Known for over a decade as a social pages fixture and little else, Gilda Kirkpatrick blazed into sharp relief on the just-completed first season of Real Housewives of Auckland. Duncan Greive sat down and drank a bottle of wine with her for On the Lash, our interview series brought to you by Australian wine geniuses Vinomofo. Photography by José Barbosa.
There’s been a lot of talking on the sensational first season of The Real Housewives of Auckland. Angela Stone, wild-eyed and -haired is a torrent of familiar words in strange locations and shapes. Anne ‘The Champagne Lady’ Batley Burton fills all space with a talk of pussy palaces and etiquette. Julia Sloane has muttered witlessly throughout, only once memorably and that for very wrong reasons.
But the breakout star of the series has been the one who has said the least. Gilda Kirkpatrick, the Gucci-clad Iranian emigré mostly just watches, bemused and amused, at the wild scenes around her. She waits and waits and waits. And then she strikes.
One evening, during a dinner at Michelle Blanchard’s Coatesville mansion, Stone, a DIY-Oprah, worked herself up into a frenzy. Some of what she said was so inflammatory as to be censored for legal reasons. Kirkpatrick saw Stone tire herself out, endless swings, none landing. After her opponent had exhausted her supply of all the terrible rumours she’d heard, Kirkpatrick replied languidly: “You know what I’ve heard about you? Not a fucking thing.”
The moment displayed all of what made Kirkpatrick such extraordinary TV talent: the economy of her language; the precision of the insult; the heavily pregnant pause between rhetorical question and answer; the patience which preceded it.
But it also showed the extent to which she had been underestimated. Not just by Stone – but by the New Zealand public. Through the 2000s Kirkpatrick was a gossip section regular during the brief, brilliant heyday of our gossip sections. She couldn’t have been closer to the action: when Aja Rock and her boyfriend threw wine in the face of About Town’s Bridget Saunders, Gilda was close enough to get splashed.
Her elevation to that scene came off the back of her marriage to Sir James Kirkpatrick, a very wealthy and very old property developer. Their 43-year age gap and her photogenic nature meant that she was invited to every launch and opening. Which is to say that to whatever extent she was famous prior to Real Housewives, she was famous for attending events and marrying money. Inevitably that made her a figure of contempt for many, reducing her to a doll-like caricature with no past and no future.
But her backstory is fascinating! Kirkpatrick was born in Iran in 1973 to parents whose family histories as traders stretch back centuries into the Persian empire. Her father’s side were close to the regime, her mother’s to the socialist thinkers who would seize power. When the Islamic revolution came, and the Shah was overthrown, her parents separated amidst the chaos.
She barely saw her father in the years that followed – “he was a very mysterious man,” she says. The family lived through eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, only emigrating in 1989, weeks after she finished high school.
The family chose New Zealand because it was English-speaking, with good universities. She worked as a hairdresser while dreaming of directing movies. Her sister studied architecture, and Gilda found herself drawn to it too, training and eventually graduating from Unitec around the time she met her future husband, working on some of his developments and renovating their house.
She and Sir James were married for 13 years, and when they separated she stayed on in the cake house on the cliffs above Okahu bay. Since she has had two boys, co-founded a creative agency and published a pair of comic books in collaboration with scientists aiming to teach cosmology and astro-physics to kids.
All of which is to say that she was always a more complex character than her public image suggested. And that the character we saw on Housewives was just waiting for this moment to arrive.
I’d met her a few weeks previous at a lunch organised to promote the forthcoming series. She was dripping with jewels, stormed away from a photo shoot and told us how great the New Yorker Snapchat was. Ever since I’d wanted to interview her, and eventually, in the aftermath of that episode, she came up to The Spinoff offices to drink a delicious bottle of Bisou Bisou Blanc de Blancs and talk about Real Housewives. Later we talked again after the finale aired – the below interview is condensed and edited from the two transcripts.
How did you take to New Zealand when you first arrived? The country was only starting to creak out of being a closed economy and a pretty homogenous society at the time.
We came from a city with a population of 12 million permanent and 22 million transitionary. So it’s a huge, huge, huge urban beast. Coming from that to Auckland, it literally felt like going to a tiny village somewhere.
