The enduring influence of a 1960s Maori beauty queen

A new play with a distinctly Māori female voice is based on one of the first Māori women to become Miss New Zealand. So, how did a pageant queen inspire its director?

It’s 1962. James Meredith becomes the first black student to enrol in an American university. Marilyn Monroe sings happy birthday to John F. Kennedy. And back home, Maureen Kingi is crowned Miss New Zealand, the second-ever Māori woman to achieve this.

Fast forward 51 years to 2013, and a young woman sits watching television, on a break from rehearsals at The Court Theatre in Christchurch. A story comes on, saying Maureen Waaka (Maureen Kingi, before she married) has died. A stroke, aged 70. It hits home, as writer and actor Cian Elyse Waitī hails from Waaka’s hometown of Rotorua. Not only did the death shake her, it shook her and Waaka’s iwi – Te Arawa. In that moment of loss, Waitī’s inspiration for the new play Te Puhi was born. Translating to ‘the princess’, it’s a fictionalisation of Waaka’s story, a play about a Māori woman called Te Puhi Johnson who wins a Miss New Zealand pageant and goes on to explore the complexities of success in a colonial framework.

It’s raining the day I meet Waitī. She bustles into Auckland Theatre Company’s Dominion Road rehearsal space balancing homemade soup and bread for the play’s cast, who have all come down with various change-of-season viruses. The cast of Te Puhi, directed by Te Kohe Tuhaka (who starred in 2016’s Mahana and 2014’s The Dead Lands), trickle in from the torrent outside, ready for their first week of rehearsals. Coats come off, 1960s dresses and tuxedos come on, and potent garlic-infused tea is sipped throughout the room.

All members of the production are Māori except one, and the play’s strongest characters are female. This female presence is a deliberate move by Waitī, stemming from her concern about the lack of female roles in theatre – especially roles for Māori wāhine. She drew inspiration from the achievements of Waaka – particularly the way in which she used her pageant win back in 1962 to promote her personal political and societal views – and also the women in her own whānau, using the play as a vehicle for a distinctly Māori female voice. “She was a councillor on the district council in Rotorua when she passed away,” Waitī says of Waaka. “She used her platform as Miss New Zealand to uplift the Māori voice, to kind of be an ambassador for our people, so I was like, ‘that’s dope, I wanna write a play about that’.”

Te Puhi is set in 1962, a time director Tuhaka reflects on as the “golden age”. “To me, it was endless summers,” he says. “I’m not a 1960s baby but I grew up towards the end of a golden era. I grew up in that generation where everyone slept on a trampoline in the summer, you didn’t have to lock your house, you could leave your car open.” The premise of the play follows the character Te Puhi [played by Taupunakohe Tocker] as she leaves behind her upbringing of concert parties, kapa haka practices and community living for the foreign world of beauty pageantry. Miss New Zealand is something Tocker believes was an important venture for Māori, making their mark in a Western framework. “I think in that time for Māori, especially what was happening in New Zealand, there was a lot of mana in doing that for yourself, for your people, for your country,” she says.

To be a Māori woman representing an ideal standard of New Zealand beauty was no easy feat. Waaka was strategic, Waitī attests: “Maureen was a firm believer in the revival of te reo Māori and keeping it alive, and in 1962 it was such a time to speak out about that, when the colonisation strategies were being implemented by the government were so strong – you were strapped if you spoke the language at school, and they were trying to send our men out to the cities to work in factories and bleed out our bloodlines.

For Te Puhi’s character, the honour and money she would bring her family by winning a pageant would further the Rotorua family’s concert party business (performing kapa haka, poi dancing and singing at events). The play is a constant seesaw between Māori and Pākehā worlds, evident particularly when Te Puhi practises her pageantry speech. “Kia ora e te iwi, ko matawhaura te maunga,” she begins. “No… too Māori!” says her sister, Hine (played by Roimata Fox). She continues: “Hello there, my name is Te…” she begins. “E kāo!” interjects Hine, again. “Too Pākehā,” she stresses. Waitī’s dialogue is inspired by Waaka. “The great thing about Maureen was, her mother was full Caucasian and her father’s full Māori, so she walked quite comfortably in both worlds,” she says. “So that’s why she was such a wonderful ambassadress for our people, because she was highly educated, she had the top marks in radiography in Australasia, she was articulate, she was academic and she was also a puhi.”

