How Parris Goebel went from high-school dropout to dance superstar

by Clare de Lore / 12 April, 2018
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Parris Goebel. Photo/Tony Nyberg

One of the biggest stars on the international dance stage, Parris Goebel, has learnt to be just as sure-footed in her private life.

Parris Goebel was only 16 when she set herself four ambitious goals. The South Auckland high-school dropout would one day have her own dance school, become an internationally known choreographer, marry, and travel the world. With one exception, it was mission accomplished within four remarkably short years.

The title of Goebel’s recently released autobiography, Young Queen: The Story of a Girl Who Conquered the World, reflects the 26-year-old’s drive and self-belief. Photographed in a fur wrap and with a crown on her head, Goebel is dance royalty, complete with her own “palace”. The book’s cover lists her celebrity clients and friends, including Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bieber and Janet Jackson, and a banner proclaims the 2017 KEA World Class New Zealander Award she received for her contribution to dance. Such is her global appeal that her dance video of Justin Bieber’s Sorry has had 2.9 billion views on YouTube.

Goebel’s father, Brett, whom she describes as “this big white man with bright blue eyes who loves doughnuts”, is a huge influence in her professional life; her mother, LeeAnn, who is of Samoan, Chinese and Scottish descent, holds the fort at home.

Goebel, the adored baby of the close-knit Mormon family, has one brother, Jarek, and sisters Kendal and Narelle. She manages The Palace, her South Auckland dance school, and nurtures its emerging talent, and commutes every second week to Los Angeles to choreograph and direct dance videos.

Goebel struggled at school until her parents agreed she could leave at 15 to chase her foot-tapping dreams. Self-taught, she and her dance groups ReQuest, Sorority, Bubblegum and Royal Family won international hip hop championships year after year.

Her big break came in 2012, when she and a friend, Kyle Hanagami, posted a video on YouTube of their performance of Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind. JLo saw the video and recruited Goebel to choreograph a version of it for her tour, and from that time on, Goebel has never been short of work.

Goebel and Jennifer Lopez. Photo/Goebel

Goebel and Jennifer Lopez. Photo/Goebel

Is it fair to say that had you done well at school, you might not be where you are now?

I took that risk of leaving school and started this work younger and it got me going on my dreams. People often have to go through uni, try different courses, before figuring out what they are really passionate about.

When you talk to young people these days, what do you tell them about school and education?

I don’t talk to kids much about school. I don’t get asked about it, and I neither encourage them to drop out nor encourage them to stay at school. I encourage them to find what is best for them, not for their parents. The sooner you can find your passion, your drive, the quicker you can chase it.

Parris (right) with sisters (from left) Narelle and Kendal and brother Jarek. Photo/Goebel family

Parris (right) with sisters (from left) Narelle and Kendal and brother Jarek. Photo/Goebel family

By the time you were 19, you’d established The Palace and were working all hours, to the point of burnout. How are you managing to avoid that happening again?

I have learnt how to balance life better. At 19, I hadn’t learnt to say no to things, and I thought the harder I worked, the more successful I would get. But success doesn’t mean anything if you don’t feel good inside. You could have a million gold medals, but if you are not taking care of your well-being, it doesn’t feel like success. I started to take breaks, saying no to things I didn’t want to do, and I listened to myself more.

Are you still having fun?

I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t fun any more. I feel like I have done so much, I feel successful already, so there is no point in just ticking things off any more. I do what I want to do, whether it is being part of World Vision or helping kids here in New Zealand.

A young Parris. Photo/Goebel family

What’s your involvement with World Vision?

I am the ambassador for the 40-hour famine and I am going to Uganda next month to visit a refugee camp that cares for people from South Sudan. World Vision wanted me to see it for myself, to see these families who have lost a lot, to see how they live and to have my own testimony to encourage people to sign up.

When you were 16, you set out four life goals. The one you haven’t yet achieved is “get married in the Temple” – is that still in your plans?

I am single now, but doesn’t every kid have that dream to get married and have kids and live happily ever after? Getting married in the Temple means getting married in the church [of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. I grew up very religious and it is important in our church to find companionship. All my siblings are married with kids, so it is still a goal of mine. I am excited that one day I will be a mother and wife, but I understand the responsibilities more than when I wrote that list, and I am taking time for me before dedicating myself to my own family.

