WORD Christchurch 2023: Solidarity with risky women

I took a risk on Friday night at The Piano. The risk was only bringing one pen. It was a risk I would come to regret taking, but more on that later.

Certainly there was no risk that this session would be a dud. Not with this line-up; Dr Emma Espiner (read her memoir, There's a cure for this), Deputy Mayor Pauline Cotter, celebrity chef Jax Hamilton, and entrepreneur Brianne West with MC Miriama Kamo. You just knew it was going to be filled with awesome, and it was.

The audience assembled at The Piano is, you'll be shocked to know, a largely feminine one. It seems clear that there are people attending in groups of friends both from the clusters that drift into the auditorium but also in the general hubbub. This is the loudest audience I've experienced so far this festival and the chat is of a significant level when Steph Walker comes to the lectern to do the introductions and acknowledgements. Non-flash photography is allowed so "please don't flash the ladies!", which gets a laugh.

Steph Walker, Risky Women, WORD Christchurch 2023
Steph Walker captured via non-flash photography.

When the ladies in question walk out onto the stage to take their seats they have glasses of wine with them but when I see that Emma Espiner is carrying the wine bottle with her and casually places it on the coffee table in front of them I give her a mental high-five. The tone for the evening has been set.

It's cemented even more firmly in place when, as part of the general introductions Miriama Kamo announces that they've all decided ahead of time that it's okay for them to swear... so she does. Throughout the evening, each woman in turn will make sure to use the same four-letter word at least once in their talk. Now that's solidarity.

First up is Brianne West. She may not be a household name (depending on the household) but if you're interested in sustainable products you would certainly have heard of her company, which she started here in Ōtautahi - Ethique (pronounced Eh-teek). Ethique is a range of cosmetics and cleaning products in blocks and bars thereby removing the need for plastic bottles and lots of packaging. West is an engaging and slick speaker and you can easily see how she'd end up starting and running her own successful company. But it wasn't always so. She had several false starts but the beauty of starting companies when you're at Uni is that you can make a bunch of mistakes and end up broke and it sort of doesn't matter because you're still only 20 years old.

Brianne West, Risky Women, WORD Christchurch 2023
Brianne West, Risky Women, WORD Christchurch 2023.

There was clearly a lot of trial and error and West admits that getting "bored" was a major contributing factor in some of her failed attempts, but the boredom was really just a symptom of a lack of commitment because the "why" of these businesses wasn't there for her. It was only when she started "Sorbet", a pre-cursor to Ethique that things really clicked. Because actually, she'd always wanted to do something to save the planet but none of her previous business efforts had incorporated that core value. There were still challenges. She was manufacturing products at home. She set fire to microwaves and crockpots and later her own factory to which she admits, "I honestly don't know what's wrong with me" to much amusement from the audience.

And 11 years later Ethique has saved 30 million plastic bottles.

One thing that West mentioned about how nervous and frightened she gets really resonated with me, that feelings aren't reality and sometimes you just have to acknowledge them, and let yourself feel them so you can move on from them. If you fight against them they can come back at you. The things that stop us from taking a risk - fear, lack of confidence, worrying about failing - "every single person who you think has done something amazing has felt the same way" and also "we'll all be dead in 100 years so who cares anyway?" I did another mental high five at this point because this was great advice when someone gave it to Sarah Connor in The Terminator and it remains great advice.

Before last night I knew next to nothing about our Deputy Mayor, Pauline Cotter. I now know so many things about her because it turns out that she's had a very interesting life! And as in all lives, there are key points at which she was at a crossroads where a key decision would lead her on a branching path. Stay or go? Leap or don't? Take a risk or play it safe?

Pauline Cotter, Risky Women, WORD Christchurch 2023
Deputy Mayor and risky woman, Pauline Cotter.

Cotter talked us through her beginnings as a student teacher in a tiny rural school, driving around in her Triumph Vitesse convertible. Cotter included photos in her presentation and the Vitesse did look extremely sexy (and I'm not even a car person). She moved to Australia and pivoted from education to basic sewing, making tablecloths at home. This turned into more complicated sewing and specialist sewing - at one point she was making sails, at another kites. The sail-making gig sounded pretty good especially when you take into account that it was considered perfectly acceptable to go to the pub at lunchtime and drink rum and cokes with lunch, which were bought in JUGS, by the way.

But a rolling stone gathers no moss and Cotter was not inclined towards mossiness either, moving to Sri Lanka for several months. Later she got another sewing job, this time for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome doing things like attaching cowhide to suped up cars and making Aunty Entity's "tent" structure. Later after moving back to Christchurch she got a job making costumes for TVNZ, for shows like What Now, McPhail and Gadsby and Play School.

