Runtime - 7:16
In Waitati, 15 minutes north of Ōtepoti Dunedin, a BMX is lodged in the branches of a cabbage tree.
“A terrible accident,” explains pirate queen, Dunedin City councillor and mayoral hopeful Mandy Mayhem. “ET trying to get home.”
Waitati is not your archetypal coastal settlement. Yes, it is small, with a population of about 400. It is seaside, with views overlooking Blueskin Bay. But it is anything but sleepy.
Below the swankier homes up the hill, the so-called “swamp-dwellers” display a sense of cheerful creativity with community-spiritedness in spades. Taking Frank Film on a tour of the village, Mayhem points out the decorated letterboxes, the teapots, the wooden trebuchet stationed in her own lawn alongside the J1 Bedford school bus that was her home for five years when she was a circus performer.
There’s a giveaway seed library, a community pantry and The Turdis, a public toilet opened with elaborate fanfare in 2019 that also serves as a noticeboard.
“Manaakitanga,” she says. “Our community embodies that and I think that is what wellness and wellbeing is all about.”
Mayhem was just five when her mother moved them to a 10-hectare property on the hill above the small township. By that time, the cluster of holiday homes had become affordable cribs for a younger generation of hippies and alternative lifestylers.
Mayhem attended Otago Girls’ High School, a top student but “a bit of a misfit”. She began a Bachelor of Arts then took a year off to focus on Taekwondo – she holds a Dan 3 black belt.
She moved to Wellington to complete her degree at Victoria University, majoring in Women’s Studies while working part time as Slaphappy the clown.
At 25, she and her partner Titch had dreams of starting a circus. This plan ended in tragedy after Titch was killed when his truck plunged into Lake Taupō. When she heard Ridgway’s Circus was looking for a clown, “I thought, what else have I got? I’ve lost all my dreams, the most obvious thing I can do is run away to the circus.”
She had just started the role when the ringmaster left and Mayhem – her adopted stage name – took on the role.
“The show used to start out with the crusty old cowboy cracking the whips. He would whip the cigarette out of my teeth, whip up the newspaper, and then he’d throw knives at me around this target. One time one of the knives glanced out of the board and went straight down and stuck into the top of my shoe. I squelched around for the rest of the show with blood filling my shoes.”
On leaving the circus, she returned south to Oamaru where she fell in love and became pregnant. She moved back to Waitati in 2003 where she raised her two children – Rose and Max.
“As a teenager I couldn’t wait to get away from here but as soon as I was pregnant, hapū, with my daughter, I couldn’t think of anywhere else in the world I wanted to be.”
In Waitati, she became involved with Playcentre, the library, the local hall (the key now hangs on a nail at her house). She is leader of the Waitati Militia, established 50 years ago to protest against the Vietnam War and still conducting mock battles with an arsenal of paper swords, insults and flour bombs.
She has been an egg donor, twice; she is a marriage celebrant; she is the only ringmaster included in University of Otago’s Dunedin Longitudinal Study. Every Saturday, she sets out to do the paper run around the bay and up into surrounding hills.
Seven years ago she married Lee Bullock and had a daughter, Vita. His wife, jokes Bullock, is “the supreme dictator.”
“Benevolent,” he adds, after a prompt from Mayhem.
As a tireless advocate for community, she served six years on the Waikouaiti Coast Community Board. She is involved with the Coastal Communities Cycleway Connection, organises the annual Wuthering Heights dance-along in the Octagon, is chair of Keep Dunedin Beautiful and local emergency response co-ordinator (last month, when snow closed the road between Waitati and Dunedin, she and fellow Waitati residents opened the hall and their homes to stranded motorists).
In 2022, she was successful in her second bid for the Dunedin City Council. Using her own experiences as a solo parent and as circus performer travelling across rural New Zealand, she uses her position to advocate for those in lower socio-economic groups.
“I know what it is to be a solo mother. I know what it is to be forced to take budgeting advice at the foodbank,” she explains. “I think traditionally the Council is older, white men – business people.
They definitely don't have the same lived experience as me.” When her colleagues tell her they too make donations to the foodbank, she responds, “But have you ever had to go to the foodbank yourself?”
Now she has her sights on being the 60th mayor of Dunedin. “We’ve only had one female mayor in Dunedin so I’d like to restore that gender balance.”
She seems to have the backing of her fellow swamp-dwellers.
“Look what Mandy does for Waitati,” says community newspaper editor Krysha Brzuza. “Imagine what she can do for Dunedin.”
Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Oliver Dawe
Researcher: Gillian Thomas
Writer: Sally Blundell
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Design/Mix: Chris Sinclair