To celebrate 30 years living in New Zealand – the longest she’s ever been based in one place – Suzanne Paul is keeping it simple: picking up her pension, oh, and getting married.
As one of the most recognised faces (and voices) in the country, she jokes she’s reinvented herself more times than Madonna in that time, too.
From sunbed salesperson to television host, dancing star to declaring bankruptcy, the plucky infomercial queen has packed a lot of living in.
“Sometimes I think the last three decades feels like forever and how did I do all of that? Other times it feels like it’s gone in a blink of an eye,” confesses Suzanne from the cosy rural home she shares with fiance Patrick Kuhtze and rescue dog Matty, north of Auckland.
“People must presume I’m dead! When they bump into me working at lifestyle expos, they go, ‘Oh, my goodness, you’re still going?'” she laughs.
“But I’ve got a lot of energy left in me.”
In 1991, Suzanne famously arrived in New Zealand with just $18 in her pocket and dogged determination to rebrand herself as anything other than “little Sue Barnes from Wolverhampton”. Coming here alone and starting again with nothing is what she calls her greatest success.
“A lot of women feel lost in their mid-30s if they don’t have a partner or a house or kids. When I told friends in the UK that I was saving up for an airfare to go back to New Zealand, they were like, ‘Really? You should buy a car instead’, as I’d never had one before. I said, ‘I just think I should give it another go. I don’t want to give up.'”
After landing at Auckland Airport at 6am, surrounded by strangers enjoying reunions in the arrivals lounge, Suzanne started crying, overwhelmed by loneliness and self-doubt.
“So I had a word with myself to calm down, as I often do, and thought, ‘What is the most important first step you need to take?’ I needed a place to stay, so I went up to a notice board and saw an ad for a hostel with free airport pick-up,” she recalls.
“Then I got the newspaper and saw an ad wanting someone to sell vacuum cleaners door to door. I went for the interview only a few hours later, started training the next day and began work on the Monday.”
Nights were spent working at cabaret club Burgundy’s in Parnell, as well as weekends selling at Victoria Park Market. She was driven and busy, but loneliness was her constant shadow.
“That first Christmas I walked around the streets, stopping at the end of people’s driveways, looking through the windows like I was little orphan Annie!” shares the bubbly 64-year-old.
“It took me back to when I felt very lonely as a child. My mum left us when we were young and my dad brought us up, but he was a factory shift worker so wasn’t around much. There’d be nobody there after school, so I’d start the fire and make some jam on toast for my tea.
“We were poorest of the poor in that area. Although I had a horrible childhood, I think it enabled me to stand on my own two feet at an early age. I didn’t rely on anybody else for anything. And I told everyone I’m getting out of Wolverhampton as soon as I can. I hated it!
“It’s a bit like Coronation Street. Anytime a character says they’re moving to London, everyone else is like, ‘Whadya mean? You’ve got a bob on yourself, aven’t ya?’ But I managed to leave when I was 16. Of course, everyone was just waiting for me to fail, which I did a lot.”
Motivated by a fear of never wanting to end up back there, Suzanne relied on her gift of the gab to pull her through. In her 20s, with little money, she applied to UK holiday camp Pontins for the position of live-in camp photographer – despite never owning a camera before.
“At the interview, I literally lied from start to finish! You couldn’t check up on people like these days. I told them I’d been a photographer at Butlin’s camp two years beforehand and was hired.
“Well, my first pictures got developed and people’s heads were cut off or blurred. Luckily, there was another photographer who laughed that I’d exaggerated my skills and he showed me how to do it properly.”
She’s worked tirelessly since and her enthusiasm for whatever she is selling is unabashed, even on the days she didn’t feel like facing the world.
“At 50, after losing everything – my business, the house, my mum and dog dying all in the space of a year – I was overwhelmed with sadness,” tells Suzanne, who has been a Kiwi household name since she began fronting ads for Natural Glow make-up in the ’90s.
“My second marriage was on the rocks too, but I couldn’t contemplate a break-up at that time or finding somewhere new to live on top of it.
“I didn’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning, but I did it anyway. Before having to do a sales demonstration at a shopping mall, I’d be sitting in the car crying. I’d tell myself, ‘Sparkle and shine! You’re going to chat to some great people.’ It’s amazing where you find the resilience when you have to.”
It’s in recent years that Suzanne feels more relaxed and contented with life than ever before.
“I think I now know I can survive anything,” she says smiling. “I used to see psychics or palm readers because I just wanted somebody to tell me it’ll be alright.
“Meeting Patrick has helped me, too. It’s a nice change to have someone take the wheel for a while and enjoy being a passenger. He’s such a good support and such a good man.”
The pair first met in person in August 2018, but had been chatting on Facebook for several months prior. As a session drummer, who has often teamed up with the likes of classic Kiwi bands Split Enz and Coconut Rough, Patrick, 57, and Suzanne’s paths have crossed many times over the years while working at the same events.
“He’s done the music on various TV shows that I’ve been on like Stars in Their Eyes,” she explains. “We wish we could’ve got together 20 years ago. But I just try and make the most of every day now. At night, I often turn to him and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to have such a great day tomorrow!’ He’ll reply, ‘Why, what’s happening?’ I say, ‘Nothing. But we’ll have fun.'”
Their wedding – “third time lucky” for both of them – is planned for October. The intimate venue is booked and the following month, Suzanne turns 65. Any mention of retirement, though, is met with a loud chuckle.
“No, I don’t know what retiring means! I’ve just started a new business with a friend of mine, called Suzanne Paul’s Favourites – things like stick-on nails, flash lash serum, kimonos, hair turbans, 10-way-necklaces,” she says, giving the Weekly a hilarious mock demonstration of her inimitable selling style.
“Women trust me and I love chatting to them at the lifestyle expos around the country and various markets. Another dream of mine is to open a little animal sanctuary as I’ve had a lot of rescue animals over the years, so watch this space.”
She adds, “Funnily enough, I do think I’m living my best life now. I don’t have the big house or fancy car, but I feel I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m so glad I chose New Zealand to live all those years ago. Kiwis have always been so friendly and accepting. I’m very grateful.”
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