Alex Casey spends an afternoon with Astar, morning television superstar turned Youtube extraordinaire.
Astar is digging through her garden bin with a Scream mask in one hand and a vape wedged under her arm. She emerges, coiffed hair and red lipstick still perfect, clutching a bunch of old twigs. “Halloween,” she explains, holding the foliage behind the mask like a crown, “the Americans go crazy for it.” We’ve just met for the very first time, and she was already so much better than I could have ever imagined.
It’s this infectious brand of heartfelt crafting that Astar lovingly shared on TVNZ’s Good Morning for over 17 years, right up until the show ended in 2015. These days you can find her on Youtube, where her channel Astar’s Place has amassed over 100,000 subscribers clamouring to see just how easy it is to turn an alarm clock into a still life display and hear her annual Christmas and New Year’s messages a la the actual Queen. Simply put: she’s incredible, perhaps the only New Zealander truly worthy of having only one name.
Inside Astar’s immaculate Remuera home, she drags from her vape – cotton candy flavour – and straightens her faux fur stole over her leopard top. There were as many cherub statuettes around as you’d expect, and a truly overwhelming amount of furry throw cushions. I would later get confused and sit on her cat by mistake. On the walls: Marilyn, Marlene and more icons of old Hollywood, framed in gold leaf. Astar gestures to them, muttering disparagingly about the state of modern celebrities, specifically Gwyneth Paltrow.
She doesn’t know why I want to interview her. “Everything all gets very muddled from my head to my mouth with everything that I’m continuously thinking,” she explains. “The reason I sound like I’m on speed today is because I’m so excited it’s spring. It’s new beginnings, a whole new fresh start. The trees will stop being barren, the bees and the flowers will come back and it’s all just marvellous and magic.” She lets her two cats – Ming Ming and Tilly, the squashy face kind – out into her pristine courtyard to enjoy the vibes.
We start, naturally, exploring her lifelong passion for crafting. “I think you could take over the world with a hot glue gun,” she says, brandishing her signature weapon towards me with glee. “It burns like you cannot imagine.” Astar starts showing me how to make decorative roses by ripping up old egg cartons. My carton is already occupied with painted, smiling eggs wearing flower crowns. “Ooh, I wondered where those were!” Astar exclaims, cradling them in her hands.
“I think there’s a huge emergence of people wanting to craft as the world’s gotten more fast-paced,” says Astar, thoughtfully gluing. “People are really craving that element of making and mending and simplifying in their lives – everything that I’ve learned over the last 60 years.” Born and raised in Invercargill in the late 1950s to a “kind and caring” father and a talented seamstress mother, Astar honed her natural crafting skills at an early polytechnic school.
“You didn’t go to tech to learn Latin or anything like that, you went there to learn how to be apprentices and labourers. There were only five girls in my class and the rest were boys, and so many of the girls had to go away to have babies.” She learned to use her hands, and fostered a particular interest in botany and biology. “All my interests stem from those tech classes, I think. How does it grow? How does it work? What’s it made of? What’s behind it?.”
Astar left school with floristry training, but continued to devour everything arts and crafts. “I went to night school for years. Anything to do with art, design, craft, I did it all until I was in my mid-20s.” She got pregnant, got out of Invercargill, bought a deer farm, sold it, and moved to Auckland. “One day I got a phone call from a man with an accent asking me if I did flowers. He told me to come to his house, and I just slammed the phone down – I couldn’t be bothered.”
Not long after, a lawyer rang to explain that the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, was in New Zealand and looking for a new finishing artist. Being Astar, she took the job. “Isn’t that mad? A girl from Southland, raised with nothing, working for the richest man in the world?” She worked for several years alongside the Sultan’s interior designers and artists, making the houses look like homes. “If there was one thing I learned there, it was that all the money in the world doesn’t buy taste and style.”
Astar is hesitant to say too much about the realities of life working under the Sultan, skimming over family prostitution scandals and living in a compound. If she’s clear about one thing, it’s why she chose to return home. “I just got sick of it, it was all bullshit. All that money! How much gold does one person need? You can only deal with so much wealth before you think to yourself ‘not another shipment of roses, not another bloody banquet’. Let’s not forget that half the world’s starving.”
