Twenty one years ago, Teuila Blakely appeared on 60 Minutes. Not for being a film and TV star, or a DJ, or an MC – all of which she is today – but because she was part of a documentary on teenage mums.
At the age of 17, Teuila was about to give birth to a child. Last week, Teuila threw that child, Jared, a huge party to celebrate his milestone birthday – and despite the hardships, the despair and the challenges that have almost brought Teuila to her knees, the Shortland Street actress says having Jared was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“When I had Jared, I was just a girl, but I remember the terror I felt at having a child as clearly as if it were yesterday,” says Teuila (38), who plays Vasa Levi on the hit TV2 show. “I was petrified of the birth itself and I didn't have my own mum around to talk me through any of that stuff, so I winged it.
“I had so much fear in my heart, so much going on around me – all I could think was that I had made a decision to bring this baby into the world and I was determined to give him the best possible opportunities in life.”
When Teuila and Jared sit down with the Weekly to share the story of their remarkable journey, two things are instantly apparent: that the mother and son duo are about as close as it's possible for any parent and child to be, and that the topic of how Teuila managed to bring up her son to be the man he is today is extremely difficult and raw for them both.
Jared is often so overcome with emotion it's hard for him to speak, but throughout, Teuila is beside him, comforting him and encouraging him – just as she has done his whole life.
“It was a different time back when I had Jared. It wasn't really acceptable to have a kid at that age and I had no idea what I was doing,” Teuila remembers. “As a single parent, you do twice the work with half the resources. I don't think there was ever a time I didn't feel overwhelmed.”
But Teuila had one thing going for her – an unshakeable determination to bring up her boy as well as she could and to succeed in her ambitions even though it was against the odds.
“Determination was pretty much all I had!” she smiles shakily. “The reality was I had to work to provide for my son, so I worked in retail for 10 years at Arizona, McDonald’s, Glassons, Just Jeans, anywhere I could – from the age of 17.
“During those 10 years I was desperate to break into acting, but when was I going to find time to train or get an acting job? My friends thought I was mad to even try.”
For years, Teuila's life was a whirlwind of work and parenting, trying to keep her head above water while doing the best she could for the son she obviously dotes on.
“I could never have done it without my dad, Frank Blakely, who looked after Jared when I was working,” she says.
Jared smiles, remembering the days when he'd sit in his granddad’s van as a child while he did his paper round. “He took me everywhere,” he says. “I was pretty content as a kid. I didn't have many toys, but I was really happy playing with wooden clothes pegs. I'd put them together and make things from them.”
“I don't think Jared ever realised we were poor!” laughs Teuila. “He had everything he needed, but not everything I wanted him to have. But I was lucky – he was a happy kid.”
Despite all the challenges of being a working single mum, Teuila never gave up her dream of being on stage. She joined an acting extras agency and volunteered at radio stations until she started doing the odd radio show herself.
Then, one day she auditioned for a job as presenter on music channel C4 – and got the job. Soon after, she was asked to MC for US rapper Missy Elliott.
“It's the story of my life – I just said yes, not having a clue what I was doing!” laughs Teuila. “I was terrified, but [I was] determined not to fall on my face in front of 8000 people.”
Jared remembers the moment too, because he was sitting on a speaker on the side of the stage at the time. “That was my mum – she tried all the time, so hard,” says Jared, who has always been in contact with his father – “he’s a good friend”. “Mum spent a lot of time at work, but that was just the way it was. I never questioned it.”
Not even when, after Teuila got a job as a DJ at radio station Flava, he was largely on his own when it came to the school run. “I'd leave at 5am for my morning shift, have a couple of hours at home at lunchtime and go back for the drive shift at 2pm,” remembers Teuila.
“Jared would get himself up and take himself off to school, then get himself home and make dinner. I'd get home at about 7pm to have a couple of hours with him before I'd crash out and get up again at 5am.
“My dad or my sister Marjorie would pop in to check he wasn't dead or starving or something. “That was the reality of our life. I'm so lucky and thankful that I had the son that I did and he didn’t wag off school or take the wrong path.”
As Jared takes his final step into adulthood, while it's inevitable that Teuila has some regrets, it's hard to work out just who is prouder of the other. “It's always been us two against the world and as he turns 21, I really feel like he's made it,” she says.
“I'm excited and relieved – relieved that everything I wanted has happened. “I have given Jared the most I possibly can. Now it's time for me to step back and let him take control of his own life.
“It's been hard. There have been times I've wondered if I'll get through it. But if I changed a single step of the journey, we wouldn't be where we are today. I'd do it all again in an instant.”
Despite the trials, raw emotion and difficulties that Jared has experienced in his 21 years, he feels nothing but deep love and respect for the woman who has achieved so much.
“In high school, I was always called a dreamer,” he says. “I inherited that from my mum. Without Mum following her dreams and having the guts to do what she did, I wouldn't be who I am today. I love her very much.”