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“I don’t change,” considers Dave Letele. “But I can be in a boardroom, or I can be at a gang funeral. I can be in both worlds, and we have [his organisation] got credibility in both.”
Businessman to gangster, accountant to footy star, boxer to Samaritan: at just 42, Letele has lived many lives. “I can relate to so many people because I’ve been at the bottom and the top, and everything in between.”
But it’s all contributed to where he is now, he reckons: a relentless, remarkable force for good, whose charitable empire runs to a foodbank, two community gyms, a community kitchen, a classroom, mobile vaccination drives, a training app and health and fitness classes for everyone from at-risk youth to overweight elders.
The pivotal moment which sent Letele down the right path when he could have stayed down the wrong one was, most likely, in February 2014, when his former Selwyn College classmate, sports promoter David Higgins, decided to have a small school reunion at the inaugural NRL Nines event he was promoting at Eden Park.
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Higgins found Letele living in country Australia at his lowest ebb: no passport, no money, and so out of shape he couldn’t fit into an economy class seat. A disbelieving Higgins sent money for emergency papers and a business class ticket.
“He picked me up and said ‘f…’,” recalls Letele. “He didn’t realise how fat I had got, how bad the condition I was in. He’d got a new Audi and he was worried I’d break his car. But he soon realised it wasn’t just physical, but mental.”
Letele, who does self-deprecating well, talks about taking copious quantities of drugs in the toilets and refusing to leave the air-conditioning of the executive suite because he was so unfit. That night, as he walked drunkenly around the after-party with a bottle of wine in his fist, Higgins accosted him: if he went back to Australia, he would end up dead or jailed. But if Letele came home, he would organise everything.
Five years later, Dave Letele would walk down the tunnel at that same stadium to lead the World’s Biggest Bootcamp, a record-breaking exercise class for 2000 people. A blown-up photo of that day is pasted to his office wall, a constant reminder of both nadir and the zenith.
“He ticked every box to go down the wrong path, but he didn’t,” says Higgins. “He really is a walking miracle. And that’s because of his massive strength of character.
“Yes, I’ve helped him, but he’s not only helped himself, he has inspired thousands of others and paid it forward. He ended up with a cult following of people marginalised or forgotten.
“Right now, there are numerous people who can say he saved their lives. He’s having a massive impact and making a difference in the world.”
‘Everything is warped’
When Dave Letele was five years old, his father David, president of the Auckland Mongrel Mob, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for armed robbery (he served seven). “All I remember now is panic: mum coming home, panicked, cursing, and scared.” Letele recalls rubbing slime in his hair to try and lighten the mood. “It just brings back so much sadness,” he says, his voice dropping away.
Letele’s father was made a state ward at nine after burning down part of his primary school and his mother had been an abused street kid. But his grandparents were strict Seventh Day Adventists, and while David Sr and another brother, Lei, turned to crime, a third, Ian, became a high-flying businessman, chief executive of DFS and then Restaurant Brands. Letele’s family even briefly lived in Ian’s Paritai Dr mansion.
He was, he says, mainly insulated from the gang life, and while his father was in jail, Letele and his sister Vicki were sent to live with their grandparents in Australia.
“We didn’t,” explains Letele, as an aside, “come from generations of f…..-upness. But some of the people we see, it would be a miracle if they make it out, a miracle. We try to be that hope.
“At least they can see this guy has come from what they’ve come from, and it is possible. Don’t let where you come from, or the colour of your skin or where your parents are from as an excuse, use it as fuel. But it is hard bro, it’s f…… hard.”
His father and uncle later reformed, founding the Grace Foundation, a charity working with the marginalised, including former prisoners. But by then they had hugely shaped Letele’s future. Asked about his father, he says: “The relationship is… not as strong as it could be. We’ve got a lot of unresolved stuff.”
Letele came back to New Zealand at 11. At Selwyn, he captained the school’s champion league team and played for New Zealand Schools, but wasn’t really a jock, recalls Higgins. “He was a bit of a geek. He didn’t have time to hang with the d…heads. He was a friendly, lovely guy, but serious about school and leadership.”
Letele initially followed uncle Ian’s path, studying accountancy at Auckland University. Then, when he was 21, his father was convicted for commercial cultivation of marijuana. “The big difference… was I fully understood the repercussions.”
And now Letele modelled himself on uncle Lei, even copying his tattoos. Lei was serving nine years for an armed hold-up of a security van (and had time added on once inside). Letele recalls as a teenager visiting him on family days at Paremoremo where guards (who would also visit his home for drug supplies) and other families would press wads of cash on him.
Then he tells me about the warehouse where his father stashed ‘taxed’ classic cars and a cousin died by suicide . “Everything is f…… warped, and you think it is OK, you think it is normal,” he says.
