Despite the outdated format, the premiere of Wife Swap NZ felt quietly revolutionary thanks to one woman. Alex Casey explains why.
Everything about the Wife Swap format is cause for teeth-shattering cringe. Two families trade their wives – who are often also their precious unpaid cook, cleaner and child-minder – for a week in the hopes that one of them starts to freak out about being dark sided, or one of the kids decides to pack their bags and leave because there’s no bacon in the house. Sitting down to watch the New Zealand premiere of the franchise, I was basically ready to either be wildly offended or deeply, irreversibly bored.
And then along came Lei Miao. A shining star in a cold, hard world.
“I want to have an easy life – just sleep… relax,” sighed Lei, mother of three young children and certified joker. “Cup of tea?” she grinned, “cup of wine?” Married to a lovely man named Jackie, who prides himself on doing most of the domestic chores, she’s an exception to the Wife Swap rule from the outset. She’s also the polar opposite of her wife counterpart Emma, who married her teenage sweetheart Paul and has seemingly been cooking and cleaning ever since.
(PS: If you ever need to explain the domestic labour divide, show them this screenshot)
Despite knowing she was entering testing circumstances, Lei chose to remain optimistic – even packing a completely bedazzled hot pink ice skating costume, just in case. “To try a new thing is always the best,” she mused to the camera. From that pearl of wisdom on, Lei delivered countless zingers that effortlessly skewered expectations around what a wife in the home should and shouldn’t be. And just like that, a star was born.
For example, here’s what she did instead of apologising about not being the perfect home cook:
When Paul delivered a terrifying tight-lipped diatribe against her limited cooking skills, she refused to cave:
And when she revealed that she actually could cook after all and was just having a laff, her glee contrasted beautifully against his quivering rage:
And therein lies the genius of Lei. In a country where one of our biggest radio stations prides themselves on their ability to wind up wives, she bloody well went and wound up her temporary husband Paul.
“This is a serious matter,” he said on the reality television show, “you have to be serious”. Lei wasn’t particularly interested in being obedient or serious, explaining that her favourite thing is having fun with her husband and her kids – including giving them regular frights. A jovial queen.
And if you thought cooking-gate was tense, how about when Lei was forced to follow Emma’s hectic daily cleaning schedule? Waking up at sparrow’s fart to seemingly wipe and vacuum the entire house, it’s not a lifestyle that Lei is used to in the slightest.
“Normally I never wake up at half past six,” she yawned. “That’s crazy… jesus.” After falling asleep on the kitchen bench, Chux cloth in hand, Lei became emotional. “Nobody is looking after Emma, poor lady… If it was me I would die straight away.”
Later, she puts in even simpler, heartbreaking terms. “She is a hero.”
Paul, of course, was further angered by Lei’s lacklustre cleaning effort, making collective skins crawl across the country. “Would have been nice if there was no washing for me this morning,” he barbed, before asserting that he’s done all the housework since she arrived. In an interesting turn, we later find out that Lei’s husband Jackie prefers to do the bulk of the domestic chores because she suffered a serious back injury that hospitalised her for weeks, and he’s worried that it’ll happen to her again.
The legacy of Lei’s crack-up rebellion became clear when the couples were reunited. “Why didn’t you follow those rules?” asked Paul in front of his wife. “Because I think the house is really clean,” sassed Lei before turning to Emma, “you don’t need to do it”. When Jackie told Paul that he not only COOKS THE DINNER for the kids but MAKES THE LUNCHES as well, Paul demanded that he come and live with him for the next season of Wife Swap NZ to learn how to slum it like a dude. As for Emma? She can go and live with Lei.
“HAHAHAHAHA,” laughed Emma, slightly too loudly, “CAN WE DO IT NOW?”