Auckland model, poet and writer Michael Whittaker is still only in his early twenties but the Orewa native has already packed a bunch into his life; modelling around the world, writing poems and plays and juggling a few degrees at Auckland University is par for the course for the talented young man. Grant Fell and Rachael Churchward get the juice on Patti Smith, Katherine Mansfield, Enrollment, entitlement and the one masterpiece we owe the ether. Photos by Damien Nikora. Read on...!
Grant Fell and Rachael Churchward: Hi Michael, let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Michael Whittaker: I spent my childhood in Whangaparaoa. My Mum is a dreamer, completely, and she has always had a conflict within herself as to whether she wants to lead this isolated, rustic life or, on the other side she is like most women, and there is a bit of her that wants to be chic and urban as well.
GF: Is she a chic dresser?
MW: Yeah, absolutely, no nonsense; a white blouse, some dark pants, that’s her. My Dad had it pretty easy, he didn’t have to splurge on her! So I lived there, mainly at Manly Beach.
RC: Where did you go to school?
MW: I went to a lot of schools actually, because of my Mum’s ceaseless compulsion for change…
GF: Was she a travelling singer or poet?
MW: No not really but she liked to travel, I guess. She could have been anything. She is a romantic. I went to six different schools but mainly the local schools up around those parts. Most of my high school was spent at Orewa College.
RC: So your parents weren’t into sending you to some insane, overpriced private school?
MW: Actually, I did go to Kings College for a couple of years. (laughs) We shifted into town for two years so I went to Kings for that time.
GF: Was that a culture shock?
MW: It was massive. I was treated like a hick. I’m from a middle-class family but for the first time I saw real opulence, disgusting amounts of wealth.
RC: Also, perhaps, tradition?
MW: Yeah, that was the good side of it. I like the English colonial heritage. The only thing I can really say about Kings is that boarding gave me a taste for and of my own company. I also really liked the way the kids treated the teachers. At Orewa, more often than not the kids showed cringe-inducing disrespect toward teachers. At Kings there was a real respect toward teachers. The teachers dressed up to come to school. These might be considered outdated English traditions, but some of them were quite touching. I was always moved by the religious ceremony of the school; it’s really beautiful isn’t it?
RC: I grew up in a place called Ratana Pa, my father was the headmaster of the school there and I loved the tradition and religious element there, I know what you mean.
GF: What did you excel in at school, what were your favourite subjects?
MW: I did well at writing-based subjects. I gained university entrance early. I guess I excelled in English. Have you heard of the Cambridge system of exams? A levels? I was top in the world for AS English writing.
MW: It was weird, I guess, because I hadn’t gone to Kings Prep or come through the private school system. I didn’t really think I was that smart, my parents didn’t really think I was that smart. I have a pretty languid method of studying. I kind of lie down and read. In the exams I wrote about the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, the great New Zealand writer. I found a lot within her work that really resonated with me.
GF: Katherine was a close friend with Rachael’s great grandmother Maata Mahupuku. There is a book about Aotearoa’s greatest writer by Mansfield scholar P.A. Lawlor, written in 1947, called The Mystery of Maata. It’s pretty interesting…
MW: Really? I’d love to read it! Some of my favourite short stories ever are by Katherine Mansfield. Why would you need to write an entire book, if you can distil, just write a short story that sets me off, staring into space? She is a distiller, a capturer.
RC: Tell us more about the Cambridge award?
MW: I got 98% in Cambridge AS English Writing and 96% in English Language. The system is pretty established; there are kids from about 150 countries sitting. There was a New Zealand award ceremony. They gave me some lousy amount of cash. In the exam I wrote firstly about Katherine Mansfield, then I wrote about one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 116:
“Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Willy Shakes, what a beast.
GF: What did it mean for you at a school like Kings, winning that award?