He quit university and work, moved into a Mangere tinny house and became, by his own account, a fairly unsuccessful drug dealer and standover man, while drinking, taking drugs and fighting on weekends and watching his weight balloon. After one party and another brawl, he stabbed himself in the chest with a steak knife. His father arrived in hospital, accompanied by two prison guards, and he refused to see him.
Ian Letele shifted Dave to Australia again, where a year working as a roofer got him fit and reignited a teenage dream of being an NRL player which had foundered when he suffered a catastrophic knee injury.
He played in the national competition for Manurewa, was picked for New Zealand ‘A’ (but ruled out by more injury problems) and picked up contracts with the North Sydney Bears, AS Carcassonne in France, and had a pre-season with Manly as well as several seasons with a bush team, Cootamundra Bulldogs in country New South Wales. That contract came with a day job as a supermarket storeman; he rose from storeman to accountant, to floor manager, to store manager, to owner.
“You’d think that’s the happy ending,” he says wryly. Instead, he over-stretched to a second store, which went bust. He pauses. “I don’t like talking about it much because I f….. it up badly. I really f….. it up. I let people down.”
He doesn’t go into detail, but descending back into a life of crime cost him the relationship with the mother of his eldest three boys, which was, he says, “entirely my fault”. It’s about then that David Higgins fortuitously re-entered his life.
The road back
Redemption was not immediate, but the road back began on a mattress in a sleepout at a community home in Clendon, south Auckland.
A worried Higgins barely left Letele alone. Two months after the Eden Park epiphany, Higgins, who manages the professional boxer Joseph Parker, was due at a Parker fight in Germany.
He offered to take Letele along, but he wasn’t paying for business class again. Letele began walking twice a day, dieting and dropped enough weight to make the flight in economy.
He still stood out. At the pre-fight weigh-in, the organisers called Letele to the stage. “They had never seen a f…… large Islander with shaved head, tattoos, they wanted to see what I weighed: they dragged me through the crowd like an elephant by the trunk,” he says.
“I wanted to know what I weighed: I always got on the scale and I got ‘error’. I was 178 kilograms. Everyone was shocked at how fat I was, but I was so happy: I knew I had been well over 200kg. So I start going ‘f… yeah, I am the toughest man in the world, I can beat anyone’: the stereotypical stuff you see on YouTube or a movie. And Dave went: that’s what you’re going to do. You’re the next circus act. They’d had celebrities, they’d had dwarves: I was the next dwarf.”
And so was born the Brown Buttabean (the name came from Higgins’ twin brother Andrew, who drew a mocking comparison to the novelty American boxer Eric ‘Butterbean’ Esch).
Buttabean was a comic-book heel: a crowd-baiting, dirty-fighting, sneering rogue who filled the spot on the undercard of Higgins’ boxing promotions previously occupied by B-listers and yes, on occasion, little people.
It was a character born of necessity: the fight purses kept Letele afloat and his child support payments fulfilled. And he knew that meant courting notoriety. “Buttabean does whatever he wants, says whatever he wants, only talks about himself in the third person – so I played that in and out of the ring. I understood Joseph Parker was the main event, the rest of us didn’t matter, and the only way to get on the news was to do something stupid.”
When he was due to fight retired rugby player Finau Maka, he talked Maka into an on-stage scuffle at the pre-fight press conference. His instructions were that once they began to wrestle, if nobody intervened, Maka was to start punching. “It took a while for [Parker’s trainer] Kevin Barry to come over, so he’s [Maka] on top and I’m going ‘punch me, f….. punch me’. You’ve got to sell it, you know?”
Higgins insists: “We didn’t push him to play it. He owned it.” The boxing establishment hated the Buttabean, but Letele was rapidly dropping weight and learning the rudiments. The messages of hate became peppered with enquiries from those who wanted to know the secret to his weight loss (“Here’s what I say to people: stop drinking fizzy drinks, go for a walk. That’s the f….. secret right there”) and Letele began posting videos of his weight loss journey.
Phil Tele’a was in both camps. He watched the fights. He was a hater. He wanted “the big fat guy who wanted to beat up the whole world” to get knocked out. But then he also began watching the videos, and then, with his weight touching 295kg, he was hospitalised. He messaged Letele, who replied immediately, inviting Tele’a to a bootcamp. “It didn’t matter what size you were, everyone trained together, everyone encouraged each other, and I realised straight away this was where I wanted to start my journey.
“If you’d asked me where I’d be now, four years ago, I’d say staying at home, locking myself away from the world. I didn’t want to be seen.”
Instead, today he’s taking a turn on the forklift, bringing in a pallet of kilo bags of rice. 150kg lighter, he’s Letele’s delivery driver, warehouseman, and devoted general offsider: “I call him a true brother. I’ve got his back, and he’s got mine.”
An influence for good
These days, it frustrates Letele – who gave the sport away in 2017 – to be called a boxer. He’s also annoyed that the New Zealander of the Year awards, in which he has been shortlisted as Local Hero of the Year for a second time, calls him merely the “founder of a gym-based weightloss programme”.
