Anchored in Suzy Cato’s favourite childhood memories are the Sunday afternoon musicals she used to watch with her family.
Growing up in the small town of Kaikohe during the 1970s, she and her sister would plonk themselves in front of the television as classic Broadway musicals such as Oklahoma! and South Pacific lit up the screen.
Suzy’s mum stood at the back doing the weekly ironing, singing along with her captivated daughters.
“I remember I’d turn to watch Mum sing and the tears would be streaming down her face. Then I’d get caught up in all the emotion of it as well,” recalls the kids’ entertainer.
“I loved the old-school glitz and glamour – the whole Hollywood vibe – so from then on I always dreamt of a role in a musical, even though there wasn’t much opportunity to get involved in musical theatre in the Far North.”
Next month, Suzy’s childhood dream comes true. And she’s fizzing to step into the dual roles of The Starkeeper and narrator at Opera on the Harbour’s production of Carousel.
“When the director of New Zealand Opera reached out to ask if I’d be interested in being a part of it, I replied, ‘You do know my level of singing ability, don’t you?'” laughs the bespectacled broadcaster.
“This role is quite different to what many audiences will expect from me and I’m excited to be seen in a different light. This is set to be a really fun event – audiences can expect a carnival atmosphere, with entertainment and celebrations planned for each performance.”
On her YouTube channel, she regularly reads bedtime stories, as well as producing Suzy & Friends, her children’s radio programme which is run on 27 regional stations across the weekend.
“Being in broadcasting for as long as I have, I occasionally feel like Mrs Doubtfire hauling up her support stockings,” she jokes. “When I was on TV as often as I was back in the ’90s, I felt like all eyes were on me and I was far more concerned with what other people thought of me.
“But once you have children, you have to get over yourself,” says the mum of Riley, 16, and Morgan, 14.
“I remember we’d be backing out of the driveway to head somewhere, the kids would be immaculate but I’d had no time to try and fix myself! I’d try to get at least mascara on before I left the house so people could see my eyes behind my glasses.
Over a hot chocolate at her local North Shore café, Suzy taps her denim-clad legs and reveals she’s actually wearing her teenage daughter’s old jeans.
“I tried them and went, ‘Oh, darling, I really don’t know if I can pull these off .’ But she said, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine, Mum!’ And again I went, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’m not what I used to be.’
“She gave me a talking to and said, ‘Mum, you’re the one who taught me to be proud of who I am and to celebrate my body. Why don’t you celebrate yours?’
“She had such a good point. Maybe it’s a generational thing. We weren’t very good at celebrating our bodies growing up. Our mothers were often on different diets. Everyone now wants a luscious big booty, but when we were growing up, we tended to hide ours away!”
Looking at photos of her gorgeous daughter Riley, who was named Deputy Head Girl of Takapuna Grammar School this year, it’s clear she’s a “chip off the old block” in many ways.
Like her famous mum, the Year 13 student loves musical theatre and is stepping into the limelight after scoring a lead role of Rosie in Mamma Mia! in her upcoming high school production.
“Riley’s an incredibly strong, resilient kid who will run rings around me!” smiles Suzy. “She’s already on the local youth board and as a 10-year-old she organised a children’s fashion show to raise $2000 for the Mental Health Foundation.
“I was her personal assistant. She wrote the letters, organised raffle items and called on friends to clean out their closets to donate clothes and model for the show. Her organisational skills are going to be well utilised this year!”
Son Morgan is also following in Suzy’s musical footsteps and his proud mum tells he’s already got enough material to fill a couple of albums.
“He had his own world tour sorted at the age of three!” she shares. “He showed me on the globe where he was going to go. He’s always been our performer.
“He got his first drum kit at the age of three, took piano lessons from the age of seven, and now he’s into his electric and bass guitar, though most of his current creations incorporate retro keyboards and synths.”
Both kids enjoyed being at home doing online learning during Auckland’s 102-day lockdown, though neither want to be in lockdown this year – there’s just too much to do – and Suzy is grateful the family came out relatively unscathed, albeit a little tired.
She and husband Steve Booth, 55, have always worked from home together in the office in their rumpus room, and while he usually runs a software development company, over lockdown he quickly pivoted to learn how to “shoot, edit and make telly” for Home Learning TV.
In fact, the tight-knit family’s biggest challenge over this time was becoming foster parents for the SPCA. Or “fur foster failures” as Suzy wryly puts it.
“We lost our cat a few years ago, so we thought we could perhaps help the SPCA out by looking after kittens and cats until their new forever owners were ready for them after lockdown,” she explains.
“So we get this absolutely gorgeous kitten, Loki, in the second week of lockdown who was supposed to be with us for six weeks, at which point my husband drove him out to the SPCA and then drove him back home again, as he couldn’t bear to drop him off !
“Now we have a second foster kitten, Casper, that is also potentially about to become a fail, because we were asked to keep him over the summer holidays.
“Of course, the kids are now saying, ‘You know what we could do next, Mum, is foster a dog!”
When have you felt most out of your comfort zone?
When I wore the yellow bathing suit with the feathers out the back on Dancing with the Stars in 2018.
You’ve been together with your husband Steve since 1987 – what’s the secret to your relationship success?
Supporting each other but knowing we don’t have to do everything together. For the first five years of our relationship, I was making You & Me in Dunedin, so I’d fly to Dunedin for two weeks and fly home for two weeks. We learned how to live apart and together. Communication is key.
What are your “go-tos” for helping your mental health?
I’d like to say it’s walking and it should be, but I haven’t been doing as much walking as I should. Music is a big one for me. I like loud music in the car along with a long hot shower and tears. I cry when I need to cry as I find it a great release on many levels. I’m really fortunate that at my age, I’ve had enough challenges that I’ve been able to work through with supportive family and friends that I don’t tend to get too stressed or too down any more. But I’ve had plenty of times of pulling the covers over my head, especially when I’ve grieved miscarriages or a job loss.