MW: Well I dropped out of Kings straight afterwards to be honest! (laughs). They probably love awards like that. They like to be chuffed. I just wanted to be back up at Orewa (College), or anywhere. I felt like a change and didn’t really feel like going on a fast track to the ivory tower. I wasn’t ready, I could read Katherine Mansfield and love it but I didn’t know anything about love, or… I hadn’t really experienced anything. I was late bloomer, to be honest. So I went back to Orewa and got a couple of jobs. That taught me a lot; washing dishes and stacking shelves at supermarkets. I was back with my childhood friends, too. It was interesting then to see the juxtaposition of those two environments: Kings, where even the dumb ones are gearing up for a profitable life, and that train is set into motion when they are six years old.
GF: Because Dad, or Mum, will show them the secret way to make money…
MW: Absolutely. Whereas, these Orewa kids were dropping out at first instance to become tradesmen.I felt quite a resonance with those people because they were the opposite of pretentious. And, doing those relatively menial jobs taught me a lot about myself. I didn’t really pay much attention to school after that, to be honest, it was more about catching up on the lost years. I wanted to have some teenage years, away from the study and boarding school. I was really isolated at Kings and didn’t really venture outside myself, so back at Orewa I tried to experience life, had some girlfriends, some good times…
RC: Did you start modelling at Orewa?
MW: Straight after I left school.
GF: What was your first shoot?
MW: Black was my first shoot!
RC: The one with Russ Flatt, we cast you as a sailor boy cum skinhead. I love that one shot where you are sitting next to Elliot and fiddling with your rings.
MW: That shot looks like more than a fashion shot to me…
GF: That whole shoot has a documentary element to it.
RC: You had some very white, tight jeans on Michael (laughs)
MW: White, tight jeans! Way to make Dad proud! I sat on a rust-coloured fence and ruined the jeans.
GF: We’ll let you off…
MW: Nice narrative to that shoot... I feel that you should always look different, or perhaps better, than your day-to-day self in a fashion shot and that happened that day. As a model, there is this point of self-realisation when you see photos of yourself espousing sub-cultures, your self glorified as a kind of abstracted, narrative character. You see that and realize that you could look like that, that you could embody that. Fashion like that inspires a sense of possibility.
GF: As fashion is always a big part of sub cultures, so too are sub cultures a big part of fashion. Where did that shoot take you and how long before your modelling career began in earnest?
MW: It was quite rapid after that. I was 17. I’d always wanted to travel, to lead a life less ordinary. I had always been inspired by my grandfather. He was in the British army. He’s done everything under the sun. He went on a date with Doris Day…
MW: Yeah, he’s 6 ft 4, a strapping man with blue eyes. An inspirer. After the Black shoot I was flown to Sydney for a job and didn’t really want to come back. I stayed there for a couple weeks and booked some good jobs. I’d saved some money from packing shelves and talked with my agent, Marama, and we decided to book a round-the-world flight because they were going cheap. So the plan was to go to New York for a week, Paris for a week and then Milan for a week.
GF: Do a bunch of go-sees and the like?
MW: Yeah, I arrived in New York and DNA took an immediate interest in me. They sent a car to pick me up to take me to an event, so a limo turns up with these two beautiful female models in it. I had just arrived, fresh from er, Orewa and I’m being driven to a Chanel installation in Central park in a limo, with two literal supermodels. I’m sitting there thinking, “this is ok, this is all right”, (laughs) We arrive there and I’m standing a couple of feet away from Karl Lagerfeld, there’s legs everywhere, there’s the first open bar that I’d ever experienced (laughs). I got in there. I was thinking this is New York, it’s just glitz and glam, it was unreal. I fell in love with New York, changed my flights and stayed there for 89 days, one day less than the maximum without a visa. After that I went to Milan and stayed there for two months. Then I was back for 89 more days and nights.
GF: How was Milan?
MW: It was summer. Milan is nice in summer. This was before Google maps and iPhones really, and while I can’t really harp on about back-in-my-day stuff, I was using an old school map, so I got to know that city better than the locals did. I’d be in the back streets every day looking for these crazy little casting places. Milan was amazing yet people kind of dislike Milan in general. It is an industrial city, people just inordinately dislike Milan, but Corso Sempione with cold beer and Tia Woods isn’t so bad.
