For this Throwback Thursday, Calum Henderson watches Gary McCormick’s Heartland special on the tiger-footed town of Wainuiomata.
Two big national events from the winter of 1994: in Dunedin, someone with the last name Bain shot his whole family, and in Wainuiomata, Gary McCormick shot an interview with a woman called Chloe for the TV show Heartland. David and his jerseys, Chloe and her slippers. Probably no one talked about anything else for the rest of the year.
Chloe of Wainuiomata. Even now, if you asked a New Zealander to free-associate a word with Wainuiomata, most above a certain age would say: “Chloe.” What about this woman raised the collective eyebrow of a nation, what made her a symbol for a whole town?
From the critical distance of 21 years it’s hard to tell exactly. Watching the show today she seems fine, ahead of her time – even visionary. Her famous children’s tiger foot slippers – everyone was wearing those five years later. Her vague, slightly childlike manner of speaking was later affected by some members of a subculture sociologists know as ‘hipsters’, as was her fashion sense, almost wholesale. She talks about meeting her partner on something called ‘Radio Matchmaker’, an early and very primitive precursor to internet dating. Chloe of Wainuiomata was cool.
Maybe the fascination inspired by Chloe was down to real, ‘quirky’ people being less widely represented on TV back then, but in retrospect it sits a little uncomfortably – at best it seems a little patronising, at worst mocking and classist. While the show was a well-meaning attempt to dispel the negative stereotypes surrounding the town – “somewhere you wouldn’t take your family for a picnic”, as Gary understates it – perhaps it instead fed the desire for a good old Kiwi pile-on.
Now, the episode appeals more as simply a portrait of the year it was made. Wainuiomata changes, 1994 stays the same. Gary goes to a Tupperware party. Gary stumbles upon the practise room of a sublimely-named industrial metal band called Afterbirth. Gary lurks around the rugby league club where everyone is wearing cool DB Bitter hats. Without any proof to the contrary, this is the way we all were.
On a weekend where the league club is hosting some kind of free booze bonanza, the most depraved scenes come from a house hosting a ‘lovewear’ party. After being shown crotchless (“air-conditioned”) undies and phallic candles, the entertainment (“just a man who fulfils our desires… visually”) arrives, a gyrating, nearly nude embodiment of the nineties, and has his lower abdomen repeatedly licked by the guests. Sitting faux-bashfully in the corner of the room, Gary is Louis Theroux, years before Louis Theroux existed.
Back on Chloe’s street, her neighbour Debbie is making school lunch while her morbid 5-year-old daughter (it is later revealed she has the mumps) eats a bowl of oaty slops. They play out what could well be the great New Zealand domestic scene:
Mum: What do you want in your lunch Shanelle?
Shanelle: [long pause] Um… you choose
M: OK. Peanut butter?
S: [long pause] Um… baked beans
M: I’m not making baked beans. You can have peanut butter or cheese or jam
M: How many pieces of bread do you want, one or two?
S: [extremely long pause] Two. Four. One. Four… Two
So grim. Nine out of ten documentary makers would go outside and ritually burn their cameras if they’d filmed it, but it’s probably the best bit of the whole episode. That or the bit at the league club where a guileless Gary gets on a man’s nerves by trying to talk to him while Wainuiomata line up a crucial penalty.
Although it comes with some slightly dubious Kiwiana connotations, there is a lot to love about this infamous visit to the Lower Hutt. The way people tend to sidestep Gary when he’s too conspicuously angling for a certain answer, like the teen who, asked why people stay there, dramatically replies. “You can’t escape Wainuiomata. The hills close us in – we’re trapped”. Chloe’s earnest “Hmm… Not really…” in response to Gary calling her a good host. Piri Weepu on road patrol. Just a real, boring, uninsulated winter in 1990s New Zealand.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.