TV

The Apprentice's Stephen McDowell's life-changing career swap

After a terrifying shark attack and several tragic losses, the star reveals his unconventional journey to beating body issues and mental health problems

By Florence Hartigan
Looking at The Apprentice Aotearoa contestant Stephen McDowell's popular Instagram account, the Invercargill reality star seems like someone more likely to be meditating on a beach in Bali than making moves in the boardroom. But the man behind the man bun is driven by a mission – and it's not only to win the $50,000 prize.
The 28-year-old social media content creator, who has wheeled and dealed his way into the hit show's final episodes, says his "ruthless confidence" is fuelled by the unusual ways he's found to overcome the incredible hardships he's faced.
Stephen's on The Apprentice to promote men's health.
Stephen's first brush with tragedy came at a very early age. "My family was at the beach on the New Year's Eve of the new millennium when I saw my sister come out of the water and drop to the ground," he recalls. "Immediately, I knew something was badly wrong. A shark had attacked her. It had actually ripped off her left arm and I was the first one to see her. I was just six years old."
After a pause, Stephen adds, "That day is so ingrained in my head that it will never go away. I was traumatised and developed an extreme fear of the ocean."
This fear kept the Southlander out of the water for 14 years until, at the age of 20, he decided it was time to confront his phobia. "I knew I couldn't be an adult and be this terrified of the sea," says Stephen, "so I signed up for a surf lifesaving course and forced myself back into the water. I didn't enjoy it, but I finished the course and that was life-changing for me."
After years of loathing his body, Stephen's finally comfortable in his skin.
With that and a scuba qualification under his belt, Stephen, then 23, headed overseas, where his hobby of photography went from a side hustle to a hot commodity – and his gift of the gab made him life-long friends.
"I met my friend Taylor at a festival in the States and we had an instant bromance," chuckles Stephen. "We were so similar and he quickly became my best friend, but he was also a mentor. He helped me make my first viral video. We built my social media up to about 10,000 followers almost overnight."
The two buddies bonded even further when they discovered they both suffered from severe body dysmorphia, an obsession with a perceived flaw in appearance, which Stephen says stemmed from his abusive father.
Stephen with friend Taylor
"I had this complex that I had to be as big as possible so no one could ever hurt me again," he shares. "I was going to the gym three times a day and weighing every single bit of food I ate. Taylor helped me realise this was coming from my trauma around my dad, but I still wasn't comfortable in my skin."
Despite the behind-the-scenes battle, Stephen's brand-new business boomed, sending the content creator jet-setting around Europe, the States and Southeast Asia for companies like Air New Zealand and the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Between trips, he would spend as much time as he could in Los Angeles with Taylor and his other new friends.
Then one day, out of the blue, Stephen – known online as "The Buzzy Kiwi" – received a life-shattering phone call.
Stephen and Creed.
"I found out Tay was on a rope swing on the edge of a pier in San Diego when he slipped. As he fell, he hit his head on the pier and, tragically, he drowned. As if it wasn't enough to lose my best friend, for him to drown in the ocean was absolutely heartbreaking.
"My life just crumbled. My long-term partner at the time didn't handle it well and we broke up. Then I also got robbed and lost 90% of everything I owned, including all the gear I used to create content and run my business. I was living in a friend's garage in Auckland because I had about $100 to my name and couldn't afford rent."
A year and a half later, still reeling from his loss, Stephen was dealt yet another devastating blow when his close friend Creed, who had been struggling with his mental health, died by suicide.
"When Creed passed away, it was the absolute straw that broke the camel's back," confides Stephen. "I felt unbelievable guilt because I felt like it was my responsibility to be there for him and I wasn't. I spiralled. I started suffering from chronic anxiety and depressive episodes.
With sister Jenny, who was attacked by a shark at Oreti Beach.
"But eventually, out of all that pain came a kind of freedom. I was over other people's judgements. I had nothing left to lose. I knew it was finally time to get over not feeling confident in who I am and that included my body issues. I thought, 'If I got over my fear of the ocean by jumping headfirst into surf lifesaving, then what's the most extreme thing I can do to finally get confidence in who I am?' So I decided to jump into naked modelling. I applied to five different places and got a job!"
The night of his first life-drawing gig, for a hen's night of 30 women, Stephen was riddled with anxiety.
"I was shaking. All my body insecurities came to the surface. But the moment I took off my robe, I realised the women weren't judging me – they were more nervous than I was! That was so empowering. After that, it was easy."
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Back in the ocean after 14 years.
Laughing, Stephen continues, "I kept modelling every weekend. At one point, I had three or four appointments a night! All of a sudden, I felt so differently about myself. Nude modelling allowed me to build up a ruthless level of confidence and I bring that onto The Apprentice. I know that if I can stand up in front of 30 women buck naked, I can stand up in a suit in front of anyone!"
Now, having traded in his birthday suit for more traditional corporate attire, Stephen has his eyes on the show's final – which aired earlier this week on TVNZ 1 – and his motivation for winning is a powerful one.
"When I found out Creed had passed away, I promised him I'd save 1000 people's lives in his honour," he tells. "I believe that Creed lost his battle with mental health because of the social pressure that tells men in New Zealand they aren't allowed to show emotion or express their feelings. I want to save lives by changing the culture of mental health in our country.
Stephen's friend Creed is forever tattooed on his foot.
"I created my business plan for The Apprentice around high-performance coffee, which I used on my own journey to fight anxiety, and my goal is to create coffee-centred events that promote mental wellbeing. I want to set up environments where it feels safe for people, especially men, to be able to share, be emotional and support each other."
His eyes sparkling with passion, Stephen concludes, "Regardless of whether I win the $50,000 or not, I won't stop until I've saved 1000 lives. I have my promise tattooed on my foot. Every time I look at it, it's a reminder to keep going.
HELP IS HERE
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, call Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or free-text 4357. For the Suicide Crisis Helpline, phone 0508 TAUTOKO. In an emergency, always dial 111.