He’s been on our television screens for the best part of 10 years, entertaining children on What Now?, millions of Kiwis through his hosting role on New Zealand’s Got Talent and as the winning contestant on Dancing With the Stars.
Now Tamati Coffey has given up the bright lights of television and relocated with civil union partner Tim from Auckland to Rotorua, undergoing a complete lifestyle change.
Strolling through the streets, it’s evident Tamati’s celebrity status is a rare form. Passersby aren’t suddenly star-struck by him – instead, they spot him and smile, embracing him like an old friend, regardless of whether they’ve actually met him before. The 34-year-old can barely move a few paces without someone throwing him a wave, shaking his hand or even giving him a hug.
He has an accessibility to everyday people that few stars have, and it’s something Tamati has cultivated and enjoys.
“I love it,” he says, “though I’ve always had it really. I’m used to it. It’s going to help me this time around though,” he says with a grin.
Tamati was announced in March as Labour’s candidate for Rotorua, the city where his family is from. He hopes to use the reputation he’s built in television and convert that power into votes. Rotorua’s the only place he imagined doing so – the place he calls “100% home”.
“There’s no pretence here,” Tamati tells. “If people want to say hi, they say hi. And then they keep on going with their day. Tim laughs, because I used to be the guy that would walk around with my sunglasses on, cap pulled down and my hood up, trying to fly under the radar.
“But now that I’ve taken this on, I think, ‘Y’know what? I don’t mind being seen. I can be out there now. I’m proud of what I’m doing.’”
Equally proud is Tim. Although it’s been said that it’s never a good idea to work with your partner, Tim has joined Tamati’s team as his campaign manager.
“We’re best mates,” says Tim, “which is just as well, because we’re spending all our time together now.”
His dedication to Tamati’s cause clearly knows no limits. On location at our Weekly photoshoot, it’s suddenly apparent that there are no suitable shoes on hand (leaving Tamati standing on Lake Rotorua’s shores in his thin grey cotton socks). So Tim offers to nip home to grab him a pair.
“My white Converse, please,” Tamati calls after Tim, laughing. “He’ll never come back with the right pair!” Tim quickly reappears, wheeling behind him a suitcase. Yes, he’s got the Converse – along with most of the other shoes from Tamati’s wardrobe.
The next time we see Tim, he’s in their Tutanekai Street Labour offices, talking to a young couple who’re unsure if they’ve registered to vote.
“He’s doing a great job,” says Tamati proudly. “There are times he’s speaking to me and I ask, ‘Are you telling me this as my campaign manager, or are you telling me this as my partner?’ And he’ll reply, ‘I’m telling you this as the campaign manager. Now do it!’
“Tim is honest and, actually, that’s rare because [in politics] people like to tell you things to appease a situation. But in any situation, Tim’s straight up and I need that. He’s my bulldog and he’s got my back. I love that.”
The pair officially declared their love for one another at their civil union ceremony in December 2011, to which the Weekly was invited. They’d decided they wouldn’t wait around to see if the Marriage Amendment Bill would be successful. “Tim and I had a good talk about it and we both thought, ‘You know, we might die tomorrow, let’s do what we can now!’”
Now that the bill has been successful, the pair can apply for an “upgrade” to become officially married – something they will do, in time.
“We’ve said we won’t just yet – not until we have kids,” explains Tamati. “That’ll give it some meaning. It will be nice to mark the occasion when we have a family together.”
Children are, Tamati says, something this devoted pair really want for their future. But for now, the campaign is keeping them busy.
“It will happen when it happens!” Tamati declares. And when it does, he is certain it will be Rotorua where they raise their family.
“Totally, this is the place – this is where I’ve put my flag in the ground.
“My grandparents are buried in these hills. My mum and dad are here. It’s been so long since I lived near them. Right now, Mum is two streets away, and Dad’s around the corner working in the kitchen at The Citz Club.”
Family is what played a key role in Tamati’s decision to run for Labour. Taking almost a year out to travel, he invited his parents along for a few months to experience their first-ever overseas adventure.
“It was Dad’s first time out of the country, his first time getting a passport, and he was so excited,” Tamati recalls.
“But he had to leave his job because he couldn’t get two months off work and when he came back, he couldn’t find work. It’s taken him all year to get one. As a trained chef? Are you kidding me? He should be able to find a job here.”
Spending months sending out his CV, with not even a nibble in return, wore away at his dad’s confidence, Tamati says.
“What had started out as a good thing – ‘Dad, let’s go travelling!’ – turned into this awful thing – ‘Now I don’t have a job and we are struggling.’ I think it’s a real sign of the economy. There are so many people out of work in this area.”
Tamati says it was equally worrying saying goodbye to his sisters, who both left Rotorua to start new lives on Australia’s Gold Coast where they thought they’d have more opportunities. Thankfully, it’s worked out.
“They’re living it up over there! One of my sisters is working at Nando’s and she’s been able to put a deposit on a brand new house – you’d never be able to do that here, so what’s wrong with our economy? Why are we not able to retain these people?”
Pondering on these issues, and seeing the debate over the Marriage Amendment Bill – which he calls “watching people in Wellington decide my future and the futures of a whole generation of young gay people” – Tamati decided it was time to make his move into politics.
“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?” he says with a grin.
So Tamati approached Labour with his plans. “I would have been waiting around forever otherwise,” he says, laughing.
“No-one was going to be tapping me on the shoulder – I had to seek it out myself! They were like, ‘Well, where?’ and I replied, ‘Home is Rotorua.’ And they told me to go for it.”
Tamati immediately rented out an office in the centre of town, and has put his and Tim’s life on hold while they have a go at realising their dreams.
“We’re living off a bit of savings that we have and we’re doing what we can to survive. You don’t get funding to be an aspiring politician!”
Helping him raise that money is a small and dedicated team who’ve rallied around him, including a group of women Tamati refers to as his “red hot ladies”. They come from a range of different backgrounds, ethnicities and ages. Some are inspired by his enthusiasm, some are new to the game, while others are stalwart Labour supporters.
“They do everything from manning the shop, cleaning the tea towels, to helping fundraise with a sausage sizzle.”
Tamati has managed to get a number of young supporters on board too – it’s an age group he’s passionate about inspiring.
“I was speaking in front of 2000 intermediate-aged kids last week, and I got to tell them about following your dreams. I’m living proof of that.
“This started off as a crazy dream, and it’s one thing to have goals, but you have to act on them and take little steps. That’s what I want to do – I want to make a difference.”
Tamati’s Rotorua must-sees
To eat… anywhere along Eat Street. It’s where all the best spots are and it’s geothermally heated!
To relax… head to the Polynesian Spa hot pools.
To learn… the museum. It’s awesome. It’s been revamped to become very interactive and quite Te Papa-esque.
To soak up some Maori culture… down in the Maori Village. It’s free and you can walk through at your own leisure.
To take an iconic photograph… the Government Gardens. It’s one of those places where you know exactly where you are in the country, a quintessential location that you have to visit and take a photo at when you’re in town.
Take a look at Tamati Coffey and Tim Smith’s outrageous wedding here.