RC: Where did you go after Milan?
MW: New York, London, New York. After a year away I came back to New Zealand and that was my next episode in Black, with Andrej Pejic actually. A pretty interesting day. I remember seeing him for the first time and having what is a commonplace reaction with him (laughs), I was like, ”Yeah, ok, I thought I was doing an all guys shoot! Um…this is good, this is all good…” (laughs). That was a great shoot, I think that was the best styling Atip had done. It was regal, the Gucci, I felt like that shoot was telling a great narrative, it was quite Tzarist. Andrej is an elite looking character. I think I looked strangely princely, a soldier. It was cavalier. I only needed a scimitar.
RC: As the creative director I wanted to push a story with that shoot, Atip did style it really well but we’d had Andrej and a bunch of Gucci flown in so the overall combination made a nice story as a whole.
GF: Have you worked with Andrej again overseas?
MW: Yeah, I’ve had a couple of catch-ups with him actually. It would have been about a year-and-a-half after that second Black shoot. I was in a casting line in Paris, there would have been two-hundred-and-fifty boys in the line and then this blonde…this blonde…(laughs) walks up and the silhouette was just ridiculous, you know? The hips, the hair… the guys in front of me were just hurting themselves rubbernecking, and I was trying to look and see who it was. I realized: ‘Oh my God, it’s that kid from the Black shoot in Auckland, this is crazy!’ I was egging on the guys in front of me: “what would you do with her on a desert island man?” We locked eyes and both kind of went ‘from Auckland to Paris, this is kinda unreal’. Since then I’ve done Raf Simons a couple of times with him, actually earlier this year I did Thom Browne with him in Paris and we went out for a bit of a crazy night. David Lynch just opened a club over there, we went and tore it up.
RC: What was Andrej wearing?
MW: A high-waisted skirt and a little white blouse. He was confusing male schoolgirl fantasies all over the place. Thom had given him the get-up. Andrej looked unreal.
RC: He wears women’s clothes better than just about anyone.
MW: Damn right. A little further down the track, after I had started university, Andrej started popping up in my lectures. The pictures of Andrej and I from Black were up on the projectors (laughs)…
GF: In your sociology lecture?
MW: Yeah, my lecturers would be intellectualising Andrej, and the cultural phenomenon that he is, saying that he is the nexus of androgyny, that sort of thing. I was like, ‘I know Andrej and I know that he is not consciously, cognitively doing these things’, but the fact that there is a doctoral academic thoroughly waxing lyrical about Andrej Pejic… I just… he also popped up in an English lecture. Andrej has spent more time in my lectures than I have! (laughs)
GF: Getting back to when you were overseas, on these modelling trips, were you doing much writing?
MW: No, not really during those years I was living, I guess, without much of a plan…
RC: That’s understandable, you were eighteen or nineteen.
MW: I didn’t really have much of an idea what I was going to do, what the implications of modelling were, or where it was going to take me. It was exciting to start with; as you go on you become more and more cynical about it. It was exciting at the beginning but no writing, no.
GF: So there were these sojourns to Europe and the USA to model, what made you decide to come back to Aotearoa and go to university?