“I realised in Brunei that all the money in the world doesn’t really impress me. I don’t care if you are the richest or the poorest person in the world, if you are kind and honest then you’ll do me.”
The Sultan might have lost his finishing artist in 1998, but New Zealand was about to gain a national treasure. “I had never ever heard of Good Morning but I had just quit my job in Brunei. Who resigns from working for the richest man in the world?! Me, that’s who.” She was home alone in Auckland one morning and watched in horror as a woman assembled a “budget” meal on Good Morning for $60. “I was appalled,” she remembers. “I’d have done it for $30 and made something much tastier.”
She picked up the phone and rang Good Morning, suggesting that she could do better than the talent they had – and told them she also did flowers. “They asked me for a CV, so I got a rubbish bag and drew little pictures on the outside, put my portfolio of work inside it and the bound it with the twine.” The front of the bag was addressed to Good Morning, and on the reverse she wrote “for what it’s worth, a bag of rubbish.” They gave her a slot and she never left.
“Dear girl, I just served two life sentences on that show,” she says, now holding a rock wrapped in lace. “I used to see my work on Good Morning as a national service. People loved that show.” Doing everything from floral arrangements, to hypnosis, to talking like the Queen, to interviewing Dame Edna, Astar became the beating heart of morning television. “I just think about all those babies who cut their teeth on our show – Brooke Fraser and Ladi6 were just little girls. All the talent that belongs to New Zealand has passed via my craft bench.”
Astar guffaws with laughter when I bring it up her annual ballet recital on Good Morning, smacking the work bench and making her cherubs wobble. “I want you to know that my dying swan is one of the most tragically tragic ballets in the world. I love it. The twitching! It’s just perfect.” She began attending local ballet classes alongside teenage girls at the age of 45, 15 years ago. Just last week, she announced to her classmates that she still wants to be dancing when she’s “bloody, buggery 80”.
“I always tell the young girls in my ballet class to make a five and ten year plan, and think about the kind of people they want to be when they’re old. I know I’m in my last good 21 summers, so each one from now is going to be approached with vigour.”
Sadly, it was announced in 2015 that Good Morning (and Astar’s yearly recital) would be no more. “It was a decision that impacted an enormous amount of people,” says Astar, who still blames “two little men with shiny shoes” at TVNZ. Beyond the countless audience members who still approach her to this day, she also laments the loss of the crew who, just like Ladi6 and Brooke Fraser, she watched flourish from her craft bench. “It was a wonderful place for them to learn because it was three-hour live production. You don’t get live TV like that now.”
Luckily for Astar, her Youtube channel Astar’s Place was well underway before the lights went out at Good Morning. Now boasting over 100k subscribers – and a shiny silver plaque from Youtube HQ – it’s a rich bevy of craft tutorials on how to do everything from fashioning an ant trap to making the perfect jewelled crown on a budget. “I love the idea that there could be someone out there wondering how to do something, and they can come to me just like I did with my mother.”
New videos arrive on Astar’s Place every Monday and Friday and she films in bulk every fortnight, currently sitting at nearly 600 uploads. “I think people like my no bullshit approach. I’m not a Martha Stewart type. This is how you do it, and if you don’t like it, well I don’t care.” Which genre is the most popular? “I thought the people would like cooking and I thought they would like lotions and potions, but people seem to like all the wee things, which I find really weird.”
Next year, she’s taking Astar’s Place global, hoping to meet aspiring crafters across the world. “A lot of people still don’t know about gardening and a lot of people still don’t know about sewing. All these things that I learned as a young girl, people just don’t have those skills anymore.” Beyond framing your teddy bears and displaying live ivy wrapped in silver birch bark, Astar’s mission in life is to get people to slow down and appreciate what they have.
“Life used to be simple, you know? Nobody felt poor, nobody felt rich, we all worked with our hands” says Astar. “Now I see everyone just wanting, wanting, wanting and it makes me so sad. It should be the little things that give you joy, like a homemade pottle of jam. I don’t see happy people these days. What happened to that joy? What happened to going outside and getting in touch with the flow of the seasons? I bet you started the day in your office and you’ll just go back and sit there all day.”
She was right. I did.