Nicky Pellegrino farewells the Woman’s Weekly

Former editor of the Woman's Weekly, Nicky Pellegrino, bids farewell to the magazine that brought information and fun to generations of New Zealand women.

All those stories. Gone. Stories about our politics, our health, our education, our aspirations. Stories about the houses we lived in and the gardens we grew, the food we cooked, the fashion we wore. Stories about New Zealanders.

When Bauer Media closed its doors for good on Thursday that was the end of the stories, the finish of magazines that have been a part of the fabric of this country for a long, long time.

The Listener, first published in 1939. The 88-year old New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. The glossy Next magazine launched by editor Lindsey Dawson in 1991. A host of other titles.

Twenty-five years ago it was New Zealand Woman’s Weekly that brought me to this country. I had been hired by editor Sarah-Kate Lynch to be her deputy and arrived, having worked for magazines in London, thinking I was pretty fancy. Very soon I realised how much there was to learn.

For a start many of the women who bought the Weekly considered themselves contributors as much as readers. They sent in their pars for "Over The Teacups" and sack-loads of letters to the editor. I still remember their names. Christchurch’s Jean Ruddenklau was such a faithful that a couple of years ago the magazine’s most recent editor Alice O’Connell dropped in at her house for a cuppa. Joy Henderson bought her first copy in 1954 at the age of 15 with cash from her first job and last year flew up from the Kapiti Coast for her 80th birthday to meet the team. Noelene Price, Aurora Ritchie, Ethne Tapp.

There are plenty of women in this country who have bought the Weekly their whole adult lives. They passed it from mother to daughter to aunt to neighbour. Ordinary women, many living in rural areas and remote communities, raising families, putting dinner on the table, baking Tui Flower’s famous scones, and looking forward to relaxing with their latest copy of the Weekly, like it was a catch up with an old friend.

You only had to stuff up the crossword and spend two days fielding calls from antsy people to know how important they thought their Weekly was. They read it for the royal gossip, the latest on Rachel Hunter and their favourite Shortland Street stars, but they also got a copy every week to read about themselves and other people like them; to read about New Zealand.

The team was so patient with me when I arrived. One gave me a glossary of Māori words I was likely to come across in their stories – whānau, kai, kaumātua, mokopuna. I didn’t know what a pohutukawa was or a tui. I’d never heard of Paul Holmes. I thought New Zealand was just like England only prettier.

Eventually in 2003 I became the editor. Those were tough competitive times as we battled with Woman’s Day and New Idea for exclusive stories. The chequebook journalism years with everyone vying for the latest All Black wedding or baby joy. My biggest coup was Jonah Lomu’s secret wedding to Fiona Taylor. It was such a secret even his family didn’t know he was getting married at a Waiheke lodge. I scored the exclusive mostly by flirting outrageously with his manager Phil Kingsley-Jones (what can I say, those were less woke times). I couldn’t even tell my team. Instead that week we went to press with a fake cover then I disappeared the next day, ostensibly for a long lunch, and returned clutching the photos that made for a best selling issue.

Some of my fondest work memories are of the all-nighters we pulled to cover royal weddings. And the laughs we had coming up with cover-lines for those celebrity stories.

But the Weekly was about more than stars and gossip. It was the way many Kiwi women got their information about everything from beauty to parenting, consumer rights and most crucially health. I remember going for a cervical smear and the gynaecologist, whilst delving in with her speculum, saying she had diagnosed several women with polycystic ovary syndrome following an article we had just run. It’s a horrible hormonal condition that creates all sorts of problems including infertility and up until then nobody was talking about it. A similar thing happened when I went for an ultrasound on a suspicious lump. “Keep running those articles about breast cancer,” the doctor told me. “You’re helping save lives.”

As I write this a handful of home-grown magazines remain. I hope they can survive. Of course there will be other glossy publications we can buy, but they won’t be telling New Zealand stories. Stories about the films we make, and the books we write and the plays we put on. About the businesses we run, about our heartaches, dreams and triumphs. Stories about our people.

Nicky Pellegrino is the author of 11 novels, all splendid lockdown entertainments and all available through online distributors. Her most recent novel is the best-selling A Dream of Italy (Hachette, $34.99).

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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