Splashing in the pool in the Fiji sun, Max Key looks very much in his element. The good-looking son of former Prime Minister John, he has been mocked, abused and labelled a “spoilt little rich kid”, but in an exclusive interview with Woman’s Day, the 21-year-old says he won’t let the haters get him down.
Max - who recently released his third dance track "All The Way" - tells us he dreams of one day being as big as singing superstar Justin Bieber. “I want to be the best in the world,” he says as he shows us snaps from the tropical-themed music video for the song.
“I have always been a bit of a show pony. It’s not that I want fame. I don’t care about walking down the street and being recognised – that’s not what I’m after. I want to play a show and people sing my music back. Or play a show and have people come because they enjoy my music. That’s what matters to me.”
It’s been three months since Max’s dad stepped down as prime minister after eight years in the role and the family is still getting used to their new reality. The announcement came as a huge shock to most New Zealanders – and finance student Max, who still lives at home, admits even he hadn’t been let in on the secret.
“Dad hadn’t actually told me, but it’s really weird – I could just tell that it was about to happen,” he insists. “I guess I’ve known him since I was born, so I can tell when something is brewing. It wasn’t that he didn’t love the job or take huge pride in what he did – it’s just that it was the right time for him to make that step.”
Max has loved spending more time with his dad over the summer and is hopeful a less stressful lifestyle will do wonders for their family. “I’m happiest for Mum because they’ve got such a cool relationship and she’ll get to hang out with him now.”
John might go down in history as one of our most popular leaders ever, but Max is at pains to point out that being prime minister was never an easy gig. “Everything he did made one person happy and one person upset – it’s such a polarising sector. So even if he was like, ‘We’re going to give half the budget to the poor people and get everyone into really nice homes,’ the rich people would be like, ‘Why are you doing that?’
“The reality is that 52% of the nation liked him, but 48% didn’t and that’s a lot of weight on anyone’s shoulders. So after eight years, it will be nice to see him relax a bit more and not get criticised for things that aren’t always fair.”
Max is the first to recognise that his father’s position brought amazing opportunities, but it’s also meant he has copped more than his fair share of criticism. The first real wave of abuse came after he uploaded a video of a lavish Hawaiian holiday in 2015 with his then-girlfriend Amelia Finlayson.
His social media, which is littered with images suggesting a seriously luxurious lifestyle, has also raised people’s ire. “At the start, no-one thought I did anything,” explains Max.
“Everyone was always saying, ‘Get a job!’ I was actually at university, still working, being me ... but it p*ed people off because they thought I sat at home, living off Dad. I’ve been called every name under the sun, but it just drives me to want to work harder.”
He lives at home because, like most students, he can’t afford to move out, he says.“Sometimes you need your parents. They never tell me what to do, but they give me insight and help me out. And they’re both good cooks – Dad loves getting in the kitchen.”
Since John’s December resignation, Max says the family is enjoying a greater sense of freedom and much of the online hate has disappeared. “All the heat has died off,” Max smiles. “I can do stuff now and people can’t be like, ‘Oh, it’s just because your dad is prime minister.’ It is hard when I’ve been sleepless for three months working on something and then everyone says I’ve only done it because of my dad.”
He’s referring to his music. His first song “Paradise” was released in June last year and although it had an incredible two million views online, inevitably, he was accused of relying on his dad to fund it.
Max makes sure to point out his parents haven’t put a cent into his burgeoning career as a DJ. And his latest track, “All the Way”, which was released last month, was also produced with Max’s own funds. The tropical video, where he stars alongside a bikini-clad model, was made thanks to sponsorship from Fiji Airways and Treasure Island Resort.
“Mum and Dad raised us really well. They don’t want us to be trust-fund babies or to just expect anything. They always said you need to work and save your money. I was always making lemonade stands outside the house when I was a kid. I love making money!”
As a teenager, Max worked at McDonald’s for four years. He has also had stints at a bank, a property company and, most recently, Crimson Consulting, where he helps young people gain entry to top US universities.
“I went into McDonald’s thinking it might be a bit urgh, but it was a tightly run operation and the staff was lovely,” he says. “They respected that I was with them working, grinding it out. My parents didn’t force me to get a job, but it looked fun. One thing I really wanted to learn was money management and cash handling. And it definitely taught me customer service.”
While Max’s ripped physique suggests he steers clear of takeaways, he reveals it’s quite the opposite. “I have fast food about four times a week,” he grimaces. “I hate vegetables, I struggle to eat them. KFC’s my go-to. Last night, I had the biggest meal – two burgers, fries, two rolls, potato and gravy. It’s getting embarrassing, I know the people there now!”
Max puts his impressive six-pack down to a fast metabolism and active lifestyle, with six gym sessions and three basketball games a week.
“I’m not self-obsessed or vain, but when everything you do gets criticised, it’s easy to become self-conscious. For me, if I feel like my hair looks good and my body looks good, then I won’t be paranoid about what might be said about me. If you know everyone in a room is staring at you, it’s only natural to not want to be fat.”
Like his artist sister Stephie, 23, Max has always had a creative streak. His interest in music began when he was seven, when he had to choose an instrument to learn at school. He went for the flute because it was the lightest to carry on the train each day.
