It’s a family affair for marriage celebrant Annette Papuni-McLellan and her daughters Caitlin and Graeson, who are all in the business of love.
Annette has always been involved in her community and thrives on helping others, so becoming a celebrant 10 years ago seemed like a natural next step.
“It’s all about love,” enthuses Annette, 55. “I love being part of the whole build-up to the ceremony. Couples come with different personalities, and I’ve had some real classics, some bridezillas and groomzillas too, but it’s lots of fun.”
Growing up, Caitlin and Graeson were supportive of their mother, but didn’t realise they’d one day be inspired into the same line of work.
“Before we were fully in it, we’d help Mum – even if it was listening to her read the script 20 times,” recalls Caitlin, 23, who is also a celebrant. “We’d style her, and do her hair and make-up.”
Graeson, 21, is a wedding photographer and together the trio run Matau Events, a small event and wedding planning company that combines all of their talents.
“The biggest blessing is we’re three strong mana wāhine that work together,” says Graeson.
Annette adds, “Even if they didn’t follow me, I’d be very proud because they’re good human beings. They’ve come to it at their own time and pace, and done incredible things already in their lifetimes.”
The tight-knit trio feature in a new TV series, from the creators of The Casketeers, called Aroha Nui: Say I Do, which follows the lives of extraordinary Māori celebrants as they guide couples to the altar.
And as they chat comfortably together in the family home in Ōpōtiki, it’s clear they have a very special relationship.
“We come from a whare [home] of love,” says Graeson. “We’ve grown up watching Mum and Dad have the purest love, and we get to hold on to that aroha and share it with others now too.”
But they’re quick to admit there are some challenges that come from working so closely together.
“We have a lot of fun, but there are the last-minute stressed phone calls, and we’re brutally honest with each other. We can argue like you wouldn’t believe, but we’re always fair and respectful,” says Annette.
Caitlin adds, “It’s healthy debate. We’re all passionate and want to grow in this space, and we’re lucky we get the time with one another to share these incredible experiences.”
Thinking back, Tauranga-based Graeson laughs as she talks about the first wedding she photographed, aged just 11, after Annette volunteered her services.
“It was Mum’s first wedding she officiated and I was supposed to hold the books. The whānau hadn’t organised a photographer and they had this tiny little camera. So I guess for me it started from day one. From Mum’s first wedding I was handed a job and it kind of didn’t stop,” she says.
For Caitlin, it was Annette’s words of wisdom that helped when she felt uncertain officiating her first wedding.
“I was nervous. It was my brother-in-law and his lovely partner, so it was a lot of pressure, but I was reassured by Mum. She read over everything and said, ‘It’s good, now just execute it and do what we do,'” tells Caitlin, who lives with Annette.
All three busy wāhine work full-time jobs as well – Annette and Caitlin as managers at Statistics New Zealand, and Graeson as a te reo Māori and tikanga (cultural customs) advisor, but weddings are their labour of love.
“This is our mahi aroha [work of love], that we do for people and the love of it,” explains Annette. “It’s a space we can tick off passions and help people. It’s a koha [gift].”
While they make it look easy, both Caitlin and Annette agree much more goes into their work than reading a script and legalities on the day.
“It’s weeks or months of prep and providing that reassurance and support, and often we’re even pulled in to help write vows,” tells Caitlin.
But the pair are rarely rattled and genuinely committed to helping others achieve their wedding dreams, so just see it as part of the job.
“People say, ‘It must be a walk in the park, I’d love to be a celebrant,’ but it’s a huge responsibility,” says Annette, who’s scooped up unsettled children multiple times during ceremonies so mum and dad can finish their vows.
“You’re dealing with a magical moment and creating a wonderful memory for these couples. We just want it to be perfect for them.”