For years, Brooke Howard-Smith was arguably as well-known for being the ultimate party man as he was for presenting TV3’s Target. So it came as a surprise to many when, instead of throwing a party, the consumer affairs presenter and charity organiser spent his milestone 40th birthday sweltering in 35°C heat, building a house by hand in a poverty-stricken Fijian village for charity Habitat for Humanity.
After years of a lifestyle he describes as “self-serving and egotistic,” Brooke has turned over a new leaf – and it's thanks to his wife, Amber Peebles.
“I was a disaster before Amber,” admits Brooke, whose Auckland nightclub, The Pony Club, was renowned for hosting wild parties for everyone from Lady Gaga and Elle Macpherson to Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, before Brooke sold it in 2010.
“It was pretty crazy – the worst parts of human nature came out. Then one day I had a long hard talk with Amber. Despite all the partying, I was far from happy. She helped me focus on positive projects and trying to make a difference. “Before long, with her help I’d turned my life around. It's hard to stay like that when you have someone shaking their head and reining you in.”
Brooke and Amber (29) aren't an obvious match. Brooke freely admits he has “no idea” what former Miss Zealand Amber, who has been a presenter on MTV and runs fashion website thedownlow.co.nz, sees in him.
“No one has ever figured out why she's with me,” says Brooke, quite seriously, as Amber slaps his arm affectionately.
“You know when you meet couples and think, they are perfect for each other. Then you see others that you just think, ‘He must make her really happy.’ That's us. “Anyone who knows my wife will know how much she must love me – she came to Fiji and helped build the house with me. Who'd do that?”
Along with a group of volunteers, Brooke and Amber, who married four years ago this month, spent Brooke’s landmark birthday building one of 225 houses that are being erected in the village with the aim of rehousing squatter families and educating them on sustainability.
“When we arrived, we met a foreman who was expecting a team of 12 experienced builders – what he got was me, Amber and three of the girls from Cure Kids, none of whom had ever so much as swung a hammer before,” says Brooke.
“It was really hard work – we were downing about four litres of water a day – but it's such a great idea. Once they get a house, villagers pay $1 per week, which covers everything. In return they have to learn to plant veges and sell them at the market, the idea being they learn to make money, and go on to teach others to do the same.”
The Brooke that's just as passionate about helping the tiny Fijian community as he was raising money for victims of the Christchurch earthquake and for children throughout New Zealand is a far cry from the kid who left home at 17 after being kicked out of school to live a “completely unbridled life”.
But it's partly thanks to his ability to believe anything is possible that Brooke has turned into the likeable and endlessly energetic man he is now.
“Brooke has such a busy brain – he's always thinking, always coming up with ideas,” says Amber, who is proud of her husband's achievements, which include organising fundraiser Rise Up for Christchurch in 2011 and Red Nose Day: Comedy For Cure Kids – an event the pair are working on to air later this year.
“He's very smart, and very funny. And he's really good at stuff – what he isn't good at, he keeps doing until he becomes good at it,” says Amber.
“‘Whipped,’ I think is the word – believe me, Amber's no shrinking violet!” jokes Brooke, He adds that while they work well together, they still argue – just not as much as some people might think.
“People talk about how awful it is to be henpecked, but I absolutely love the idea. A lot of what I do involves us working together at the beginning of a project, then Amber becomes the front face and I work away in the background.”
It's a surprising admission for a man who, in eight years at the helm of Target, has often been accused of attention-seeking. But while Brooke has had his fair share of time in the spotlight, he's much happier being at home brainstorming with Amber than he ever was as a party boy.
“We have a really good rhythm to our lives now – it's pretty relaxed,” he says. The pair is also keen to start a family, although both admit it will be tough to change their lifestyle. “It's in the not-too distant future – just not right now,” Brooke says.
“I love the idea of having kids, and I don't want to be that 60-year-old dad dropping their kid off to soccer. I'm already getting close.” But for now, the pair couldn't be happier.
“Amber is the reason I am who I am. She's my sounding board, she's beautiful and she's smarter than me. On paper, our relationship should never work – but it does,” Brooke says. “He's tall, dark and handsome. He's the whole package for me,” adds Amber.
To find out more about how you can help with Habitat for Humanity in Fiji, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out how you can get involved in Red Nose Day: Comedy For Cure Kids, email email@example.com