In a small minifridge next to 16-year-old Te Orahi Akuhata’s bed is a variety of sprays, masks and serums. Every morning, while he does his skin and hair, Te Orahi plans his outfit for the day. If he’s heading out, it might be a dress, heels and a spritz of Hypnotic Poison by Dior. At home, maybe just a thick robe.
“It all depends how I’m feeling,” he says. “I love an elegant fit. Sometimes I love looking like a slut, sometimes I love looking comfortable, sometimes I love looking like [gothic film and TV character] Wednesday Addams, and sometimes I want to look like I’m on the red carpet.”
In his handbag are keys, cards, lip gloss, and “a pen in case of autographs”. Right now, Te Orahi’s favourite bag is a glittering silver clutch, but there are many more options in the packed wardrobe. Some of his clothes have begun to migrate to the spare bedroom in the house he shares with his mum, Misty Ormsby, in Nelson. Fashion is his first love, and how he communicates with the world.
“It’s self-expression, and I love that, because half the time I can’t tell people what I feel, I’d rather show it.”
On school days, when Nayland College’s uniform requirements limit sartorial choices, Te Orahi packs his poi. He’s been performing in kapa haka groups since kōhanga reo, but only recently fell back in love with the art after being allowed to perform in line with the girls.
“I prefer the movements, that’s my biggest strong point. According to everyone I’m very elegant and I can move around and I’m quick on my feet. I cannot sing to save my life. But I can stay in tune, I can keep a note, and that’s all you need. Boom, done.”
Conventional tikanga holds that men and women perform their kapa haka roles according to their gender, but Te Orahi is one of a growing number of young people in New Zealand who consider gender along more fluid lines.
New data from Growing Up in New Zealand, Aotearoa’s largest longitudinal study of child development, showed at least 15 per cent of young people feel some level of variation between their gender and their assigned sex at birth by 12 years of age (although only a small number identify wholly as transgender). Those numbers were consistent across all ethnicities: trans and non-binary youth are present in all walks of life.
Te Orahi identifies as male and uses he/him pronouns, although he prefers “your grace, your highness or your royal excellency”. But gender in te ao Māori is a complex subject. On the marae, it traditionally dictates who sits where and who speaks when. Men and women have different responsibilities and obligations. In recent decades, the impacts of colonisation and the influence of Western religion and puritanical missionaries impacted the way some Māori view the queer community. While it’s not a universal experience, life can be difficult for young takatāpui. For Te Orahi, whose first language is te reo Māori, rigid attitudes towards gender caused a lot of stress and anxiety.
“Personally, growing up in te ao Māori was so horrible. A lot of Māori… see gender roles as very important. A lot are religious, and we know what they think about gender. I love my people but we need to grow before we start worrying about others.”
Te Orahi’s kura placed a high value on performance and public speaking—and the gender roles that went with it. He resented being forced to practise kapa haka in a boy’s role. He would do a girl’s pūkana, with wide eyes and a jutting chin, until he got told off.
“I was pretty rebellious, if that even counts as rebellious. Back then it did.”
Today, performing kapa haka on his own terms, Te Orahi is defining for himself what it is to be Māori—and he feels more like mana whenua.
“I feel like I belong here more than any other country. I have my people here, I have my land here, it’s where I grew up. It’s very much Māori-orientated. And I feel safe on marae, in whānau class, in Māori environments most of the time. I keep my culture where it is. Te reo Māori and te ao Māori are very special to me.”
Nelson is overwhelmingly Pākehā, and Te Orahi’s found conservative opinions are common. On the street, people sometimes mutter as he walks by. Recently, an old man grumbled Te Orahi was “wearing girls’ clothes”. But the critics are very quickly put in their place.
“I get so many stares, but do you know what I do? I stare back, and I walk closer to them,” says Te Orahi. “That’s how I deal with it. I tell them that being gay is like a disease and I’ll give it to them. ‘Here, have it.’ I feed them the gayness.”
“It took me a while to get that confident. When I was younger I was pretty scared. But now I don’t care. If you’ve got a problem with me, say it.”
Anyway, there are more important things to focus on. Te Orahi has a plan. First, Auckland is calling. Mission Bay is his favourite place on Earth, and there’s a whole party scene to take over, although he doesn’t drink. And then, after conquering Fashion Week—perhaps as a stylist—even bigger goals are on the horizon.
“It’s my dream to move to New York,” he says. “I plan on looking for a Rothschild, marrying it—they’re the richest family in the world, right?—buying an apartment on the Upper East Side, having a holiday home in the Hamptons, buying clothing from Saks and having dinner at Nobu. I’ll make it there one day soon. Are the Rothschilds still rich?”
For the moment, romance is on the backburner. The dating pool in Nelson leaves a lot to be desired, Te Orahi says, and the idea of taking care of someone else is not attractive. He’s just got a job at McDonald’s, and his wages have already been mentally spent: “An iPhone, Airpods, a MacBook, perfume. I love expensive things.”
But that’s not to say a family is off the table forever. Te Orahi wants kids, they’re just incompatible with dying a young and fabulous death, “maybe in a car crash like Princess Diana – not that that’s how I’d like to die”.
“The way I’d like to die is more tragic. As soon as I see a wrinkle, I’d like to either be beheaded at the Tower of London”—ideally with Prince William watching—“or burned at the stake in Salem wearing Christian Dior. For the crime of being me. That’s a crime. Well, it should be.”