Physically and emotionally exhausted, Heather du Plessis-Allan knew by the end of last year it was time for a new challenge. But if the One News reporter was looking forward to a change of pace in 2013, she’s in for a sharp shock.
Instead of trading her notebook and snappy blazers for rest and relaxation, Heather is about to embark on her most dynamic year yet – reporting for TV One’s new current affairs show Seven Sharp and writing her first book at the same time.
“It’s probably not the best year to be trying to do both,” Heather says with a laugh. “At the end of last year, I was tired, really tired. I’d worked really hard and I’d tried my hand at too many things. “I got to the stage where I needed a different challenge – and this was it. “I think I might have bitten off a bit more than I can chew, but it’s worth having a crack!”
While Heather will be filing stories for One’s new flagship show – hosted by Alison Mau, Greg Boyed and Jesse Mulligan – from her home in Wellington, she’ll also begin penning her first book, a piece of nonfiction writing that’s on a topic very close to her heart.
"Part of the reason I wanted to do the book was because of my uncle, Arthur,” says Heather. “I’ve always been really interested in race relations, because I grew up in South Africa. My uncle – Mum’s brother – he’s white, and he married a woman who isn’t, and it caused a bit of a scandal.
“My uncle was invited to a party just before Christmas, but the host rang up and said, ‘You’re welcome to come, but if you do, please don’t bring your wife.’
“I was just so surprised that South Africa hasn’t moved on yet. So, I want to write a book about how life has developed there, 20 years on from the first democratic general election. “I thought it would be interesting to catch up with people who started out in the same place I did and see what’s happened to them.”
Coming from a conservative town 500km out of Cape Town, Heather was only a child when apartheid finally ended in 1994, but she grew up surrounded by its lingering prejudices – something she still had to contend with during a visit in 2010.
“My uncle was deliberately avoiding myself and my mum,” the 28-year-old says. “So, we just rocked around to his house and breezed in – my mum and her Kiwi husband, and me and my husband Barry [Soper, political editor at Newstalk ZB]. It was just a bunch of Kiwis turning up, and it was great.
“But as we left, my uncle said, ‘Hey guys, thanks so much for coming, it really means a lot,’ and I realised he wasn’t sure how we would react to his partner. That’s why he didn’t want to see us. “I thought, if only he knew how we felt about these things as Kiwis. It’s a complete non-issue.”
Having an open attitude is something that’s made Heather feel incredibly proud about being a Kiwi. Even though the subject matter is very personal, she won’t be able to become engrossed in the book this year.
With a tendency to become totally absorbed in one project at a time, Heather says the next 12 months are for compartmentalising her life and setting goals to ensure her workload is under control. While it’s not going to be easy, she admits she hasn’t been this energised in years.
“I couldn’t sleep the other night because I had all these ideas popping into my head. “The excitement I’ve got at the moment, it’s so rejuvenating, as much as it’s all consuming.”
There’s no doubt it’s going to be an incredibly full-on year and Heather’s self-imposed hectic work schedule won’t leave a lot of time for much else – including her husband of three years, Barry.
“I feel kind of sorry for my husband,” she grimaces. “He warned me I wasn’t going to have enough time to write the book and I said, ‘Oh well, there’s weekends and evenings!’ “I don’t know what he’s going to do. He’ll have to find something else to do to entertain himself!”
Heather admits it has been a difficult switch from news reporting to current affairs, but she is relishing the challenge of being part of a radically different 7pm programme.
“The last time we launched a show like this at TVNZ was Holmes in 1989. We are really going outside the square with this and it’s a privilege to be a part of it. “But it is a huge learning curve and there is pressure to get it right from the start.”
Seven Sharp has not been without detractors – from criticism over the name to allegations the show will be “fluffier” than a newborn bunny, media commentators have been merciless. But Heather is quick to defend the show, saying that if it didn’t have critics, it would be irrelevant.
“It’s not going to be fluff, it’s going to be flexible,” she insists. “It’s not formulaic. “We can be serious about one thing and have a laugh at something else. You will learn something in an interesting and edgy way.”
And she’s convinced that Kiwis will love the show as much as she does. “It’s going to be much more Kiwi than before. We love it when we can laugh at ourselves – and that’s what we’ll be doing!”