It’s a Wonderful Life

In her latest book, award winning writer and television presenter Peta Mathias unravels the mysteries of the ‘fabulous woman’.

petamathiasWhen Peta Mathias sent her elderly parents a copy of her new book she made one suggestion. “In the dedication I wrote, ‘please don’t read the chapter on sex, you won’t understand it’. A couple of days later my mother left a phone message saying that yes, they would skip that chapter,” Peta laughs.

Sex is just one of the subjects covered in Can we help it if we’re Fabulous? which is packed with the irrepressible raconteur’s musings, mantras, experiences and tips on being a fabulous woman. Read as far as the contents page and you know you’re in for a treat with chapters such as Relationships: Relax – We’re all Dysfunctional; Work – is it a Personality Disorder? and Men – So many Men so few Bullets.

“It’s just me banging on really,” she jokes as we chat over coffee at a Christchurch café. Despite a hectic schedule of interviews and functions to promote the book with her publisher Penguin, Peta is typically stylish and well-groomed, wearing a beautiful Marilyn Sainty coat, with her flame coloured hair piled high on the back of her head and her trademark bright red lipstick.

Can we help it if we’re Fabulous? is quite a departure from the food and travel books on which she has made her name. “I wanted to do something completely different and actually started writing a novel – a dark story set in a mental hospital. But it was so depressing that I decided I wanted to write something happy instead.” She rang her publishers to talk about another of her ideas – a book that discussed things that are important to women – from lipstick, shoes, food and fashion, to men, sex, relationships and happiness. They loved it.

Peta’s joie de vivre, nomadic lifestyle and flamboyant appearance have long proved an inspiration to other women. After years spent “living outrageously” she is more than qualified to impart her wisdom from a life well-lived. “During my life I have worked as a nurse, social worker and therapist, so I’m not completely speaking through a hole in my head,” she laughs.  Not that she professes to be an expert on any or all the subjects in the book, except perhaps food and travel. She says in the book’s introduction that she would “treat the chapter on men with suspicion – it is a subject I have selflessly studied for most of my life and I have neither understood nor learned a thing.”

While there are many light and downright funny moments in the book, Peta also shares some serious messages. “The main thing is that women need to find out what their path is and follow it. And don’t listen to anybody telling you that you shouldn’t. People can be negative because they want to protect you but you just can’t listen to them.”

For women who really don’t have a clue what their path might be, Peta suggests taking a look back at their childhood. Her theory is that the jobs you do as an adult should reflect what you were good at at school and to be successful you have to know what motivates you. It wasn’t until she was 45 that Peta found her own “perfect job” as a writer and television presenter after a career path that included stints as a nurse, counsellor and chef. “It’s never too late to change and do what you really want to do,” she says.

Peta enlisted the help of several of her friends in gathering information for the book – interviewing them and send them lengthy questionnaires to fill in. Their candid responses and Peta’s own wide-open style make for fascinating reading. It’s a bit like listening in on a sometimes raucous conversation a group of women might be having over several glasses of wine. She says the book’s sex chapter is one of its most talked about. “Every generation thinks they invented sex, but especially my generation, because when we were 17 the pill came along and completely revolutionised women’s lives.”

Now many of these same women fall into the fifty plus age group where free love might have been replaced by no sex at all if a partner has left them, died, fallen ill or lost interest. “Finding a partner or getting sex as you get older was one of the major problems that came up in the questionnaires. Older women really miss sex and feel kind of powerless to do anything about it. No one wants to go dating online and a lot of people don’t like going to bars.” In the book Peta says that finding love and sex as women get older is not that much different from when they were younger. “It’s basically a numbers game – the more people you meet, the more likely you are to meet someone special. If you never go out then obviously the chances of the mailman being the one are relatively slim.”

Peta says there are several strong New Zealand women among her own role models. “I think Celia Lashlie, Helen Clark, Brooke Fraser and Annah Stretton are inspirational. Then there are the women who run organisations such as the Women’s Refuge – they are our true heroes.”

She has no immediate plans to write another book, although says she is thinking of putting together a similar one on men. “My friends say that it will only be three pages long but I think it’s a big story. I don’t believe our men are as happy as our women. We don’t need them as much as we used to and they feel that.”

Peta says her nomadic lifestyle has made it difficult for her to maintain long term relationships throughout her life. She has no idea where her wanderlust comes from. “No one in my family is like this, but I was always restless and thought there had to be more to life than Auckland. Travel is addictive. It’s like a drug. I always think things like ‘what if I die and I’ve never been to China?’”

Peta’s love affair with France has been well documented after she famously went for three days and ended up staying 10 years. She recently returned from two months there during which time she hosted two ‘Fête Accomplie’ culinary tours – her venture that offers gastronomic adventures in the south of France and Marrakech. Next year she is adding a ten day trip to Rajasthan to the programme. “The tours are basically a week long dinner party and enormous fun.”

She has also set up a production company and is making some “totally fabulous” cooking DVDs. The first in the Peta Unplugged series is called Summer Entertaining, and is due to be released at the end of September. “The DVDs show me cooking ten different recipes that people can pop in their little television in the kitchen and use to cook along with me. They are aspirational recipes and not simple ones, but I hope they will get people cooking.” She believes there is a swing back to people cooking dinner with their children and growing their own vegetables. “People should have gardens. It’s very fashionable in Ponsonby right now.”

The greater amount of energy she is putting into the culinary tours and DVDs is deliberate, she says. “I’m going in a few different directions at the moment. As my father says, ‘never be a one dog act’ which is an old-fashioned way of saying it’s important to diversify.

It is another way that Peta is following her mantra of continual reinvention.

“Change is always being forced upon us and it’s much easier to deal with if we simply embrace it. Drinking lots of red wine and eating plenty of good chocolate helps too.”

Peta’s Wisdom

  1. A smile is the most fashionable and flattering thing you can wear.
  2. No woman over 30 should leave the house without at least lipstick on – even to put out the rubbish.
  3. If you’re not Italian, a nun, or magazine editor there is no excuse for wearing black.
  4. The compulsive pursuit of money and possessions is a personality disorder.
  5. Eat what you want. A little bit of what you fancy does you good.
  6. When travelling, be fearless but not reckless.
  7. Don’t trust your gut feelings when you meet a man – that churning sensation is probably a badly digested oyster.
  8. The best things in life are free – happiness is a hot bath, an afternoon siesta, an unexpected passionate embrace.