The colourful world of maximalist, journalist and mental-health advocate Virginia Winder

Journalist Virginia Winder believes in over-the-top everything, from dogs (like her spirited canaan bull terrier, Luna) to décor. “Our house would be Marie Kondo’s nightmare.”

More is more when it comes to handbags, hot sauce and living life to the max for Taranaki’s Virginia Winder and Warren Smart.

Words: Cari Johnson  Photos: Jane Dove Juneau

One of the first things to notice about Virginia Winder are her confetti-speckled Dr Marten boots. Depending on the day, it could easily be a hot-pink pair or one of the dozens that patiently wait their turn in the spotlight. New Plymouth locals might also notice her flower-rimmed sunhat bobbing its way through town or, perhaps, the dahlia tattoo peeking its happy face from beneath her sleeve.

For those in the freelance journalist’s (presumably large) inner circle, it would be impossible not to notice Virginia’s flower of the day on her Facebook page. She has shared a flower photo daily with very few exceptions for the past 10 years.

“I never post the same flower, but I can revisit the same bush. It makes you see the world differently, and I love seeing it through flowers,” says Virginia.

This glass-half-full spirit is near to the brim, as is her and her husband Warren Smart’s chilli-sauce collection. It’s an understatement to say Virginia and Warren are avid collectors. Over their 32-year marriage, the couple has gathered a closetful of Hawaiian shirts, a fiesta’s worth of Mexican-food recipes, and the neatest row of tiny punk figurines. But there’s one collection that surpasses them all.

“You must learn new things and keep pushing yourself. Otherwise, you get stuck. You can’t take yourself too seriously,” says Warren, a teacher at West End Primary Te Kura ō Mōrere, a volunteer radio host at Taranaki’s beloved The Most FM, and an all-round whiz in the kitchen.

Virginia discovered at 12 that her thirst for learning what she didn’t already know was (mostly) quenchable through journalism. She settled her career choice the day she marched, pen and paper at the ready, into a room of politicians for an intermediate-school project. “I could ask them whatever I wanted — and they answered,” she says.

Warren and Virginia bought their 1862 villa in 1991, a year after they married. Virginia based the colour scheme for the exterior windowsills and entrance on the inside of a pāua shell. “Pāua show that bright colours come together in nature, too”; as an arts reporter.

Some distractions almost thwarted her mission, like spending too much time playing pool at university. “I got really good,” she admits. “But I wasn’t good at studies.” So, the amateur snooker player dropped out to pursue journalism at Auckland Technical Institute (now Auckland University of Technology) and was the first in her course to get hired, landing on her feet as a reporter for the Taranaki Daily News.

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Virginia is a magnet to people, projects and pretty things and has never minded that her skills and interests get tugged this way and that. These days, she writes for StuffNZ House & Garden and independent publications throughout the country. She’s also a poet, winning first place in the 2019 WOMAD Poetry Slam. Warren, also a wordsmith, took second place the following year.

Their framed rack of chilli sauces, inspired by an art poster, contains about half of their 200-odd collection. “Once people learn you collect chilli sauces, they buy them for you,” says Warren. The sauces share wall space with fiery memorabilia, such as a photo of a Sevillana dancer and a surrealist pepper-headed portrait of Warren made by their daughter Clementine. It aptly portrays her spice-obsessed dad, known colloquially as “chilli-head”.

What are two storytellers without a ballad of their own? Virginia and Warren’s paths first entwined at kindergarten in New Plymouth, not that either child knew it was the start of a love story. Later they jested and played at West End Primary (where Warren now works), and as teens, they spat vicious verses at each other in a battle for their high school’s poetry award. “Those poems were not particularly nice or flattering,” says Warren.

He was shy; she was not. As the aspiring teacher and journo forged separate paths in different parts of the country, the two friends kept in touch with letters. One day, upon deciding it was more than a friendship, Virginia penned her feelings in a letter to Warren. “But when he visited me that week, he said nothing about it,” she says. Virginia took it as a sign to reconnect to an old flame, just before a letter arrived from Warren confessing he felt the same way.

Like passing ships in the night, she went off to the United States and he to London. Virginia had a riot of a time. Over 12 months, she ate mountains of tacos, nannied in Los Angeles, skateboarded alone around Tijuana in a fringed jacket and partied long after her diner shifts at Florida’s Marco Island. “I enjoyed the happy hours,” she says. Nevertheless, their letters continued, as did their unspoken longings for each other from either side of the Atlantic.

Long story short, be it fate or an exasperating result of snail mail, she and Warren eventually ended up together when she moved to London. They were engaged three months later. “We just knew,” says Warren.