Max ended up taking lessons for eight years, before learning to play the drums. While his folks never let him get a drum kit at home, a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert with Stephie and mum Bronagh when he was 12 was a pivotal moment.
“We were in the mosh pit and I remember feeling so scared – I was a really little kid hanging on to Mum! It was crazy but amazing. Ever since then, I thought it would be so cool to be on stage and over the years, I worked out that DJing is a passion of mine.”
And Max desperately hopes people will judge his music on its merits, rather than who made it. “I always laugh because even if I put something out that was actually made by amazing DJs like Steve Aoki or the Chainsmokers, I reckon people would still say, ‘Oh, it’s Max Key – this sucks.’”
Max – who has recently teamed up with Netsafe to help tackle cyber-bullying – tells us he’s keen to rework his image, with a move away from “in-your-face wealth”.
“We’re trying to portray me in a different light. When you’re young, it’s easy to portray the wrong image – everyone only puts the best side of their lives up on social media. Everyone wants to look like they’re on holiday all the time or that they drive the best cars.
“I was just like any 18-year-old at the time, trying to do that. Now I realise that I just need to show people who I actually am and what I enjoy doing. Hopefully, they’ll see I’m not as much of a dick as they thought.”
Being a teenager while his dad was prime minister was not always plain sailing, but Max credits John, 55, and Bronagh, 53, for letting him live his life. “It can’t have been an easy balance.”
Over the years, Max has made headlines for his sometimes-outlandish behaviour. He recently posted a video to Snapchat of him yelling at a cyclist from his car window, which earned him a stern talking to from his dad. “That was really silly. I don’t blame anyone but myself for that and I’ve learnt my lesson.”
Growing up, his parents were away a lot and Max admits life could be lonely. The worst time was when Stephie left for Europe when he was 14. “I was really upset when she left – she always gives me s* about crying at the airport! It meant it was just me and Mum at home mostly, which is probably why we’re so close now.”
Max admits that his sister’s decision to leave New Zealand was largely due to the constant scrutiny. Her risqué artworks still make headlines here, but she loves the anonymity of life in France, says Max.
"The whole family gave up a lot. I learnt to live with it, but for my sister, it was tough. She's in a world where she wants to be judged on her art, not who her dad is."
However, Max is quick to acknowledge the incredible privileges that also came their way.
Playing golf with then-US president Barack Obama in 2014 was a “pinch- yourself moment”. And a weekend with the royal family at Balmoral in 2013 was unforgettable.
“They were all so lovely. I still remember seeing them for the first time, just thinking, ‘Whoa, this is so crazy!’ It didn’t feel real. Stephie and I would look at each other and be like, ‘Holy crap, how did this happen?!’”
A blushing Max admits that meeting the Duchess of Cambridge was particularly nerve-wracking. “When I was little, I had a bit of a crush on Kate! She was lovely, very tall and elegant. It was surreal – I was one of the first people to meet Prince George.”
And he confesses that despite a lesson in etiquette before arriving at the Queen’s Scottish estate, he managed to get it wrong. “I freaked out a bit the first time I met the Queen. I used the evening greeting and it was morning. They were so lovely about it, though. They said quite a lot worse has happened. I felt a bit embarrassed!”
Another highlight for Max was going into the All Blacks’ changing room after they had won the Rugby World Cup final in 2011 – a dream come true for a 16-year-old boy.
“The atmosphere was crazy, total jubilation. I get on with a lot of the All Blacks now – they’re all lovely dudes. And lots of them are into music, so we talk about that a bit.”
In April, Max joined his parents on a trip to China, where they had dinner with the prime minister. It was a formative moment, where he realised just how incredible these experiences really were.
“I felt like I was finally old enough to fathom the magnitude of being there in the Imperial Palace in China with some of the most powerful people in the world. I remember coming home and feeling a bit of sadness that I was so young for the other stuff. I have a new perspective on it all now.”
Max says he’s learnt a huge amount from watching his father in action as he dealt with both ordinary Kiwis and VIPs.
“Dad is still really humble and being the prime minister never changed him. He has this ability to make people feel at ease when they’re around him. I’m not saying I’m a celebrity, but sometimes when people meet me, they do get a bit nervous and shaky. I’ve really learned growing up in a political family to try to make people feel welcome.”
While he won't be drawn on his love life, Max admits, "There's a girl I like," and says it's important to him that any future partner is down-to-earth.
"I wouldn't want someone who's too concerned about how their makeup looks all the time. I like natural girls. I am surrounded by a fake world - social media is fake - so at times, I really like just escaping that."
With just a year left of his degree in finance, accounting and property, Max is still working out how he'll juggle the corporate world with his music dreams.
"It's not easy to marry the two," he says. "When you're an artist, you have to make your own rules a bit. I'm not going to break the law, but you need to dress a bit crazy, grow your hair out .. You kind of need to give yourself an image, but in the finance and corporate world, you can't be this crazy kid."
Whatever he ends up doing, there's no doubt Max will continue to make waves. And he just hopes that one day he'll be judged on his talent, rather than his famous dad.
"I want to show New Zealand that I'm not trying to ride on his coat-tails. This is my music - it's what I want to do and I hope it makes people happy."