Sarah Robson reminisces with National MP Nikki Kaye about her time on Fish Out of Water, the reality show that was dumping people on an island years before Survivor.
In 1996, before the term “reality TV” entered our everyday lexicon, TV3 decided to strand six Auckland teenagers on Rakitu Island in the Hauraki Gulf. They were left there for a week with next to no food, no shelter and no rules.
What happened next would all be caught on camera and the resulting hour-long programme, Fish Out of Water (Lord of the Flies: New Zealand probably wasn’t appropriate), would play on television screens in living rooms across the country.
Among the show’s “stars” was the polyprop-clad, take-charge, hunter-gatherer, 17-year-old head prefect of Corran School, Nikki Kaye – now better known as the National MP for Auckland Central and the youngest member of John Key’s cabinet.
The Spinoff somehow managed to score a sit-down interview with the Minister of Civil Defence, ACC and Youth in her Beehive office, to find out what it was like to be part of New Zealand’s original Survivor.
When the producers of Fish Out of Water turned up at Remuera’s Corran School, Nikki Kaye doesn’t think she quite realised what she was getting herself in for.
“I remember they came into our school and they said they were interviewing a range of students,” she says.
“I must admit, looking back, I don’t think I really quite realised what I was being interviewed for. I do joke with some people that maybe we thought it was a leadership camp or something like that.”
Kaye recalls her school “made a bit of a deal out of it” – she was one of just six Auckland students chosen to take part in what she now describes as “one of the toughest experiences that I’ve had”.
But Kaye thinks the producers went into it with a pre-ordained premise: that Kiwi teenagers wouldn’t be able to survive after being left to fend for themselves on an island.
“This was sort of backed up by the fact that when I was on the island, they came to me a few days in and said, you’ve been a good leader and things like that, but could you consider maybe stepping back?
“I basically said to them, in not so polite language, get stuffed, you wanted reality, this is reality.”
There was also, perhaps, an element of Kaye not playing to type.
“I think they were thinking I was the private school head prefect who would fail without my hairdryer, basically,” she says.
“It was reported that’s what they were thinking and I guess what they might have under-estimated a bit was that I had, from a pretty young age, spent time camping with my family, so I had always gone out fishing, been in the outdoors quite a bit.”
It shows in some of the extended footage that has, until recently, been available online: Kaye’s the one who bothers to go out and look for food – she clubs an eel, she hacks a starfish off a rock and suggests that maybe it’ll taste like squid.
“The eel, from my recollection, tastes like chicken, sort of a smoky chicken. It wasn’t too bad at all actually,” she recalls.
“I caught this one small little rock cod fish – I think – and we boiled it and that tasted pretty disgusting because the skin was all meshed with it, so you got scales when you were eating it but look, it was food.
“The other thing I remember eating quite a bit of was seaweed because we were just trying to eat anything, and that tastes salty, for anyone who’s interested.”
Despite the bountiful – if questionable – food sources, there was little that could be done to stave off the inevitable.
“I don’t think I ever realised how quickly mentally and physically people break down without food, it’s so totally Lord of the Flies, it was incredible,” she says.
That was something she came back to several times during our interview, just how bad the deterioration of everyone’s physical and mental states was.
“I just had one or two moments when I felt unsafe and that was just because I think people were losing it,” Kaye says.
When it screened, Kaye remembers feeling “quite sad” for some of her island mates and the way they were portrayed, although she got good feedback about herself.
“I remember thinking it was really hard to convey on a short programme like that the physical and the mental weakness that occurs without food,” Kaye says.
“I think until you’ve been seven days or something without food, you probably might be a bit kinder watching it.”
The experience has had a lasting impact on her.
“I’m not saying I’m amazing at never wasting food, but I think I became much more aware of it. It’s a weird thing, but it’s because I’ve felt seven days of constantly feeling hungry,” she says.
There’s also Kaye’s tendency to be over-prepared.
“If ever I go outdoors to go camping or anything, I’m twice as prepared, because I never ever ever want to be in that situation again. I’m very conscious because I do think back to the island and I think back to that feeling of absolute vulnerability, absolute helplessness.”
But there’s also the psychological aspect, which is something she’s thought a lot about during her career in politics.
“I think it’s made me quite a bit more aware that people react differently to crisis and terrible situations. If you read Lord of the Flies, you’ve got these different personality types playing out. I think that I’m more acutely aware of that because of my experience on the island.”
In the close to 20 years since Fish Out of Water screened, Kaye has gone back to Rakitu Island – which is part of her Auckland Central electorate – just once, in 2013, when she and then-Conservation Minister Nick Smith announced a new initiative to make the island pest-free.
She describes the return trip as “really weird”, particularly the part where she had cause to recollect her one brush with death on Fish Out of Water, which happened while she was out on a one woman search for water.
“I remember looking up into the bush and seeing the absolute steep cliff face that I nearly fell off.”
She lived to tell the tale and Nikki Kaye – MP, cabinet minister and all-round good sport – will go down in New Zealand television history as the original Survivor.
BONUS QUESTION ROUND
Did your experience on Fish Out of Water play any part in the prime minister’s decision to make you Minister of Civil Defence?
The prime minister did not raise my previous experience on a remote island as part of my civil defence credentials.
If you were stranded on an island, who are the three cabinet colleagues you would pick to be on your tribe and why?
Judith Collins, who would be responsible for general food gathering and ass-kicking. I think she’d be able to go out there and hunt. In terms of having the strategic nature to get off the island and thinking through that, I would probably pick Steven Joyce. To actually build me the craft [to get off the island] … I’d pick Nathan Guy.
What three items are absolutely essential if you find yourself stuck somewhere remote?
Water. Blanket. If I could only pick three – I’m assuming that I’m stuck on an island with eels and things that I can eat – I’d pick a cellphone/emergency locator beacon. Get off island, wrap myself up in the blanket and eat the eel.
Naming items from around your office, what would you use to build a shelter?
It might be in one of the cupboards, but I’ve got this great marriage equality sign that I purchased off Louisa Wall and that would be a very good roof. I would use my flagpole as part of the teepee-type structure and then I think I’ve got some pretty nice dresses that I’d use for insulation purposes, not that I’ve thought about this [cue a lot of giggling].
What’s your favourite reality TV show?
Masterchef, rather than The Bachelor.
Who’s your pick to host Survivor New Zealand?
This Throwback Thursday is brought to you by NZ On Screen, click here for more Before They Were Famous coverage.
Please note that the occasionally troublesome opinions expressed above are not those of our wonderful sponsors at NZ On Screen.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.