Iconic TV presenter Petra Bagust tells Sharon Stephenson about focusing on the things that give her life meaning – a podcast that explores issues like menopause and ageing, and a new role as a media chaplain.
There’s a story about Petra Bagust that tells you everything you need to know about the TV presenter turned podcaster – yesterday one of her neighbours popped over to borrow an egg and Petra “did a dance of joy”.
“We’ve got some land on Great Barrier Island and it’s quite a close community there,” she says. “You can’t always get in your car and drive to the shops, so people share everything from food to tools, and that’s what I’ve been trying to recreate in my Auckland neighbourhood. Yesterday, a neighbour came over to borrow an egg and I was overjoyed that people are joining in because now, more than ever, we all need that sense of community.”
Aotea/Great Barrier is currently on Petra’s mind, because she recently returned from celebrating her 50th birthday there. Scroll though the former TVNZ Breakfast presenter’s Instagram feed and you’ll see the birthday dinner she hosted for 25 of her closest family and friends. As a homage to her love of vibrant shades, the theme was “pops of colour” and Petra exceeded the brief with a hot pink dress and red plastic Birkenstocks that made her look hip and fabulous, but would probably make the rest of us look as though we dressed in the dark.
“I knew I wanted to do something fun for my 50th, so I invited 50 people and 25 of them were able to make it to the island. We sat outside, wrapped in rugs, and had an amazing night.”
Turning 50, she says, felt as comfortable as her party. “I’m pragmatic about my age. If we’re lucky, we get one turn at each year, and I aim to make the most of every year.”
Which is a good segue into Petra’s toe-dip into the podcast market. In March, she launched Grey Areas, a nine-episode podcast for Kiwi women about the things we don’t usually – but probably should – talk about.
“Episodes focused on things I’m curious about – so menopause, having sex with the same partner for years, death and grief. And ageing, of course. I’m particularly curious about the way our society views ageing, especially for women – we’re told we either need to shut up and be invisible or we need to present as young and beautiful, as sexually and reproductively valuable as we once were. You know, that pressure to keep proving our worth to fit a certain script.”
The podcast, which is available on the MediaWorks platform Rova, saw Petra invite everyone from fashion designer Karen Walker to actor Robyn Malcolm and broadcaster Robbie Rakete to her Mt Albert house to chat about issues that are often left out of the mainstream media. “My interview subjects were either someone I knew or knew though their work. We also had medical specialists in the areas of sex and menopause who helped me unpick crunchy issues.”
Most of the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, including from a 22-year-old woman who emailed to say that even though she wasn’t the podcast’s key demographic, listening to it had made her want to appreciate that stage of her life.
“I was so excited about that. A young woman understood what we were doing and will hopefully have greater acceptance when she gets to that stage of her life. ”
Ageing in the spotlight
Petra has been famous longer than she hasn’t been famous, starting on Ice TV with Jon Bridges and Nathan Rarere when she was 22.
Getting older when you’re in the public eye brings its own set of challenges, she admits.
“Ageing is fabulous, but it’s also fabulously confronting. For example, I’d been thinking about going grey for a while and finally stopped dyeing my hair in 2017. I realised I probably wouldn’t be on telly any more, because grey-haired entertainment presenters aren’t common. As far as I know, it’s just me and Jaquie Brown. The first year of going grey was hard, but it’s about loving myself and being in a place of acceptance. I now realise how cool, easy and freeing having grey hair is.”
Ditto Petra’s attitude to perimenopausal weight gain. “When they weighed me on the plane going to Great Barrier the other day I was like, ‘Oh I’ve gained a few more kilos.’ And yes, I don’t fit all of my clothes any more. But the conventional narrative for bigger women in our society is horrible judgement and criticism – when you’re small it’s good and when you’re bigger it’s not so good. I remember years ago complaining about having small boobs and a friend said to me, be grateful for what you have, such as your long legs. And that’s what ageing is teaching me, the radical power of accepting my body, of training my brain to see the value in the positive and to ignore society’s judgemental attitudes.”
That means you won’t find the mother of three teenagers at war with her body or pushing it to the limit with tough boot-camp-style exercise. “There’s nothing wrong with boot camps, but I’m not interested in the theory that exercise only works if it hurts. To me that’s punishing your body.” Get Petra onto the subject of Botox and she’ll diplomatically say she understands it but doesn’t want to play in that particular arena. “I tried Botox twice, but it didn’t suit me. My face is so expressionful, Botox is a bad fit. Of course I wish I didn’t have bags under my eyes and quite so many lines, but as a friend said, lines tell the story of a life well lived and I’m okay with that.”
Petra and her husband, director of photography Hamish Wilson, have three teenage children – daughter Venetia, 19, and sons Jude, 17, and Teddy, 15. This year, Venetia left home to study design innovation, and I’m curious to know if Petra worries about societal pressures on her daughter’s generation as they hit adulthood.
“When I grew up, the only women on magazine covers were slim and white, with the exception of Naomi Campbell. Now my kids have exposure to a much more diverse and creative set of experiences and narratives, which is fantastic. But is there still pressure on kids to look and behave a certain way? Of course there is. I just hope that these days there’s more opportunity and willingness for them to have conversations about it and maybe say, ‘I don’t want to follow that path.’”
A caring new direction
While we chat, Petra’s dog Otto yawns loudly. As Petra’s dance card is currently full, the two-year-old brindle schnoodle is a key weapon in her self-care arsenal.
“I have a mantra each year and 2022’s is to care for myself. I do yoga with Hamish every morning at home, because exercise has to be convenient, and I take Otto for long walks. Self-care for me is also about identifying what gives me joy and doing it, so things like not going online or into the home office too much at weekends, but sitting and reading a magazine, taking off my make-up every night, taking vitamins and trying to get to bed earlier – but not feeling guilty about it when I don’t. As I say in the podcast, it’s about turning towards myself with kindness.”
Since leaving one of the most high profile jobs on New Zealand television in 2012 (“Breakfast wasn’t a life-giving experience for me”), Petra hasn’t been idle, working as an MC and ambassador for Breast Cancer Cure, Tearfund NZ and the Parenting Place.
She also spent a couple of years learning te reo Māori, an experience she relished. “I’m by no means fluent and want to keep learning it forever. It helped me to deconstruct a Western framework, not discard it, but accept a different way of being, one that’s less critical than the framework I previously had.”
It’s no secret that Petra’s Christian faith has always been a core part of her. That hasn’t changed, and she says it anchors her “to a narrative that’s bigger than myself”.
It was her faith that opened the door to her media chaplaincy work, and in 2021 Petra completed a postgraduate certificate in chaplaincy at the University of Otago. She’d love to eventually do a masters degree in the subject, but in the meantime offers pastoral care to people who work in the media.
“I was part of a group of people who have faith and work in the media, and it’s gone from there. A chaplain sits somewhere between a good friend and a therapist, so it’s really someone to talk to, who will hold space with you. The media are often the first responders to trauma such as homicides or natural disasters and they need to talk about it. I love people and I’m curious and enthusiastic – I just came out that way – so this is a perfect role for me.”
Now that she’s caught the podcast bug, another series of Grey Areas is in the pipeline, along with a new radio show Petra can’t talk about yet.
“Life really is good. And I’m all about making it even better.”