We’re just guests in Suzy’s World
I’ve interviewed some pretty interesting people in my life. Some having more impact on me than others. Some have made me think, others have made me mad; up until the writing of this piece, none had made me cry. Suzy Cato did that to me. Not out of sadness, but from exceptional joy and reassurance that she is perhaps the greatest ever New Zealander.
In a moon boot from twisting her ankle on a flight of stairs following a trip to Queenstown, we get down to the nitty-gritty of how she became our ‘screen mother’, what she recalls from those days, where she is now, and any advice that she might have for us.
So, undoubtedly, most of us will remember Suzy Cato from her appearance in Suzy’s World and You and Me, some of us may even recall her on the Early Bird Show or 3pm. You’ll recall her iconic fashion, demeanour, and Mary Poppins-like singing voice.
But, for those of you who had Sky TV and maybe the misfortune of watching Noddy and Friends, I’ll let Suzy introduce herself.
“I am a friend of Kiwi kids across multiple generations. Who knows a few songs and how to make playdough; likes a good adventure and to discover and explore.”
Suzy was born in Australia and travelled over here when she was just a month old and grew up in Kaikohe. Staunchly a New Zealander, Suzy had an interesting journey into the world of children’s entertainment.
Initially a shy child, Suzy found her outlet on the stage and in books. Her foray into TV came about by happenstance.
“I joined the Early Bird Show on their 100th program as the rooster”. The main cast was out on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle tour, and there was a need for someone at home base. “So, I became the chicken lips. Most businessmen have a PA, I became a CA – chook-assist – I held everything together with a bit of glue and sticky tape.” When the usual Russell Rooster went on Tour, Suzy took the wings and the beak and embodied the role.
Following this, Suzy got an opportunity to host the 3pm show. She and a small team built the show from the ground up.
It was here that Suzy realised her position on television meant more than entertainment. On the show, there was a letterbox – Marty Mailbox – which she would reach into the mouth of it and pull out the letters from children. Often being just pen pal types and fan mail, some letters also revealed the struggles some young New Zealanders were facing.
“We also addressed letters of child abuse. I realised the medium that we were working with – television – was such a powerful tool and could not only be entertainment but could provide assistance and support. It scared the bejeezus out of me. I didn’t think I deserved the trust of these beautiful young people.”
As a 21-year-old, Suzy submitted her resignation. This was not accepted by production; instead, they decided to change their model to offer support to Aotearoa’s children.
“We went on to get guests on that could show kids where in the front of the telephone book to get the help that they needed.” It was at that time that Suzy realised, “okay, having fun is one thing, but this is so much better, so much more important”.
Following the cancellation of 3pm, Suzy took a chance with You and Me – one of her more iconic shows. Despite some of her friends saying that she was taking a backwards step by remaining on a kids program and that she should be on the weather or a game show, she saw it as the perfect opportunity for “education, building self-esteem, cultural identity” and “it just ticked so many boxes”.
“For me, it just sat so clearly in a position of something that I needed to do.”
Despite being the face of many projects and holding fame in our hearts, Suzy views herself as a small cog in the wheel.
“They had been researching You and Me for a number of years. It was written by preschool educated writers, who became directors, and then producers. It was done with the kid in mind and the child’s best interest.”
You and Me went on to have 2000 episodes aired between 1993 and 1998. Following You and Me was Suzy’s World.
In both of these shows, one thing that was apparent to me when undertaking some research prior to the interview was the dedication shown to Te Reo in both the writing and Suzy’s presenting. They were ahead of their time.
Growing up in Kaikohe, Te Reo was a part of life for her as a child, and it made sense to integrate this into the programs. She also believes we will see a lot more Maori peppered into contemporary kids’ shows in the coming months.
Also, when undertaking ‘in depth’ research, I stumbled upon an episode on digestion in which Suzy made a poo on national television. Requesting an explanation, she filled me in.
After looking at it on a more basic level on other shows, it made sense to take a really scientific approach. On the show, she used baked beans, a stick blender, vinegar, pantyhose, and a muslin bag to represent everything from the mouth to the anus.
She is still called to replicate this example sometimes, to mixed reactions.
“I have since re-enacted this a couple of times at schools in Auckland and have had eyes bulging, people feeling a little green, and teachers leaving the room.” She has also received mail stating that some children won’t eat baked beans any longer, to which Suzy replied gently, “have you told them that this happens with all food, not just beans?”
When asking her what her favourite memory of the era was, she has a fondness for every opportunity she gets to sing ‘It’s our Time’, which she sang to me over the phone, making my heart flutter.
It’s special to her for “the fact that it still holds such a place in people’s hearts and memories.”
Since You and Me finished in 2002, Suzy has raised a family, been on Dancing with the Stars – eliminated far too early, in my opinion – she creates educational resources (from knucklebones to elastics) and hosts a children’s radio show.
Suzy does have some ambitions to work on resources for those of us still – just – within the youth bracket, particularly around mental health and sexual health. In ending, I asked if she had any thoughts to pass onto University of Canterbury students; this was where my tears started rolling.
“I’d love to tell them that they are amazing. They are so inspiring. They are starting their journey on their career, or what might be the first of several careers as they grow and develop. That they are beautiful inside and out, they are not alone, never are they alone. There is always someone going through something similar to them, and there is always someone there for them. I wish them all the very best, and I am so immensely proud of them. And that whatever happens, they will be okay, and they are amazing, basically.”
“It’s okay to not be okay.”
Further tears flowed when Suzy signed off the call with her famous farewell song, “See ya, see ya later, it’s time to say goodbye”.
That’s it; my life is complete. Thanks, Suzy x.