James McOnie: Having fun with the famous

by Dale Husband
Sun 1 May 2016
10 min read

Kia ora, James. A good many of our readers will know you from the role you play on The Crowd Goes Wild where you come on screen looking, if I may say so, sort of rumpled and dishevelled — and specialising in asking some of the planet’s sporting superstars a series of unlikely questions. Usain Bolt, for instance. Or Maria Sharapova. Or Sonny Bill Williams. But before we go down that track, could you tell us a bit about your own superstar days when, as a schoolboy in Te Awamutu, you excelled at Catch and Kiss?

Who said that?

I don’t know. I must’ve read it somewhere.

Oh, really? I wouldn’t take too much notice of that, if I were you. There’ve been some ridiculous bios of me. Mostly written by me. And the truth is that I never did succeed at Catch and Kiss — although when I was at primary school, I was quite keen on having girlfriends. But they were all very short relationships. One of them lasted only half a day. That’s been a weakness of mine. I probably need to work on it.

Back in Te Awamutu, the idea was to go to Memorial Park to pash your girlfriend in the weekend. I remember once I’d arranged things so that I could seal the deal there and kiss the girl. Perhaps I shouldn’t name her. But she was Michelle. And I told Mum I had to bike into town. There was torrential rain, though. And Mum said: “Nah.” And I couldn’t really tell her why my mission was so important.

On Monday at school, I went to play softball at lunchtime and I was meant to be on Michelle’s team. But she switched teams. She dropped me for some other guy.

Thanks, Dale, for opening that old wound.

I’m sorry, James. But we all have hurtful memories to cope with, don’t we? However, let’s move on to your more recent history and to your successes with your irreverent style on Crowd Goes Wild where you often chat with stars from the sporting world. How did you come to settle on that approach?

I remember when I first did a newspaper interview with a few All Blacks. I was so nervous. It was just awful meeting someone like Zinzan Brooke. I wasn’t at all comfortable. I could hardly get the words out. But then I decided that the best way with an interview like that was to have fun with it.

Before I went to Crowd Goes Wild, I was doing a column for the Sunday Star-Times where I’d catch up with all these sporting legends and ask them deliberately ridiculous questions. It didn’t matter whether it was Arthur Lydiard, John Walker, Susan Devoy or whoever. Everyone was treated the same. And I realised that New Zealanders don’t mind that. They quite like a chinwag about all sorts of stuff as a change from being serious and sticking strictly to sport.

I enjoyed that light approach, too. The interviews were the kind of conversations I might have with these celebrities if I was talking to them privately. So why not let other people, the readers, in on those exchanges? I spoke to them as real people. I found out a bit about what made them tick — and we had some fun along the way.

If they had a good sense of humour, I was happy for them to show that off and to be the funny one.

Obviously, not everyone you approach will appreciate or warm to your irreverence. But plenty do. Like the world’s fastest sprinter, Usain Bolt. He must be pleasant to deal with.

Usain Bolt stands out because he’s up for anything. When I first met him, he didn’t know who I was but, straight away, he realised that it was a fun show — and he just clicked into that mode. He really impressed me.

Maria Sharapova’s reaction was different. She joked that I was stalking her and it became a massive story around the world. It went viral. But that’s the risk you take when you’re pushing the boundaries. The next time I met her she was fine.

Ana Ivanovic has been great and so have lots of our New Zealand talent, like Sonny Bill. He could see that the show didn’t mean any harm — and he just embraced it. I think he’s enjoyed the nonsense and the freedom not to be Sonny Bill, superstar, all the time. Another All Black, Richard Kahui, has been one of the best to deal with. Stephen Donald, too. And there are other rugby players like Lelia Masaga and Jordan Taufua, who’re such natural performers they could easily be on stage.

Then there’s Lydia Ko who’s tons of fun. Full of joie de vivre. I interviewed her once when she was 12. She had a quiet confidence about her then. And I’m just in awe of how good she is now. She really enjoys life and isn’t afraid to show it. She’s such a good role model and she’s loaded. She might even be able to buy a house in Auckland.

How do you handle it when you start interviewing someone in your usual style, and they just don’t get it? Or don’t warm to it?

There’ve been a few interviews that haven’t started well. If I see they’re not enjoying it, I just play it straight, so you can avoid an absolute disaster. But you do get the cold shoulder every now and then. If they want to keep it totally boring, well, I can give them boring, if that’s what they want.

Let’s turn now to your family background, which includes, so I understand, a Māori whakapapa.

Yeah. My dad, Ken McOnie, is Ngāi Tahu (from down Oamaru way) and Ngāti Maniapoto (from the south side of the Kāwhia harbour). Our marae there is Rakaunui. But Dad grew up in Ngutunui, near Mt Pirongia. I always knew I was Māori — and I’m totally open about that. So is my daughter, Scarlett. She went to a Māori school at Westmere in Auckland — and she’s into kapa haka. And when I mentioned that this interview was coming up, she said: “You can say your daughter’s Māori.” I said: “Thanks, love.”

My mum is Pākehā. She and Dad met at Teachers’ College in Hamilton. Maybe because we were so connected to the Pākehā world, I wasn’t as comfortable in the Māori world when I was growing up. But if my cousins are reading this, they’ll go: “Come on. You hung out with us all the time.” But I had a different upbringing, I guess, from that side of the whānau.

