‘I’ve always felt like an imposter and a fraud’: Matt Chisholm gets candid

Matt Chisholm was 30 years old when his father told him if he continued to talk “drivel” his life achievements would fill a Post-it note.

“He had the ability to cut you down quickly and make you feel bad about yourself. I was 15 when my parents separated, our relationship went from being really strong and solid to breaking down to the point I don’t want anything to do with him,” says Chisholm.

He lives 20 minutes away from his father. The pair haven’t spoken in five years.

Chisholm, 44, is a journalist who’s worked on TV current affairs shows Close Up, Seven Sharp, Fair Go and Sunday. He’s hosted Survivor New Zealand and Celebrity Treasure Island. His résumé suggests an established professional at the top of his game in a highly competitive media environment.

He is cheeky, gregarious and has a good head of hair. The TV journalist or “storyteller” as he prefers to be called, is also known for his infectious laugh, his integrity and his vulnerability.

Upfront. Face to camera. Grin. A sort of good-bloke charm. Says things like “cracking yarn”. Self-described “Southern Man”. But that air of confidence belies the truth. Chisholm believes he is an imposter and that he has been one his entire life.

“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.”

Two years ago, Chisholm, his wife, Ellen, 37, and their two boys, Bede, 4, and Finn, 3, abandoned the city life for Omakau- a remote rural town in Central Otago. He says the view from his window is like a Grahame Sydney landscape.

“I’m looking at blue sky, snow-capped mountains, and lambs grazing in the tussocks, it’s my ‘happy place’. Country life and farming are in my blood; the longer I stayed in Auckland the more I wanted to get out of it.”

Auckland was where Chisholm made a name for himself professionally but the city where he grappled with his 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, ‘Holy s***, I don’t belong in this place, what the hell am I doing here?’ Drinking gave me confidence and it took it away.”

He says his greatest achievement was caring for his older brother Nick who was severely injured during a rugby match 21 years ago. 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. He spent a year in Korea with two of his university friends. By day they taught English to students. By night they drank themselves senseless.

Seventeen years ago, Chisholm woke up lying next to a Vietnamese sex worker demanding cash. He’d been on a “huge bender” and blacked out.

“I kept having flashbacks of a condom ripping. I was worried I was HIV positive but I was too scared to tell anyone. After a six-month wait, the tests were negative, I have never felt so relieved.”

Last November Chisholm finally plucked up the courage to tell his wife, Ellen, 10 minutes before he was about to share it with 350 farmers from the Taranaki Rural Support Trust.

“Matt said, ‘Hey do you remember that time I slept with that woman and thought I was HIV positive?'” Ellen says.

“I said, ‘No, oh my god is that in your speech and you’re telling me now?’ I just laughed I didn’t care.

“Nothing surprises me about Matt but I was surprised he was going to tell a room full of strangers before he told me. I’m an over-sharer but Matt’s ‘next level’ and I think that’s a good thing. He is a bit nervous about his mum and my mum and dad reading the book,” Ellen says.

Chisholm, the youngest of four brothers, was raised in Milton, also known by locals as “crab town”, which he says was rife with STDS and teenage pregnancies.

Alan, his father, was a stock agent and his mother, Joss, was a hairdresser.

His happiest memory was playing in the paddock with his dog, Rock, and tending to his sheep and chickens.At home, things were volatile.

“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 Ōamaru where he was a boarder at Waitaki Boys’ High School.

“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 years old and idolised the big 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 shit.A lot of us tried our best to carry on the male chauvinistic culture that our fathers enjoyed. We egged each other on to be rude to girls, to objectify them — we’d call them a ‘vas’ (short for Vaseline), for ‘greasing up girls’ instead of hanging with the lads. How could you be a real man if you were mucking around being ‘soft’ with the girls? It makes me cringe I was one of the worst offenders.”

Straight after high school, Chisholm enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at Lincoln University, majoring in Business and Society.

Campus life revolved around rugby, beer and women.

Chisholm says he hated himself for being a “piss-head” and masking his depression from his friends.

“My mates would have been sweet if I shared stuff with them, I am getting emotional talking about it. I could’ve avoided those sleepless nights and 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 toNew Zealand after his OE – broke and broken.
For years the 30-year-old had a quiet yearning to be a TV journalist like his Uncle Scott, an accomplished former foreign correspondent.

Although he failed School Certificate English, after a recount Chisholm was accepted for a journalism course at Massey University.

He flatted with novelist and screenwriter Eleanor Catton, who wrote The Luminaries.

“I slept on the floor because I couldn’t afford a bed. Eleanor was very intelligent, cool, and chatty. She kept to herself but she was down to earth.”

