Real Life

What Now star Serena Cooper’s transformation

After years of battling crippling anxiety, the former What Now presenter has found new purpose as a therapist
Selina Nunn

Whether it was milking cows, reporting on the Black Eyed Peas or interviewing Kiwi celebrities, life as a children’s television host was full of fun for Serena Cooper. Few would have guessed that behind her on-screen smiles, the What Now presenter was battling fear, anxiety and crumbling confidence while feeling trapped in a difficult marriage.

Fifteen years later, the pain’s still evident in the 36-year-old’s voice as she opens up about her darkest moments in a bid to help others find the courage to leave unhealthy relationships.

“I masked things well on What Now,” she reflects. “I loved the job, so I tried to keep going.”

Serena has found new joy with boyfriend Sebastian.

Serena was 18 when she landed What Now, fresh out of NZ Broadcasting School, where she found love with her now ex-husband, a fellow student.

“We were both excitable and fresh in the industry, so really connected. Then it was this whirlwind of, ‘Let’s get married!’ We were young and making impulsive decisions. There was also pressure in my community to find a partner, have kids and do that checkbox-life thing.”

Following an engagement at Dreamworld, Australia, the pair wed in Christchurch shortly after Serena’s 21st birthday.

“We both had heaps of family, so I remember having a massive wedding with almost 200 people. It went by so quickly and felt like a daze.”

Serena had to step away from her What Now role.

Weeks later, while holidaying with her in-laws over summer, Serena says she started experiencing issues with her ex after expressing her desire to cut their trip short so they could enjoy some time as newlyweds at their own home.

“I got married really young,” she reflects. “I got engaged at 20, then married a few months after my 21st and that’s when I experienced my first major challenges in life because about a month later, we began having issues. Being so young, I was very unprepared.”

She says her ex was eventually diagnosed with bipolar and ADHD, and while she made efforts to help him through his mental struggles, their relationship turmoil escalated to the point that she began experiencing crippling anxiety.

Having been brought up in a religious household, Serena felt obligated to stay in her marriage. “I felt stuck and like I had to make it work, and religion had a bit to do with that. I’m not a churchgoer in my adult life, but there was that pressure to make it work.”

With pooch Māchi

It was five years of struggles before Serena opened up to her friends and family, and there were three attempts before she successfully walked out.

She spent the following year tackling her anxiety through counselling, family time, and rediscovering passions like dance and psychology. Having worked on Māori television and in radio, she left her media career, noting she had already quit certain jobs amid the tension with her ex.

“I was brought up by matriarchal, sassy women who taught me to be confident, but my confidence slipped away. I could no longer pretend I was this happy-go-lucky person on screen. I needed to put my mental health first.

“Having to start your life again from scratch is the hardest thing. The way I’ve handled feeling angry about losing my career is looking at how better my life is now.”

She has since completed a Masters in counselling and become a therapist. “It almost outweighs what happened because I couldn’t be happier. I didn’t know life could be this good.”

Serena has found love with Volley Ferns and Volley Blacks head coach Sebastián González, who was about to quit dating apps right as Serena joined. She confided in the 35-year-old Chilean about her difficult previous relationship on their first date.

“I thought, ‘I’m gonna put it all on the table and either you take it or leave it’. He listened and was really supportive, so I knew he was right for me. He showed me what a healthy relationship is and what unconditional love looks like.”

The pair live in Christchurch with their Labrador Māchi. They’ve discussed marriage and hope to start a family, following an unexpected pregnancy and devastating miscarriage in 2021.

“We weren’t even trying to get pregnant and accidentally did, then went through losing the baby. I took time off study and Sebastián picked up the slack, helping me by making dinners and being so supportive. Having a good counsellor also helped and not putting pressure on myself to be like, ‘Pull yourself together.'”

Between her divorce, a miscarriage and losing a friend to suicide, Serena’s bravely conquered every obstacle. Having found happiness with Sebastián and new purpose as a therapist, she has launched mental health podcast Rantology.

“There’s been tough times, but the last few years have also been wonderful,” says an emotional Serena. “I’m the first in my family to get a degree, plus a Masters. We’re breaking barriers and breaking the trauma! I feel proud of myself and happy with my life.”

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