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Pop CultureApril 12, 2017

‘Audiences love New Zealanders here’: Dominic Bowden talks to Alex Casey in LA

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Two years ago, Alex Casey climbed into the on-set trailer belonging to Dominic Bowden – then Dancing With the Stars US backstage host, now host of The Bachelor NZ – to talk live TV, Kiwis vs Americans, and making it in Los Angeles.

Just as all roads lead to Rome and all Suzukis lead to The Bachelor mansion, it was only a matter of time until I found myself peeking my little rat nose into Dominic Bowden’s trailer. The year was 2015. The place was Los Angeles. The time was right. After completing a surreal Days of Our Lives junket, I had wrangled Dombo’s number and was waiting for to be picked up by the man himself from outside The Grove after a particularly unsuccessful celebrity spotting mission.

Dom hangs out at The Grove, probably

Dom was the backstage host of Dancing With the Stars US at the time, coasting into LA after The X Factor NZ KillsMoon shit show – that he didn’t want to talk about – with Zac Franich but a twinkle in his eye. “Meet me outside the Umami burger” he had instructed, as I paced the footpath back and forth in a nervous frenzy, mistakenly jumping into the backseat of more than one SUV after I thinking I spotted Dom’s slim silhouette beneath the tinted windows in the driver’s seat.

To get onto the Dancing With the Stars US set, I had to pretend to be his little innocent mate from New Zealand rather than any kind of writer, which was easy because whenever I go anywhere people ask me gently where my parents are. Having been to Dancing With the Stars in both New Zealand and the US, there was no question about who was at the top of the leaderboard. Dancing With the Stars US was filmed as a friggin’ arena spectacular, with a disco ball that dwarfed even that big, wet ball in the Te Papa foyer. At Dancing With New Zealand, an audience member fell backwards off the bleachers because their deck chair gave out.

Dombo and Bindi are friends forever, probably

Despite the disparity in quality, Dom remained a constant variable in the Dancing With the Stars universe – and for good reason. Despite poor Mike, I still think he’s one of the best TV talents we’ve got. At live tapings, I’ve seen the way he effortlessly charms the studio audience into believing that four hours of their time in a giant cold tomb in Henderson is worth it for a sample bag of bagel crisps and a sighting of Shane Cortese in the wild (totally is, just by the way).

Anyway. So it’s 2015 and I’m in Dominic Bowden’s trailer after taking an alarmingly unsuccessful Instagram, and he’s showing me his rider. It’s a small fridge full of lovely waters, from coconut to sparking to still. I cracked open a coconut delight and we got chatting about making big in Tinsel Town, super size drinks and bus stop Batmen.

Far out this is flash. Ellen Degeneres would have this. James Corden would have this.

Yeah. These are the Star Tour trailers, the ones that they’ve used for the movies for years. This is obviously a newer one, but it’s pretty crazy. This whole thing is just a trip… more than anything I just think, ‘what the hell am I doing here’?

Well you’ve been working at it this whole showbiz thing for a while though, right?

It’s probably because I came straight from the set of Dancing With the Stars New Zealand, so you can’t help but make a direct comparison. I’ve sent photos to all my mates, all my bosses, and they’re like, ‘whaaat?’

Artist’s interpretation of Dom Bowden’s luxury trailer

They’re probably like ‘Don’t come back, we can’t afford you’.

It’s just that America has got so much money. That’s the big thing for us; they’re just so much more resourced. In America you have 20 million people watching each week; so next to the number one show in New Zealand it’s just silly. Everything is so much bigger here. If you go to a restaurant – I’m sure you’ve been to one – you can see how bigger is better.

[Editor’s note: I can personally vouch for the bigness]

Yeah, the drink sizes at takeaway places is what really gets me; I just don’t need that much liquid.

They don’t really do small; it’s either large, extra large, or a small bucket.

Looking around, it seems like you’ve made it. Look at this coconut water. Do you feel like you’ve made it?

I don’t know. I think you take the small victories. It’s a long, slow process of just working bit-by-bit. The good news for me is that I’ve been able to keep steady in New Zealand, been able to have an environment where I’m working there as well as getting to experience this.

What’s your day-to-day life like when you are in LA?

Because of Dancing With the Stars I’m busy through the weekends. We rehearse on Saturdays, Sundays, whether it be X Factor or Dancing, we shoot on Sunday and Monday night. I haven’t really had a weekend in a while.

There’s a lot of sacrifice, I’ve missed important dates for some of my friends. Weddings I can normally get to, and a lot of the time I’ll be involved in – I’m a celebrant so I can marry my friends. But yeah at the moment I do Dancing on Sunday, Monday, I do that work on the E! Channel on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and on Friday I work with Woman’s Day.  

