Rachel Hunter speaks candidly about losing her mum

It's a process and moving through grief takes time.
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You’ll be glad to know that even the most super of supermodels aren’t immune to the effects of time. Yes, all right, I’ll admit that they seem less immune than the rest of us – please, see the photos in this story of Rachel Hunter at age 47 for your proof – but still; they age.

In between shots during her NEXT cover shoot, tall and beautiful and ethereal in white, Rachel is leaning over to show us her hair parting so we can check for greys. She doesn’t get many of them, she says, but her mum is always inspecting her hair and pulling out the strays when they do appear.

She’s chuckling as she tells this story, in the wry way we all do when we talk about our bodies, and our mums, but then there is a pause. The day of the cover shoot is the one-month anniversary of her mother’s death and Rachel has just caught herself using the present tense.

The briefest flash of raw emotion flits across her face, and then she catches herself, and returns to her spot in front of the camera.

It’s too soon to talk about the death of her mother, Rachel warns me, as we sit down the following day for our chat.

We’re tucked into a TVNZ meeting room, here to discuss her show Tour of Beauty, the personality-driven travel show, whose second series kicked off on August 23 on TVNZ1. And yet the memory of Janeen Phillips is everywhere. She’s in the spirituality that infused Rachel’s child-hood, she’s in the collection of necklaces she wears around her neck.

She is everywhere and yet she is not, and so the conversation gently circles back to her without us even trying.

At the stage when our interview is taking place, Rachel’s six months in New Zealand is drawing to an end. She’s been uploading picture after picture of some of our most scenic spots on her Instagram – Raglan, Te Henga, Bridal Veil Falls, Pakiri Beach.

But she’s characteristically esoteric about her time in New Zealand, and the beautiful, devastating, healing time she has had here, describing being back home as part of her “just letting things take their course” attitude to life.

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In a world full of media-trained celebrities, who are programmed to give sound-bite answers, talking to Rachel is a different experience. She speaks in a stream of consciousness style, because she is so passionate about what she’s saying and she wants you to feel that connection too.

Despite being so well-known, despite being at a stage in her career where she could simply trot out the same five answers, despite being knee-deep in grief, she is one of the least blasé or jaded people you could ever meet. It’s incredibly engaging… even if it does make her slightly hard to keep up with in conversation.

She is well aware of this, telling me early on, mid-sentence on a different topic, “By the way, I’ll jump around a lot in an interview; you’ll have to put things back in order, because I talk in short phrases – that’s how they are in my head.”

Getting her own words out there has been a crucial tool for Rachel during her journey through this grief. It was an unexpected place, her social media accounts, where she chose to share them.

Models’ Instagram accounts are the biggest currency in the new beauty world order – in Tour of Beauty, a New York agent admits they’re booking people based on followers, rather than experience – but with Rachel, you don’t get a heavily filtered, perfect insight into a perfect world. You get everything.

She kept an intimate visual record of her mother’s battle with cancer, the “hideous disease”, as she described it. On Mother’s Day, there was a photo of Rachel’s hand clasped with her mother’s; then there was her youngest child Liam, 22, curled up asleep on a hospital mattress at his grandmother’s bedside, Rachel writing, “Liam & I sleep here at night, as many have before to be with their sick loved ones, while the rest of the family gets rest for what the next day might bring.”

Rachel chose to announce her mother’s death through the same platform,alongside a family photo, telling the world that her mother had died with “a complete circle of love sitting beside her”.

When I ask Rachel why she chose to be so honest, and why she picked Instagram, there is an uncharacteristically long pause.

“There is… life is… I don’t know,” she says finally, thinking for a minute before continuing. “When I say it on my Instagram, I say it in my words. It’s not sensationalised into headlines, it doesn’t become someone else’s perception of what’s written down.

I wanted to take it into my own hands, because it was my journey, but also… everybody is faced with this at some point in their life. And I wanted to share it in my thoughts and my words. Because if I handed that into somebody else’s hands, it becomes their perception. And death is part of life.”

Perception, she says, is everything. “We can choose to go down the rotten path of misery. Or you can say, ‘How can I have a better perspective on this?’ Look, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns, but I’m choosing to see the more positive side of this… because I ain’t going down that rabbit hole. Being a miserable sad person doesn’t work for me.”

That irrepressible enthusiasm is one of the reasons Tour of Beauty is such watchable television. The idea of a travel show is nothing new, and the concept of a white, blonde, Western woman going to different places and trying out all those indigenous rituals could have been borderline cringe in someone else’s hands. But no matter what she stumbles across, Rachel as the host remains a judgement-free zone – she’s there to learn, and help the viewers learn as well.

The first season, back in 2014, was perfectly timed as Rachel had wrapped variety show New Zealand’s Got Talent and was wondering about what was going to come next.

“Renee and Liam had left home and I had finished, as far as being the mother where you’re packing lunches and driving them to school.”

Her two children are well and truly grown-up now; Liam is a professional ice hockey player based in LA, and Renee, 24, lives in the UK, where she recently graduated from London Contemporary Dance School.

Rachel herself has been based in LA for years; she lives in a 1930s French country-style home close to the exclusive Sunset Strip area. But her time in New Zealand shooting the reality competition show proved a turning point.

Bettina Hollings and Darryl McEwen, the executive producers of Imagination Television, the production company behind NZ’s Got Talent, wanted to keep working with Rachel and so the three of them sat down to nut out a plan.

