August 2022

31 Aug On the Merits of Creating Diversity

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 5.9.22


For two Sundays in August, I got to hang out backstage at a comedy show starring nothing but women. This is special enough to make me weepy with joy. (Very girly of me, obviously, and I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing.) And how wild that after doing this job for almost 30 years this is still rare.

Back when I started in comedy I barely got to work with other women. Received wisdom was each show was allowed a maximum of one lady, often less. This was based on the theory (I’m guessing here) that women are the carbohydrates of comedy and you can’t have potatoes and pasta at one sitting.

It remained this way for decades in live shows and on TV panels – maximum one woman at a time, please, to any number of men. So while boys bonded backstage and in touring vans, built their networks and shared opportunities with each other, women didn’t see each other at work at all. We didn’t watch each other perform, swap stories about our experiences or get to speak up for each other. We were simply never in the same room at the same time.

It also meant audiences couldn’t see how different we were from each other – no compare-and-contrast on any given night demonstrating we were not a homogenous group telling, according to legend, the same period joke.

It also meant we didn’t get to warn each other about particular dangers we were facing alone, a conversation we didn’t even know was missing until #metoo encouraged us to share our stories.

All of this is why I am a fan of quotas – of mandating diversity, if you will. Because my job, like most jobs, is one you get good at only by doing it. Every opportunity makes you ready for the next one, but you need that first one to get started.

The counter argument – and we hear it a lot in politics right now – is that selection should be based solely on merit, with no regard to quotas for diversity. The “merit” argument is hard to sustain given how many people chosen that way turned out to have little of it. Certainly as an approach the “selection on merit” system comes with no guarantee of success.

Besides which, “the best person for the job” might be less about someone’s individual skills, but the differences they bring like cultural knowledge, ethnic and gender perspectives, or disability experiences. Someone who is not like you will see things that are invisible to you. “Who are we not hearing from?” is always a good question for any group to ask itself.

In the past, I’ve had conversations with women who insist they don’t want to feel they’ve been given a seat at the table only because they’re a woman and a lady-shaped chair needed to be filled. They want to earn their spot, and I get that. But so often the reason they weren’t already at the table is because they’re a woman, and we’re fixing that now. Take the win, I say, and do something great with it.

My industry is not so different from anyone else’s. We can all see that, each time you create a space for someone to step up, they are likely to grab it with both hands and earn the right to be there. Because a quota will get you through the door, but you get to stay in the room based on your own merit.

And here’s a simple rule to live by: Don’t let anyone be “the only one”.


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31 Aug Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 29.8.22


There is a century old artwork newly treasured at my house. It is Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” painted in 1907, and it arrived as a birthday card inside a package from Vancouver last week.

The women are naked, unselfconscious, strident, ethnically diverse and all Picasso-angles suggesting curves. They look like the kind of women who would not suck in their tummies as they passed by a mirror. This kind of confidence is, for many of us, aspirational.

I am setting aside for a moment the problematic relationships Picasso had with women and that infamous quote about us all being either “goddesses or doormats”. In this painting, I choose not to see the artist. I see women in a brothel looking much like ladies gathered for book club who have stopped bothering with the books. There are snacks in the foreground and an intimation of cocktails.

The demoiselles were waiting for me after I’d flown home from a work trip, picking up doughnuts at the airport as I sometimes do. Not often. Doughnuts are a treat, pure carbs and sugar. In fact, moments before I saw the postcard I was pondering the wisdom of this ritual – as you get older, your pants get tighter for very little reason, and the number on the scales climbs, and you get anxious about the shape you are becoming and who this means you are now and OH MY LORD WHERE IS ALL THIS JUDGEMENT COMING FROM? Certainly not from the demoiselles of Avignon who look very open to the idea of not only doughnuts but of relaxing into themselves.

How I feel about my body, I’ve discovered, has less to do with what I put in my mouth, and more to do with what I put in my eyes. In a world where we are constantly shown what “conventionally beautiful” looks like in magazines and films, on TV and our phones, you can look up from all that to see yourself and feel – what? Disappointed, inadequate, unacceptable, in need of improvement?

