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Day drinking with the Champagne Lady

The emergence of the mysterious and timeless Anne ‘The Champagne Lady’ Batley Burton as a natural born New Zealand celebrity has been the greatest treat of Real Housewives of Auckland. Alex Casey spent a few hours in her strange world.

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Day drinking with the Champagne Lady

“I’d rather save all the animals and bugger the people to be honest.” The Champagne Lady let out her now-infamous monotonous cackle. We were speeding through the winding Kumeu roads in her Porsche back towards the city – possibly a few too many Jacquart champagnes deep, one of my eyes definitely shutting on its own. She wore thick driving sunglasses that started out deep purple and faded to lilac. She looked like a fancy, dainty version of Bono, except maybe even more charitable – if you can believe it.

A few hours earlier, Anne Batley Burton of The Real Housewives of Auckland had picked me up from my terrible dilapidated flat in her jillion dollar car. If you haven’t been watching the show, Anne is the chuckling housewife with a champagne glass in her hand at every turn, an etiquette-obsessed woman from another era who says good things like “wang dang doodle” and bad things regarding Mongolia. She’s also an incredible businesswoman and a die-hard animal activist. In fact, her sole reason for doing The Real Housewives of Auckland was to “give a voice to the stray cats” and promote her charity The New Zealand Cat Foundation.

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PUSSY PALACE PUSSIES, GOOSE CREEK

Although she carries the unmistakably refined air of Ancient Egypt-level old money, Anne’s father built his local publishing empire with nothing. Growing up in the depression era, he started Batley Printing & Publishing in his 30s, a successful business which would eventually expand to become New Zealand’s first credit card manufacturer. Anne took over the company in her early 20s, becoming New Zealand’s first female company director – literally printing off what I like to call ‘free money’ cards like party invitations. It’s a rich irony.

As she often sits in the Housewives power rankings, Anne was always one of the brightest among her peers, beginning university at the ripe old age of 16. These days, she continues to import her favourite brand, Champagne Jacquart, as well as barrels and capsules sourced from France and Spain to sell to local winemakers. Part of that terrible sounding job means countless trips to France, so luckily she has a house in Provence. After skipping more than 30 New Zealand winters on the French Riviera she had returned home to film Real Housewives, and I couldn’t wait for some one-on-one time, to use a Bachelor phrase.

I had been nervously pacing around the lounge for 15 minutes, genuinely terrified she would want to pull over and come in. That seems like something that someone obsessed with etiquette would do. Did I need a corsage? Maybe if I curtseyed enough times she wouldn’t notice the mould on the ceiling, the stained carpet or the fact that one of our cats was currently at the vet for drinking the rotten water collected through a leak in our ceiling.

Oh my god, I bet she’s never even seen a leak in a ceiling.

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THE FORMAL DINING ROOM, GOOSE CREEK

After a quick confused phone call as to my location – I tried to direct her using relatable bearings like Ben & Jerry’s and Burger Wisconsin, only to settle on the much more appropriate landmark of SPQR – she was in sight, crawling down my narrow street in her luxury car. For the next 40 minutes we were trapped together in her batmobile, fueled by champagne and discounted cat food. Me in the passenger’s side, two bottles of champagne in the back seat, a boot full of Jimbo’s.

We swooped past Grey Lynn’s delicious Matamata bakery. I took a conversational punt. “They do good pies there,” I offered, mouth dry and brain doing a death march towards the impossibility of us finding any common ground on this long car ride. “I used to own it,” she replied. Just claaaasssic banter. I was too scared to say anything about any other establishments on our drive to Goose Creek, just in case she owned any of those. MOTAT? The Zoo? The ocean? Nothing was safe.

Pie empire aside, I was keen to know what Anne thought about the world of cosmetic treatments and surgery, especially after Julia Sloane’s horrifying vampire neck transfusion that had aired previously on the show. Turns out she’s never had anything done. “I don’t want to be a desperado,” she said pointedly, before sharing her key beauty tips that had been passed down from her mother.

The first was to always lie on your back when you sleep, to which I laughed – until I realised she was dead serious. “I sleep on my back with both arms crossed like I’m in a coffin.” She was the one laughing this time.

