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Blow Up contestants Paul and Pip (Image: Supplied/Tina Tiller)
Blow Up contestants Paul and Pip (Image: Supplied/Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureApril 17, 2023

The Blow Up besties brought together by balloon art

Blow Up contestants Paul and Pip (Image: Supplied/Tina Tiller)
Blow Up contestants Paul and Pip (Image: Supplied/Tina Tiller)

Balloon artists Pip Milford-Hughes and Paul Bates talk balloons and brain freezes on the set of Three’s new series.

Before Pip Milford-Hughes competed on Blow Up, she had a foreboding nightmare. She dreamed she was on the set of Three’s new reality competition, but she had forgotten how to blow up a balloon. A few weeks later, that nightmare came true when Pip found herself standing inside Blow Up’s technicolour balloon room experiencing the biggest “brain freeze” of her life, right in front of the camera. “I’m standing there going ‘oh my god, I don’t know what I need, I don’t know what I want’,” she remembers. 

That’s the pressure of blowing up balloons on television, and nobody knows that better than Pip. She’s one of seven New Zealanders competing on Blow Up, a new series that showcases the creative talents of our best balloon artists. Hosted by Jaquie Brown and judged by balloon expert Dave Brenn, Blow Up contestants will be challenged to build a variety of large-scale, visually stunning balloon creations (which Three says will be broken down to zero waste with no balloons ending up in landfill).

The Blow Up contestants stand together smiling at the camera, arms outstretched
The Blow Up contestants, including Paul (centre right) and Pip (second from right). Photo: Three

Pip lives and works as a balloonologist in Ōtepoti Dunedin, and says the opportunity to work with other creative artists was the reason she applied for the show. “You don’t often get to twist alongside somebody else, so you forget how infectious it is when everybody else is doing it,” she says. Her fellow Blow Up contestants include an interior designer, a student and a face painter, but there’s no chance of Pip being lonely on Blow Up. She’s also competing alongside her best friend Paul Bates, a children’s entertainer best known to many as Zappo the Magician.

After first meeting at a Palmerston North magician’s convention back in 2009, Paul and Pip’s friendship saw them go on tour together, travelling around Australia teaching magic and balloon skills. They love the wonder and delight that balloon art brings others – Pip recently made a life-sized ride-on lawnmower out of balloons as a gift for a retiring Dunedin groundskeeper. “The feedback from the people that you give the balloons to, whether it’s for a present or you’re going into a rest home or even at a birthday party, the joy on the recipient’s face is really empowering,” Pip says. “You give it away, but you get so much back.”

Two people stand and look at balloons
Blow Up judge Dave Brenn and host Jaquie Brown (Photo: Three)

Despite competing against each other for the show’s grand prize of $25,000, the friends reckon the Blow Up experience only strengthened their connection. “Pip’s the type of person that if you were in a running race, if you fell over at the finish line, she’d stop, pick you up, and then continue,” Paul says, adding he often asked Pip for advice during the challenges. He came on the show simply to have fun and to build on his balloon skills. “It wasn’t until after the first episode it dawned to me that this is a competition. I mean, I live in a world of rainbows and lollipops and things like that,” he jokes. 

Paul describes walking into the magical Blow Up balloon room – the balloon equivalent of the Lego Masters Brick Pit – as like stepping into Willy Wonka’s world of imagination. This is where the balloon artists can really let their imaginations run wild, where they can build incredible sculptures out of nothing but air and latex, always knowing that one wrong move can ruin everything. One puff too many can destroy the delicate proportions of their creations, and when a balloon bursts in your face on television, there’s nowhere to hide. 

Blown away (Photo: Three)

It’s a high pressure environment that demands both quick thinking and attention to detail, and both Paul and Pip say the show pushed them beyond their balloon comfort zones. Every challenge was a mental and physical test that lasted between seven and 14 hours, and as the contestants wrangled with bigger and bigger balloons, they would finish each challenge dripping with sweat. “A lot of the battle was against myself, because you always have this negative thing, you know: can I do it?” says Pip, who had never made such large-scale creations before. “A lot of it was competing with what was going on in my head.” 

Brain freeze or not, the chance to celebrate balloon art on national television was a dream come true for Pip and Paul. They’re proud of their creations on the show and pleased they could share the experience of appearing on television with each other. Most of all, they hope the show will give viewers a new appreciation for their work. “I’m really hoping people go ‘wow, I didn’t know that you could make balloon art out of that’,’” Pip says. “Balloon artistry isn’t just a cheap, frivolous thing. It’s a skill and it’s an art.” 

Blow Up screens on Monday and Tuesday nights at 7.30pm on Three and streams on ThreeNow.

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