Life's rich pageant: How a Maori Miss NZ inspired TV star's new play

by Russell Baillie / 12 June, 2017

Karen Waaka-Tibble and Cian Elyse Waiti.

Cian Elyse Waiti's hometown drama about a 1960s Rotorua beauty queen has been four years in the making.

On stage and on screen, Maori pop culture continues to examine and celebrate its rich, occasionally kitsch, past. In recent years, there have been the show band tributes of the play Raising the Titanics and vocal group the Modern Maori Quartet.

Last year’s movie Poi E: The Story of Our Song was a reminder of how Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club blended traditional waiata with 80s pop.

And now, in time for Matariki, arrives new play Te Puhi. Its story takes us back to the golden age of Rotovegas and an era when becoming Miss New Zealand made you world famous in Aotearoa.

The play starts in 1962, when Te Puhi Johnson is crowned the first Maori Miss New Zealand. She uses the talents she’s honed in her Rotorua family’s tourist-entertaining kapa haka group to become a successful singer in London’s West End. But five years on, her whanau, who include her older sister Hine, need her to come home.

It is written and produced by Cian Elyse Waiti, who started work on the script before she became a fixture on the Oz-NZ television series 800 Words as waitress-surfer Hannah.

As someone who graduated from Toi Whakaari in 2009, Waiti is too young to remember the 1960s. But her inspiration sprang from her Rotorua upbringing. And especially from her respect for her aunt Keita White (Miss Rotorua 1968), who helped raise her, and for Maureen Waaka (nee Kingi), who was crowned Miss New Zealand in 1962. The first Maori Miss New Zealand was Moana Whaanga (nee Manley) in 1954, who was a second cousin of Waaka’s.

Waaka’s title sent her to the United States for the Miss International contest where, according to the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, she gave little plastic tikis to her 51 fellow competitors and met Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara on a studio visit, but came away nonplussed by Hollywood.

Maureen Kingi, Miss NZ in 1962.

On returning home, Waaka would go on to complete her radiography training, marry, have five kids and become a Rotorua district councillor who served until her death in 2013.

That year, Waiti was doing a play in Christchurch and feeling homesick when she saw a Maori Television tribute to Waaka, whom she fondly remembered as a regal figure attending her high school productions. “I felt absolutely at home and in that moment I believe it was my tupuna saying to me, ‘Have the courage to write something. Just do it.’”

She posted a photo of Maureen on Facebook, saying she wanted to write a play about her. Among those who saw the post was Waaka’s daughter, television producer Karen Waaka-Tibble, who messaged Waiti, curious about her intentions but supportive of the idea.

Four years, many script drafts and funding applications and hours of research later, Waiti and Waaka-Tibble are sitting at the Auckland Theatre Company as the cast rehearse with director Te Kohe Tuhaka in a room next door. The finished script of Te Puhi isn’t the Maureen Waaka story. “That’s not my story to tell,” says Waiti. Nor is it particularly about the pre-feminist era of beauty pageants.

But it is, says Waiti, about definitions of success and how beauty queens such as Maureen were ambassadors for Maoridom. “These were intelligent, gracious women – they weren’t just poster girls,” says Waaka-Tibble.

Nostalgia aside, the play has a political undercurrent, says Waiti. The background grind of the local timber mill represents colonisation, for example. So does the only Pakeha character, Te Puhi’s elocution teacher, Judith.

But it is designed to be a feel-good work, not more “theatre of the oppressed”. “Being in my twenties, writing a play, I wanted to create a piece where rangatahi are proud of being Maori, where we are uplifted, where people go, ‘That’s right. It wasn’t just a time of oppression for our people.’

“I wanted to do a piece where we didn’t blame Pakeha. This is a universal story – it’s about sisters and their love for each other, and sometimes we can do horrible things and make horrible decisions, because we are human. It’s all about how we find our way back to that aroha.”

The story of stardom and how it’s dealt with by the folks back home may parallel Waiti’s own life, especially since the success of 800 Words, which has just finished filming its third season.

“I am not sure about autobiographical,” she says. “I went away to drama school when I was 17 and I came back to Rotorua and I was pretty chuffed with myself. It was awesome – I was going to the same drama school as these veteran actors.

“But I would come home and I would see my cousin, who was the same age as me, and she had a bub on her hip, she had the whole kitchen sorted, she had our kuia and koroua looked after. She owned a house, and to be honest, I was, ‘What am I up to?’

“So there are definite aspects of this in my personal journey of wondering what is the balance? How can I shoot for the moon but also represent our people and come home?”

Te Puhi is at the Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, from June 12-17.

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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