Gilda Kirkpatrick and Michelle Blanchard on Fame
Two of the most famous women in New Zealand right now, Gilda Kirkpatrick and Michelle Blanchard, tell Rebecca Barry Hill why they don’t want to be labelled as celebrities
It doesn’t take long for the disturbing truth about The Real Housewives of Auckland to emerge.
“If I go to Michelle’s house, I’ll wear jeans,” says Gilda Kirkpatrick, as false eyelashes are applied to her lids and 19 litres of spray to her hair.
“Jeans and a T-shirt,” says Michelle Blanchard, as her long hair is curled in tongs. “You should see me in the supermarket.”
“Sometimes you’ll find me in Ugg boots and tracksuit pants,” adds Gilda, who for the last several weeks has wowed viewers in a stream of Gucci, Zambesi and Dior.
“I honestly don’t enjoy shopping,” Michelle continues. “No, I get exhausted and overwhelmed. I like to be in and out of the store. Or online quickly and that’s it.”
Gilda: “I don’t really do spas and treatments so I’m hopeless in that. And I hate shopping.”
We’re backstage at a shoot for Viva’s Fame issue, starring the most fashion-savvy and stylish of the cast, and illusions are shattering faster than you can say ‘I’m a celebrity, get me outta here!’ Gilda and Michelle, who met years ago on the Auckland social circuit, say they are normal housewives who do their own washing, cooking and cleaning — Gilda has even set foot in a South Auckland hardware store — while revealing they are not at all normal housewives.
When a minor fake tan issue on Gilda’s face threatens to derail the shoot, she grips her smartphone with blue pointed talons and summons an assistant to bring a facial stain remover, with expensive-looking beads that are massaged into her left cheek. Her arrival at the studio in mysterious dark glasses and a dramatic scarf is preceded by a delivery of Champagne. Also, Michelle has just been to New York. So all is not lost.
“Well, I may not have invited Anne to a nude drawing class,” confesses Gilda, of the Cat Lady bonding episode.
“And I may not have invited Angela for coffee,” says Michelle, of the moment the two models reconciled over that plus-sized comment.
What’s not in contention is the authenticity of the fan favourite. Gilda is just as she is on the show: direct, cool to the point of indifference, and the clear top dog, even in the dangerously swivelly makeup chair, artificial tan and all.
She does most of the talking, at times talking over Michelle, whose softly spoken voice and demure demeanour feels a world away from her edgy presence on the show. Michelle makes it known she’s not keen on a particular pair of shoes picked for the shoot but is a sport about wearing them nonetheless. There’s no diva here. Then again, Julia Sloane isn’t in the room.
As a team of hair and makeup artists work their magic on the pair, we talk about the seductive, slippery, strangely nonexistent nature of celebrity in this country.
“In New Zealand it doesn’t matter who a person is,” says Gilda, “whether they’re an actor, a singer, whatever. We don’t have celebrities, we don’t have a celebrity culture.”
Michelle: “What about sporting stars?”
Gilda: “Yeah, but they’re still not referred to as celebrities. They’re sports stars, they’re All Blacks, they’re known by different titles. The idea of celebrity in New Zealand is considered a cheap kind of label, and people only use it to knock people rather than celebrate someone’s achievements.”
Less so the younger generation, those who have grown up with reality TV, influenced by America’s celebrity culture.
“That’s true,” says Michelle. “My daughter just loves the Kardashians, taking selfies, being on social media, that is just what they do. Facebook’s for the old people. They like Instagram.”
What does Michelle think of the Kardashians, (whose most famous member recently succumbed to the most perilous aspect of fame when she was held at gunpoint)? “I love them,” she says. “I think they’re fantastic. I take my hat off to them because they’ve just done so well. From being no one to where they are now, I think it’s amazing. They’re making money.”
What would she say if her own children told her they wanted the world to know them by name too?
“I’d tell them, ‘be famous for the right reasons’. Not for taking your clothes off [ala Kim]. I think my kids know there’s more to life than being famous.”
Gilda: “Hopefully, I raise my kids [so] that they don’t come to me and say ‘I want to be famous’. If they’re destined to be, and they’ve done well to get noticed, then they will be.”
Whether or not you believe New Zealand lacks a celebrity culture, Gilda and Michelle’s personal stars have both risen since taking part in the show. Equally RHOAKL has attracted numerous detractors — and several of the Housewives have come under attack personally — but both women say the positive attention outweighs the negative.
“Living in a small community, people have certain perceptions,” says Gilda. “If anything this programme has given them a more clear and accurate window into who it actually is that they thought they knew.”
Was this part of the reason she chose to do the show? Prior to Housewives, it wasn’t unheard of for the so-called “Persian Princess” to be referred to as “famous for being famous”, or at the least for marrying a much older, extremely wealthy man, and frequenting the glossiest Auckland parties.
But the mother of two, creative director and co-owner of the digital creative agency Us&Co insists she did it to promote her astronomy-focused educational children’s books, Astarons. She’s the first to admit it’s an incredibly unorthodox method of getting attention, one that has probably meant, on more than one staged social occasion, wishing those AK47s from her Iranian homeland (infamously mentioned in an early episode) were at her fingertips.
“But often things that are related to science or real issues don’t get as much air time as entertainment.”
She’s having the last laugh if you consider her book signing made it into the show, and she’s now fielding inquiries from overseas.
Her most far-flung correspondence comes from London and the US, where the international versions of the show have spawned long-distance fans.
“I have no regrets,” she says. “Unfortunately the writers and producers have focused more on the comical aspect of things, more than I would have liked. But then again, it’s still given me a platform to speak to the media about it and get a bit more of a following.
‘‘It’s not that I personally wanted to gain fame. It’s given me a positive avenue to communicate something that is actually effective and going to make a change in children’s lives or futures. So it’s not about me and I wouldn’t care if nobody remembers me — that would probably be a good thing.”
Likewise, Michelle says she’s pleased she did the show, and is blown away by the outpouring of support following its most controversial episode, in which Julia referred to her with a racist slur.
“It’s been amazing. That’s what I’ve taken from it. And people who have said to me they’ve suffered racism in the past or their parents have. It’s good to have people talking about it. It’s a positive thing.”
As for feeling “famous”, things have definitely changed. Before, people might have occasionally recognised Michelle from the odd TV commercial. “But that would be it,” she says. “It’s not like I’d walk down the road and everyone wants to take a selfie. Whereas with this …”
Now, kids regularly approach with their phones. Or they stand and stare, too timid to approach. “It’s lovely, although it can be awkward at the same time, especially when you just want to get on with doing what you want to do.”
Gilda: “It’s nice, though. You’d be a liar to say you don’t enjoy, as a human being, positive feedback.
“You can’t look like Michelle and walk down the street and people not notice you or not want to know what’s going on with you.”
Fans are more direct online. “People will ask you questions,” says Michelle. “What sunglasses or jacket are you wearing? How do you feel about this or that? They want to have a conversation.”
Sometimes she responds. Other times she sends out a general message thanking fans for their support. But she’s not concerned about her reality star fading, post-show. Likewise, the notion that fame compromises important things like privacy. “You tell people as much as you want them to know,” she says. “I keep things private. It’s not hard — it’s New Zealand!”
For more on The Real Housewives of Auckland, visit spy.co.nz