Tocker delivers the role of Te Puhi effortlessly, and with grace. “In the 1960s it was a simpler time,” she says. “Pageants were smaller-scale, and if you look at how the women held themselves, it was very elegantly. These modern-day pageants seem a little more sexualised. All you have to do is watch music videos and you’ll see how times have changed.” There’s also an innocence to her character, emphasised with cheeky smiles and playful dialogue. At one point, Te Puhi chimes: “Little Māori girls from Mourea don’t wear tiaras, Hine, we wear heru (combs)! And that is perfectly ka pai by me!”

The 1960s were also a time where chivalry was far from dead, a key theme in the play that Tuhaka speaks about wistfully. “The idea of courting doesn’t exist anymore. This younger generation have no idea what courting is,” he says. “They just think hook-ups. It’s about the sexual ending, whereas in the 1960s it was genuinely a man’s job to really seek out the permission of a female that they could court and the whole sense of great conversation, those first moments of touch, the genuine love and attraction you would physically show.” The love in Te Puhi is not only evident between family members, but palpable between Te Puhi and her boyfriend Rākei [played by Eds Eramiha]. “When she leaves after the pageant and then returns, she’s a woman, no longer a girl, and he’s a man,” says Tuhaka. “So we see this energy shift a little bit but the attraction still remains.”

Furthermore, Te Puhi presents the question of what success means in a Māori context. Waitī comes from the same iwi as Waaka, Te Arawa, which is a community whose livelihood depended on the entertainment and tourism industries. “It has been since the 1800s,” she says. “Since we had the pink and white terraces, we were the wealthiest iwi and we were entrepreneurial with our ability to entertain.” Waitī struggled with balancing her cultural heritage with her successful acting career. She moved away from her papakāinga into the commercial world of television, theatre and performing arts. “When I’d come home after travelling the world, I’d see my cousins had families, they had businesses, they were looking after the home fires, and I was away doing awesome things which on a performing arts platform is successful, but at home I wondered what I was contributing.”

Waitī hopes the play will raise questions and fuel conversations about the fine balance between honouring heritage and championing progressiveness. She says the perspective of the small-town community needs to change, too. “Let’s support the young people with what they do, but always support them to come home, too.” In this thought, she draws on Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist. “It’s that whole thing that he leaves to find his treasures and then he comes full circle, gets all the riches in the world, becomes famous, then comes home and realises that his happiness was always with his sheep,”  she smiles.


Throwing it back

Maureen Waaka and Moana Whaanga: the first Māori Miss New Zealands

When Maureen Waaka (nee Kingi), pictured above, died in 2013, it was widely reported that she was the first Māori wahine to win the coveted Miss New Zealand title. To this day, a number of internet searches present no arguments that Waaka was indeed the first, and if you weren’t in the know, you may never stumble across the name of Moana Whaanga (nee Manley), pictured top left. 

Whaanga was, in fact, the first Māori Miss New Zealand, crowned in Auckland in 1954. The keen swimmer and – like Waaka – Te Arawa woman preceded the second Māori recipient of the Miss New Zealand title by eight years, but is largely uncelebrated, due to the lack of media surrounding the competition at the time. “It wasn’t as televised or advertised in the 1950s,” says Waitī. “1962 was when magazines, the paper, Women’s Weekly, would serve the population.”

Whaanga initially entered the Miss Auckland competition to help raise money for the Auckland Swimming Club, with which she played an active part. After winning Miss New Zealand, she travelled to Long Beach, California to participate in Miss Universe. After this short-lived foray into the spotlight, Whaanga’s successes in the beauty pageant became all-but-forgotten to the rest of New Zealand. In a Mana magazine online article, Whaanga’s son, Mel, maintains that despite the confusion, Waaka and Whaanga remained good friends throughout their lives and in the Rotorua community. “It didn’t bother Mum one little bit. We were a quiet family and Mum would always say, ‘Kei te pai. Maureen is our whānau’.”


Te Puhi premieres at Māngere Arts Centre, Thu 8–Sat 10 Jun and shows at Herald Theatre, Mon 12–Sat 17 Jun