Mumtok star Lisa Perese-Cullen shares raw and flawed parenting from her home south of Auckland
Before our photographer arrives for the shoot, Lisa Perese-Cullen goes into a cleaning frenzy.
Her mum stops by to help out, and with some gentle ribbing they remove an “ugly assed chair” her mum left at her Pōkeno home six months before, wipe down every surface and hide the family’s folded, stacked laundry in the wardrobe. It leaves her just enough time to do her hair and make up, and compose herself before the visual journalist arrives and the shoot begins.
We don’t normally get to see the pandemonium that ensues before we journos descend on our subjects. But when you’re interviewing one of “mum-toks” rising stars, chances are you’ll get to see the whole kit and kaboodle when she posts it on TikTok, which is exactly what Perese-Cullen did.
“I started posting on TikTok in March last year. I just did it for fun,” says Perese-Cullen later, on the phone from her home in the countryside. “I’ve always been one of those people who scrolled but never posted anything.”
Then she and her partner of 14 years, scaffolder Brandon Cullen, decided to elope in Queenstown. Not wanting their friends and family to miss out on their big day, Perese-Cullen made a vlog, and “chucked it up” on the Tok. She discovered she really enjoyed the process.
“I got home after this magical four days in Queenstown and just kept blogging about normal, everyday life.”
Now Perese-Cullen (Ngāti Awa, Samoa) has more than 300,000 followers on the micro-vlogging site, and her short, funny, honest clips about caring for her family and home, and running her small underwear business Harper James, have garnered more than 15 million views.
Brandon, her mum, grandad and kids, “toddler”, 4 and “eldest”, 9 – she asked for them not to be named, to protect their privacy – have regular little cameos in her clips, the voice-overs for which she often says reflect her intrusive thoughts.
She and Brandon have a long, deep history. The couple, who got together when they were teenagers, built a full life together before thinking about tying the knot. In the vlogs he’s her “failed one-night stand”, “the hubby”, while the kids are, “the winners of the sperm race”, gentle ribbing that’s always ironic and affectionate.
“We kind of did everything backwards to be honest,” says Pere-se-Cullen. “Kids and house first, then got married. We eloped because we both come from rather big families and after building a house and settling down, a big wedding was quite expensive for us.”
They knew they wanted to do something special, however, and since Brandon is “not somebody who likes showing emotion in front of a lot of people”, nipping off to do it privately was a nice compromise.
“Looking back, it was probably the best day for both of us.”
The house they built is a ranch style single level home, with colour steel cladding and a very family-friendly open-plan living-dining-kitchen room that’s the heart of the home.
The room opens via ranch-sliders onto views of rolling countryside. Perese-Cullen often shares clips of family gatherings and outdoor movie nights on the deck, as well as washing lines billowing with clothes, and her kids chasing the family dog over the large lawn.
An “Aucklander through and through”, it was her mum who moved to the countryside first, buying a large piece of land. Now, Mum’s house is “about 100 metres away” from Perese-Cullen’s.
“We were in the process of buying a house in Auckland, but at the time it was hard to get what we needed as a family of four with a dog. What we could afford didn’t match our lifestyle.
“Mum had this big plot of land, so it worked out for all of us that we ended up building here and shifting our life into the country, which we always wanted to do anyway. We feel very lucky that it just fell into place and happened quite organically.”
Perese-Cullen had some input into the design phase of their home build. She wanted to make sure they had lots of views of “our land”. That meant lots of windows, lots of natural light and good indoor, outdoor flow.
They spend a lot more time outdoors because of that, which the kids “absolutely love”.
“We have like a lot of family functions here because we have the space, and that’s probably the best thing that’s come from the house.”
That extra space has also meant she’s been able to start and grow her small underwear business, Harper James. A “one-man band”, Perese-Cullen deals with all the orders herself, from the family garage.
She started the brand when she tried going back to underwired bras after having her babies. Talking to other women at the same stage of life, she realised they were all “running around in sports bras”, which were comfortable, “but they were also quite ugly”.
She designed a set of undies that are feminine, but functional, with women like her mum, who was a prison officer, step-mum who was in the military, and her aunties, in mind.
“They’re not small women. They’re all very loud and very proud and on the bigger side, so anytime I make a product I keep all of those women in my life in mind.”
Her TikTok’s popularity has definitely helped her brand, but it’s not the main driver behind her vlogging.
“I think people really appreciate the authenticity of it, just seeing the everyday life, but a little bit comedic,” she says.
“I keep in mind that online can be a very strange place. When it comes to parenting, people do appreciate the raw and the authentic, but they often don’t accept the fact that it comes with flaws and mistakes.”
There are times when she’s had to consider carefully what to “put out there” – not by portraying a fake life, but by “censoring yourself to protect yourself”.
While she can turn a blind eye to trolls, it’s sometimes hard when they get personal. Especially when they provoke protective maternal instincts.
“I’ve had to have conversations with my mum. Oh, my gosh, it’s hilarious. I’ve had to tell her stop fighting [online], because she looks at the comments like a mother, and she’s very protective over me. So she’s had to learn to just pull back.”
Beyond the odd troll, Tiktok has been an intensely positive experience, however. She gets recognised a lot, and those interactions have been wonderful.
“I even got stopped in Sydney the other day, a couple of times, that blew my mind.
“It’s like any job, there are downsides, but the benefits have definitely outweighed those. You just have to start. Over time, you figure out your own niche and what feels natural to you. But you have start first and you’ll figure it out.”