Manahou Mackay is a sensation in the making, but as Phoebe Watt discovers, she’s more than just a pretty face.
“I’m going through a real 60s phase — fur, huge sleeves… I can’t get enough. So today’s shoot was like, perfect styling for me. I love a themed shoot!”
Meet Manahou Mackay: Kardashian-obsessed part-time waitress, breakout star of New Zealand Fashion Week — oh, and New Zealand’s first openly transgender model.
“I never went through a period of having to come out to my parents or anything,” says the stunning and sassy 18-year-old over post-shoot wines at central Auckland eatery Odettes. “It was innate, and everyone always knew. There are pictures of me when I was three years old in my little white dress, just chilling and being myself.”
Phrases like “being myself”, “living my truth” and “just doing me” flavour this interview, as they have Manahou’s life, I quickly discover. In a world where the marginalisation and stigmatisation of the transgender community still frequently dominates our screens and newsfeeds, it’s heartening, and speaks to the love and understanding that has always surrounded this remarkable young woman.
It isn’t lost on her, either. Of the little girl in the white dress, she says, “I was brought up in a supportive enough environment that I felt entirely free to express myself. I was probably luckier than most. I was just doing me, and no one ever told me not to.”
This perfect pairing of personal autonomy and social acceptance was the backdrop against which Manahou began taking puberty blockers at the age of 11.
“I was at a school prize-giving dressed up in these little heels, just being a little drag queen,” she remembers. “And one of the mothers went up to my mother and was like, “Is your child trans?” and introduced her to the whole thing.”
Manahou’s mother, a documentary film-maker, asked Manahou if the treatment was something she’d be interested in pursuing. “We did it the week after,” says Manahou, “and a couple of years later I started hormone replacement therapy.”
On being discovered
Fast forward a few more years to November 2016, when Manahou was discovered by Auckland modelling agency The Others. Having decided not to return to high school for her final year (“It was very culty,” she explains), she’d enrolled at prestigious hairdressing academy Servilles. It didn’t go well. “I actually wanted to be a makeup artist but Mum convinced me to do hair because she said there’d be more work. But I ended up hating it to the point that I didn’t even want to do makeup anymore.”
At a loose end after dropping out of the hairdressing course, a chance encounter with The Others’ co-founder Imogen Wilson at the house of fellow model and best friend, Harry Barclay, set in motion the next stage of Manahou’s life.
“About a week later, Harry was at Kingsize Studios taking digis, and he called me like, ‘What are you doing right now? How fast can you get here? They want to sign you right now.’ I was there in five minutes and signed with them that day.”
Modelling wasn’t a career Manahou had considered before then. She had several model friends, so was something of a fashion industry spectator, “but I never would have gone for it myself. I would have waited for them to come to me,” she says with her signature sass. “I figured if it was supposed to happen, it would happen. That’s how I look at most things.”
“I figured if it was supposed to happen, it would happen.”
Happen it did. And since jumping from The Others’ books to those of juggernaut agency 62 Models, Manahou’s career has well and truly blown up. Relatively unknown six months ago, she walked in an astounding 10 shows at this year’s New Zealand Fashion Week, including those of big-name Kiwi brands Zambesi, Kate Sylvester, Huffer and Stolen Girlfriends Club.
“I’m sure the publicity didn’t hurt my casting potential,” says Manahou, referring to the copious amount of press coverage she got in the lead-up to fashion week, when her recently revealed trans status was a hot topic of conversation. She’s being modest and, presumably, a bit facetious. With her exotic looks, incredible bone structure and infectious energy, one imagines that designers would be queuing up to cast her based on her physical merits and not the column inches it might bring. “But it was good publicity for everyone,” she says wryly, demonstrating a worldliness and lack of naivety that will serve her well as her career progresses.
On adjusting to the spotlight
Having just been signed to an international agency and with a relocation to Sydney on the cards for the new year, that’s going to be sooner rather than later. She’s ready for the adventure. “I want to do scary shows that freak me out; I want the adrenaline,” she says.
But for someone who’s still adjusting to the local spotlight, the international stage is going to be a whole new ball game. For starters, the higher her profile, the more likely she is to be considered a role model for the transgender community, and while she’s empathetic towards those who have struggled, the responsibility is something that she feels, at this stage, unprepared for.
“At least as far as being a spokesperson,” she says. “But I don’t think you actually have to be a spokesperson to make a difference. I think that just being in the public eye is going to have positive impact. And I don’t know. Maybe when I’m older I’ll get more into it and do all these speeches and stuff. I just think that, as far as being a role model, existing is enough for now.”
On role models
As for her own role models? Meeting international trans supermodel Andreja Pejić earlier this year was a big moment. But Manahou is otherwise just like the rest of us. “Bella Hadid!” she practically screams when asked who her industry heroes are. “I’m obsessed, it’s ridiculous. I could throw up at every single photo she posts; she’s disgustingly perfect. She’s an icon, the biggest icon of our generation.”
And when asked who her non-industry role models are, she names the Kardashians for one important reason. “They made a career of just being themselves. Like, they were the birth of being yourself for a living,” she says. Well, maybe two reasons. “They have amazing asses too!”