Letele’s personal journey – in which he dropped over 100kg – translated first into a Facebook group of 5000 followers and then, under the Buttabean Motivation brand, into a vital community service provider in south and west Auckland.
We meet at his foodbank in Wiri, where Letele has signed a three-year lease on a commercial unit and has floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with food.
Each staff member is warmly introduced. Letele tells me the stories of some – reformed meth addict, turned her life around, and so forth. “I want people to have been through the struggle,” he says, as he too jumps on the forklift to pick up a surprise delivery, “because they get it.”
It’s just before Christmas and he’s deep in the planning of an ambitious drive-through Christmas for families in need: a boot full of groceries and presents, Santa, ice-cream, coffee, milkshakes, 40 families an hour. He’d already raised $90,000 to cover it. “I go into these homes. There’s f….. nothing. They’re going to have nothing. So what’s Christmas like for them? It’s going to be s…, … they just want to give their kids something.”
It’s a whirlwind morning. He has, he tells me, accidentally booked four meetings simultaneously, but there’s no sign of a diary.
He takes a call from another Stuff journalist to talk about Pacific healthcare. Then one from a funding agency, where he expertly and gently extracts a $5000 donation. He takes a selfie with a corporate dropping off Christmas gifts. Talks to two blokes from Manurewa Marae doing a drop-off. Fields messages from the desperate. Throughout, he’s honest and direct – he shows me BBM’s food parcels, then a photo of another, far inferior one – “a disgrace” – from another organisation, then also fires up about the distribution of KFC as an inducement to be vaccinated.
His phone sounds off constantly, although by far the busiest channel is his social media accounts. He shows me his Messenger inbox. It’s full of long, heartfelt, heartbreaking notes from women desperately seeking help for their families. He reads one to me: “I never ask for help … I’ve not been able to provide for my kids this Christmas … I can’t bear to see my kids go without Christmas … please, I’m in need of your help.”
He talks about how Covid has worsened the plight of the working poor who earn just above the threshold for any state entitlements. He tells me about one delivery where he met a woman so deep in despair she went to bed every night hoping she wouldn’t wake up.
He carries a huge burden. “It’s worse for my family. They miss out. By the time I get home, I’ve f…… had it, I’ve given everything.” His work personality is effervescent. “You’ve got to be up. Got to be up. It’s not the real me. You wouldn’t ever think of it, I am naturally a very shy person. If I go out I am the one standing in the corner. I hate it, but I have to do it.”
The difference between the character he professes and the one he projects is striking. He answers every question, but some are clearly painful, and I’m struck with a guilt that by asking for prurient slices of his past, I’m just the same as that baying mob in Germany as he sweated on to the scales.
He wants to do this story, and is willing to transact his own life story into publicity, because he understands the BBM movement functions because of its figurehead. “He’s good at leading people, he likes it, and he means well,” says Higgins. “I think he would be a very good political leader. He’s more charismatic than some of the bunch we’ve got in Wellington right now.”
But it comes at a personal cost.
“He looks as if he never gets hurt,” says his best mate, Rob Campbell, who says a strong family base gives Letele stability and an escape. “But he gets hurt quite a lot. He’s incredibly soft… a lot of people lean on Dave a lot. He does carry around a huge responsibility.”
Certainly, it is a sober life now. He no longer drinks or takes drugs, and doesn’t go out on an evening, but home to his wife, Koreen, whom he met ringside in 2014 and he describes as his anchor and his “reason to be happy”, and his four children (his eldest three returned to him from Australia in 2016).
Last week, he says, he was in bed before it was dark outside. His children are all achieving academically. “They will never have to see life the way I saw it,” he says.
Instead of the nightlife, he’s up early, training at 6am and 8am each day. His main friendship group is the bunch of corporate types who do a pre-dawn bootcamp with him near his west Auckland home, a group which includes Campbell, chairman of SkyCity, who describes Letele as “just basically a hell of a good guy”.
“To anyone outside,” says Campbell, “we don’t look alike, but actually, we have some things in common which are important.” Those include, he says, struggles with depression, a shared view on what’s fair, and a direct style of communication. There’s also a shared belief that BBM can expand and scale up parts of their operation nationwide. They’ve just collected $500,000 from the Ministry of Health for longer-term funding of their programmes.
Having seen the bluster of his boxing career, Letele was not the man I was expecting: he’s intelligent, introspective, considered, compassionate. “Some people do say when they first meet me, ‘oh, I thought you were an arsehole; you’re so far from that person’.”
And his is a complex, complicated life to distil into 3000 words. “It’s an interesting story, eh,” smiles Letele, midway through our conversation. “It is a rollercoaster. So many times when you think it would be the happy ending. But I think this is the happy ending now.”