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My Life in TV: Phil Keoghan on getting shortlisted for Survivor and Le Ride to the top

Joseph Harper talks to Phil Keoghan about his new documentary Le Ride and asks how a lad from Christchurch grew up to be New Zealand’s most famous ex-pat TV presenter.

As a fan of both professional cycling and The Amazing Race, Phil Keoghan’s documentary Le Ride seemed almost purpose made for me. Inspired by Cantabrian Harry Watson, who in 1928 rode as part of the first ever English speaking Tour de France team, Keoghan and a mate recreated the notoriously brutal edition of the Tour by riding over 5500kms through the Pyrenees mountains and French alps on ancient bikes without gears or adequate brakes. They also wore funny goggles for most of it.

I spoke with Phil about enduring one of the toughest sporting events in history, and how he became a massive television icon who has 10(!?) Emmys.

So you were born in Lincoln and went to St Andrew’s College in Christchurch, how on earth did you end up where you are now?

I was born in Lincoln, then I left New Zealand when I was three. I lived in Canada for four years, then I went to the Caribbean and lived there till I was thirteen. Then I came back for high school and went to St Andrews College. When I finished school, I had a tussle with my Mum and Dad about what I was going to do. I was very keen on getting into television, but there was no broadcasting degree at that time.

The only way you could really get into television back then was to become a television assistant. There were only two spots available, and thankfully I got one of them. My parents were apprehensive. They wanted me to get a degree so I’d have something to fall back on. Going to Television New Zealand when I was 18 was the best choice I ever made.

I got some of the best training from some of the best television makers in the country and it really got me on my way. I’m forever grateful to the old salty TV dogs who were working there and were very generous in imparting their knowledge. They were very gracious.

Why television though? What was it that drew you to the medium?

I wanted to tell stories. I loved the idea of telling them with pictures. I loved cameras. I loved cinematography. I didn’t know how, or what stories I wanted to tell, but I knew for sure I wanted to do something with that medium. Something marrying script and visual imagery. I’ve had this absolute fascination with cameras and photography since I was very young, so I quickly slipped into the camera department.

In those days they were still shooting on film, so we had a film camera department separate to the video camera department. I was one of the first there to do both. With that training, I cut my apprenticeship down to a year and ended up straight in the camera section. I was shooting news at 19 and assisting really good camera people. Focus pulling, clapper loading, changing mags. It was during that time that I got the opportunity to be in front of the camera with Spot On.

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Was presenting on television always an ambition for you?

I always did drama at school and had a love of performing. I wasn’t really sure that that was going to happen with TV. When that opportunity came along, I went to my boss Wayne Williams and I said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’ve got this cool opportunity to be a presenter but I’ve loved working here and I’d want your blessing if I go ahead and do it.’ He told me that it was only going to make me even better as a cameraman, and if I ever wanted to come back he’d take me.

My salary quadrupled when I went from being a film camera assistant to being on TV. Being so young, it was crazy money. I felt like I’d hit the lottery. Again, I was so grateful for the knowledge they gave me there. There was also Jeff Clements who was the head of the electronic camera department. I had had two really strong mentors at TVNZ and I try to thank them as often as possible, even 30 years later.

Was it just a natural progression from Spot On to more adult programming?

Phil on That's Fairly Interesting (NZ On Screen)

Phil on That’s Fairly Interesting (NZ On Screen)

I think in ’88, when Julian Mounter took over TVNZ, they cut a whole heap of stuff. So many shows shut down in Christchurch. I remember we had this big meeting in the cafeteria and they started handing out these slips. It was really horrible. It was a really horrible day. Christchurch was such a prolific place for television when I first came in. We had McPhail and Gadsby, Fourth Estate, Fast Forward, Play School, Spot On, After School, The Mainland Touch with John Dunn. Julian Mounter decided that they were going to move some production north, and also shut down a lot of productions altogether. It was a horrible time.

Spot On got cut and I suddenly found myself out of work. I decided to go to University for a bit. While I was there I got offered three jobs. I ended up taking a job at That’s Fairly Interesting because I saw it as an opportunity to get to Auckland where there was more work. That’s where I met my wife and we started collaborating on projects.

I went over to work on 3:45 for a year and then we went to TV3 and made some shows for them. One was a show called Short Sportz which was a show about young up and coming sportspeople. We profiled all kinds of people: Tana Umaga, David Tua, Hamish Carter. Of all the shows we came up with, that was one we were the most proud of.

