Paul Henry is no stranger to criticism. For years, the broadcaster has been the subject of discussion and disapproval for his forthright and often antagonistic presenting style. His departure from TVNZ’s Breakfast show after a series of controversial moments in October 2010 was a hotly debated topic that even now surprises Paul, such was the intensity of the scrutiny.
So when the Kiwi presenter’s Australian show Breakfast was slammed by the media earlier this month, with Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph calling it an “unmitigated disaster”, Paul took it in his stride – again. “I know better than most that what you read in the paper isn’t always the truth,” says the 51-year-old with his trademark candour, from the charming two-bedroom house in Sydney he shares with his partner Linzi Dryburgh.
“The paper said at one point the show had 1000 viewers; what they didn’t say was that they had picked one moment, at the very start of the show at 6am, just in Sydney – they didn’t include anywhere else in Australia. It was an extremely selective number.”
Despite his defence of the programme, Paul says the going is tough on the Channel Ten show, admitting it has a long way to go before it’s the resounding success he still hopes it will be. “The programme is still very much in its infancy, it’s still finding its way,” he says, adding that he has no plans to leave the show before his three-year contract is over.
“It’s new for everyone at the network and it’s currently a country mile away from being a product I’m happy with. But the show only started in February, and it’s up against two very established breakfast shows. Even if it was absolutely brilliant, it probably still wouldn’t be doing much better than it is at the moment, because people need to know it’s there.”
Paul’s determined to make that happen, in part because he’s thoroughly enjoying living Sydneyside – for now at least. “I love New Zealand and I will end up back there – I can’t see myself growing old here,” he says. “I desperately miss my daughters, I miss Mum, my beach house in Napier, taking my boat out on the beautiful harbour. But I am happy here. There are things that make me content. It’s very cleansing, being here – I’ve decluttered my life. Things are much simpler.”
Despite Paul’s notoriously antisocial nature, he has happily settled into a routine that includes visiting the local weekend markets, where he has acquired dozens of oddments that make up his living space, and he adores having visitors from home.
While his mum Olive hasn’t yet been over to see her son’s new pad – until very recently she didn’t even have a passport – all three of his daughters, Lucy (23), Sophie (21) and Bella (19) regularly come over for long weekends with their dad.
While Paul is as protective as always about his personal space, he is clearly delighted when his loved ones come to visit. When New Zealand Woman’s Weekly catches up with him he is happily showing his best friend, Weekly food editor and celebrity cook Annabelle White, around his new house. His home is typically Paul – eclectic, unique and extremely organised.
“It was tempting to re-create my New Zealand life, but I specifically didn’t want to do that – I wanted to put it in storage and dip in and out of it for the next few years until I come back,” he explains. “So I’ve completely furnished the house with items I’ve bought here – the only New Zealand touches are personal things that I could fit in a suitcase, like pictures of the girls.”
And just as Paul’s house is dramatically different from his New Zealand places, so, surprisingly, is the man himself. “This Paul is much more mellow than the one in New Zealand,” observes Annabelle, despite Paul’s protestations that he hasn’t “tailored” himself to fit into his new home country. “Even with all these expectations on him, he’s calmer. Paul’s such a gypsy – just like he did when he went to America last year, he’s adapted to fit.”
Not everything is different though. “Some things are definitely the same – I knew I was home when he said, ‘Annabelle! Don’t touch that!’ within a minute of me walking through the door!” she laughs.
One of the most noticeable changes is that Paul has lost weight – a by-product, he says, of walking everywhere. “I don’t exercise and until now I have never, ever walked. I walk everywhere, partly because everything’s so close – there are cafés, pubs and shops within a few minutes’ walk of my house. “But I also walk because it would take twice as long to drive here, and any decent car would get ruined within days.
So while in New Zealand I have a fleet of luxury cars, here I have a very boring car that I wouldn’t consider owning at home!” He’s even made friends with the neighbours. “I still don’t like people – but there’s this wonderful 75-year-old lady who found me, and I’ve semi-latched on,” he grins mischievously.
“In Auckland I’m a man of tools, but here I have nothing, and her husband has a saw attached to the end of a large pole that I use to trim my trees, which is why I keep the relationship going.”
One aspect that hasn’t changed, however – much to Annabelle’s frustration – is his utter lack of kitchen equipment. “Your whole house is completely furnished – and your kitchen drawers are empty!” she laments to Paul. “Next time I come over I’m staying longer and I’m going to completely kit out your kitchen.”
Although the friends have spent months apart, they’ve quickly slipped back into their friendly banter. “When I think of my house as being complete, I don’t necessarily think of the kitchen as part of it,” fires back Paul. “I’ve got running water and a fridge for wine – I’m good!”
Despite the controversy that once again surrounds the polarising presenter, it’s quite obvious when spending time with him that he is as happy as he says he is. “I like being a smaller fish in a bigger pond,” he says. “When I go to the local market on a Saturday, I’ll only be recognised once or twice – there’s a level of anonymity I don’t have in New Zealand. Sydney is a completely different life for me.”
And as for his beleaguered Breakfast show? “There are pretty big expectations on us, yes, but you can’t meet those expectations if you worry about it,” he insists. “I wasn’t nervous when I started and there’s no benefit in being nervous now. I have a job to do, I was employed because they think I can do it and I’m doing my best. At the end of the day, if it all turns to dust it’s just been one more fascinating square in the rich tapestry. When I do come back to New Zealand, I’ll keep the house, and it will be my retreat. Right now, this is a new part of my life that I’m bonding with and I love it.”