What does your religion mean to you now?

I am still trying to find myself, to make sure my spiritual experience is for me. Everything I have been taught in the church has made me who I am – all those standards and all the qualities that I have been taught by my parents have been special.

Goebel and Ariana Grande. Photo/Goebel family

Goebel and Ariana Grande. Photo/Goebel family

South Auckland is a big part of you – where do you see the next Parris getting their start or their inspiration?

A lot of my students at The Palace are from Southside. When they walk in the door, they often don’t have much. It is awesome to see them travel and compete on the world stage knowing where they came from and with so little. I see so much potential in our young people, and it breaks my heart to know that there is so much more we as a country could offer them through the arts. It is constantly on my mind – the talent in our Māori and Pacific Island kids and our Southside kids, but the opportunities aren’t there for them.

What are the barriers for them pursuing careers in hip hop compared with, say, ballet?

Money. The ballet has funding but hip hop doesn’t. We apply for funding wherever we can. DANZ [Dance Aotearoa New Zealand] has been awesome, but in general, there is not money for us. New Zealand is so far away from everything, and we need to get these kids overseas to competitions or to get the right training. It takes six months of fundraising to get to the World Hip Hop Championships. Our sports get so much money; if you are the best at sport you get taken care of. Rugby teams are flown all over the world. We are not only the best in our country but we are the best in the world.

Parris Goebel. Photo/Tony Nyberg

In your book, you write that after being dazzled when you met JLo, you decided you wouldn’t let yourself be star-struck again. Is there no one who could make you feel that way again?

Oprah [Winfrey] – I would drop to the floor if she walked in. She’s my favourite ever. Growing up, I didn’t really watch kids’ TV shows, but I would watch Oprah. She teaches people so much without even knowing the lives she touches.

Who is the greatest dancer or choreography?

Michael Jackson. And have you heard of [1940s and 50s Hollywood dancer] Cyd Charisse? She was gorgeous, incredible. I haven’t seen anyone like her. Even though she didn’t do hip hop, I am in awe. Janet Jackson, too, who I’ve worked with. She has a kind of masculinity to her that I love and take inspiration from. A lot of people say my style is masculine/feminine. Janet is sexy and strong as well. I love that.

With Rihanna. Photo/Goebel family

Where do you think dance will go next?

Dance is the future of music and it is controlling the charts – if a song is going viral in the dance charts, it is going to the top of the music charts. So, for example, if Ed Sheeran makes a song and I and other choreographers teach to it and post a video, then the song will go viral through dance. Everyone watches these dance videos; they get millions of views. The song becomes so much more popular than if it was only on the radio. The music world is beginning to see that dance is how you can really make your song peak. Artists are paying choreographers to use their songs. The cool thing about dance is that no matter where you are from, people love to watch it. It is huge.

If this all ended tomorrow, have you made enough money to live comfortably for the rest of your life?

I live comfortably, but I wouldn’t be able to finish work tomorrow. I want to own a house here in Auckland and I am working towards that. I rent my apartment in LA, I don’t own it. I have the studio and a lot of my money goes towards supporting that. People think I earn a lot of money, but if I didn’t have the studio, I would be a lot wealthier. That is a sacrifice I want to be able to make. There are a lot of random costs that crop up and it has to come out of someone’s pocket. I don’t usually talk about it, but it is part of the way I live.

Parris Goebel. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Will you eventually have to move overseas to keep your career going?

I am not slowing down and, if anything, things are getting more hectic. I have beaten all odds doing it from here. People couldn’t believe I was being booked in preference to local US choreographers, even though I lived in New Zealand. The artists would fly me from New Zealand, put me in a hotel; that is how much they wanted me. I was questioning, “Can I live in New Zealand and work in LA?” And I can. I got my apartment in LA last year because I don’t like staying in hotels, but I never stay in LA if I don’t have to. I come home or travel to places I like better such as London or Paris.

What do you do during your time off?

I am quite a homebody. I live here in Auckland with my sister and my nephews who are aged 7 and 5 and they are my world. We stay up late even when they have to go to school. Being at home in my sweatpants, chillin’ with my family – that is simple happiness.

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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