Alex Casey talks to national treasure Suzy Cato about her new kids album, life after Dancing With the Stars and remaining zen about the pending future hellscape.
It’s been half an hour and I can’t get Suzy Cato to say a bad word about anyone or anything. Not The Wiggles (“full support to The Wiggles, man”), not ‘Baby Shark’ (“look, it’s a great song”) and not even the pending environmental apocalypse (“we’re in a really good position to make big change”). I don’t know what I was expecting from the woman who raised a generation, but it was still disarming to meet someone so unwaveringly positive about every single topic.
“I’m not going to pretend I don’t get out of bed on the wrong side some days, I’m only human” she tells me in a bustling Morningside café. “But it’s like I tell my kids – if something goes wrong, don’t let it cloud your entire day. It’s now right now, but if you take a big deep breath then you are in a new now.” The next thing she says is going to sound fake, but I promise you it is real. “Just sprinkle a little sunshine on your day, it changes everything.”
Sprinkle a little sunshine is also, incidentally, one of two new songs that she’s written for The Totally Awesome Kiwi Kids Album, an opportunity offered to her soon after Dancing With the Stars NZ. “We’ve got the artists that people know and love – the Anika Moas and the Craig Smiths – but we also tried to include a variety of artists from all over New Zealand.” Welling up, she tells me that kids have already started singing ‘Sprinkle a Little Sunshine’ in school assemblies.
I wondered aloud about what made the perfect kids song, recalling the terrifyingly sunny Y2K anthem about the end of times. “It’s something fun, something you can dance to, something that makes you want to join in,” says Cato. “It also needs to reflect being a Kiwi, so good humour and something about wiggling your bottom.” Repetition for kids is key, a trick that she learned during her time on You and Me, which first aired a whopping 25 years ago.
Even as a teenager, Cato always showed an interest in broadcasting. “Growing up in Kaikohe, the career options were basically hairdressing and working at the bank. Those were already taken, so I wanted to look further afield. She did her first work experience placement at WDC in Whangarei, before applying for a cadetship at Radio New Zealand. By the time she was 17, she had earned herself the title of the country’s youngest female radio announcer.
Somewhere between her time on radio and TV, Cato did a brief and surprising stint as a record label publicist in Auckland. She recalls carting Milli Vanilli around town as an early career highlight, and I nearly pass out thinking about them all being in the same room together. Perhaps their star power rubbed off on her, because it wasn’t long before she was requested to audition for The Earlybird Show with Russell Rooster.
“I got one shot to try it out in camera, in a tiny little slot before the news started. The following Saturday I was live on air,” she says. “It was a sink or swim situation.” Luckily, Suzy can swim, and she found herself thriving in the colourful, searingly positive world of children’s television. “I don’t know why, but it just felt right. It felt like going home, for me.” Two years later, she auditioned alongside 80 other people for the role as host of You and Me at the age of 23.
“When I got offered the job to do You and Me, it was a big commitment. It was one year contract, so I knew i’d have to either move or constantly be flying down to Dunedin.” People around her advised that sticking with children’s TV was taking a huge “step back” in the industry, but Cato was listening to a deeper call. “Every time I thought about not doing it, I burst into tears. Something within me told me that I had to go and do it.”
Her purpose became further crystallised as she began to receive letters from children from around the country experiencing child abuse. “I thought it was too much for me, too much of a responsibility for me to handle,” she says. “I tried to resign, but they wouldn’t accept it.” Instead, producers put her in touch with people who could help. “It was then that I realised there was more to kids TV than just having fun.” She still gets messages today from kids that they helped during that time.
Alas, network TV isn’t what it was in the 90s, and Cato is more aware than anyone of the implications that this can have for children’s television. “YouTube is full of dangerous stuff, creepy stuff,” she says. “I decided to make my own YouTube channel because there weren’t any local broadcasters looking for kids content at the time. I wanted to make a hub for kids to find stuff that was just for them, made by someone with a Kiwi accent.”
So how did the slime-mixing, mushy-bean making version of Cato cope with being sexed-up on Dancing With the Stars? “I always knew it was going to take me outside my comfort zone and push people’s perceptions of me a bit. I think there was this preconceived idea that I would still be in round glasses and Kozmik gear, you know?.” Any of those expectations were shattered April 18 2018, when she was announced as the final Dancing With the Stars NZ competitor in an internet-breaking video.
“I knew that video was going to go one of two ways, it could have been really ugly or it could go really well. But, as you could probably tell from the duck lips I was rocking in the video, I was going for gold.” As the second oldest person on the show – behind equally ageless deity Robert Rakete – she was daunted by her fellow celebrities. “Seeing all the young people being thrown around and going upside down and all the rest of it, I knew I just wanted to get as far as I could.”
Although she looks back fondly on Dancing With the Stars NZ, Suzy isn’t keen on diving back into another celebrity reality franchise. Celebrity Treasure Island, just for example? “It sounds too hard and intense. Food is very big part of my life.” I asked her if she watched any television herself, hoping for her to reveal something gnarly like Black Sails. “With my 13 year old, I watch The Good Doctor. That’s good family viewing that we can all watch and enjoy together.” When the kids go to bed, she’s back to her home office to work. Even her TV choices are wholesome.
During a recent recent Instagram Q&A session, Cato tells me she received a deluge of messages from adults seeking a feel good moment, whether it was “something beautiful”, or her favourite inspirational quotes. “I’m looking at how I might be able to provide some content for people slightly older. People are still looking for that positivity that they have found in the past with me. That’s very special, they aren’t asking me to do shots or take funny photos, they are looking for the good and the comfortable and I am A-OK with that.”
“It’s an honour and it’s a privilege to be a part of so many lives. I just wish we had more content that made people feel good instead of like an emotional wreck.” It seemed like an opportune moment to tell Suzy that I was stressed about the future. Our interview quickly turned into a therapy session, just as planned. “I know we are feeling anxious at the moment, but even by us talking about it, something is being done. We are being taught resilience and how to cope with anything.”
She quickly returns, on message as always, to the importance of New Zealand children in this conversation. “Look, we were able to implement recycling in the 80s entirely through teaching it to our kids. Our kids are a going to be massive part of the change we see in the world, we just need to make sure they don’t grow up with this immense burden on their shoulders. They still need to be able to have fun and be kids for as long as possible.”
Before Dancing With the Stars NZ, Cato thought things her career in kids entertainment was wrapping up. Now, it’s clear that she has still got a lot of work to do. There’s another kid’s album coming out, a music video to be released and a preschool album to work on – as well as a couple of projects she can’t tell me about without killing me. I look her dead in the eye and tell her I would love nothing more than to be murdered by Suzy Cato.
“It doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere, does it? Kiwi kids are just far too important an audience to me,” she says, gently welling up again. “They are so often forgotten in society, and there are too many opportunities for me to be able to use my profile to be able to change that.”
“So yes, I’m here to help them save the world.”