Rachel had grown up seeing the world as her dad had worked for the airlines, and her mum had raised the children to be open to spirituality and beliefs from around the world.

Add to that the fact Rachel had been travelling for work since her big break in modelling at age 16, and you have the perfect recipe for a show about global beauty. But she was keen to make it less about what’s on your face and more about what’s in your soul, a wider look at what beauty is and how that changes throughout the world.

“I wanted to transform beauty from not just the western external. We say ‘Look at this beautiful day, look at this beautiful flower,'” she says.

“Beauty is such a huge word for so many different things and that’s what the TV show eventually showed. It was just as much about the humanity, the community behind these ideas. And the real people we saw in each episode, and their authenticity, made them the real stars of the show.”

The first season was a tremendous success, and was picked up to run in the US, Asia, Australia, Spain, Italy and Brazil. For the second season, they wanted to go straight to the heart of the idea of Western beauty: the Americas.

I’ve seen two episodes: New York and Miami, and Rachel is keen to hear, in particular, what I thought of the Miami one because it takes a different turn to what you’d expect. Miami + beauty = bikinis, tanned girls, beach parties, right? Wrong.

The show taps in the octogenarian culture of the Florida city, and a group of retirees about to get their latest round of plastic surgery.

What could have been a depressing indictment of the battle to stay young in fact becomes something different – they don’t want to look younger, per se, they just want to look good. They’ve got dates to go on! They’ve got sexy lives to lead! They don’t care if you know they’re getting plastic surgery!

“They were blatantly honest about it,” Rachel laughs. “All the younger generations are like, ‘No… I haven’t had anything done. What do you mean? My face is just naturally like this!’ I mean… shut the f**k up! Your cheekbones are up by your eyeballs!”

Sexy attitudes aside, Rachel says she found her time with them unexpectedly touching.

“Obviously, having been on this journey with mum recently… it’s really important in our culture to open that up and see – these are the wise ones, they have these beautiful stories and they still want to live. This whole tapestry has added another layer to my life. We’re always ‘Youth, youth, youth’, but to show that life doesn’t end after you start getting your pension… I think people will be very affected by this.”

The idea of ageing in a visible sense is not easy for a lot of women. Rachel is open about the fact that before Tour of Beauty came into her life, she was starting to feel self-conscious.

“I was reaching 43, 44 and I had insecurity about my neck area, so I’d always wear scarves. After season one, I came home and I was like, ‘I don’t give a shit if I’m wrinkly around my neck!’

“A lot of the show made me embrace where I was in my life and who I was,” she says. “I remember, I used to feel so inadequate walking into a room. People would say to me, ‘Oh my god, how can you feel this way?’ But now, it’s just so different. Now I’ll walk into a room and just smile. It comes down to experience, I think. And confidence.”

That confidence is on full display in season two, along with other things. The New York episode basically opens with Rachel in a thong, on a beauty therapist’s table, with electric pads dotted all over her bottom, getting a butt facial. So she’s really become better at putting herself out there, I venture?

“I’ve become pretty fearless when it comes to things like that. I mean… I had an enema on TV in the India episode,” she reminds me. “You can’t go back from that. The butt facial was quite PG in comparison.”

But hand-in-hand with that confidence is the open quality that still makes her, multi-million-dollar LA property aside, feel like Our Rachel. She’s not afraid to share the messy stuff. As she puts it, “Vulnerability is a powerful place for women,” and part of the Tour of Beauty process was coming to terms with how it changed her along the way.

Midway through filming the first season, Rachel recalls returning to her home in LA and feeling like a completely different person.

“I’d lost a lot of weight, I came home and opened the fridge, and was like ‘I don’t know what to eat any more.’ Learning about what we are doing to our food, in comparison to these other countries… everything started changing for me. I started questioning everything.”

Renee and Liam, she laughs, were hilariously cautious of her overseas shopping habits upon every return.

“My poor children – they were both always, ‘Oh god… what’s she going to bring home now. Either it’s going to be another rug, or blanket, or another strange thing we haven’t eaten yet…'”

So she’s always been a collector? Oh yes, she says. Like a lot of travellers, she wears aspects of her journey on her person at all times. With our interview time drawing to a close, I ask her one final question: can she explain the significance of the necklaces she’s wearing? There’s a ‘Love’ necklace from her sister Jacqui, there’s a heart from Liam and Renee.

There’s an evil eye necklace – “the only one that’s ever stayed on me; normally when someone gives me an evil eye, it drops off right away” – there are Rakesh beads from India, and a Ganesh pendant, “the remover of obstacles”.

There’s a necklace accidentally left over from yesterday’s NEXT shoot – “oh sh*t, that’s not mine!” – and then there is one more, a clear quartz crystal. Her mother’s.

“I bought it for her years ago, so I wear it now,” she says, then pauses.

“Look… I’m still going through it. And I think in order to give a full, honest description of going through something like this, it has to be done through time. Just like anything of significance. I don’t think it’s ever something you come full circle with, I think it’s a process. The devotion that comes with making someone’s passing as beautiful and peaceful and loving as possible… it’s important and it’s selfless. And everybody goes through this – no-one is singled out, in this big wide world of ours. We’re all just human. And I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to stop us from going to the other side.”

And with that, our time together to talk about beauty, and the world, and ageing and living and dying, is done. Not your normal television series interview, but then again, not your average supermodel.

Rachel Hunter’s Tour of Beauty screens Wednesdays at 8pm on TVNZ 1.

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