There is a thing our brains do – have always done – which is to regularly create an idea of what “normal” and “usual” and “average” looks like. As we go about our day we subconsciously make a note of the faces we see so, by dinner time, our brain has compiled a composite image of what people generally look like.

In evolutionary terms this has been handy – we could immediately spot a stranger in the village by their unusual features, alerting us to inquire if they were friend or foe. But now, when we can spend all day seeing photo-shopped, filtered and otherwise enhanced faces and bodies, that’s what our brain uses to produce its composite image of “average”. In this impossible context, our very own face is the one of out of place.

A really useful question to ask ourselves is, who benefits from this? Because those images of “what you don’t look like, but might if you tried harder or bought this” are a big business, directly or indirectly advertising something – the perfect thing you need now you’re aware of your imperfections.

It is powerful, then, to remind ourselves that these thoughts we have about not being beautiful have been put there by someone who is trying to sell us something.

I’m spending part of each day staring at the unapologetic women of Avignon and admiring their spirit. A positive body image is a daily battle, and they’re one of the weapons that help me win it.


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31 Aug Wisdom – Off The Top Of My Head

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 22.8.22


When you are no longer young, you find you are regularly asked what you had wished you had known back when you were.

“What would you tell your teenage self?” is a great question. It’s an invitation to pass wisdom forward so you’re not the only person who learns from your mistakes or benefits from your victories. Plus it’s a delight to hold the memory of your 16-year-old self for a moment, and be grateful life now involves fewer pimples and less angst.

Such a noble question deserves an august answer but lately I find the thing I am passionate to share with people – the thing I wish I had known about much sooner – is dry shampoo.

Full disclosure – I do not own shares in dry shampoo. Though I wish I did. I’d be as proud as if I’d invested in some other life-changing invention like the washing machine or the bicycle which both contributed greatly to the liberation of women.

I ponder the inventions that changed our lives forever – from tampons and contraception in my lifetime right back to the public toilet which meant Victorian women could venture even further from home than their bladders would allow. Somewhere on that list, I’d put in small letters, “dry shampoo”.

I cannot overstate the freedom it has brought me because – further disclosure – I have fine hair which is neither curly nor straight, and a scalp that tends to oily. Friends, what a combo. It means I have, for my whole life until this point, felt the need to wash my hair every second day and then, with varying degrees of commitment, encouraged it into something that is not frizz.

Cumulatively, that’s a lot of time which could have been spent on other things. I might have written another book! Had more children! Studied art history! But no, there I was, shampooing, conditioning, detangling and blow drying because my head felt grubby and my hair had about as much shape as dropped cake.

I tried a dry shampoo once before – something on special at the supermarket because you don’t want to spend a lot of money on something that might not work. And it didn’t – it came out of the can as a white spray and stayed that way on my black hair. Aesthetically, it was similar to that canned fake snow people sprayed on our summer windows to indicate Christmas. This was in the years before someone suggested we give up that northern hemisphere nonsense and embrace the Pohutukawa. If you’d put a red-breasted robin on my head, people who have said, “I see what you’re going for there, but it’s not working.”

Then last September I had ear surgery involving incisions and stitches. I was instructed not to wash my hair for two weeks, and that dry shampoo would be my friend. Two weeks! That’s seven washes missed! It was hard to imagine how lank and out-of-sorts my hair and I would be.

I invested in a fancy dry shampoo which made assurances that made it sound similar to dry-cleaning clothes – all the benefits without the wet. Outlandish promises are often made in the world of cosmetics, but this one was kept. Now, even when I could go back to alternate-day washing, I don’t. I discover, left to its own devices, my hair might even curl in a fairly pleasant way. Also, I keep hats handy.


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16 Aug Little Libraries

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 15.8.22


When I lose faith in humanity, I go for a walk down to our local park. There’s a lot to do there – chat with the ducks, have a jolly good swing, and browse through the latest offerings in our Little Library.