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ANNE AND HER OLIVE HARVEST AT GOOSE CREEK. PHOTO: ANNE BATLEY BURTON/FACEBOOK

The other key piece of advice she shared, another passed down from her mother, was to make “few” expressions but “if you do, make it a good one”. Anne lamented a period in her life when, after injuring her collarbone, she would often wake up frowning because of the pain. “That did some damage,” she said, referring to her non-existent frown lines, before pulling over and buying a large bag of leeks from Fruit World (“it’s cheaper than the Countdown”). Rich people: they go nuts for a cheap leek.

The thing about Anne the Champagne Lady is that she loves animals maybe even more than she loves the bubbly stuff and definitely more than she loves leeks. As we headed to Huapai down the Northwestern motorway, Anne’s eyes became misty as she remembered a tragic event that had taken place on that same stretch of road.

During rush hour one day, she had been bombing down the freeway in her Bentley when she saw a pukeko that had been hit by a car. Frenzied, Anne exited and got back on the motorway to pull over next to its flailing feathery body. With the pukeko doing a death screech, wing battered and leg munched, Anne rang Animal Patrol. Due to the dangerous location, they couldn’t do anything for her… so she called the police, naturally.

Highway Patrol turned up several minutes later, took one look at the squashed pukeko and shook their damn heads. It was all on Anne and a kind stranger who had pulled over to save this poor puke’s life. She threw her phone to the ground and chucked a sheet over the pukeko. “I was stressed to the max,” she said, still peering pensively into the distance, too far to possibly be focusing on the road in front of her. Even if we were about to crash, I didn’t mind dying in that moment with a celestial being at my side.

Cradling the broken bird her arms, Anne arrived at the nearest vet. Much like Highway Patrol, the vet took one look and shook their damn head. Anne was beside herself, gently weeping as the vet revealed the only option left was to put it to sleep. As the injection went in and the pukeko slowly crossed over to the heavenly swamp, Anne rested her face down on the operating table next to the dying bird, eyes filled with tears. She stared deep into its soul as it took its final breaths and, staring right back, the pukeko performed one final act of gratitude.

It pecked her right in the eyeball.

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PUKEKOS HAVE NO MERCY. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

As she finished telling me about her bleeding, swollen eye socket, I was half crying with laughter and half with sadness. Luckily, the unwarranted pukeko attack was not enough to put Anne off animal advocacy, and she continues to re-home cats and care for cat colonies in the community. She looks after over 140 cats at her Goose Creek estate, and regularly feeds the “Parnell pussies” with her dinged up discount cans of cat food – she has a whole shed full of the stuff.

On arrival at Goose Creek Estate, I observed that there were, in fact, a fair few geese knocking about. They waddled down the small jetty to her man-made lake, completely unaware they lived on the property of New Zealand TV royalty. Her groundsman Alan greeted us from the car in his on-brand Jacquart polo – Anne’s imported champagne brand – and helped us inside. “He anticipates my needs,” she told me. Cathy, the woman who looks after the cats, waved from afar. I am still unsure whether or not she actually lives in The Pussy Palace.

Walking into Anne’s house, I was struck with the exact same feeling I had walking onto the set of Days of Our Lives. The smell. The endless ornaments. The wealthy, old-timey aesthetic that I thought only existed in soap operas and Gilmore Girls. A giant oil painting of a young Anne hung in the hallway, from when she was a dancing girl on Telethon and hand-glued 15,000 crystals to her gown. I’m no art historian, but the painting seemed to predate even the earliest Telethon by at least a few hundred years. Every inch of the wall was covered in photographs of Anne and her cats, as well as a few impressive pieces of abstract art which, on closer inspection, also contained images of her and her cats.

I was very conscious not to knock anything over. The shelves were lined with many small gilded vases, china dishes and antique bowls, all of which seemed highly likely to contain some ashes – or at least a mystery bone of some kind. On a shelf sat pill boxes, and novelty-sized photo books about wine and motherhood that you might buy from a place called Trendz with a Z and give to your stepmother who you’ve never really connected with for her birthday.

“My place in Parnell’s a bit more modern,” she said, as I stared at all of the fragile things perched in their delicate cabinets. “We’ve got the loveliest Ralph Lauren table.”

It was at that moment I learned that Ralph Lauren made tables.

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THE FORMAL LIVING ROOM, GOOSE CREEK

Anne led us through the garage towards the Pussy Palace, sweeping back blanket-covered cages like the scene in The Others to reveal mewing cats in various stages of malaise. Ringworm, cat flu, nerve damage. All being kept in isolation until they got better and could join their hundred-strong cohort of fluffy brothers and sisters. “Rusty came to me with both his eyes out on his cheeks,” she cooed, evoking a scene less Milo and Otis and more Hostel Part 7. Rusty looked at me with his empty sockets and my heart exploded. She told me the story of another cat she acquired that didn’t do a poo for months on end, eventually unleashing a historic turd that was over 30cm long. “I’ve got photos of it if you want to see.” I didn’t want to see.

