Blow Up: Meet the contestants hoping to twist their way to victory - and $25,000

One of New Zealand's secret obsessions is about to burst onto TV screens this April and with it the passion of seven hopefuls who believe they have what it takes to be Aotearoa's best balloon artist.

For years, balloon artistry may have seemed to be the domain of clowns at kids' birthday parties, but new reality series Blow Up - which debuts on Three and ThreeNow from Monday, April 17 - aims to prove otherwise.

Blow Up's contestants will be pushed to their creative limits as they try to meet challenges laid down by international balloon artist Dave Brenn and co-host Jacquie Brown - as well as the chance to take home $25,000 and the title of series' winner.

While all seven of the competitors have practised their craft for years throughout the motu, each one of them has had their fair share of adversity to face when working with balloons over time.

Sharyn Donn, 41, from Auckland's North Shore said she's had her work cut out on a couple of occasions, but there's one incident that sticks with her as it was just "mortifying".

"I installed an outdoor arch against my better judgement, and despite earlier proclamations, I didn't recommend it. The client still wanted it, and I thought 'well maybe the location is sheltered enough, and there is a good canopy structure to tie it all the way around'.

"However, the wind got in there and I could see the vibrations building up through the line of stacked balloons and one end whipped free, waving at the head of the gentleman opening the ceremony while a large crowd watched," she shared.

Trey Bennett, 34, agreed, saying there have been plenty of moments where the balloons have nearly got the better of him.

"My biggest challenge with doing kids' entertainment is managing the intense overheating and dehydration of my body that comes from performing in costumes. I've had three close calls where I've nearly fainted as Darth Vader, Iron Man and Black Panther but the worst is when I power-vomited at a party in the garden as Iron man due to my body going into survival mode after pushing myself to my absolute limit of heat and dehydration," he laughed.

"I've now made myself put time restriction measures in place for certain costumes to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Nancy Wu, 37, from Auckland, who was brought up in China and Aotearoa, said taking part in the show has allowed her to flex another creative muscle.

"I'm a face painting artist who's quite well known in the face painting industry both in NZ and internationally. Blow Up is my very first balloon-related 'achievement' and I hope to explore more in the wonderful world of balloon art."

For some, the balloon bug bit early on in life - and hard. Otago's Pip Milford-Hughes said she "was about eight when I saw my first Balloon Artist / Twister at the Balclutha A&P show. I was mesmerised," she revealed.

The contestants taking part in Blow Up
The Blow Up contestants - from top to bottom, Jennifer, Nancy, Natalie, Paul, Pip, Sharyn, and Trey. Main image - international balloon artist Dave Brenn and co-host Jacquie Brown. Photo credit: Warner Bros Discovery

"Much to Mum's dismay I spent all my show money on the three animals he was making, and pleaded to buy some uninflated balloons. I went home and untwisted them, and re-twisted, them until I could remake them without thinking of the twists." 

But for 62-year-old Paul Bates from Greytown, the thrill of the balloon twisting comes directly from his target audience - children.

"I get inspired by their imaginations and the balloon creations that they ask for. I was once asked for a petrol pump. Children's imaginations are unlimited and because of this I have created some amazing things over the years."

Jenifer Lo of Auckland is the self-proclaimed "baby of Blow Up", having just celebrated her 21st birthday. But that's not held her back from heading down this path when she was just eight years old.

"We're all part of our family entertainment business Twisted Faces, where we do balloon twisting and face painting! I've grown up being with my family in various professional settings at gigs and things like that. It was fun and seemed so normal; I never really questioned it but I guess my childhood was atypical in that regard. One by one, we all got into doing balloon twisting."

One thing is clear with all the show's contestants - the community they've become part of both locally and globally has helped them form permanent bonds - despite the tantalising would-be wedge of a $25,000 win and the title of New Zealand's first Blow Up winner.

Paraparaumu dweller Natalie Atkinson said she wasn't expecting to have met so many like-minded creatives.

"I am entirely self taught, and for several years after starting to twist I had never met another balloon twister, and I've only met two others to this day. There are some amazing balloon twisters in New Zealand, so being able to connect with them, as well as learn from the incredible international balloon twisters that are part of the show, is just a dream come true for me." 

The Blow Up contestants 

Jennifer Lo, 21, Auckland
Natalie Atkinson, 37, Paraparaumu
Sharyn Donn, 51, Auckland
Trey Bennett, 34, Auckland
Paul Bates, 62, Greytown, South Wairarapa
Pip Milford-Hughes, Otago, Dunedin
Nancy Wu, 37, Auckland

Blow Up premieres on Three and ThreeNow on Monday, April 17.