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800 Words star Cian Elyse White's tribute to Kiwi beauty queens

The actress pays tribute to New Zealand glamour queens in her new play, Te Puhi.

By Sebastian van der Zwan
Cian Elyse White

Growing up in Rotorua in the 1980s, while other kids worshipped pop singers and movie stars, actress Cian Elyse White idolised beauty pageant queens instead.

And a never-ending source of wonder for the 800 Words star were local glamour girls Moana Whaanga (née Manley), the first Maori woman to win Miss New Zealand, Maureen Waaka (née Kingi), the first to be crowned Miss World NZ, and Cian’s own aunt Keita White, who won Miss Rotorua.

“I was in awe of them,” she tells us. “I’m happiest in a T-shirt and shorts – I’d never be brave enough to get up on stage in my bathing suit – but I grew up admiring them. Not necessarily their outer beauty, but their inner strength.

“They were pageant queens who wore glamorous gowns and glittery jewellery, but they were also ambassadors for our people, using their platforms as leverage for their political and social views, and to crusade for our culture and language.

“I still aspire to that. Every day, I think, ‘Would Maureen, Moana and my auntie Keita be proud of the work I’m doing?’ I’d love young people to look up to me like I looked up to these women.”

So when it came time for Cian to write her first play, it was a no-brainer to create a show inspired by the Maori pageant pioneers. “I’m paying homage to the legacy of these beauty queens,” the 28-year-old smiles. “This first outing is a tribute to them because what they did made it possible for me to do what I do today.”

Opening in Auckland next week, Te Puhi tells the tale of a young kapa haka performer in 1960s Rotorua who is thrust on to the national stage after being crowned Miss NZ, only to be faced by personal and cultural challenges.

Maureen (right) was also a radiographer and Moana (left) was a champion swimmer.
Maureen (right) was also a radiographer and Moana (left) was a champion swimmer.
Cian's "gorgeous and intelligent" aunty Keita won the title of Miss Rotorua.
Cian's "gorgeous and intelligent" aunty Keita won the title of Miss Rotorua.

The play is directed by actor Te Kohe Tuhaka, who starred as evil gang member Kingi Te Wake on Shortland Street and also played Cian’s on-stage lover in the Auckland Theatre Company production of Awatea.

As the two dress up in vintage formal wear for our photo shoot, fooling around with a pageant winner’s tiara and sash, Cian giggles, “This is what our nannies and koro would’ve worn.”

Squeezed into a tight pink shirt that he insists is “man salmon”, Te Kohe grins, “It’s like we’re having our ball photos taken all over again!”

But joking aside, Cian tells, “I’m so lucky to have Te Kohe helping to hold it all together. He came in at the last minute, but he’s been such a powerful force. This play might be about beauty queens, but it’s good to have a male presence.”

And Gisborne-born Te Kohe, 35, insists that he can relate to Te Puhi as he also grew up with “strong wahine” as role models. He tells, “My mother was my mum and my dad. I learnt more from her about being a man than I would ever have from my father. It’s about really respecting and listening to women.”

Another strong female in Te Kohe’s life is wife Larissa. The pair shared their Central Otago wedding with Woman’s Day late last year and now they can’t wait to give the actor’s son Phoenix a younger sibling.

“Married life is so beautiful,” enthuses Te Kohe. “It really feels different and I love it. It’s strange to think I wasn’t always married. Now we’re putting in lots of practice for expanding our family as Phoenix is always going on to us about having a little sister. We’re just waiting for the stars to align.”

The write stuff!

Cian reveals she started writing Te Puhi in 2013 and it’s been an “amazing learning journey” for her. She says, “Writing is not my first skill. There were definitely times when I thought about giving up.”

When she was living in Sydney in 2014, a group of friends who were working in the musical The Lion King came over to her apartment to read Cian’s first draft and they weren’t shy about providing criticism.

“I felt horrible,” she recalls. “I thought I was terrible, but I’ve since learnt that you never share your first draft. Luckily, they saw some promise in it and I pushed on. I knew the purpose of what I was doing was more important than my ego and shame.”

Currently filming the third season of 800 Words, which promises a juicy storyline for her character, feisty surfer girl Hannah, Cian almost couldn’t get time away from set to attend Te Puhi’s opening night on June 12. Luckily, she managed to change her schedule and squeeze it in.

“Even though she was busy, I remember Maureen coming to all my school performances because it was her priority to support emerging youth,” recalls Cian. “Similarly, I can’t wait to see the wonderful young Maori women we’ve cast breathe life into these strong, deep roles I’ve written. It’s just so powerful seeing my words fleshed out into a three-dimensional reality.”

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