I remember we arrived at midday on a sunny day, and there were all these fluffy clouds – I thought it was like a cartoon. We arrived at the airport and it was greenery everywhere, before the industrial stuff you have out there now. There were lots of sheep and cows on the paddocks. Even on Queen St, I remember we were thinking we were still on the outskirts of the city. The driver said ‘no, this is downtown’.
But it was great – it was a blessing for us.
There’s this weird thing where you’re portrayed at times as this socialite who has never worked. Yet on the other you’re a company director, you have an office across the road and you’ve just published your second book. Does that frustrate you?
No. It doesn’t bother me. My clients, people I work with, people who know me personally or who’ve met and talked with me – they know who I am. The people who think I’m some socialite – that’s OK too. I’m not looking to buy votes or be elected, so I don’t care.
The last few weeks have been pretty weird. Some people have even been trying to sketch a conspiracy theory involving us and the Human Rights Commission and Bravo. What have you made of it all?
There’s no limit to stupidity. By the things that people say and write you can’t help but judge their IQ. So I think it’s been a good way to weave the idiots from the intelligent people. It’s a good filter – we needed it to show the idiots. Now I can do it without feeling judgemental.
How has being on screen changed you? Do you feel like more of public figure now?
I went to Mexican Specialties the other day, and there was this older Asian lady, a grandma. She came over from behind the counter and she was like ‘sweetie, sweetie, I love you’. I was like ‘what a friendly chef’. Then she said ‘grandma loves you – you’re on TV’. She referring to herself in the third person as grandma. She said ‘grandma cry, you cry, those women, they no good’.
She cried because she’d seen me cry. It’s a bit surreal. You go into a programme as superficial light entertainment like the Housewives and yet you come across unknowingly making a connection with a Chinese grandmother working in a Mexican store. To connect with people, who are maybe migrants – to me, that’s cool, that’s priceless.
Most people do this kind of thing for money or fame. But you already had both those things going into it. So – why did you do it?
I think it was a cool project. And while there are editing issues, I liked the idea that for once I would not be at the mercy of reporters and so-called journalists. People who have all these opinions of me – I thought I might give them a glimpse of what it kind of is like.
I also had a good conversation with Kylie Washington, the producer from Australia. She came to my house and I admired her as a woman. She explained that sometimes people aren’t happy with the programme – but if you be yourself then you’ll have no regrets. Plus she said that they wanted to hang onto us for a second series. So if you’re unhappy it’s no good for us.
I binge-watched all the series, for research, and everybody was recurring. And anybody who wasn’t was fired because nobody else liked them. People return.
How’s that decision feeling now? Do you think production have been fair?
I really do believe that production has gone out of their way to make some people look way better than what they actually are. In my personal experience.
I… I think there’s a thing called duty of care for talent. They have to make everybody likeable.
[consults with publicist; smiles and says nothing]
You and Michelle are portrayed as best friends on the show, is that real?
We really bonded during publicity for the show. We got talking and had a lot in common, we’re a similar age. We really, really clicked. And became best friends. I’ve never been to war – at least not frontline, trenches or anything – but if I was playing Modern Warfare or Call of Duty online and you have to watch each other’s back, it’s kind of like that.
Then there was Port Douglas. More than anything, I think production was just shocked. They just didn’t know how to deal with the situation – no one knew, how could you prepare for that? So having to witness that and just be there as a support system for Michelle – who didn’t have anyone there, any family, any friends – I think that got us talking about way deeper stuff.
Are you comfortable talking more about Port Douglas? Did what you see on screen capture your experience of it?
Our experience of it was quite intense. And it was less rainbows and butterflies involved. It was very raw. It wasn’t as pleasant as it appeared on TV.
So it was worse?
For us, it wasn’t as pleasant. In TV land it was more happy and colourful. Put it this way: from the time the comment was made, to the time you see Michelle upset upstairs – that took about two hours.
It does feel that way on the show. There’s this long period of you sitting with it and figuring out what it means. And her feeling sorry for herself.
It’s like this: you’re sitting talking to somebody. And all of a sudden that person smacks you in the face. And you’re like ‘what the hell? What did you just do?’ And if the person says they did it because they have a condition, or because they’re nervous – something – then you kind of think ‘OK, I get where you’re coming from’. But if that person says ‘you can take it, it wasn’t that bad’. Then shit really hits the fan. You knock your head against the wall for ages, and you just know it’s not going anywhere. That’s when Michelle got really angry. She wasn’t angry at the beginning – she got angry after Julia’s response.
