Mike’s turn to be king

Former comedian and now mental health advocate Mike King has been named Kiwibank 2019 New Zealander of the year. Mark Jennings reports

Maybe Mike King had an inkling that this was his year. He turned up to the New Zealander of the year awards with a plan to make the most of his time in front of the 700 well connected guests at Auckland’s Cordis hotel.

The trousers of his formal black suit were tucked into a pair of white gumboots.

When invited onto the stage, as one of the three finalists in the night’s major award, King launched his latest idea to combat New Zealand’s high youth suicide rate.

With his casual comedic flare King announced that Friday April 5th would be “Gumboot Friday” and people should turn up to work or school wearing gumboots and donate money.

“We want to raise $2million for free [children] counselling. We’d like to give families stuck on a waiting list an option to see someone faster. It’s not an instead of service it is an as well as service,” said King.

The former stand-up comedian had the crowd cheering and applauding when he told them all the money raised would be spent on counselling.

“The trouble with these things is that [people] sit there and say ‘well how much is going to the charity [work] and how much is going on administration,’ well we won’t touch your money as we have come up with a genius plan – you donate and put it into the Kiwibank Gumboot Friday account and the only way it can come out is with an invoice from a health professional and not an accountant!”

In 2018, when he was also a finalist but ultimately unsuccessful, King gave a pessimistic speech about the problems of mental health and youth suicide in New Zealand. Twelve months on and he is much more optimistic.

“Last year I was pretty down and had a heavy message for everyone here, but in the year since I was here things have changed, there is definitely a change happening, our numbers (of suicides) might not reflect that yet but there is a positive attitudinal change….and people want to know what they can do to make change.”

At this point, King turned to the Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern, who was on stage to introduce the finalists, and said “we no longer want to be a society that continues to ask the Government ‘what are you doing’, and we are starting to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we can do".

For his part, King has given up being a comedian and works full time as a mental health advocate for the Key to Life Charitable Trust.

His message is that society needs to make it “ok” for people in crisis to ask for help.

“Instead of the message being if you’re in crisis ring this number, we should be saying to people who are not in crisis, what are you doing to make it more comfortable for people in crisis to ask for help.”

Hamish Coleman-Ross who hosts the Nutters Club radio show that King stared 10 years ago (King still rings into the show most weeks) says King is an extraordinary communicator.

“The last time I heard Mike talk was at Meadowbank primary school. It is an affluent suburb and the audience was mainly pakeha children and their parents. Mike made people laugh and cry and took them on an emotional journey. He engaged with those people. The same week he gave the same talk to a Waikato chapter of the mongrel mob and they reacted the same way as the people in Meadowbank.

‘Who else is capable of connecting with these very different audiences?”

“Mike is not doing it to be the man, it takes an emotional toll on him. Someone once described Mike to me as an open wound that people are allowed to look at and poke around in so that they can understand their own wounds.”

King told the Stuff website in 2018 that when he speaks to school children he often starts by telling them he is different to the guy their parents might have described.

“Most of your parents know me as a brash, overconfident, swear-y stand-up comedian. What your parents probably don't know about me is I'm a drug addict, I'm an alcoholic, and I've had self-esteem issues for most of my life," he says.

The radio show that King started has become a major success attracting 50,000 listeners and winning its Sunday night slot.

Coleman-Ross, whose own father committed suicide when he was four, agrees with King that there has been a sea change in attitudes towards helping people with mental health issues.

“People will ring in and talk about their battle with depression and within minutes lots of people will be on the line offering to help, giving phone numbers of professionals that can assist.”

This was Mike King’s fifth trip to the awards. On the other occasions he has been either a nominee or a finalist but never a winner.

This year’s other finalists, Eat My Lunch co-founder Lisa King and anti-smoking campaigner Dr Marewa Glover would have been worthy winners but you could feel the crowd wanted King to win. It was his turn, his time.

When the Prime Minister read out his name King made his way slowly through the cheering crowd to the stage. This time there were no jokes, no speech designed to shock and no mention of gumboots.

Fighting back tears, King thanked his wife and colleagues, hugged Ardern and left.

I asked him later if he had ever imagined he would be New Zealander of the year.

“No never, but I think things happen for a reason. I always wanted to be a comedian, I thought being a comedian was going to be everything in my life but I realise now that it was just a stepping stone for where I am now and love where I am now.”

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