|ALANNAH CURRIE: ANTI GM||INVESTIGATE: JAN 03|
Led by a former international pop idol, eight thousand people make their feelings heard on the GE debate. CALEB STARRENBERG meets the woman behind the Madge-ness, ALANNAH CURRIE
Former pop icon turned anti genetic-engineering activist Alannah Currie sits behind her desk in a small, inner city abode. The cramped Newton office, overlooking a dirty K-Road back alley, is the last place you might expect to find an MTV phenomenon. However, this musty room is what Alannah proudly calls her headquarters. At least, for the time being anyway.
The third floor office, in which the star of the 1980s synth-pop band The Thompson Twins works, is poorly lit. Two pink sofas, the only other pieces of furniture in the room, help to brighten the space. Matching pink MAdGE campaign posters adorn every wall. Her desk is strewn with magazine articles and press releases. Buried underneath the paper are an old computer and a telephone, on which she is presently talking.
The prominent anti-genetic engineering campaigner is busy organising a planned protest march up Aucklands Queen Street. As she speaks, you cannot help but notice her flair and determination. She excitedly punctuates her phone conversation with erratic hand movements. "Alannah always shoots from the hip, shes so fast-moving, audacious, relentless," says her MAdGE co-worker Ingryd Arvidson.
Alannah, the driving force behind MAdGE, or Mothers Against Genetic Engineering, is dressed completely in black, except for several gold earrings in each ear. Her peroxide white hair provides a stark contrast to her bright red lipstick, suggesting that although she is no longer involved in the music industry, she has not lost a sense of street style.
After hanging up, Alannah moves from her desk to take a seat on one of the pink couches. The mother of two explains MAdGE is a "rapidly growing network of politically non-aligned women who are actively resisting the use of genetically engineered material in our food and on our land."
"Women buy 80% of the groceries in this country, so its sort of showing each other that you actually have great political power when you shop, just simply by choosing one brand over another," she says resolutely.
So how does one go from pioneering musician to fighting the government and the biotech industry from a small one-room office? Although her current status as New Zealands foremost anti-genetic engineering campaigner may seem at odds with her former life as a pop-star, as it turns out, she has never been far removed from the world of activism.
Born in Auckland in 1957, Alannah was the youngest in a family of seven, which included three older brothers and an older sister. Her father was a docker who liked to gamble, drink and fraternise with women. He left when Alannah was five. Alannahs mother, Doreen Currie, was forced to get a job as a nurse aid and brought the family up by herself in a small state house in Mt Roskill.
In An Odd Couple, Rose Rousses biography of the Thompson Twins, Alannahs mother - now deceased - says her daughter always stood up for what she believed in. "She loved school. She was always a leader. For instance shed get the other kids to donate money to buy the teacher a Christmas present. Shed say: He stinks, he needs a clean shirt.."
Alannah admits her taste for activism began young. While attending Mt Roskill Grammar, she campaigned to allow sixth form girls to wear trousers instead of skirts. "We won", she says proudly.
Leaving Auckland at the age of 18 she moved to England to immerse herself in the punk scene. While in England she also became heavily involved in the anti-nuclear and feminist movements. It was in London, she explains with a smile, she joined her first band - an all female ensemble with a suitably punk name that guaranteed little chance of mainstream radio airplay.
"We used to get eggs and blow them out and fill them with black paint and throw them at posters we hated," says Alannah. With a wicked laugh she adds, "My methods have become more sophisticated as I have grown older."
It was also during her time in London that Alannah met her husband, Tom Bailey. Tom was in a band called The Thompson Twins, which took its name from the pair of bumbling detectives in Herges comic book series Adventures of Tintin. Tom says he was immediately fascinated by Alannah. "She played sax, even though she was untrained. She was awful but she was just so driven." He asked Alannah if she would join his band as a percussionist and she agreed.
The Thompson Twins would go on to become one of the most popular synth-pop groups of the 1980s. The pioneering group accomplished massive airplay on MTV and achieved a handful of top 10 US and UK hits including, Hold Me Now, Lay Your Hands on Me, and King for a Day.
