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Left: Perlina Lau, co-presenter of RNZ’s Culture 101. Right: … also Perlina Lau, star of Creamerie, on TVNZ+. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Left: Perlina Lau, co-presenter of RNZ’s Culture 101. Right: … also Perlina Lau, star of Creamerie, on TVNZ+. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureSeptember 3, 2023

The two sides of Perlina Lau

Left: Perlina Lau, co-presenter of RNZ’s Culture 101. Right: … also Perlina Lau, star of Creamerie, on TVNZ+. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Left: Perlina Lau, co-presenter of RNZ’s Culture 101. Right: … also Perlina Lau, star of Creamerie, on TVNZ+. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

She’s coming off a critically acclaimed second season of Creamerie. She’s also just launched a new arts show on RNZ. Perlina Lau tells Sam Brooks how she does both, and makes it look easy.

Right now, if you want to see or hear Perlina Lau, you’ve got two good options at your fingertips. You can watch dystopian black comedy Creamerie, available to stream on TVNZ+, the show she co-created and which returned for its second season just a month ago. Lau plays Pip, the most straitlaced of a trio of women who come across a man in a world where men are supposed to be extinct. Hilarity, and a lot of drama, ensues. (If you missed it, you can also tune into the last season of Celebrity Treasure Island, where Lau memorably tried to communicate telepathically with Dame Susan Devoy.)

You can also tune into RNZ on a Sunday afternoon and hear Lau co-presenting new arts show Culture 101, which has replaced Lynn Freeman’s beloved Standing Room Only. The show launched a few weeks ago, filling a massive gap in arts and culture coverage in the country. For four uninterrupted hours, what you need to know about our cultural landscape is beamed straight to you, shepherded gently by Lau and Mark Amery.

Lau is a rarity in both industries. She’s an actor, in a series that has been critically acclaimed both here and overseas, including in the New York Times. She’s also a broadcaster, hosting a flagship show for the country’s national public radio service.

How did that happen?

Perlina Lau at the start of her career, as the social media presenter for the Paul Henry Show (left) and an actor in Flat 3 (right).

Perlina Lau has worked in the media for over a decade. She began her career as a script supervisor at TV3 before moving into an on-air role on the Paul Henry Show, then worked as a producer for both Story and The Project. After a stint as a journalist at the BBC in London she returned home during Covid, taking up a job as the presenter and producer of RNZ’s Worldwatch.

Now she’s back at RNZ. Lau’s new role has a prosaic origin story: she saw the ad on her social media feed. She looked at the job description – essentially pitching for applicants to replace Freeman – and realised she could absolutely do what it asked. “Those are my interests and I already do broadcasting,” she remembers thinking.

One half of working life had been her career as an actor, writer and a producer with Flat3 Productions, the company that made Flat 3, Friday Night Bites and most recently, Creamerie. The other half was dedicated to news and broadcasting. “As naive as that sounds, I never thought the two sides could combine to be one job.”

She applied, went through the interview process, and was then asked how she would feel about having a co-presenter. That turned out to be Mark Amery, a veteran of the arts sector who’s worked as a writer and critic (including for The Spinoff), as a public arts advisor, and most recently as a producer for Kim Hill.

It took only a few conversations for them to both agree to co-presenting Culture 101. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met a more connected person in my life,” Lau says of Amery. “I really couldn’t have asked for a better co-host or co-producer to work with.” 

Amery concurs. Thanks to her top-class broadcasting skills and an “abiding love of culture across all its old, popular and fine artforms”, working with Lau has been “a dream”, he says.

Lau and Amery are always thinking a show ahead, allowing them to zoom out and see what they’ve covered and what might have been missed. Do they have enough visual arts coverage? Are their stories regionally distributed? A highlight of the show thus far is the “regional wrap”, where the show goes live to correspondents in the regions to find out what’s happening, culture-wise, in their neck of the woods.

The show’s title, Culture 101, was chosen very carefully. Lau says it sets them up to cover arts and culture in all their glory, from serious to silly. In its second week, they covered a dispatch from Word Christchurch, an interview with Petita Cole talking for mute visual artist Susan Te Kahurangi King, an in-depth 15 minute segment on New Zealand cancelling its pavilion in the Venice Biennale, plus audio drama and songs. The show is doing a lot.

“We’ve got so many people reaching out to us, there’s so much going on, and it’s really exciting to have a platform where those things can land,” Lau says. “Especially in a time where a lot of things are going behind paywalls or subscriptions – this is not that.”

Perlina Lau, JJ Fong and Ally Xue in season two of Creamerie. (Photo: TVNZ+)

Creamerie, meanwhile, has enjoyed the kind of success that everybody who makes TV in this country dreams of. It arrived on TVNZ+ (formerly On Demand) in 2021 to rave reviews, and went on to win best drama at the New Zealand Television Awards and be picked up for broadcast on Hulu in the US and SBS in Australia.

Lau says she’s really happy with the second season. “It’s so intense! We really tried to turn it up a notch and I like to think we achieved that – with the locations, the music, the cast,” she says. The action scenes are particularly impressive, including one with Lau front and centre that brilliantly pays homage to ET.

While it doesn’t entirely stray from its comedic roots, the stakes are much higher this time around. The trio are being actively pursued now that they know the truth about the mysterious organisation called Wellness, with all the action that suggests.

The cast is full of heavyweight acting talent – most notably Tandi Wright, still terrifying as an alternate-universe Paltrow-type – and Lau more than holds her own against them. Although she often has to carry some pretty ridiculous jokes, including a moment where her character picks up a copy of a very well-known romance novel, she also sells Pip’s steely backbone and moral compass extremely well.

While this season of Creamerie was in development, Lau was still hosting Worldwatch. She remembers highlighting scripts and learning lines in the RNZ studio, training her brain up as much as she could before stepping on set.

It might sound stressful, but Lau says she enjoys the contrast between the two ways of working. “The news cycle is so fast, quick and daily, but once you do something, that’s it, it’s done,” she says. “Whereas when you’re filming, you’re doing something five times. It’s art in a different way. It’s more time consuming, it’s slower.”

Broadcasting and acting “feed the different parts of me and my brain,” she says. “I get the light and the shade.” She credits RNZ for letting her explore all the opportunities open to her, not just Creamerie but also the chance to take part in Celebrity Treasure Island.

Perlina Lau as a contestant in Celebrity Treasure Island and Perlina Lau as Pip in Creamerie. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

Really, though, Lau has never considered not being in both sectors. “In my head I thought the arts would be a side thing, as it is for so many people. It’s something you just do in your spare time,” she reflects. “I was totally OK with that so long as I could have it and still do it.”

She believes she wouldn’t have got her first on-air job, as a social media presenter for Paul Henry, if she hadn’t been doing the social media for Flat 3. “Even back then, it was starting to feed into each other,” she says. More recently, the success of Creamerie has opened doors in her media career, from debates in the Comedy Festival to panels for Fifa during the World Cup. 

“Ultimately, my career is this beast that feeds into itself. If you take one half of it away, I don’t know what it would look like anymore.”

You can watch Creamerie on TVNZ+ and listen to Culture 101 on RNZ (Sunday 12-4pm).

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