And all this was happening when you were 23?

Yeah 22, 23.

Phil on Short Sport (NZ On Screen)

Phil as a young lad on Short Sportz (NZ On Screen)

Such a rapid rise. You must’ve been working like a maniac.

I was working like a maniac, but I really loved it. Again, it’s all because of the people who helped me: Jeff Clements, Wayne Williams and Bryan Allpress. It’s Neil Roberts, Rex Simpson, Gary Brown, Irene Gardiner. I always tell young people, never forget the names of people who opened doors for you. For the rest of your career, try to remember that those people did that for you and hopefully you can open the door for someone else.

Today I’m going to speak at the Broadcasting School in Christchurch. One of the guys there, Richard Hanson, he was a sound operator 30 years ago that I worked with at TVNZ. I still can’t believe I’m the one going in to impart some wisdom, I still feel like that wide-eyed kid. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there’s so much I don’t know. I’m hoping I can hold onto that all the way through my career. That I can stay hungry to learn.

When you moved to America, was that just a massive change?

I moved over with Louise, who is my wife now. A lot of people thought we were crazy doing it. I was so young and I had a good steady job. Why walk away from a good career? When we moved, it was very difficult to find work because we didn’t have the right kind of documentation. I actually got offered a job at MTV after being in New York for two weeks, but I couldn’t take it because I didn’t have the right visa or a green card.

I had no perspective of how difficult it is to find a job there. If you’re going for a job in New Zealand, you might be up against three or four people. Over there, it might be fifty people. It was a real wake up call. It’s not that they’re better than you, it’s just that there are so many more people. You have to get really thick skin to deal with rejection. America toughened me up. It made me work harder and want to be better. And finally, eventually I got a huge opportunity, which was working on the launch of [US network] FX.

Peter Faiman, who directed Crocodile Dundee, decided to give me this shot. I worked with FX for about four years going to every state in America, doing almost a thousand stories. I milked spiders, I fed sharks, interviewed Ringo Starr. 

How did you end up on the Amazing Race?

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After my time at FX, Peter and I started a production company together. We sold some shows, one of which was called Adventure Crazy. It was basically just doing all these crazy things around the world, bucket list things. Breaking a world record, cooking dinner on top of a live volcano in Italy. All kinds of things.

When they were gearing up for Amazing Race, they used a cameraman who worked on Adventure Crazy. The Amazing Race people were looking at his footage and saw me hosting. That’s how I came to their attention. Around that time, I was up for Survivor. I got shortlisted for Survivor, it came down to just Jeff [Probst] and I.

Ultimately, they told me I needed to Americanise my accent because they didn’t want a non-American accent on network TV. Obviously that’s changed now. There’s Simon Cowell, Nigel Lithgow, Heidi Klum, Kat Deely now. But back in 2000 that was a big no-no. When they were looking at Amazing Race on the same network, I guess they figured they might as well give me a shot.

The rest is just Emmys for you I suppose. Have you always been into cycling?

Yes. When I grew up in the Caribbean I rode my bike a lot. And my wife and I raced for a while. We actually had a professional women’s team that were number one in America after only three years of running. A few years ago I did a ride across America to raise money for an MS charity. I rode from LA to New York. That became a film as well.  

How did making Le Ride come about?

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Triumphant Phil tackling le ride of his life

My wife and I read this book by the Kennett brothers, these terrific cycling historians who have written a tonne of books on cycling. They wrote this story about this guy named Harry Watson. My wife and I read the book in one sitting and we were just so enamoured with it. He was this amazing guy from Christchurch and he was a cyclist and was part of the first English speaking team. He did so well and nobody here really knew who he was. We thought we should tell his story.

We travelled all over the world, going to France and rooting through archives in New Zealand and Australia and France. We did hundreds of hours of work to find out more about Harry. But it all started with the Kennett Brothers and now we’ve made this great documentary film and we’re showing it to an audience in Christchurch tonight at the World premiere. That’s so fitting, because it’s 40 meters away from where I first started, on Gloucester Street.

Can you assure the readers here that there was no cheating involved in shooting the doco? That you actually endured this insane ride?

Scouts honour, I can promise you this. I did not take performance enhancing drugs. I did not skip a single mile. I rode every mile of this 5,600 kilometer course. Trust me, I feel like my body is still recovering three years later. It was brutal.


Le Ride is currently showing in the New Zealand International Film Festival

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