MW: I think after having a very academic, intellectual time at school, a concerted period of study, I really, to be honest with you, was loving the fact of not having to think, which fashion allows you. It’s such an escape from having to be intense or introverted. You could literally come up with an entirely different persona, which is always happy, is always laughing, drinking and being jovial. I was just living for the day and it seemed like a rejection of the Kings mentality, right? Living in a shitty home but sort of thriving, thriving on this…
MW: Yeah absolutely, self-induced Bohemia. You have a lot of time to yourself when you are modelling, but getting back to your question about university in Auckland. I was in Paris, had just done another season and I needed a cheap ticket to get back to the States, I was trying to salvage my relationship with my girlfriend Jessica at that stage, so I got a friend of mine to conjure up a fake University of Auckland acceptance letter saying that I was a student there, and so could get a student flight, which was about a third of the price of a normal ticket. I had to click ‘enroll’ online and then my friend Photoshopped the document to get rid of the question mark in the ‘enroll’ section, so that it just had ‘enrolled’. I sent that through to the travel company, got my flight to New York, and when I got there the relationship was beyond on the rocks, just terrible, so I was at a loss. I was sitting in the bathtub, drunk, and I just felt like modelling would be over to some extent, once I left New York. I just felt like I didn’t want to be in New York. Right then, in the bathtub, my Ma called me up and said, “I’ve just received a letter from the University and you are supposed to be starting there in a week!” It was one of those decisive moments. I felt that this had presented itself for a reason, so I walked down to the Apple store, bought a ticket and left that night.
RC: So you were enrolled?
MW: Yeah, I was already enrolled, fraudulently or not! (laughs) Then when I got back I got this call from Balenciaga. In Europe, I hadn’t been making a crazy amount of money. I had been shooting a lot of a magazines and scraping by but I wasn’t raking it in. So, just after I got back, Balenciaga called my agent Marama from Paris and said, “we want Michael to come back to Paris!” It was going to be for a huge amount of money, they’d pay for me to live in a hotel for the next four months or whatever, but I had only just started my studies. I had been to a week of lectures. I had probably only heard about Andrej Pejic once! (laughs).
GF: Hell of a quandary!
MW: I’d been back for a week and all of a sudden the opportunity of a lifetime comes up, a hell of a lot of money. You watch The Sopranos, right? (Adopts an Italian-American drawl) “Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in!” (laughs) Thank you, Paulie! That’s what it felt like.
RC: So what happened?
MW: I went out for my little brother’s birthday after a show at fashion week. I had one more night to make the decision about whether I was going to leave university and sabotage that, because if you quit a university courses, you get a failed grade and it ruins your university career. So I went out that night with my brother and then ‘Boom!’ I’m in hospital and my face was entirely obliterated.
GF: That’s right that aggro bouncer hit you in the middle of fashion week and you couldn’t do the show Rach was styling for Huffer the next day.
MW: Yeah, my face was destroyed, so that made the decision for me. Once again, I think fate was keeping me on the academic path. Ever since then, I have been studying pretty hard at university. I’ve improved a lot, I have received some awards at university and I have a few scholarships now. I’m in Law School as well. In English, I have been getting recognition from a few people that matter. I guess I draw on the fact that some of the other kids that they are teaching have no life experience. If I had gone to university when I was sixteen, what the hell would I know about writing something meaningful, something that you guys would read, that would resonate.
GF: So what degrees are you currently doing?
MW: I’m in third year Law, and I am also doing a double major in English Literature and Sociology.
GF: Effectively three degrees?
RC: So when did you start writing poetry?
MW: I started in earnest on my most recent trip. I went over at the end of last year after a hectic study year, I’d been working my arse off, to be honest, and I needed some catharsis. I moved into the place where Jay Z grew up, Brooklyn’s ‘Marcy Projects’. My friend and I got a three-bedroom place there for ridiculously cheap rent. Our other roommate got shot and had to go back to Sweden…
GF: Just shot on the street?
MW: Yeah, coming out of the subway actually. At six in the morning he caught a bullet in the leg. It was pretty rough round there but it was so cheap. The rawness was a blessing. I just isolated myself…
RC: Like Jack Kerouac, holed up in Brooklyn, writing!
MW: One day! That was the first time that I started to feel like my poetry was coming together. It’s gone through several revolutions since then. At university I have been studying under the NZ Poet Laureate Ian Wedde. He took me under his wing to some extent because I think I was writing quite visceral stuff, which stood out a little bit…
RC: How does it make you feel, writing poetry, playing with your own words?
MW: There’s definitely a sense of satisfaction. I wrote something today actually, which I brought along to show you guys…
GF: Tell us more about Ian Wedde?