When the course finished he wrote for newspapers, the Upper Hutt Leader, the Dominion Post and the Christchurch Star to be closer to Nick.

After a brief and unremarkable stint at Radio New Zealand in Christchurch Chisholm wanted to ditch journalism altogether.

Then he had his break.

Current affairs show 20/20 had filmed a story about Chisholm supporting his brother Nick, which resonated well with the viewers.

Chisholm’s tenacity and natural charm made an impression on Mike Valintine, the executive producer. Valintine offered him work experience and soon he had a full-time job reporting on Close Up.

“He is a gifted communicator. What sets Matt apart from anyone else is he is the same person on and off-screen, he’s the real deal. There is no pretence, no bullshit, just rare honesty,” Valintine said.

But his lack of experience ruffled a few feathers, he was singled out and undermined by some of the staff.

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

There was one person in particular, who had it in for Chisholm.

“The bully, who I refer to as the ‘old hand’ told me: ‘I don’t even know you, but I hate you. You’re a one-trick pony and you’ve only told one good story this year. Your relationship with the boss is dishonourable, and I don’t think you should be friends with the boss.'”

Chisholm wants to call out the bully but can’t for legal reasons. He wants the bully to know he had a profound negative impact on him and others.

“His behaviour is unacceptable and has never been addressed. The worst thing is these people pretend to be good bastards but they are so underhanded. Here they are making a living by telling the truth so they should be able to handle the truth. I have wanted to eyeball him and say, ‘Mate, you are a ‘f***ing c***.'”

Chisholm has made peace with a Sunday reporter he claims “stole his story idea and offered him duds.”

It didn’t help when Chisholm and a TVNZ crew became the news instead of telling the news, making national headlines for smoking cannabis with members of NORML NZ for a story they were filming for Close Up.

Chisholm fessed up but refused to dob in his colleagues.

“I am not a nark, I dealt with it in the way that I felt was right for me. I wasn’t frightened apologising to Rick Ellis, the CEO at the time. It was harder apologising to my colleagues because half of them wanted me gone anyway. To say I made a mistake gave them validation in wanting me out the door. It was an expensive two tokes.”

He kept his job and moved on to Seven Sharp where he had his heart set on a fill-in presenting role. He was hugely lauded by management after his first attempt presenting with co- host Hilary Barry. But bizarrely, 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, there is something wrong with you and that was really hard to take.”

The show already had Matty McLean and Anika Moa, who was once married to one of the show’s producers, as fill-ins.

“If I am really honest, deep down I probably wanted to be Jeremy Wells. I have never shared that before. That environment is pretty competitive, you want to go as far as you can go. I don’t think that way anymore and it’s way healthier. I am pleased to be out of there and not caught up in that game.”

Chisholm left Television New Zealand at the end of 2018.

These days he reports for Sunday and is the host of Celebrity Treasure Island that screens next month on TVNZ 2.

He’s slightly worried about how TVNZ bosses will react to his book; he says he doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds him.

“We are in an industry that deals with the truth, this is my truth. I don’t doubt or regret what I’ve written about. I am fallible and make mistakes. My hope is that TVNZ thinks I am a better person for being honest.”

He has two regrets, conversations that play out in his head: did he do enough to help his friend and colleague, Greg Boyed, the respected TVNZ journalist and presenter who took his life in 2019?

“We bonded during Seven Sharp and talked negatively about a lot of things when I was low but I didn’t know he was as bad as he was. When someone dies, it’s natural to ask yourself, ‘Was I there for him? Was I too self-absorbed? Was he getting help? How come I didn’t pick up on how bad he was?'”

The other regret is not coming clean about his depression sooner.

One evening, Chisholm was drinking alone in a bar and was captivated by a woman dancing like a “white Beyonce”.

Ellen Chisholm, a PR and communications manager, is the love of Chisholm’s life.

They’ve been married for five years and are expecting their third child (a girl) next month.

“She’s a pocket rocket. I am cynical and anal and Elle is eternally optimistic. I was attracted to her beauty, attitude and enthusiasm – she is a good buddy to have in your corner. You wouldn’t meet too many women who would agree to leave Auckland and move to Chatto creek, population 35.”

Chisholm has been sober for 11 years and says his skeleton closet is bare.

He has forgiven his father and hopes his sons will meet their grandfather soon.

“I am an older father and far from perfect. I’m not sure I would have been a great dad in my 20s like my dad. My father was an example of what I don’t want to be so I make sure my kids know they are loved.

“You can’t love your kids enough. Ikiss and hug them 25 times a day and want them to grow up confident and to be true to themselves. I’m vulnerable with them, I tell them I get sad and it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to cry.”

IMPOSTER is available on August 10, $36.99, Allen & Unwin.

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