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‘Pandora’s Box’ of balloon art

Those who have followed Paul Bates’ career over the last few decades will know he’s a dab hand at balloon artistry – and have probably taken home several of his latex flower arrangements or Disney princess figures.

From next week, fans will get to see Bates – Zappo the Magician to his legions of young supporters – take “balloon-twisting to the next level”: Making life-size sculptures, weaving balloons “like flax”, and filling an entire wall with balloon adornments.

The Greytown local is one of seven Kiwi balloon artists to appear on Blow Up – a new reality competition show broadcasting on Channel Three from April 17.

Blow Up, originally created in The Netherlands and adapted by Screentime New Zealand, will see the seven competitors square off against one another – vying to impress the judging panel with their giant creations. The more elaborate, intricate and fanciful, the better.

The winner of the first series, presented by actor/broadcaster Jacquie Brown and judged by US-based balloon sculptor Dave Brenn, will take home a cash prize of $25,000 and the title of “Aotearoa’s best balloon artist”.

Bates, who was approached to audition for the show last year, is no stranger to life in front of an audience – due to celebrate his 30th anniversary as a children’s magician next year.

As Zappo, he is best known for his black and orange costuming, high-energy magic shows aboard the Interislander Ferry, educational messages featuring a cast of puppets and, naturally, balloon-twisting.

A third-generation magician, Bates estimates he made his first balloon animal at age 13, using “some basic instructions from one of [his] Dad’s old books”. Even after years of perfecting his craft, he believes he has improved the most in the few weeks he spent filming Blow Up.

He was reluctant to give away any spoilers from the show – but promised viewers were in for a pleasant surprise.

“I think people who are used to seeing me make a dog with three balloons will be blown away. Everything we’re doing is huge – we’re not using one swan balloon; we’re using several hundred,” he said.

“In a short time, I’ve come back with a huge new skill set – all this knowledge which would take several years and thousands of dollars to learn.

“It’s been like opening a Pandora’s Box. I’ve learned all these new techniques – I’ve learned to sculpt with balloons inside balloons, I’ve learned how to weave balloons like flax, I’ve learned how to use an air compressor after using a hand pump for the last 25 years.

“We got to work with different kinds of balloons I’d never come across before – we were like kids at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

“It was a great experience – and a brilliant way to grow as a balloon artist.”

Bates was born in Leicester in England, but grew up in Whanganui – where his father Ken Bates [aka The Magic Man] performed as a comedic magician. His paternal grandfather, “Granddad Fred’’, also worked as a children’s magician in the UK.

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After working as a fashion model, flight attendant and fitness instructor, Bates created his Zappo character in 1994, and began hosting regular children’s shows throughout the North Island.

In 2015, he was named Children’s Entertainer of the Year by the Variety Artists Club of Zealand and, in 2019, received the title of Grand Master of Magic by the Brotherhood of Auckland Magicians.

As a children’s entertainer, Bates said, one needs a constant supply of energy – though the Blow Up challenges required a whole new level of mental and physical fortitude.

“The individual challenges were hours and hours of work. It is a real pressure cooker environment – there’s a lot to get done, and you have to finish exactly on time,” he said.

“If something doesn’t look right, or the tension in your balloons is off, you start over from the beginning. Plus, you’ve got cameras recording your every move.

“All that twisting was tough on our hands as well. The producers brought in a hand therapist to do massages and teach us some exercises, which was wonderful.”

Though his time on the show had “ups and downs”, Bates said he wasn’t fazed by the competitive environment. After all, working with children, he’s used to being judged.

“Children are very honest – you know where you stand with them. They’ll let you know if they’re not keen on something!

“You get pretty big shoulders in this industry. As Dad would say, ‘you’re only as good as your last show’. You want to keep growing – so you take criticism as another opportunity to improve.

“There’s nothing worse than hearing someone say after a show, ‘oh, that was quite good. What does ‘quite good’ mean? How can I do better?

“There are tough days – but you learn to suck it up, get on with the job, and do your best.”

Bates is aware of the criticism surrounding Blow Up from environmental advocates – however, he was quick to point out producers aimed to reduce as much waste as possible.

“We use latex balloons, which are compostable. No balloon waste went to landfill.”

He also warned viewers on the hunt for reality TV drama may be disappointed.

“Reality TV can be a bit bitchy – but everyone in the cast got along really well. It was a very positive environment.

“I’ve always found the balloon-twisting culture in New Zealand to be very caring and encouraging. People genuinely want to help out and bring out the best in you.

“It’s just a fun, family show – a real barrel of laughs.”

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Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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