MW: Well it’s interesting, I met Patti Smith in New York and I know you guys really like her…
RC: Patti Smith!
MW: I went to a premiere of a movie at The MoMa and the paparazzi were snapping photos outside of these characters from the film, actors that come and go, and then just next to me was this kind of bedraggled looking woman standing there. No one was paying her any attention. She was just standing there having a cigarette and she turned to me and said, “I like your coat.” Then she was escorted into her escalade, and all of these photographers started snapping at her. It was Patti Smith! The paparazzi were so dumb, one of them was saying, “That’s a famous folk singer!” and started taking photos of Patti. Then all of the rest of them saw him taking photos and started taking photos of her – ‘we can’t miss out, we can’t miss out!’ – and they didn’t even know who she was.
GF: What sort of coat were you wearing?
MW: It was a Zambesi Man long trench, designed and given to me by Dayne Johnston.
RC: She would have been into that, she would have liked Zambesi…
MW: It meant so much to me because Dayne is such a good friend of mine. He deserves recognition like that.
GF: So what is the connection with Ian Wedde again?
MW: Well, I emailed him because he had talked a lot about her and advised us all to read Just Kids, which I duly did, and it’s amazing, right?
RC: Yeah, incredible…
MW: So I emailed him and said “Patti Smith liked my coat,” and he said “Yeah, I saw her at CBGB’s in the 80’s…”
GF: I played there with the Headless Chickens in the 90s. The floor was so caked in twenty years of booze that your feet stuck to the carpet as you walked along; “Schtick, schtick, schtick…”
MW: You played there?! Burroughs in the front row?! Ah! Grant, you are an incredible, humble man! I started to have more communication with Ian after that - Patti Smith was the catalyst.
GF: You have also written a play Michael, is that correct?
MW: I have just finished my first play, yes…
GF: What is it about?
MW: It is based upon Hollywood ideals. It is about how in the modern culture of entertainment there are these figures that are held up as Messianic characters and the catharsis of society is heaped upon them, and then through their self-destruction, society is vicariously relieved of its tensions. A Jim Morrison sort of character and we want them to fuck up, every time we open a newspaper, we want them to fuck up…
RC: You are right, that is increasingly the underlying premise of ‘women’s mags’.
GF: Which you read often! How does the play pan out?
MW: It’s a three-act play. In the first act, there is a monologue, with a girl go-go dancing behind a screen with various colours going on. All of a sudden there is a shot, a shotgun, which just splatters her against the front of the screen and she smears down to the floor. That’s how it starts and the second act is actually a film with various parts. The third act is a more choreographed ballet piece about the ideal of youth and beauty and how there is an element of child pornography in some movies, in some fashion – the ever-extending ideal of youth.
RC: Is there an element of the world you have seen through modelling in the play?
GF: Again the life experience side of that is coming through. You wouldn’t have been able to write that as you said earlier if you had gone directly from school to uni.
MW: I wouldn’t have known any of this stuff…
GF: How long do you have until you graduate, until you finish your degrees?
MW: It’s a conjoint so I have another two years of law to do, but just two more arts papers. I’m just deciding if I want to do a masters degree, and where - which university I would want to do that in. There are a lot of options. I am probably not going to be a lawyer, that’s someone else’s path…
RC: But there is a lot to learn in the field of law, even if you don’t become a lawyer.
MW: There is no point in not learning something, I’m at university and loving it. For me, it is just ‘devour’…I want to learn. Having said that, I am a notororious procrastinator. I’m manic. I’m lazy, I drink too much and time goes by..(laughs) I’m not that much of an enigma, but it comes in waves, it comes in flurries. When I do have flurries it is great and hopefully something will happen during one of those flurries that will give me ultimate satisfaction, right?
GF: In five years time what do you think you will be doing?
MW: I hope that I come out of this with some degree of a philosophy. You are given a life, which in and of itself, is kind of a masterpiece so maybe you owe one to the ether, to put out some kind of masterpiece. Hopefully in the next five years I get a little closer to doing it.