It is a popular misconception that she was the first Maori Miss New Zealand, that honour remains with Moana Manley – another Te Arawa woman, who only became involved because of a nation-wide Queen Carnival to raise money to send a brass band from New Zealand to England in 1953.
The Auckland Maori Community Centre was supporting a particular band and chose Moana to be their Princess.
The following year the Auckland Swimming Centre in another fundraiser, chose Moana as their ‘Miss Swimming’ and entered her in the Miss Auckland contest; she was a champion swimmer, good enough to represent the country. She won the Miss Auckland title, and beat six other regional finalists to become Miss New Zealand for 1954.
Ironically, her Miss New Zealand commitments got in the way of her swimming, to the extent that although she was nominated for the New Zealand team to compete in the Empire Games in Vancouver in 1954, her involvement in the Miss Universe contest in California just prior to the Games, meant she couldn’t do the intensive training required leading up to them.
Meanwhile young Maureen Kingi was growing up in Rotorua. She was born at Ohinemutu in 1943; Moana Nui A Kiwa Hinemoa Manley was born at Ngapuna across Lake Rotorua eight years earlier.
Maureen may well have known and seen Moana when she came on a fundraising trip through Rotorua prior to going off to the United States, Maureen would have been 11 or 12 at the time.
Then it 1962 it was her turn to wear the crown; Maureen Te Rangi Rere I Waho Kingi with Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa whakapapa, was 19 years old.
If you look back at news coverage of that time you will see that there was almost a quaintness about the way they reported the new Miss New Zealand, and the fact she was Maori. Reference was made to her knowledge of Maori dancing and singing, particularly the long poi, she was often pictured wearing pare and piupiu.
Back in the 1960s there weren’t too many positive references to Maori in the media. When someone was in trouble and the police were looking for them they would often be described as ‘part-Maori’ – never mind what their other parts were – the suggestion seemed to be that it was the Maori bit that caused the trouble.
On the other hand – and I remember this well as a young journalist – Kiri Te Kanawa as she developed her reputation as a singer – was referred to as ‘part-European’.
Back when Maureen won her title, Miss New Zealand was a franchise owned by a chap called Joe Brown from Otago. He was a most unlikely looking and behaving entrepreneur to be running a beauty pageant; but he was a crafty and canny homegrown businessman who had a real knack for reading people’s entertainment desires.
He began running dances while he was still at school to raise funds, and once out of school and with the arrival of radio in Dunedin, he began running a Saturday night dance which Radio 4ZB broadcast live. The dances ran for 30 years and it’s said that hundreds of Otago couples met and ended up getting together at Joe Brown’s dances; it worked for Joe too, that’s where he met his wife Marjorie.
His method of running Miss New Zealand too was unique. Not for him pricey flashy hotels, oh no.
He would cart the contestants round the provinces by bus staying in motels, with Marjorie preparing wholesome home cooked meals each night.
After her hectic year as Miss New Zealand Maureen went back to Rotorua and in 1963 married young man about town John Waaka. One of their daughters reckons Maureen told her that she really fell in love with John’s motorbike Bernadette; but there might have been a bit more to it than that because they settled down and went on to have five children followed by 14 grandchildren and so far nine great grandchildren.
The work that Maureen is best known for today began in the late 1980s when she started getting involved in local government. Getting Maori elected onto the local council has been a pretty hard job over the years, even in places like Rotorua, where there are a high number of Maori voters. National figures show that only about four per cent of elected councilors are Maori. In 1989 Maureen made it onto the Rotorua District Council, but for only one three year term.
Undeterred she and other prominent Te Arawa leaders worked to find another solution to their lack of substantial representation, and came up with the Te Arawa Standing Committee. It’s a committee of the council with members elected by Maori, with others like the mayor and deputy mayor and sometimes councilors too, nominated by the council.
When the Standing Committee was formed in 1993 Maureen was elected to it.
In 1998 she was re-elected to the full council and remained there until her sudden death; her husband John says there had been no inkling that she was unwell and she had intended running for council again in this year’s October elections.
It seems that once she got into the swing of her local government work it blossomed into a whole range of civic duties; she also served on the district health board, she chaired local trusts, her experience on local government meant she was an ideal person to have as a hearings commissioner on local government issues, and she chaired a range of Rotorua council committees.
Then suddenly on June 16 while on business in Auckland she suffered a mild stroke. She was hospitalised and appeared to be on the mend when she had another stroke and her condition deteriorated. She was brought home and died with her family by her side on July 1. Just a few weeks earlier, she and John celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
Her tangi was held at Te Arawa’s principal marae Te Papaiouru, a short walk from where she was born 70 years ago. Hundreds came to mourn and to pay their respects, and to pay tribute to the woman described as a true champion for Rotorua, someone who strove her whole life to make it a better place.
She was buried at Kauae urupa alongside her mother Rhona and sister Pare.
She once was a beauty queen, but the many, many Te Arawa, and other women who have paid tribute to her since her death, don’t talk about that aspect of her life, but rather about the role model she represented for young women growing up.
I’m picking she would have been happy with that.