Normal week for Dombo

Do you ever miss doing nothing?

No. I’ve always been ambitious to get over here and experience America, and it’s been a slow burn. When I first came over in 2007 it was to do an interview with Ryan Seacrest. I came along that week and watched him host American Idol and now I’m working with Dancing With the Stars on that same stage. It’s been a really amazing journey to work with all these people love live television.

I love live television more than anything, and Dancing With the Stars is probably the biggest live show in the country. The Voice is not really that live anymore except for the end round, so live TV doesn’t get much bigger in America, or in the world, than Dancing With the Stars. The stage, the size, the people – I love it.

How do the live audiences in America compare to New Zealand?

The American audiences are just like the Americans are – brash and crazy and loud – but they also really get on board and have fun. As does everyone in New Zealand, it’s just that we’re just a bit more reserved than the Americans. With a live show the audience is so important; they really are the beating heart.

That’s why, in any live show I work on, I normally try and do the warm-up a little bit myself to get on the same page as them, because then they’ll go along with you. Certainly, the audiences love New Zealanders and they seem to bond with the little Kiwi from the other side of the world. I thought it would be an issue but it’s actually an advantage to be a Kiwi here.

Dombo doing finger guns on The Bachelor NZ

It seems like every Shortland Street person ends up doing a stint in LA then coming home. What’s with the Kiwi obsession with ‘making it’ in America?

I think that so much of popular music, popular culture, arts, entertainment, all comes from this one town. That’s what fascinated me about it. In New Zealand you can sometimes feel like you’re not part of the conversation because we’re so far away. Here, you’re meeting and mixing with people that are changing the entertainment space. It’s exciting. I think the fascination is because we’ve grown up watching popular culture, and most of it is American.

I can only speak to my own experience, but it’s always something I’ve had a fascination with. I came such a long time ago now but that’s changing a lot – a lot of people want to come. I do a lot of work with the New Zealand Consulate here; hopefully there’ll be ways to make it easier for Kiwis to come. They’ve freed it up a little bit for Australians and now the place is full of them.

Do you think being a New Zealander is an advantage in the LA showbiz world?

I think like any job, it’s all going to come down to if you’re right for the position, or if you’re experienced. With that said, I genuinely think people have more of a fondness for our country. You can see it – their eyes light up when you mention New Zealand and it’s just got a really positive glow to it. It helps across the board, whether you’re sitting in a general meeting or interviewing someone famous. Phil Keoghan told me that he when moved to the States, everyone thought New Zealand was a part of Australia. We’ve come so far.

A Throwback Thursday from Dancing With the Stars NZ

Are you going to The Ivy and rubbing shoulders with celebrities and stuff?

No. When I first came out I wanted to do that just to check it out but it’s not really my sort of scene. Mainly because the food’s not that good, and you have to queue up. A lot of people here are constantly looking to spot famous faces, and so there’s a sense that everyone who’s there is going in to see someone, so there’s this really weird energy. LA’s got such an incredible food scene and social scene, but places like the Hollywood Walk of Fame are just the opposite of what you hope it’s going to be. It’s just awful, Spidermen and Batmen literally everywhere.

I loved it for that reason. I’ve been finding LA really hard to wander around, like you never really ‘stumble’ upon amazing places or characters.

Yeah. You do have moments where you’re sitting there and there’ll be a Batman sitting at the bus stop waiting for his bus home and you just think ‘this is wild; this is a crazy place’. But you mainly need a car to get anywhere because all the good places are kind of hidden. I find the typical places are never fun or good to go to. They all have weird vibes and it doesn’t feel authentic.

I found actually Uber drivers to be the most interesting people a lot of the time; they all have stories. Like everyone has a crazy story here.

That’s so true, everyone has a story and everyone’s going to tell you about it. I met this one guy and five minutes after I started talking to him, he told me he used to be a backup dancer and was in a video with Michael Jackson. First of all I’m like, ‘random for you to tell me that straight away’ but he had already got his phone out, and had loaded up a video. I kind of loved that because it’s so unlike how we do things in New Zealand. In New Zealand you’ll say to someone “how are you going?” and they are like, “good.” In LA you say “how are you going” and they’re like “good, got a bit of an album dropping.”

How exhausting is it having to deal with that constant hustle and energy?

I love it. Someone once said to me that LA’s good as long as you’re in on the joke. If you see it for what it is you can have an amazing experience. For me, it’s more about having a great experience and continuing to get better at what I do rather than “making it”. What is making it? No matter where you get to, there is always going to be somewhere else you want to go.

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