Phillipa Dann grew up in Auckland. After time at Pakuranga College she gained a Masters in English Literature at Auckland University, then studied acting at NZ Drama School (the predecessor to Toi Whakaari).
After training, Dann won the lead role in an episode of TV series Pioneer Women, playing real-life colonial solo mother Ellen Hewett. She also acted in Daphne and Chloe, a Bruce Mason-scripted TV play about an office love affair. She played “sweet and 20” advertising industry tyro Susan, competing with an older woman for the affections of the message boy (a young Michael Hurst).
While filming Daphne in Dunedin, Dann “door-stopped” Spot On producer Huntly Eliott, and asked for a job. The impromptu audition resulted in what she calls her “first big break”: two years presenting on Dunedin-shot youth show Viewfinder, alongside Uelese Petaia (lead in feature film Sons for the Return Home) and David Hindley.
‘Poi-E’ was topping the charts and Jo the breakdancer was head-spinning in Patea’s main street in the song’s music video. A 1984 Viewfinder assignment saw Dann reporting on “the craze currently sweeping New Zealand — breakdancing”.
Shooting teen-focused stories such as these opened the door to the role that would make her a familiar face to many young Kiwis: a stint as the personably upbeat presenter on music show Shazam!. Screening in a late afternoon slot, the show rode the the wave of the 80s music video boom kicked off by MTV in the US.
Working in the rough and ready world of 80s Kiwi music television, “every curve was a learning curve”. But much fun was had: the interviews, live concerts, studio-shot music videos, international videos and Battle of the Bands contests found a ready audience amongst NZ teens. Along the way Dann memorably interviewed a young Russell Crowe, when the future Gladiator was promoting his band Roman Antix.
In 1986 a dispute between TVNZ and record companies over video payments saw all of TVNZ's music shows parked. Replacing them was True Colours, a short-lived series that featured Kiwi bands in a studio setting. Dann presented in a black wig, alongside Radio with Pictures host Richard Driver.
With immediate prospects for local music shows looking limited, Dann and her director husband Brent Hansen packed their bags. While in the UK Hansen was offered a job as news producer at the fledging European version of MTV. Although the hope was that the gig might pay for the couple’s “Kombi van to go round Europe”, they ended up staying for the long-term in London.
Dann “kept it real” doing various service industry jobs (waitressing, babysitting etc), before landing a gig with MTV Europe as a reserve presenter. This led to full-time work presenting on the channel, fronting slots from MTV News through heavy metal shows, alternative music, live gigs, MTV at the Movies and awards shows. For roughly a decade from the mid 90s, she was a full time VJ for MTV's sister channel VH1.
Meanwhile husband Hansen rose rapidly through the MTV ranks. Ultimately he would head the operation of MTV Networks Europe, which broadcast to more than 130 million households across 43 European territories.
Dann has also done voiceovers for BBC documentary series Wideworld (on an episode about the Australian town of Balgo), BBC Radio One, and electronic press kits for bands. She has written for entertainment magazines, and raised a family in London. The couple maintain close connections with Aotearoa.
'Radio Times 1923 - 2009 - Wideworld' (programme listings for 4 January 1990) Genome website. Accessed 22 September 2015
'Viewfinder - 12 April 1984' (Television Series) Director Frances Weston (TVNZ, 1984)