-up comedy to become the career that carries her through her twilight years.
"It would really be wonderful to be able to have stand-up comedy as a profession. I think it's really good to see an older woman, and a Māori woman, out on stage," asserts Lianne. "Hopefully, it will inspire other older people to not put any restrictions on what they might want to try."
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  • undefined: Rebekah Hebenton

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