While there’s no more skateboarding as far as Virginia is concerned, there’s a lot of energy in the couple’s 1862 villa in central New Plymouth. The pair has two grown children, Clementine and Nelson, and have settled into the ebb and flow of empty nesthood. Virginia and Warren’s “off time” includes lining up interviews and getting lost in playlists in preparation for their various shows on The Most FM.

Warren walks to West End Primary, wears Hawaiian shirts to school, and refuses to teach the same way year after year. Like crafting a great margarita, his teaching style calls for shaking things up — not idly stirring. “One year, we had taken apart an old DVD player to see what was inside it. And then I wondered what would happen if I threw it off the roof. Like, how indestructible is it?” he says.

Inside the couple’s library is 33 years worth of Kiwi fiction, non-fiction and poetry books, not to mention CDs, records and a newly purchased turntable.

After gaining appropriate permissions, he chucked the DVD player off the roof as his students anticipated its destruction with glee. (Turns out it required two rooftop tosses and a sledgehammer to boot). “Sometimes the educational value of a lesson is enjoyment, though often you learn something along the way,” he says.

Tap, tap, tap. It’s 7am, and Virginia is at her desk in her pyjamas, dreaming up words to type on one of her favourite things — a blank document. In her career as a reporter and feature writer, she has written about politics, gardens, artists, and just about everything under this Antipodean sun. So, what’s one more metaphorical hat for this hat-lover to wear?

Over the years, Virginia has tutored journalism at Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki. She can’t recall how she ended up as the Centuria Taranaki Garden Festival publicist for seven years and counting. “Someone must have asked me,” she says. “I say yes to everything.”

But even Virginia knows there’s a limit to how full a glass, cupboard, or workday can get. In 2006, while working up to 80 hours a week with freelance gigs and full-time work, she was rendered speechless following a phone interview: she hadn’t comprehended a word of it.

“I completely burned out,” she says. She was admitted to a mental health ward, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and then convinced the psychiatrist she did not have bipolar at all. It wasn’t for another five years, living in a cyclical limbo with bouts of euphoria and depression, that she accepted her diagnosis. “You can’t get treatment unless you accept something.”

Virginia loves telling stories. But her own was not easy to write or share. In 2018, Stuff published her account of living with bipolar and surviving the darkness that she hopes others can learn from. It is the piece she’s most proud of in her 40-year career. “I had two people tell me the article saved their life. One would’ve been enough,” she says.

Virginia got her first tattoo after writing the Stuff article in 2018. The old adage “This Too Shall Pass” serves as a constant reminder. 

These are powerful words from a woman who applies maximalism to most things she does. “More is more” is an ethos that she and Warren extend not only to chilli sauces, Star Wars garden figurines and stacks of CDs but also to new experiences and lessons they are eager to learn. How can one add more spice to this already chocka life? “Learning, people, and stories,” says Virginia.

“Stories are the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning — the next story, the next one, and the next one. It keeps me going. Well, and I think I might like the adrenaline, too.”

Warren and Virginia usually host shows on The Most FM separately, except for Saturday’s Brunch session from 9am to midday, which they present together every fortnight.SOUNDTRACK TO OUR LIFE

As music-lovers and volunteer hosts at The Most FM, Virginia and Warren are always on the hunt for fresh tunes. They host four shows across the
week between the two of them, the longest-running being Warren’s NZ On Air Kiwiana Show, which he’s hosted since 2008. The pair’s own soundtrack would include:

New Zealand Love Song by the Netherworld Dancing Toys. The 1984 tune is Virginia and Warren’s love song.

Talkin’ Bout a Revolution by Tracy Chapman. “We fell in love in London during the summer of 1988 when Tracy Chapman was huge and was played everywhere, including on our Sony Walkman cassette players. This song expresses our strong beliefs about standing up against social injustice,” says Virginia.

Stay Human (All the Freaky People) by Michael Franti & Spearhead. “It’s about inclusiveness, being different, celebrating people and giving thanks For being human every morning. We used to have a bumper sticker with the lyric, ‘All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.’”

I am a Rabbit by Proud Scum. “Punk, like rap, is important as it allows everyday people to question the establishment. This song is fun and great for dancing — Warren loves to pogo.”

In the Neighbourhood by Sisters Underground. The infectious song was around while Virginia was pregnant; Pacific hip-hop became the soundtrack to their children growing up.

Bounce by Emma Dilemma. “This song is about keeping parts of our relationship strong as we grow old together.”

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