Alannah finally moved back to New Zealand in 1992. The Thompson Twins had been unable to successfully expand their synth-pop sound and, consequently, their audience had virtually disappeared by the late 80s. "I came back to New Zealand in 1992 after 16 years of living abroad and touring and by then I had two children, so I came back here to raise my kids," she says.
Alannah, Tom and producer Keith Fernley started another band called Babble, but soon realised they couldnt sign to a major American music label while living in New Zealand. Alannah chose to give up the music business and instead began a two-year apprenticeship as a glass caster. After completing her apprenticeship she set up her own glass-casting studio in Auckland. And then her sister died.
When discussing the death of her sister and her subsequent venture into the realm of anti genetic engineering activism, Alannahs demeanour changes. Her smile fades, her eyes deepen and she pauses to consider her words.
Alannahs sister died suddenly of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in the winter of 2000. Alannah says, "She got her first symptoms at Christmas and died six months later." Because the doctors knew very little about CJD, Alannah began to search the internet for information. She says it was during this research she discovered the relationship between new variant CJD (mad cow disease) and the eating of contaminated beef. This in turn led her into the world of food technology and GE.
Six months after the death of her sister, Professor Arpad Pusztai came to New Zealand to give evidence to the Royal Commission into Genetic Engineering. Alannah attended one of his lectures in Auckland.
"Pusztai is a great English scientist who had done experiments on feeding rats genetically engineered potatoes. I went to Auckland Girls Grammar to a lecture, and heard him talk about the negative effects on the rats immune system. But when he published the results he was completely discredited by the biotech industry, which slandered him. However, his work was peer reviewed and published in New Scientist Magazine."
Alannah left that meeting disturbed, "I had been unwittingly feeding my children food that contained GE ingredients and that was unlabeled. I discovered were all being used as human guinea pigs. So I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion that its a new science, its an experiment and as such it should be contained to safe secure laboratories and not allowed out in the wild."
At that time the royal commission came back with a report, which stated New Zealand should proceed with caution, but could continue field trials. Alannah says she became "motivated by anger and righteous indignation" following that decision. She says "caution" and "GE field trials" are laughable when together in the same sentence, as there is nowhere in the world where GE crops have been sown and not cross pollinated onto neighbouring crops.
Alannah immediately became involved in the movement to persuade the government to confine all genetic experiments to the laboratory, or at least label it clearly so that consumers had a choice whether to buy it or not. She organised a 15,000 strong march up Queen Street. She designed billboards, t-shirts, and thanks to her husbands role as a music producer, she was able to convince high profile celebrities such as Bic Runga, Dave Dobyn and Sam Neil to join the cause.
And then this year Alannah formed MAdGE, funding its establishment out of her own pocket. "I started MAdGE because I realised there was a need for more than just awareness. We needed education and action." She organised a website and put out newsletters and flyers. "We publish the names of those brands that are committed to a GE free policy and we buy from them and boycott the other ones in order to get them all to change."
So does she think MAdGE will succeed in reversing the governments decision to lift the GE moratorium? "Totally, absolutely! Im really committed to this and if the public educate themselves about the issue we will be successful."
Her husband Tom agrees: "In a way she has already been fantastically successful. She has raised awareness of GE issues to an unprecedented level."
However Alannah is realistic about the task she is facing: "Initially I thought this might take six months and then I realised the fight for a nuclear-free New Zealand took seven years, sometimes that gets me depressed".
She admits she hopes the battle against the bio-tech industry is over sooner rather than later. "I would quite like to do something else at another point. I would really like to set MAdGE up so its no longer reliant on me, and its almost getting to that point"
So what does Alannah Currie, pop star sensation turned activist hope to do when and if her war against genetic engineering is won?
"What would I really like to do? Ive still got a glass casting studio, but it has cobwebs all through it. One day Ill get back there when weve won this battle"
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