When you watched it later – Angela telling Julia to ‘be the bigger person’ – how did that feel?
To be fair, I think Angela has an issue with her dialogue. I don’t think she understand what that expression means.
Honestly? Honestly. Cut the show off and I really have admiration for her. She’s brought five children up. Since she was very young. She’s always worked, and always been out there doing things, trying to create brands. As a human being, she’s never been a useless bludger, or someone who does nothing and doesn’t contribute to society.
I think as a person she’d probably be very loveable if she stopped talking about products. People would just love her and go in search of her products. However, as a product ambassador, she’s just annoying. I literally feel like I’m stuck in some sort of infomercial channel that’s not going away. Like I’m in a weird motel where the TV doesn’t work.
The Spinoff has been podcasting the whole series – download the finale podcast here (right click to save), hit play below or feel free to subscribe via iTunes or your favourite podcast client, and be sure to get involved on social media using #realpod
Going into the finale, did you know it would get that heated?
I knew it was the last episode. We were encouraged to let it all out, and not just be hesitant. Basically, anything you had to say to somebody you were supposed to say. So I knew that it was going to be quite… dynamic. But I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a good positive dynamic, and be happy – which I wanted. Usually at every party someone comes in with an agenda and ruins the party. This one, because it was Michelle’s birthday, and it wasn’t just put together for the camera, I actually really wanted it to be hassle free. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
You and Julia had huge tension between you which just exploded really early on. What caused that?
Angela and Julia, as you know from episode nine, they were going to ‘put the cat amongst the pigeons’, according to Angela. So they both came there with that agenda, to create a fight and bring Louise down. Once I realised that, I was really unhappy and I tried to get them to back off and save it for another time. Because even though it’s a show, and that behaviour’s encouraged, it was still Michelle’s day and it would definitely be ruined.
So when I saw the tension and the looks I got pretty wound up and stressed. I wanted to put them in their place and basically tell them to shut the fuck up until it was over – then they could say it. But as you know, that’s not how it went.
It has this end of school feeling, like everything coming out because these people might never be in the same room again.
I don’t remember my last day of school. I do know that for Michelle, once the fiming was wrapped and the whole night, basically – all she was doing was being upset about what happened and the scenario. So I wouldn’t say it was the last day in school – I’d say it was like the last day in hell.
It ends on this amazing comical note with the captions – did you all resolve it?
Nothing gets resolved. Everything is basically as it is, it’s left there. Even in the party, nobody is talking to one another or being friendly. No one said goodbye.
Now that some time has elapsed, how do you feel about Julia?
As somebody who has gone through those experiences, I remember everything: behind the camera; in front of the camera; everything that has been edited out. And from episode one, Julia has been shit-stirring. And she kind of gets away with it, one way or another. Either she’s the victim, or something comes up that saves her. And with Angela – they take the victim position, they cry or something – it makes people forget that continuously, in every episode, they’ve been shit-stirring and talking behind everybody’s back. Every party they go to, they bring drama. And I actually witnessed it – for me, it actually happened. So I’m not friends with them – I don’t care if I never see them again.
Does that colour how you feel about the show? Do you miss the intensity or are you glad that it’s over?
I’m glad that it’s done. Sometimes you can have intensity with intelligent people – people that have a lot to offer. You might be from opposite sides in terms of your point of view or your behaviour, but you can have a debate. However, to knock your head into a stone wall with very basic people – you don’t miss it.
If you’re having an intellectual argument, like I would have with Louise – can enjoy that, But when you’re arguing over nothing – literally nothing – then you don’t miss that. It’s like playing chess with someone who is smart versus someone who has absolutely no idea how to move. It just gets very boring.
Would you do it again? Like, to me it was the best reality TV show we’ve ever made. Would you go through it again?
If it’s the exact same cast? I don’t know. Perhaps not. Unless they change the dynamic. If they add somebody… But as it is? I don’t think so. If it’s the same cast then it’s exactly the same experience. So what am I in there for? I know exactly what’s coming.
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