Judy Bailey (words) and Jane Ussher (photos) travel to the Hokianga to meet wellness author Wendyl Nissen: “I love being unattractive,” she writes. “It’s a personal goal.”
“You have to try the sausage rolls,” says Wendyl Nissen. “That’s Bruce in there.” Bruce was one half of her much loved pair of cows, Bruce and Bambi.
Wendyl, the former queen of Auckland’s media scene, is now a bona fide country girl. The home she shares with her husband and journalist Paul Little hugs a five acre plot overlooking Hokianga Harbour.
On a wet winter’s day, Hokianga’s iconic sand hills are shrouded in mist. There’s an ethereal, almost spiritual quality to the place. Wendyl’s latest book, A Natural Year, is about her life lived here, through the seasons, her garden, her kitchen and her thoughts on life and aging, on health and happiness and on navigating your way through depression and anxiety.
On aging: “Some women I know have gone into mourning about their loss of fertility and the fact that men no longer whistle at them because they are old. Are you kidding me? Do you really rate yourself on how men react to you and therefore find that in your fifties men not whistling at you means you’re no longer attractive? I love being unattractive; its a personal goal. I love the fact that men no longer ogle me or try to chat me up. I have always thought those men were dickheads anyway. If I want a man to tell me I’m attractive, I’ll let him know. Until then, shut up."
She is strong on positive aging. “Other women in my age group torture themselves dieting and having plastic surgery. I’m horrified to see it. I’m not ‘on the market’, I don’t care what people think about how I look, although I’m very aware [of how I look] when I go out with my media mates who are all styled.”
For the record, she looks great. Bright eyed, clear-skinned and confident, with naturally greying hair tumbling down below her shoulders.
She credits her mother for her feisty nature. “Mum taught me to give as good as I got.”
Wendyl’s parents, Cedric and Elis Nissen, came to live with their daughter when Elis’s Alzheimer’s was becoming difficult for her father to deal with alone. Elis died a year ago but Cedric continues to live in the little cottage connected to the house.
Wendyl had a troubled and often complicated relationship with her mother.
“We had a difficult relationship. Mum had a terrible childhood and carried a lot of that with her. It came out in her own parenting.” Elis was adopted into a family of four boys during the depression. The family took a teenage mother in to work as their housekeeper. She had her own baby with her and proceeded to make young Elis’s life a misery. “There was a lot of teasing and shaming,” Wendyl tells me, “everything she would later do to me”.
Elis struggled with depression and anxiety and never once had counselling. “A lot of women her age had horrible demons that were never explored. In those days you were given Valium. She took one and a half a day. They were very very strong.
“She was the classic 50s housewife, ‘well turned out’, but struggling underneath.
“I grew to realise there were three Elises. There was ‘Nice Elis,’ a charitable, empathetic woman, there was ‘Lady Elis’, who put on a posh voice on the phone, wore makeup and jewellery and put people down, and then there was ‘Bad Elis’, who was nasty.
“I learned, when she made those lizard eyes,” she says, narrowing her eyes, “that I had to make myself scarce. I learned how to deal with it.”
Ironically, the dementia Elis suffered in the years before her death rendered her ‘Nice Elis’. Wendyl remembers fondly the couple of years they spent together in the Hokianga. Her house has a view of a tiny island in the harbour just off Koutu Point. She scattered her mother’s ashes there, a peaceful resting place for a troubled woman.
Wendyl grew up on Auckland’s Northcote Point. Her father, Cedric Nissen, was a leading journalist working for the city’s evening daily, The Auckland Star. She quite obviously adores her dad.
“He’s consistently loved me,” she says, simply. “He’s shy, he doesn’t say anything unless its worth saying. He’s a listener, honest, a good bloke.” Cedric, now 87, had just taken off on a road trip down country to visit some mates. Still fiercely independent, he was driving himself.
As a child, Wendyl remembers spending hours with her dad on Sunday mornings, swimming and fishing together in the Waitemata. Fishing has become a big part of her life in the north. She’s often to be found on her old farm bike, carting her dinghy down to the beach for a date with the snapper.
Her love affair with journalism began at school. “I loved English and I had a very good teacher. I told dad I wanted to be a journalist and he said, ‘It’s not bloody Mary Tyler Moore you know'.” The TV show of the same name was a glamorous version of newsroom life. He continued: “You’ll turn into a smoking, hard drinking , swearing ...... no, no, no!” Wendyl: “I was 15 and thought all that sounded just great.”
She would go on to have a stellar career, becoming the youngest editor of Woman’s Day at just 30. The 1990s saw the height of chequebook journalism and Wendyl was particularly good at it. She later wrote a book about her experiences in magazines, Bitch and Famous.
Wendyl’s marriage to her first husband, cartoonist and animator, Anthony Ellison, saw her become a mother at 24, to Daniel, a model and artist and then two years later to Hannah. “Daniel is very like his grandfather, we’re very close.” Hannah inherited her mother’s love of journalism and followed her into magazines. She’s currently working in Sydney.
A third child, Virginia, was born in 1992 but tragically succumbed to cot death. “I was angry, my baby had died, I went straight back to work.” Her marriage didn’t survive. A couple of years later the legacy of Virginia’s death plunged Wendyl into a full-blown depression, something she still struggles with from time to time. Back then, she couldn’t get out of bed, and was prescribed anti-depressants; these days, when the ‘black dog’ of depression comes calling, Wendyl’s method of coping is to go gently with herself. “I cover myself in nature. I read nice books and I talk it out.” She is profoundly grateful for Paul’s support. “When I’m freaking out, I know he’s there for me.”
She met Paul while she was editor of Cleo magazine and he was editor at the Listener. They worked in the same building. “He was so good with my kids. They were eight and 10 at the time and fragile. He stepped up and was there for them.” Paul had two children from a previous relationship. The pair would go on to have a daughter together. Pearl is a producer for TV3’s weekly political show,The Nation.
Wendyl left the corporate world behind on her 40th birthday while she was working as a television producer. She decided to reinvent herself. “Paul was very strict with me. We had bills to pay. He said, 'You can leave but you have to do something'.” Her friends talk about this time as “when you went mad”. She cast herself as a Green Goddess. “I decided to go freelance from our villa in Grey Lynn. Primarily, I wanted to be healthy. I knew chemicals and cleaning products weren’t good. I began experimenting in the kitchen.” Her son Daniel ran Wendyl’s Green Goddess company until it was sold four years ago. “We’re just not entrepreneurial,” Wendyl says. “It was a headache. Paul and I are not business people.”
But she continues to practise what she preached. You’ll find many of her green solutions in A Natural Year, such as compost tea, and clove foot powder.
Her last media stint had her hosting an afternoon chat show on Radio Live. A studio was set up in the house at Hokianga and she divided her time between there and Auckland.
It was a high-stress environment. One day she just decided she’d had enough. Needing to focus on taking care of her ailing mother, she gave her show away and based herself full time in Hokianga. “Everyone’s running from something up here,” she tells me. “I had a desire to be more in nature and a very primal need to have some serenity.”
She has found that serenity with Paul, alongside her two new cows, Betty and Billie, 21 chickens, three roosters, two dogs and four cats. Why Hokianga? She writes in A Natural Year, “My nightmare was to end up in a beachside suburb full of Auckland women in white capri pants asking you around for cocktails every night.” Capri pants are thin on the ground in the Far North.
A Natural Year by Wendyl Nissen (Allen and Unwin, $45) is available in bookstores nationwide.
* The profile of Wendyl Nissen was created with the support of Copyright Licensing Fund NZ*
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