We have, in fact, two “libraries” in our park – freestanding cupboards built beside the play area. The bigger box has a glass front door and is filled with grown-up books. Next to it and set lower to the ground is another with stories for the kids.

Locals are welcome to give, swap, or just take books. You will find thumping bestsellers, old classics, and the occasional whacky read about something like spoon collecting which you hope will find its dream reader. I discovered a copy of Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments” there when it was still hot off the presses – left, I’m guessing, either by a speed-reader or a disappointed giftee.

When these outdoor bookshelves appeared a few years ago, I found it a little confronting to see books left unattended out in the wild. I was worried about the weather, or thieves, but mostly hoodlums who prefer to destroy rather than create.

Now and then, yes, the cupboards have been knocked about and books strewn, but whoever it is that tends them has never lost heart, and there are clearly more of us who cherish these treasures than there are vandals. Faith restored.

Also, “thieves” is a word that doesn’t fit in this context. These are books freely given for anyone to take. You can’t steal a thing that you’ve been offered.

Some days, after a swing and a slide and a flying fox, my mokopuna will read a book from the little one while I tidy (can’t help myself) the books in the grown-ups’ cabinet. Occasionally, books have been gifted from our household and swaps have been made.

Little libraries are an international phenomenon called Book Swap Boxes, Book Fridges, Hedge Libraries or Lilliput Libraries depending on the nomenclature favoured by a neighbourhood. They can range in size from a single bookshelf in a cafe to a shipping container filled with shelves – there’s one of those on Auckland’s waterfront. Regardless of size or geography, I’ve noticed they all tend to share a similar aesthetic sourced from the Dr Seuss colour palette.

My friend, Julie Fairey, is a passionate advocate and tells me the act of tootling round the neighbourhood popping good quality second-hand books into various little libraries is known officially as “book-bombing” – the most peaceful kind of bombing there is.

It’s a wonderful descriptor – there’s something very satisfying about placing a book you’ve loved on a shelf in a public place and trusting it will find its next home.

Julie notes that during Covid lockdowns when libraries were closed and before click and collect was set up, community book exchange spots were the only place people could get books for free. Kids’ books were especially popular for children stuck at home and hankering for a fresh story. So more little libraries popped up all over the country and now there are community Facebook groups to help people find ones in their area.

These are forever, of course, not just for pandemics. Look out for one in your neighbourhood, or even think about making one yourself. People who know about these things say they work best if they start as – and remain – a neighbourhood initiative, set up and cared for by the people who live and read nearby.

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07 Aug Invalid Name

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 8.8.22


Every time we go to the vet, I think about that time my daughter decided to change her name. (Weird start for a story, but you know what I’m like.) We were there again this morning with our cat, Satchmo, named for jazz legend Louis Armstrong and while he was weighed (not as heavy as I’d feared) and vaccinated (Satchmo’s a big believer in science) I was thinking back 20-odd years to a visit at the same clinic with a different cat.

Jimmy was our big fluffy ginger boy who enjoyed a remarkable 21 years, living with me well before my daughter was born and still here with us after she’d left home. Terrific cat, used to sleep on my head at night as though I was a pillow or he was a hat. I still miss him.

When Jimmy was eight and Holly was six, we arrived at the vet and were greeted with, “Jimmy A’Court? Come through.”

“Is he an A’Court, too?” Holly asked me, clearly struck by this information. Back then, Holly still had her father’s name but, she pointed out that day, everyone else living in our house – her mother, her grandparents and the cat – was an A’Court so she wanted to be one, too.

I said I wasn’t sure how to go about changing it and she did one of those six-year-old eye rolls and explained, “Oh, mummy! You write a letter to the government and tell them that’s what you want to do and they fix it.”

So we did, and they did, and all these years later her children carry our name along with others, which is very cool. For a while, because of the patriarchal tradition of only sons keeping their names, it looked like A’Courts were an endangered species, but we are flourishing now.