Inside the Pussy Palace – an outdoor enclosure larger than my whole house – the air was thick with a wee stench that caught in the back of the throat. But, most importantly, there were cats racing around everywhere. Anne rattled off their names, many of which feature on her website, like a frazzled teacher doing roll call: Pansy, Cutie, Scully, Champagne, a more problematic black cat named Obama. They all populated various parts of the indoor-outdoor enclosure, hanging off chicken wire, casting stink-eyes from tiny “cat apartments” and hissing from bookshelves. It was a cat paradise and a cat warzone, always in need of more volunteers to pat kitties and scoop poopers.

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PUSSY PALACE PUSSIES, GOOSE CREEK

Anne’s charity, the New Zealand Cat Foundation, seeks to desex community cats, rehome others, and give ageing pussies a place to see out their days in palatial luxury. Anne recently rehomed a family of three cats, only to have them returned to the palace after six months due to one of the children having a severe cat allergy. She can’t find anyone else who can take them, but refuses to decline any cat who needs a place to live. Anne welled up telling me about it, and I welled up at her welling up. Nearby, a cat with an eye infection probably welled up too. We all just stood there, welling up.

As a cat owner, I know it can be hard to have nice things. One of my cats is obsessed with one of my bras and has bitten a thousand tiny teeth marks into it, and the other sheds his black fur across every conceivable surface – even inside the fridge, somehow. I asked Anne how she manages having expensive belongings whilst also wrangling a small army of decaying pussies. She doesn’t mind letting things get a little rough around the edges, but dragged Cuddly Bear (aka her husband Richard Burton) for always leaving the wardrobe doors open. “The cats love playing and scratching, meanwhile his $5000 jacket’s ruined.”

MORE PUSSY PALACE PUSSIES

MORE PUSSY PALACE PUSSIES

The pièce de résistance of the morning – and I must reiterate that it was still the morning – was Anne’s imported Champagne Jacquart. She opened a bottle of brut and a rosé, gently easing the cork out. “Champagne shouldn’t pop, but make the sound of a satisfied woman,” she advised sternly. I held the champagne by the stem – humiliatingly calling it a stalk – as she scuttled the bottle back to the fridge to chill (“nothing worse than warm champagne”).

We talked champagne etiquette, and the importance of polishing one’s glasses. Apparently Anne became so notorious for her sparkling glass standards that restaurants would do an extra polish if they knew she was coming. One poor waiter at Soul bar even bled profusely in pursuit of perfection. “He polished the champagne flutes so hard he sliced his hand opened.” She laughed that incredible laugh. “Blood everywhere.”

More of Anne’s etiquette essentials were revealed over the course of the morning, including a horror of people licking their fingers. She aired out Cuddly Bear for licking his after eating chicken at breakfast. “I can’t stand it,” she said. I was simply reeling at this new chicken-as-a-breakfast-food revelation. “My father used to make me lovely flounder for breakfast actually,” she added.

I was determined to get an answer from Anne about how she greets new people, as I’m a serial offender at the awkward hug-handshake-shaka-kiss all at once. Anne insists on always kissing, which is hellish news for me, and said she would have kissed me today if she hadn’t been so sick. “That’s how the French do it,” she revealed. “They do three kisses in Provence, which can be a bit of an ordeal.” I noted that for the next time I pop over to Provence. Also, where and what is Provence?

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A GOOSE CREEK VIEW

With the champagne empty and a bellyful of quiche that surprisingly didn’t contain leeks, it was time for me to descend back to the damp underworld of my own reality. We jumped back in the Porsche as Anne sped away from the gaggle of geese sprinting after the back bumper. “That’s why there are all the dents in the car,” she said, maybe joking. The ride home was a total blur, as I floated in and out of consciousness to hear Anne ranting about Gareth Morgan one moment, and how much she loves “La Bamba” the next.

She dropped me back in the city on her way to the Parnell Pussies, and it was time for my moment of truth. As we said farewell, I thought of Provence and how best to farewell my new etiquette fairy godmother. She leaned in and I panicked, kissing her directly on the forehead like a priest to a newborn babe.

Probably not the right etiquette, but close enough.


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