Presenter Chisholm’s life story makes for confronting read

In his new book, television presenter Matt Chisholm says he has always felt like an imposter and...
In his new book, television presenter Matt Chisholm says he has always felt like an imposter and a fraud, despite a successful media career. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Matt Chisholm knows his way around the Kiwi vernacular. That has helped the TV reporter and presenter connect with audiences and subjects from the Kiwi backblocks to New Zealand’s biggest cities. This week, the Central Otago journalist launched his autobiography Imposter — it charts a journey that has been hard yards and hard won.

The title of Matt Chisholm’s book sums up a feeling that has plagued him for most of his 44 years.

As he tells it, that feeling is persistent — like a dull ache.

"I have always felt like an imposter, a fraud."

It has followed him from his childhood in Milton, secondary school at Waitaki Boys’ High School in Oamaru to his time outside Otago, where a combination of circumstances thrust him and that feeling on to the national stage.

"I felt like I was an imposter at university. I went to Lincoln but we never really owned a farm, I went to Waitaki Boys’ boarding school for a year but my parents lived in town, I felt like an imposter captaining the First XV team at school, I felt like an imposter in the newsroom. I wasn’t as well-educated or well-read as I should have been, I feel like an imposter in the country because I am trying to have a crack at small-time farming, I have always felt like an imposter, a fraud."

That "crack" has brought the father of two boys, and another child — a daughter — due next month, full-circle back to Otago and a life on the land.

Chisholm opted for that at the peak of his powers professionally but personally it had come at a cost.

He had appeared variously on TV current affairs shows Close Up, Seven Sharp, Fair Go and Sunday. He also showcased his presenting chops on Survivor New Zealand and Celebrity Treasure Island.

Despite leaving TVNZ in 2018 he still holds the latter role along with work on Sunday and the long-running Country Calendar.

It is a significant scale-back and it began two years ago, when Chisholm, wife Ellen (37), and their two boys, Bede (4), and Finn (3), abandoned the city life for Omakau, with their sights firmly set on developing a block of land at nearby Chatto Creek.

The catalyst for that change in lifestyle is laid bare in his autobiography and it is a confronting read.

On TV, Chisholm’s handle on Kiwi slang makes him come across as an everyman — a good bloke — or to co-opt his own terminology a "Southern man" but while he was carving out his on-camera career, privately he was wrestling with demons.

"When I got on the booze and drugs, I’d black out and often have no memory of what happened or what I had said or done. There was fear and anxiety from going out and being out of control. On Mondays, I would go to work and go, ‘I don’t belong in this place, what the hell am I doing here?’ Drinking gave me confidence and it took it away."

Backing up his story slightly, he says caring for his older brother Nick, who was severely injured playing rugby 21 years ago, has been pivotal in shaping who he is.

Nick Chisholm and his wife Nicola. Matt Chisholm says one of the greatest achievements was being...
Nick Chisholm and his wife Nicola. Matt Chisholm says one of the greatest achievements was being there for his brother after he was severely injured during a rugby match 21 years ago. PHOTO: ODT FILES

Nick, his recovery and their relationship has been the subject of many stories.

"His brain was alert but he was trapped inside an unresponsive body. I was really proud of giving Nick a voice. It was one of my greatest achievements, being there for Nick and encouraging him to live his life. I’ll die one day and look back and think it was the right decision to put someone else before me."

Chisholm lived with Nick for nearly two years and needed a break.

That break was to take in Korea with two of his university friends. They were teaching English by day and embarking on alcohol-fuelled benders by night.

They invariably left Chisholm with blackouts where he barely remembered the day before.

While he has been sober for more than a decade, he believes he was set on that track early.

Chisholm, the youngest of four brothers, was raised in Milton, Alan, his father, was a stock agent and his mother, Joss, was a hairdresser.

"Mum was delightful and would do anything for us, Dad provided for us financially but our family was far from perfect, and although we tried to portray everything was rosy, it wasn’t."

His parents separated and the family moved to Oamaru.

"My parents’ divorce hugely impacted on me. I didn’t have a father figure in my life in those important teenage years. I did what I wanted and that wasn’t always the best for me."

Chisholm started drinking at 13 and worshipped the older boys who sneaked him into bars and rugby clubs.

"I wasn’t old enough to shave yet but I was really good at drinking beer and talking .... A lot of us tried our best to carry on the male chauvinistic culture that our fathers enjoyed."

Objectifying women became second nature.

"It makes me cringe, I was one of the worst offenders."

From high school, Chisholm enrolled at Lincoln University and campus life revolved around rugby, beer and women.

He hated himself for being a "piss-head" but was self-medicating depression, hiding it from his friends, and not realising his drug of choice only made things worse.

"My mates would have said ‘Christ, get off the piss and get some medication.’ It took me a long time to realise I could be a ‘Southern man’ and be vulnerable."

In 2006, Chisholm returned from Korea and his OE — a shell — broke and broken.

For years, the 30-year-old had a quiet yearning to be a TV journalist and was accepted for a journalism course at Massey University.

A stint in print followed, writing for the Upper Hutt Leader, the Dominion Post and later the Christchurch Star, to be closer to Nick.

The transition to broadcasting was less than smooth and after a brief time at Radio New Zealand in Christchurch he wanted to ditch journalism altogether.

Then Chisholm caught a break.

Current affairs show 20/20 had filmed a story about Chisholm and Nick, which struck a chord with audiences.

It also resonated with Mike Valintine, the executive producer. Valintine offered him work experience and soon he had a full-time job reporting on Close Up.

His lack of experience was singled out and undermined by some of the staff — it was a role reversal to be on the receiving end rather than dishing it out, as he did in high school.

"Some of the team resented me, they thought I had been fast-tracked and hadn’t earned the opportunity I was given."

Life in television journalism was punctuated with incidents of bullying and overcompetitive behaviour and a couple of times where he pushed the boundaries a little too far, he says.

His dream of presenting was not to be fulfilled until later.

At Seven Sharp he presented co-host Hilary Barry to widespread praise.

It was a one-off, the following week Chisholm was told he would never present again.

"I’ve always said I’ve never wanted to be a presenter but secretly everyone wants to be wanted. When you’re told ‘you won’t present again’, they’re not saying we don’t want your work, they are saying we don’t want you."

With time, Chisholm has learnt to care less and be more grateful for what he has.

The book is raw but ultimately if it helps people, he is happy.

Does he still feel like an imposter?

He thinks he always will and he is comfortable with that.

Chisholm’s book Imposter is out now.

 - Additional reporting Jared Morgan

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