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How rising actress Paipera Hayes went from foster care to fame

Young trans actress Paipera reveals why her new TV role was destined to be

Up-and-coming star Paipera Hayes says destiny was at play when she scored her lead role in the new Kiwi drama Testify.

Paipera plays transgender podcaster Dana in the gritty TVNZ series – which follows a family at the head of a megachurch and the lies that will tear them apart – and while she often goes by her nickname Stacey, her birth name means “Bible” in te reo Māori.

She adds that she has been able to “bring truths” to her character given her own transitioning experience. Now 20 years old, Paipera transitioned to female when she was just 14.

The journey from childhood to the TV screen hasn’t exactly been a smooth one for this New Plymouth actress. At age eight, she entered foster care, experiencing more than just gender confusion.

“A woman in my street took me in,” shares Paipera, who is of Tainui heritage. “She didn’t like what she saw in terms of the way I was being treated.”

There were many different foster homes over 10 years. Paipera is hazy on the numbers but clear on how they impacted her life.

Being a foster child was sometimes tough, but she says, “The hard times made me strong and resilient, and those foster homes also gave me a lot more opportunities than I would have had if I wasn’t in care, so I’m grateful.”

With the cast of Testify. “I hope I can be a role model,” says the star.

Growing up, Paipera was confused as to why she wasn’t born female. “I identified with girls and in all my imaginary play, I was a girl.”

Before the age of 10, Paipera told her then-foster mother of her desire to wear dresses and be a girl. A visit to a doctor ensued and the term transgender explained. At the time, Paipera felt the doctor was warning her not to make the change.

“So then I tried my hardest for three years to be a boy, but all along, I really wanted to be a girl.”

Cue another conversation with a later foster mother, followed by a trip to another doctor.

“This time, they knew I was for real. At 14, I started on hormone blockers. At 16, I started taking oestrogen. From there, I became more set in my gender identity.

“I was confused for being a girl throughout my whole childhood, which made me glad. Now that I’m actually identifying as a girl, life has flowed easier. I don’t have to correct anyone. My soul and my shell are aligned as much as they can be for now.”

Paipera adds that she has yet to have surgery to complete her transition, but it’s on the cards.

The story of Paipera the actress began at Taranaki’s Spotswood College, where she took every drama class she could, plus additional after-school acting classes. Her acting teacher Holly Shanahan is now her agent.

“At school, I said, ‘Damn straight, TV is where I am going!’” she laughs.

“My soul and my shell are aligned,” says Paipera.

An 18-year-old Paipera’s drive led to her securing a coveted position at Wellington’s Toi Whakaari drama school. In her first year, she was selected to perform at London’s Globe Theatre as part of the New Zealand Young Shakespeare Company. This honor is bestowed upon the most talented young actors in New Zealand.

Paipera performed an excerpt from King Lear and then returned to continue her studies. “But then this Testify acting job came up,” she grins. “I’m feeling pretty proud considering it’s a lead role. Hopefully it’s the start of my acting career and that I’m on that path.

“I think my transgender-podcaster character is cool too. I really wanted to make Dana broken because I know a lot of us trans folk are quite broken. But I wanted to portray that even though she’s broken, she holds her head up high.”

Paipera’s proudly doing that herself and it’s been noticed. In 2021, she received a Prime Minister’s Scholarship worth $7000.

She says, “I hope I can be a role model for foster kids. If something like being a famous actress can be achieved by me, then they can capture their dreams too.”

Testify filming finished last May. Since then, Paipera has been focusing on deepening her connection with her birth parents, auditioning for new roles, and waiting to see what Testify and destiny bring.

Testify screens 8.30pm Mondays and 9pm Tuesdays on TVNZ 2, and is now streaming on TVNZ+.

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