Though it is something of a hospital pass – it is rare that anyone knows how to spell it, even less likely they know how to say it. (For reference, it’s A like the letter A, emphasis on the first syllable – think “Acorn” but with a “t” right there at the last minute.)

I still find it hard to correct people, particularly in those settings where someone says, “Please welcome Michele a-COURT” so the first words out of my mouth would need to be, ‘Hello, you’ve done it wrong, lovely to be here”.

In more recent years we’ve discovered that, in a digital context, having two capitals and an apostrophe renders a name “invalid”. Various ancestors would be spinning to see “Acourt” typed into in online forms.

I am also blessed with a tricky first name – Michele spelt the traditional French way with one “l” and (my mother’s idea) a grave accent which I’ve been told is pretentious, to which I say, “Moi?” I’m not fussed if anyone else uses it, but once you get used to a macron showing you the length of a syllable in te reo, you can handle a grave.

There is a gift passed among all of us with less usual names. I swear every Siobhan and Aiofe is inclined to take extra care to get things right when they meet a Cholmondeley Majoribanks. A name is a taonga, and getting it right feels like a blessing.

They got the hang of A’Court at the vet clinic ages ago. Though I do remember on an early visit with our new boy, the vet nurse asked, “Satchmo… Now how do you spell that?”



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01 Aug Nostalgia for a Bit of Low Tech

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 1.8.22


Bad manners, and a bit lazy. Not you, obviously, I’m talking about the others. These are the two human behaviours at the root of our most annoying technological advances.

Exhibit A: the toilet that flushes automatically. At some point, so many people failed to flush the toilet in public restrooms that someone was driven to think, “Ok, sigh, we’ll do it for them.” The unintended consequence being the toilet can think you are done while you’re still sitting there (possibly contemplating a modern lack of manners) interrupting your reverie with a splash of cold toilet water up your back. Thanks everyone who couldn’t be bothered pressing the flush button themselves, I am having a great day.

Outside the cubicle, because some monster (many monsters) left the hot tap running over the hand basin, we are now limited to ice cold water delivered in automatically measured inadequate bursts. Don’t start me on automated hand dryers designed solely on the theory that water can be scared off your skin by a lot of noise.

We now live in world where we can’t trust each other to turn off taps. Or lights, or heating. I’m not sure what started this – are we too busy? Forgetful? Entitled and wasteful? Wherever it began, it leads us down a road, possibly in a self-driving car, where we will unlearn the habits of doing these things for ourselves.

Either that, or we’ll go all retro and embrace low tech again. I am already fantasising about a return to old-school hotels with a bilious old grump on reception – possibly with a yappy small dog in tow – half-heartedly handing over an actual key on a keyring for your door which you access via a lift that does not talk to you.

Don’t get me wrong – I like a “smart hotel”. You can download an app to your phone and turn your heating on before you head back to your room, and lie in bed to fiddle with the lighting without searching the walls for switches.

I mention this because I once stayed in a West Coast motel where I spent two days trying to work out how to turn off the hall light. Tracked the switch down eventually – it was tucked behind the fridge in the kitchen. Got to love a DIY sparky.

Step out of bed in the wee small hours in a “smart hotel” and a floor light is activated. Slightly freaky if you’ve just woken from a dream about monsters under the bed with torches, but terrific if you’re the kind of person who aims for the bathroom in the dark but inevitably finds themselves naked in the hotel corridor as your door locks behind you.

“Smart” features are sold not only on convenience but on doing the right thing by the planet since we obviously can’t be trusted to do this ourselves. On the upside, if you forget to turn the lights off when you leave, the room will do it for it.

On the downside, this feature is motion-activated and I’ve discovered I am a fairly still person. I’ll be reading in bed and suddenly all the lights go out. To counteract this, I have now developed a habit of regularly waving my arms about to keep the lights on, even now I’m at home. This is an improvement on the behaviour initially adopted when I’d assumed it was sound that activated the lights, which had encouraged me to regularly give myself a round of applause.



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