Lauded by leading figures in fashion and music, choreographer Parris Goebel is unleashing a movement for change.
2019 was a mammoth year for the Kiwi superstar and 2020 is shaping up to be even bigger. The year began with Parris being named a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit on the New Year Honours list, she was tapped by Sony Pictures to direct the film Murder on the Dance Floor based on her dance production, she’s been signed with IMG, and she just choreographed Jennifer Lopez’s stellar performance (and her very own New Zealand dance crew) for the 2020 Superbowl Halftime show – said to have been viewed by 9.9 million people.
Fashion Quarterly editor Zoe Walker Ahwa sat down with Parris in Auckland, discussing her phenomenal trajectory, working with Rihanna, and why supporting your community is so important.
“Where is Parris’ ass?” Rihanna declares backstage, immediately after her game-changing Savage x Fenty show at New York Fashion Week in September 2019. As people come at her from all angles to congratulate and celebrate, the superstar is asking after Parris Goebel, the South Auckland-born talent behind the show’s epic choreography, and the woman she identifies later on Instagram as her ‘spirit animal’.
Being described as a ‘God-gifted genius’ by someone who is at the sharpest end of the fashion and pop culture zeitgeist is normality for Parris, whose star has risen as one of New Zealand’s biggest success stories on the global stage.
Working with the singer/designer/mogul is simply the latest in her long list of well-documented achievements: creative collaborations with Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bieber, Blackpink, Sam Smith and Ciara (she choreographed, directed and edited the viral ‘Level Up’ music video, filmed at the Auckland Museum), with more exciting things to come in 2020.
Expect another big year: she has a small role in Niki Caro’s adaptation of Disney’s Mulan, and was asked by prime minister Jacinda Ardern to be New Zealand’s ‘entertainment and cultural curator’ at the World Expo in Dubai. She’s also working towards directing and choreographing her first feature film.
The NYFW event is the second time Parris has choreographed Rihanna’s lingerie extravaganza (she was behind the debut show in 2018), but she describes this year’s show as “probably the proudest moment of my career”. Working with a massive cast – 50 dancers, 20 models – Parris shaped the moves of star cameos including actor Laverne Cox, singer Normani, models Gigi and Bella Hadid, drag queen Aquaria and dancers from her own ReQuest dance crew. “It was incredible just exchanging energy with different women from all walks of life, from top models to everyday girls,” Parris reflects. “But everyone was so beautiful and sweet, and confident as well.”
The show itself has been hailed as a game changer in how lingerie is presented on the runway; disrupting the idea of who has typically been ‘allowed’ to wear it and be considered ‘sexy’ (i.e. slim white women). It came on the tail of ongoing controversy with Victoria’s Secret’s lack of diversity and willingness to adapt to fashion’s more inclusive spirit (it was announced in July that this year’s VS show was cancelled). In contrast, the Savage x Fenty show purposefully featured a range of bodies, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities, from body-positive blogger Margie Plus to trans model Isis King.
Parris wears Paris Georgia bodysuit, $459, and scarf, $189. Parris’ own jewellery and gloves.
“People that aren’t usually highlighted in the world of fashion as it pertains to lingerie, and sexy, what society sees as sexy,” Rihanna explained of its inclusive approach. The Business of Fashion reflected on the show’s emphasis on the body in motion rather than an idealised body – brought to life by Parris’ moves. “[Rihanna’s] performers didn’t just strut – they twerked and body rolled, performing athletic, complex moves choreographed by Parris Goebel.”
Of the Kiwi’s signature moves, the singer also described what she loves most: “There’s nothing delicate about it, there’s nothing fragile; it’s in your face. [Parris] goes hand in hand with that; that strength and that confidence.”
Confidence has always been key to Parris’ success and outlook. As a dancer, she’s in full control of her body and its power and strength, but she describes her relationship with it as being as complicated as any other women’s. “My appreciation for my body came along with my appreciation of just myself in general. When you learn to love yourself, and know that there’s no one else like you, then you love everything that comes with it. Your face, your body, your features, your characteristics, your dreams.”
In an interview with The Business of Fashion, Rihanna confessed that, to her, Parris represents true confidence. “I love how she makes everything sexy despite society’s ideal of what sexy looks like. I don’t care about any skinny Victoria’s Secret model when I look at Parris. I want to be that woman on the inside. I want to feel that confident, I want to feel that bombastic… That is the Savage brand.”
Stylist’s own Glomesh hood. Parris’ own jeans.
For Parris, ‘sexy’ comes down to authenticity. “It’s being yourself. I talk about this all the time: the sexiest thing you can do is be yourself. That’s it. Sexiness is your aura, your confidence. It’s you being unapologetic, wearing whatever you want to wear, saying what you want to say, walk how you wanna walk. And I think we’re redefining that.”
When we meet in Auckland, Parris is fresh from Girl; her thought-provoking, sell-out show, part of the Tempo Dance Festival. Working with a diverse cast of young women – dancers and singers – she wanted the performance to reflect the challenges they face, as well as the journey of confidence through creativity that she’s been on herself.
Similar conversations are also part of the Sisters United charitable organisation that Parris launched with her siblings Kendal and Narelle in 2018; offering programmes tailored to help young Pasifika girls raise their self-esteem and chase their dreams through creative arts. “I’m in a position where I can touch someone’s life and let them know, if I can do it, you can do it,” Parris explains.
“Some of these kids, they don’t have supportive parents; they don’t have teachers at school that encourage them to dance or sing. So you could be that one person to them; to ignite that belief inside them. For me, it’s essential and I absolutely have to do it. It’s a calling and it’s part of my purpose.”
All of these projects, both personal and global, lead back to overarching themes that have run throughout Parris’ career: community and representation.
“Everything I do, I always think about what I would want to have seen when I was a little girl. Because when I dropped out of school when I was 15, I had a dream, but I remember looking around and I didn’t see many people chasing their dreams in New Zealand. I didn’t see any dancers that had made it on a global stage.
“So I always think about the younger me and what she would want to be part of. What would she want to see?” asks Parris. “I didn’t see any Polynesian girls on the front of magazines, I didn’t see them at New York Fashion Week, I barely saw them in big feature films.”
But with events and brands like Savage x Fenty, Parris says she feels optimistic about the changes and conversations around representation. “It’s been incredible to have women message me about how it has changed their perspective of themselves. The fact I can do that with my art is the best feeling. Being creative is my purpose, and it wouldn’t be much of a purpose if I can’t inspire or change people’s lives.”
“What we did with Rihanna would not have happened as recent as five years ago. It just wouldn’t have,” she stresses. “The way the world has evolved within the past five years, it has been huge and it’s allowed a lot of people to walk a little taller, to use their voice, to be strong. I think it’s helped a lot of people to accept themselves and to show the world who they are.”
Words: Zoe Walker Ahwa
Photography: Olivia Kirkpatrick
Styling: Paris Mitchell Temple | Makeup Kiekie Stanners for M.A.C.
Feature image Parris wears Paris Georgia scarf (worn as top). $189, and hat $489. Meadowlark earrings, $509.
This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly Issue 4, 2019.