National leader Judith Collins opens up about why she had to change: ‘People aren’t born resilient’

The Judith Collins that most New Zealanders know is the formidable politician who spars off against her opponents in Parliament and is seemingly unshakeable. But there’s a softer, more playful side to the National leader, too, and that’s who the Woman’s Weekly sees when she arrives for her photo shoot.

Relaxed and full of humour, she has a spring in her step and a cheeky smile. She’s been looking forward to an afternoon of pampering, she confides, and her eyes light up when she spies the rack of gorgeous clothes the stylist has prepared.

Judith is just back from a glorious summer break with her husband David and their son James, 28, the perfect antidote to what she describes as a harrowing 2020.

“I really, really enjoyed not having to turn on my alarm,” the 61-year-old divulges. “Just sleeping until I wanted to wake up. It’s amazing. What a wonderful feeling!”

The former lawyer also enjoyed some downtime in Queenstown. She tells, “We went round a lot of restaurants, went for walks and did some shopping. It was a very restful time.”

Now feeling revitalised and rejuvenated, Judith says, “I’m ready and rarin’ to go!”

The hiatus was what she needed after being thrust into the leader’s role last year, just weeks out from the election.

“It was a big shock,” she reveals of being shoulder tapped for the job. “I was at home with my feet up, actually. I was watching some rubbish TV when I got a phone call at around 9.30pm. I was told, ‘You’re going to have to step up because Todd Muller is going to resign tomorrow morning.’

“My husband came round the corner of the living room and said, ‘Noooo, don’t do that’, and I knew it was a virtually impossible task in the circumstances.

“But I slept on it and when I woke up in the morning, I thought, ‘Well, the people asking me – and by the people, I mean Caucus – are not people I ever thought would ask me. And having told them for the last few years that they should have chosen me before, now that they were choosing me, it would be ungracious to say no. But worse than that, it would show a lack of courage.”

She stepped up, but admits the next three months were “exhausting”.

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep and I was hardly ever home,” she recalls. “My conversations with David were little more than ‘hi’ and ‘bye’. Wednesdays were my worst days. I’d get up at 5am for media interviews and not get home again until 10.30 that night. But it was in extraordinary circumstances and I did all that I could do.”

Disappointed is the word she chooses when asked how she felt about National’s defeat.

“But there was no point in sitting around feeling sorry for myself. While there are no prizes for second in my business, there are also no prizes for people who get off the field.”

This year, the proud mother of one, who once sold shoes at Farmers and helped pay her way through university by working as a nurse aide in a maternity hospital, will be focused on rebuilding the party, developing her technology portfolio, and pushing for better connections between the government and Pasifika communities.

She attributes her drive to spending lots of time with her supportive parents, Percy and Jessie, as a child growing up on a farm in the Waikato.

“I was the youngest of six,” she reveals. [Sadly, one of Judith’s sisters, Margaret, died in infanthood.] But because there was quite a big distance between me and my brothers and sisters in terms of age, it was always just Mum, Dad and me.

“They were both very supportive and my dad, in particular, used to say, ‘Don’t let anyone make you feel less than they are. And just remember, they all put their pants on one leg at a time.’

“It sounds like an old fashioned thing now, but that’s what he used to say and it’s a good one!”

But while her work is very important to her, it’s also not an obsession.

“I’ve seen it before and I’ve probably done it myself in the past,” she admits. “We can get very carried away with our roles and forget that we’re only human beings.

“If you get too far away from normality, then you can very easily lose touch. Staying grounded is really important.”

So, she will be fitting in time to do the things she loves – cooking for the family, going for walks and spending time with whānau and friends.

As Judith chats with the Weekly, she reveals that another reason for her being so excited about appearing in the pages of this 88-year-old lady is that she has a connection with the magazine dating back almost 60 years.

As a child, Judith suffered from a stammer and it was advice from our magazine that helped her overcome it.

She tells, “I have a very distinct memory of standing by our kitchen table, which was yellow Formica, and not being able to speak. I was probably around three years old. My mother, who had a stammer as a child, too, had overcome hers by learning to recite poetry when she was at primary school.

“In my case, she had read in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly that stammering could be helped by first saying ‘I stammer’ and then starting the conversation. Perhaps it was the power of acknowledging what the speaker was afraid of. Whatever the reason, it worked for me. Thank you NZ Woman’s Weekly and my mum!”

Despite her strength, Judith admits that she feels the sting when she’s referred to as Crusher Collins, which was a result of bringing in legislation to enable the destruction of boy racer cars when police had caught them three times.

“I understand people like the persona, but it’s very caricature and one-dimensional,” she says. “And it’s easier to treat someone as less than human when you give them a name that’s harsh and hard. So, you won’t see me using it. I don’t like it.

“And as for Cruella de Vil, that is just sexist, vicious and nasty. I guess it reflects on the people who use it.

“I think people often say very kindly that they see me as very resilient. But you only get resilience because of the scars and experiences you bear. People aren’t born resilient.”

And perhaps as a part of that resilience is her remarkable ability to pivot and adapt in her career. From nurse aide and lawyer to restaurant owner, Judith has done it all. She is even one to put pen to paper as a writer!

Judith was pleasantly surprised at the success of her political memoir Pull No Punches, which she released last year, and it inspired her to try her hand at fiction.

“I’ve always loved reading – particularly thrillers and biographies or anything historical as well,” she enthuses.

“And I’ve always loved writing, so early last year I took a course in thriller writing, but then I didn’t have time to write anything because I became the leader.

“But what I did do over the holidays was think out a bit of plotting and a few characters for it. That’s how far I’ve got so far, anyway.”

For now, she admits she doesn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to the novel.

“And I probably won’t for quite some time. But I do intend to finish it. Who knows where a good thriller can lead.”

Quick fire

What’s something surprising that people wouldn’t know about you?

I actually have this real anti-establishment streak and every now and then I just have to break out.

You enjoy cooking – what are your go-to meals?

I’m not really a sauce person. I like plain food, I think it’s from growing up on the farm. I cook a lot of fish and vegetables. Tonight I’m doing cauliflower steak.

What’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for you?

My husband organised a cleaner when I took over as leader last year. He just went off and did it and it made me love him even more!

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