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Pop CultureSeptember 2, 2023

The Lotto joke Sonia Gray never wants to hear again

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The Lotto presenter looks back on a television career filled with smiles, swimsuits and swearing. 

She’s best known for presenting the live Lotto draw, but Sonia Gray’s television career has been anything but a game of chance. The actor and presenter has been a fixture on our screens for years, from her all too-short stint on Dancing with the Stars NZ to classic game shows like Sale of the Century and Wheel of Fortune. You might also might also remember her as Shortland Street villain Aleesha, or the uptight but brilliant French hairdresser on Netflix rom-com The Royal Treatment.

More recently, Gray’s projects have been personal – she’s explored the lives of neurodiverse kids just like her daughter Inez in Kids Wired Differently, and reflected on her father’s own journey as an immigrant in Passengers. She now hosts a podcast about neurodiversity for NZME, and somehow still finds the time to commentate with the Alternative Commentary Collective. Luckily, she also had half an hour free to chat to us about her favourite TV memories, and what she wishes everyone knew about the Lotto draw. 

Sonia Gray in Dancing with the Stars NZ (Photo: Discovery)

My first TV memory is… Sesame Street. It bugged me that only Big Bird could see Mr Snuffleupagus. I think he was Big Bird’s imaginary friend, but Big Bird would be trying to show someone else Mr Snuffleupagus and they wouldn’t see him. It was really frustrating for four-year-old me. 

The TV show I used to rush home from school to watch was… I remember 3:45 Live, and I absolutely loved reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was one of those kids who always had after school sport every day, so my main viewing was done in the early evening. I loved her fashion and the theme song. I’m a sucker for a good theme song.

The TV moment that haunts me to this day is… I was on Telethon as a little kid. I would have been about 10. My friends and I did a stall at the end of my street to raise money, and then you went to Avalon Studios and queued up to go into the audience. If you were lucky, they came along and interviewed you, and they did that for us and I was all excited. Then they got to me, and no words came out. Nothing. I got terrible stage fright. I still remember just that feeling of complete and utter shame at freezing up on live TV.  

My earliest TV crush was…  Probably Erik Estrada, who played Ponch on CHiPS. Everyone loved him, he was so handsome. He saved people every freaking week. 

The TV ad I can’t stop thinking about is…  The Cadbury Chunky ad with me in it. I was a lead singer of a band – I don’t know what that has to do with Cadbury Chunky – but you saw our band rehearse in the studio and perform on stage and then eat a Cadbury Chunky. I think Tina Cross sang the song and I just lip-synched. It would be one of those ads that has not aged well. I was wearing blue cord flares and a blue crochet beanie and a terrible blue velvet top. It was the 90s, but I was dressed like something out of 1972. All wrong, but so much fun to make. 

My TV guilty pleasure is… Well, I am a Kardashian fan. I find them so fascinating. I also went through a phase of being really addicted to Botched, the plastic surgery show. They used to run one after the other on E! (RIP), so my ideal night went from Kardashians to Botched. It’s terrible, but brilliant. 

My favourite TV moment of all time is… Last year when we beat England in a cricket test series by one run, I was commentating for the ACC and I dropped the F-bomb accidentally – twice. One of our players got out, kind of stupidly, and I went “for fuck’s sake, you’re fucking kidding me”. I lost all sense of where I was and what I was doing, I thought I was at home in my lounge. I’ve never, ever done that before, I just lost all perspective. Luckily, it’s the sort of show that you can swear on.

My favourite TV character of all time is… Claire Underwood from House of Cards. She’s a ball breaker, and I love her because I hated her to begin with. She was so cold, but when you get to know her, you see the softness and you’re like, “Wow, now I understand you”.

Sonia Gray presents food travel show Kai Safari (Screenshot: Whakaata Māori)

My favourite TV project that I’ve ever been involved in is… Kai Safari, because I learnt so much. I loved the team. I loved being so deeply in te ao Māori. Basically we just hunted, fished, scuba dived and ate our way around the country. It was amazing. 

Also, I love doing things like game shows, because it’s just fun. There’s no stress. I auditioned for Sale of the Century in the 90s, and I had to sell a swivel chair – without speaking, and in my swimsuit. Then they said, “We want you to look into the camera and smile for 60 seconds without flinching”. Basically that was the job: smiling and selling things without speaking, in swimsuits.

Every show we used to get out of the Mitsubishi Mirage in our bikinis and just wave to the camera as the credits rolled, smiling. I remember feeling a sense of pride that I could smile into the camera for 60 seconds. But if you went to an audition now and they asked you to do that, you’d be like, “Are you serious?”. We just didn’t question it in those days. 

The one thing I wish people knew about hosting the Lotto draw is… That when people say to me, “Can you call my numbers out?”, they are the millionth person that’s asked me that. Even though I’m a nice person, it’s been 16 years of it. 

Sonia Gray calls my numbers out (Screengrab: YouTube)

The TV show that defined my lockdown was… Succession. It was so bizarre and like nothing I’d ever watched before, and you’re sort of repulsed and fascinated at the same time.  Interestingly, I haven’t watched the last season, because they’re all so mean to each other, and I don’t need that in my life now. I don’t want to think that family members could be this horrible to each other. 

My most watched television show of all time is… CSI. I was an early adopter of that genre, and now I’m deep in it. I will, at some point in my future, become a private investigator, because I have so much knowledge now from watching the shows and listening to all the podcasts. I loved that original CSI cast, and I was really, really sad when they finished. I felt that same way when Money Heist finished. I was like, “Oh my god, what am I going to be friends with now my show’s gone?”

I never missed one episode of Masterchef Australia until this year, and I couldn’t watch because of Jock passing away. I get so nervous, especially towards the end when they’ve got those massive challenges. If the bloody chocolate tempering has gone wrong or something, I go off to distract myself and then come back. It annoys the hell out of my husband, because if it hasn’t ended in disaster, I have to rewind and watch it. I’m horrible to watch TV with actually. 

My most controversial television opinion is… I didn’t like Lord of the Rings, I went to sleep. I haven’t watched one second of Game of Thrones. I don’t really like period drama. I don’t like sci-fi. I don’t like anything too violent for no real good reason, and I don’t like rom-coms because you know what’s going to happen. 

The last thing I watched on TV was… On YouTube, I watched Not Enough Nelsons, which I begrudgingly started because my kids liked it but I’ve gotten right into it. It’s a Mormon family in Utah and they have 16 kids, and the mom is like 44 and looks about 21. They live this amazing life. I love it, because like, this cannot be for real.

Read the previous My Life in TVs here.

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