The way my dad carries on, though, he’s definitely Māori. Anytime there’s a Māori sportsperson, who’s slightly chunky and who’s on telly, he’ll phone me and say: “That’s your cousin.”

Sport has become a really important part of your professional life. Where did that interest get started?

I loved it as a young boy. I started playing soccer when I was seven or eight. That was in Te Awamutu, where I was born. But I was pretty slow as a kid, which was a nightmare, especially because I had a dad who was a sprinter. He was just waiting for me to pick up some of his DNA, but it never really kicked in. Through those school years, though, I was always busy with sport. I played a lot of tennis as well. Then I converted to rugby and cricket. I went on to Hamilton Boys’ High and tried to play as many sports as possible — basketball, squash, force back. But not rowing — I’m not an early morning person.

Would you tell us a little more about your dad’s sporting prowess?

Yeah, he was at Te Awamutu College. He played five years as a prop in the 1st XV, which was kind of a record. He was the sprint champion, too. I think it was 100 yards, 200 yards and maybe the long jump as well. He was the Jesse Owens or the Usain Bolt of his high school. Big fulla. And fast.

I didn’t inherit his fast twitch fibres, but I did inherit his love of sport. And there were some good genes coming down my mum’s side too because her dad, Roy McKay, was a top sportsman — in rugby, shot put, rowing and boxing. But his career was cut short by the Second World War where he was wounded, so he didn’t really kick on.

What “kicking on” did you manage?

I was a sort of jack-of-all-trades. No real achievements. And, if I have any claim to fame, it’s that I played for the Lashings Cricket club in England with Richie Richardson, from the West Indies. He was our star import. Then they started bringing a lot of imports in, like Brian Lara and all these guys from the Caribbean. So they didn’t need a slobby Kiwi hanging around. But I did have some fun playing cricket for them.

As for tennis, I played in the New Zealand Māori Tennis championships and then lost in the early rounds. I could serve quite big but I wasn’t the most patient player, so I couldn’t just rally for ages. Troy Tipene was a star back then. So I turned to coaching.

Rugby? My highest honour was playing for Auckland Māori Colts. I remember losing to Northland, which had a team of Goings and Norm Berryman. Norm just dominated us. That year, I played for the Auckland University Under 21s and we won the Auckland championship. It was a great team and we learned how to enjoy our sport. Great atmosphere. Good songs, too.

But, somewhere along the line, you must’ve had some thoughts about getting into the media. How did that come about?

I went down to Canterbury University but I didn’t exactly succeed down there. I was doing arts papers, Psychology and French, and a few other things. I didn’t apply myself so I came back to Auckland and did a six-month journalism course at what is now AUT.

Jim Tucker, the head of the journalism school, saw something I wrote, took a chance on me, and put me in that course. And suddenly there we were, out in the workforce. Sent to little papers all around the country. That was a huge turning point because journalism was one place where I could express myself — and learn how to write. My first real job was at the Daily News in Taranaki. I stayed in newspapers for about 15 years.

With your Māori background, did you, as a young reporter, gravitate towards Māori stories or others with a social justice element?

I don’t think the Daily News was very progressive with its Māori affairs content. Back then, you’d be given a round and you pretty much had to cover just that topic. So, if there was a Māori affairs round, the Māori affairs reporter did those stories and that was that. You didn’t encroach on other people’s turf.

As a junior, I was pretty much a dogsbody and I just did whatever story I was assigned — police stories, court, district council. So it was a great training ground in the basics of journalism. The big debate when I was down there was whether the mountain should be called Egmont or Taranaki. At that time, the newspaper decided to stay with Egmont.

It’s been a big step from news reporting for a provincial paper — and for other papers through the years — to the very different world of television. How did that transition come about? Did Ric Salizzo seek you out?

Well, I’d been made redundant at the Herald on Sunday where I’d worked for a couple of years. And that was a blow to the ego. Then I saw Ric Salizzo at a press conference and he asked if I’d like to come in and do some work. He had me working on Prime News sports bulletins. They weren’t that exciting, but it was useful learning how to write for pictures, edit video and to work in that visual realm.

Then I started doing field stories for The Crowd Goes Wild. The team all knew how to write in a funny, original, quirky way, and it set the template for the show. So that original team, of maybe five or six of us, just had fun. The show every night was mostly seat-of-the-pants stuff. We didn’t really know what it was going to be about. We just wanted to make it amusing and interesting. We were all sports nerds. It was a good mix.

What’s the next step? What are you going to do when you grow up?

I’d like to change my career at some point, but I don’t think I’ve got the skills for anything else. I used to pick up hay and move furniture, but my back isn’t good enough for either of those jobs now. So I might have to stay doing what I’m doing.

I’d love to do something creative. I play touch with this group of guys and Taika Waititi is there. And I’ve been trying to show him that I’d be perfect for his next project. But he just doesn’t notice me. He just wants me to pass him the ball. It’s like he’s not even picking up what I’m putting down. The vibes are going out that I’m ready for the next step. So hopefully he reads this.

I’d like to help young people fulfill their potential in sport or other fields, so I’ve got one eye on the community. I’m hoping to start a golf coaching course for kids in the Waikato who can’t afford clubs or fees. There are some amazingly talented young Māori golfers there who just need a little assistance. Golf is expensive.

And I’ve got my daughter, Scarlett, who’s 12, and she’s the most important thing in my life. Maybe once she’s grown up I could think about doing something different.

 

© e-tangata, 2016