MSA 2014 contestants (left to right) Shaayal Gounden Helene Holman Kayla Dittmer Sarah Brodrick (Miss South Auckland 201213) Maria Mafi Shannon Barry Aysaas Tang

Culture and Community right here at home in South Auckland

‘Beauty pageant’.

Just say those two words and you might be wondering whether you had accidentally uttered some obscene epithet. Okay, perhaps that’s very good use of hyperbole but in general the facial expressions are far from approving. Raised eyebrows, a slight pursing of the lips, even a barely discernible shake of the head. Because after all thanks to the media’s portrayal of beauty queens and their often less than adequate intellect (or simply their appalling ability to provide coherent responses) most individuals today believe that these women are bimbos without any form of cognitive capacity. In addition, their resemblance to gaping goldfish suggests that especially during discussions of the plight of others they possess less empathy than your common root vegetable.

Miss South Auckalnd 2012-13 and current Miss Humanity NZBut as the cliché encourages us to believe appearances can be deceiving. So when Sarah Brodrick (the very first Miss South Auckland, current title holder of Miss Humanity New Zealand and Managing Directorof the MSA 2014) invited me to come on board as Creative Director of this year’s pageant – it seemed an excellent opportunity to shake up some stale stereotypes.

If there was an opportunity to make a difference as to how beauty is perceived in this crazy world of ours then this might just be one of the best platforms.

Sarah and I first met at Indigenous Fashion UnEarthed in Melbourne 2013. An inspiring organization spearheaded by Tina Waru and Wayne Quilliam it brought together models from across Australia, New Zealand and beyond. Bringing together a collection of kindred spirits (including the current Miss Aotearoa Marlena Martin  who also became involved) it was no wonder that as like-minded workaholic women determined to serve our community we soon became close friends.

Fast forward three months and I’m back on home soil in Aotearoa, New Zealand. I haven’t worked at home since 2008 when I produced the Manawatu Festival of New Art in Palmerston North having spent the last five years based in Melbourne with stints overseas so it’s very exciting would be a slight understatement.  Even better I now have a position to work in a creative capacity mentoring six young women from the South Auckland region over the course of two weeks. Choice!

Shaayal Gounden Miss South Auckland 2014Now unlike the majority of other beauty pageants central to gaining the title of Miss South Auckland is a person who is committed to service. This is not an opportunity to indulge the ego or for those who think ‘looking good’ is all that matters. This is a pageant with an opportunity to be of service to one’s community and culture.

I know. Sounds a tad different from the normal taglines but as you may be able to gauge this is one platform where contestants are expected to do a little more than stare like vacant Barbie dolls.

For those unfamiliar with South Auckland it’s one of ‘those neighbourhoods’ riddled with stereotypes but a site of thriving talent, potential, artistic brilliance and incredibly passionate individuals. Admittedly, that also is another way of saying it takes a truckload of hard work to make a difference but once the ball gets rolling, there’s no holding back.

In 2012 after participating in the Miss Aotearoa pageants in 2012 in Hawkes Bay (one of the primary centres for Maori culture in New Zealand) Sarah emerged resolute to create similar opportunities for young women in the South Auckland region that emphasized the responsibilities to one’s community and culture.

And so the MSA (as it quickly became known) journey began.

The mandate was clear.  Provide a “platform which would offer a leadership programme to take young women from across the region and give them the unique chance to develop in areas such as business and community enterprise, career and life coaching, fashion and beauty, as well as person development in a creative other areas that that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to pursue, attain or get the necessary support.”

Her emphasis was specifically on young women who may lack confidence or self-esteem, had no work, stage or pageantry experience and to create opportunities for them to excel in life.

It was Sarah’s commitment to these goals and the Maori values of Whanau (Family), Mana (Honour and Integrity), Matataki (Challenge) and Whanaungatanga (Connectiveness)  that inspired to join  this rapidly growing collective.

(Judge and Host) Nicole Fairbrother,(Judge) Terry Morrison, (winner) Shaayal Gounden, (Judge) Ankita Luthra and (Director)Sarah BrodrickAnd so I joined the team.

The two weeks seemed to go past in a blur but I do recall with both pride and emotion is how each of the six young women blossomed during their journey. Each represented the diversity of South Auckland showcasing not only their unique cultural heritage (Maori, Tongan, Pakeha, Fijian-Indian, Cambodian and Irish) but a wealth of experiences, knowledge and skills.

Dione Joseph Creative Advisor with MSA 2014 contestantsOver the course of numerous workshops I worked with these young women through a variety of different activities (group, pair work and individual) to support them in the speech, talent and cultural costume categories.  During the rest of their time Sarah organized external visits, a range of different activities and invited other guests including the current title holder of Miss Aotearoa Marlena Martin to support their preparation for the catwalk as well as the Professional Interview, Charitable Efforts, and Entrepreneurial Skills sections.

Very often life doesn’t give us the time or space to just be. And that’s what this time offered, opportunities to share, question and wonder; acknowledge moments of personal sadness and joy, weaknesses and strengths and what lay at the centre of each woman’s story. The creative writing workshop included the opportunity to develop poetry writing skills, undertake vocal and physical training exercises and reflect on history, one’s personal journey and family. We also explored how the myriad of reflections and beliefs, values and practices could be articulated in their speeches but also reflected in how they constructed their cultural costume.

As one contestant, Helene Holman, said in her speech:

“My culture is New Zealand modern day society. A diverse yet crisp salad bowl of originality and ethnic diversity… [here] I am  allowed to be whom, and what I want, without being shunned by a specified model of what a New Zealander should be.”

I am so proud that over the course of the workshops each young woman used these skills to their advantage to be who they chose to be: articulate and confident women. On Saturday the 25th of January all six took to the stage at the Mangere Metro Theatre with poise and grace to show the community of South Auckland that women are far from pretty commodified objects, they have a spirit and a voice, one that will be heard.

Each of the contestants were recognized that night for their achievements as they spoke, sashayed and sang their way into proving that no matter who you are the world is full of possibility. Aysaas, Helene, Kayla, Maria, Shannon and Shaayal, I am so very proud of you all.

For those who may accuse me of romanticizing I will abandon poetry and put facts bluntly: you need to be able to have the vision to see beyond, the passion to persist when things seem like they’re falling apart and the wisdom to recognize that in reality things are simply falling into place. This year’s Miss South Auckland heralds the first of many traditions, where young women have the space, in a creative and safe place, to exercise their minds, hearts and their bodies in ways that will empower them and the communities they belong to.

To close I recall the words
engraved upon the inner walls of Youthline (our host for all workshops and general huge support for the MSA pageant):

“Ki o koutou kete matauranga, me toku kete matauranga, ka kake te iwi.”

“With your knowledge basket and my knowledge basket, the people will prosper”

And so, after spending two jam-packed weeks with some incredibly passionate, articulate and talented individuals it seems only fitting that whether in New Zealand or Australia all eyes will be on the next Miss South Auckland to be held early in 2015. And you can be sure I’ll be back on board!