The National Party deputy leader talks appearance politics, the power of style and the freedom of reinvention.
“I don’t mind being a bit controversial,” declares Paula Bennett as she discusses her new look – slim and trim, as confident as ever. Her reputation precedes her. A tenacious member of parliament for 15 years and deputy leader of the National Party, she’s one of the most visible women in New Zealand politics.
Paula’s bubbly and chipper in a way you might not expect. Asserting her authenticity, she’s all smiles and anecdotes as she pores over the rail of samples at our photoshoot. “I’ve always loved fashion,” she gushes. She’s like a passionate auntie who’d hand you a glass of wine or pass you a pashmina if you got cold; she’d also debate with you across the dinner table or brusquely encourage you to sort your life out.
Controversial, as she said, Paula has been criticised by both sides for nearly everything that defines her. “You’re never going to please all of the people all of the time, so you might as well please yourself,” she says pragmatically.
Fashion certainly pleases her, and she’s long championed her own sense of style – a far cry from the sober suits historically expected of women in her role. In politics, image is everything, which is something Paula understands better than anyone.
Earlier this year, journalist Vanessa Friedman wrote about the strategic dishevelment of male politicians for The New York Times. She argued that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump utilise “a deceptively absurd image and sleight of sartorial hand”. A visible barometer of populist politics, they project “too busy to care” or “I’m just like you” while reinforcing their elite status.
Political style has always been conservative, and for women it still is. While US congresswomen have groundbreakingly worn hijabs and kente cloth, they still look polished and groomed. I ask Paula about all this, and what would happen if a woman dared look dishevelled? “We’d be criticised for letting ourselves go,” she says, without missing a beat. “I definitely agree that there’s not that equality as far as our appearance, and people do feel they can judge us more harshly.”
Denouncing gendered criticism, she brings up Hillary Clinton’s hair. “There was so much critique over that!” she exclaims. “Yet these guys [Trump and Johnson] can sort of get away with anything.” Meanwhile, over the years, Clinton’s changing hair has, unbelievably, led to questions about her decision-making ability.
Former Green Party MP Sue Bradford gets a mention too. “She said to me, ‘The reality is people were commenting on how I looked as opposed to listening to my message. So I tidied myself up a little bit.’ And I thought, ‘Unfortunately, she’s probably right.’ She had to look a certain way so that people would listen to her.”
Paula says that there have long been expectations around appearance for women in politics. “Parliament was far more conservative back then. Women were encouraged to wear if not a full suit, then at least a blazer all the time. And not too much colour.”
“I definitely agree that there’s not that equality as far as our appearance, and people do feel they can judge us more harshly.”
She believes her style was never questioned by her party. “I didn’t feel like people were forcing me to conform,” she says.
She has, however, received plenty of unsolicited opinions from the public. “It’s really funny that people feel like they can say those sorts of things to you,” she says. “They can critique what you’re wearing and the tone of your skin. I get feedback that I’ve supposedly got a fake tan when, actually, this is the colour I am!”
She’s even had someone give her well-meaning advice on how to get a better result from her Botox. “I haven’t had Botox,” she says. “Yet.”
On the issue of social media, which has changed the landscape of politics, media and public opinion in the last decade, Paula has a strategy of self-preservation that many of us could relate to. “I don’t read the comments.”
When it comes to her look, she’s a proud Westie – it’s been her calling card for years. Serendipitously, television show Outrageous Fortune and its matriarch Cheryl West debuted the same year she became an MP. Westies were in. Paula’s infamous leopard-print suit is unforgettable. “I think the last time I wore it was at our conference,” she says. “It was a really big day for us. I was the opening act and I just knew it would give me a bit of attitude. I knew that I’d feel good, look a bit fierce. So I wore it, and owned it.”
That’s what she loves about fashion: the power, confidence and potential for self-expression. These have always been front of mind for Paula – not only as a public figure, but having spent much of her life larger than she is now. “When I was bigger, I had to constantly think about what went with what, and what covered parts of my body that I didn’t like,” she says.
Paula underwent bariatric surgery in 2017, joining a roster of local political figures to have done so that includes Dame Jenny Shipley, Dame Tariana Turia and David Lange. Although the subsequent weight loss was liberating, Paula doesn’t harbour any resentment towards her old figure. “I’ve always been a confident person,” she says, revealing that there were things she liked about being bigger. “I owned a room. I took up space and dressed myself in colour – I dressed that big body and I made it beautiful.”
Not only is her body now unrecognisable, her style has evolved too. “I can wear different things now than I could before,” she says. Shopping is a completely new experience – no longer does she buy something just because it fits.
“I do think age has probably given me more confidence.”
While her weight was dropping, Paula adapted her shopping strategy. It made her frugal; she relied on bargain-hunting, second-hand stores and a strict budget. Her old wardrobe, much of it workwear, has been donated to Dress for Success.
She also cut her hair short after her surgery – another cathartic decision – and let it go grey. “I gave it so much thought,” she says. “A lot of people didn’t think it was a good idea. They thought it would age me.”
Despite the criticism, it’s a choice she loves. “There’s something fun about being a 50-year-old woman,” she says. “I do think age has probably given me more confidence.”
She advocates refreshing your look. “There comes a time in that kind of late-40s, 50s [period] where if we want to reinvent ourselves a little bit, there’s no better time.”
Read Paula Bennett’s full fashion story in Simply You magazine.