When TVNZ closed the Christchurch studio she took another risk but starting a business with her husband and an acquaintance. They maxed out their credit card in order to set up their Strydes Ahead business, making colourful adjustable pants that many people may remember as featured in the Arts Centre market. She pivoted again towards local government in 2007 starting at community board level and now she's the Deputy Mayor. Not at all a linear journey but a testament to the idea that "opportunities can just come along if we're open to them."

Next up was Emma Espiner. I've long been in awe of Emma. Not many people in their thirties leave a well-paid job to re-train as a doctor, especially not when they also have a newborn. If a friend told me they were planning this I'd probably advise against it, warning them of burn-out. But then again, some people are just extremely capable and who am I to tell someone what their capabilities are?

When I read Espiner's memoir, There's a cure for this, earlier this year I didn't know that she'd separated from her husband, journalist Guyon Espiner, but there were tiny clues and allusions in the book that led me to believe that there was another story there that she wasn't telling. And she still isn't. In her own words, it's still "too raw".

Emma Espiner, Risky Women, WORD Christchurch 2023

But what she is comfortable talking about is the aftermath of the separation. And it's at this point that my stupid swear-word pen stops working. It just ghosts out on me as I am writing about how she booked it to her friend Nadine's home. I'm annoyed by it at the time, but there's also something great about being able to sit and fully listen without the pressure of trying to capture it all in note-taking. I sit. I listen. I nod. A lot.

She talks about the wonderful women who caught her as she fell and gave her somewhere soft to land. About moving back in with her mother. Of friends who got her through. For women who leave it is so often a matter of survival. Just getting through those first mad days. Like having a newborn, or being one, or both. 

She also talked about how other married couples reacted to the break-up. Some, who perhaps had some marital issues of their own, retreated. Others were extremely curious.

She talked about how often there is a heavy financial cost to women. She talked about making it through the other side and how she suddenly found herself part of a different club, one that does really talk publicly about their experience until you're then part of it and then you hear their stories. Espiner, at one point remarks that she "has always been a woman's woman". And her turn at the lectern is nothing if not an acknowledgement of the solidarity that 'the sisterhood' can offer you in your lowest moments. 

I admit to not knowing much about Jax Hamilton before her appearance in this event. I have never watched Masterchef, but was vaguely aware of her in that way of celebrity chefs - smiling from the cover of a cookbook or telling you how to make delicious meals with ingredients found at this particular supermarket chain. But I've already learned, thanks to Miriama Kamo's introduction that she a) signs off her emails with "Toodlepip" and hasn't worn matching shoes in 7 years, and sure enough, on the night, she's wearing ankle boots of the same style but in different colours; one tan, one black.

Jax Hamilton, Risky Women, WORD Christchurch 2023
Jax Hamilton, risky woman (one tan ankle boot slightly visible)

Well, that's quirky. I wonder if she'll explain why. 

Spoiler: She did not explain why. It's still a mystery.

Hamilton is yet another woman who's lived a remarkable life. Her story started in a crowded family in which "there was no love". Which is a terribly sad way for anyone to describe their childhood. She told us about the teacher who had singled her out for praise in terms of her story-writing ability but later when Hamilton expressed an interest in being a writer when she grew up threw cold water on the idea in a disgusting display of racism. It was a betrayal that solidified something in Hamilton, made her strong as a form of protection.

Another betrayal came later when her mother remarried and Hamilton, still a teenager, came home from work to find all her belongings bagged up and her mother informing her that her step-father no longer wanted her to live there. She was homeless for 6 months but developed the street smarts to survive.

Challenges and different roles followed. She met a New Zealand and married and had two sons, and eventually they moved here. For her 43rd birthday her husband asked her if she'd like a divorce... and she said yes.

Entering the world of Masterchef was a massive risk to take but (tumbling macaron towers notwithstanding) it was one that paid off, leading to the role as spokesperson for Countdown, but fame didn't always sit well with her and at a certain point became something she didn't want any more. 

Life finds her now in a happy, settled place with a home on the Westcoast that just feels right for her. I could tell that everyone in the crowd was deeply moved by her story and I haven't really done it justice here, what with the lack of pen. There was such a strength to her. I think I had expected her, what with the mismatched shoe thing, to be a bit "wacky" but I couldn't have been more wrong. She was inspirational.

Later on in the evening I was lucky enough to have the chance to speak to Hamilton and thank her for her story and when I mentioned that I hadn't been able to take any notes because of the pen situation, she very kindly offered to email me a copy and gave me her business card (which I promptly lost, like an idiot - so you'll be pleased to know, Jax, that I will not be stalking you). In any event it was very kind of her. She also mentioned that she'd been thinking about writing something that wasn't a cookbook and I effusively made clear I was very into that idea, so if a Jax Hamilton memoir turns up in bookstores next year, no need to thank me.

This was the standout event of the festival for me. 

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The risky women