You may not remember Suzanne Paul’s Rawaka Maori Village, but the internet does.
You may not remember Suzanne Paul’s Rawaka Maori Village, but the internet does.

SocietyJuly 10, 2024

Remembering Suzanne Paul’s ‘cursed’ Māori Village

You may not remember Suzanne Paul’s Rawaka Maori Village, but the internet does.
You may not remember Suzanne Paul’s Rawaka Maori Village, but the internet does.

Two decades ago, Aotearoa’s infomercial queen staked her fortunes on a ‘tiki-tacky’ business venture and (almost) lost it all. Lyric Waiwiri-Smith looks back on Suzanne Paul’s bankruptcy era.

With $15 and a dream, Suzanne Paul rose from working class Britain to one of New Zealand’s most iconic screen queens (thank you, Natural Glow). But you don’t get to 500,000,000 television appearances without making a few mistakes, and 20 years ago this month, Paul made the biggest of her life: her Māori cultural theme park.

Paul’s Rawaka Māori Village, otherwise known as the “Maori village” (no macron of course), was a short-lived noughties venture – part business, part passion, but mostly business – which left her bankrupt after the venue was put in voluntary liquidation owing over $1 million.

On the surface, it seemed like foolproof plan: a rich, white British woman whose business dealings had revolved around flogging beauty products, opening a cultural playground where other white people could learn about those mysterious Māori.

Remembered as “the most significant event in Paul’s demise” in the Pacific Journalism Review, the project got underway in July 2003 with the goal of a December opening date. After multiple delays, Rawaka finally welcomed patrons in April 2004, before shutting its doors a few months later in July.

Unfamiliar with Rawaka? Articles from the noughties gleefully recount the money woes (of which there are many) Paul incurred from her failed venture, but an image search will return next to no evidence of any Paul-owned Māori Village ever existing, apart from one photo hidden in a Viva profile with Paul staring longingly at a carved statue (her dyed ginger hair and the poor image quality being proof of the time period).

It was supposed to be “kapa haka meets cabaret”, in Paul’s words. A project that could tap into the tourism market and revitalise Auckland’s Fisherman’s Wharf, which had been left derelict after a string of businesses failed to keep the Northcote location a hot spot since its opening in 1971.

At Rawaka, for $125 a pop, you could enter a whare built by Paul’s then-fiancé Duncan Wilson, enjoy food cooked in a hāngī-style oven (with steak and chips and the British dish bubble and squeak on the menu), take in a dinner show with Māori music and dancers organised by Mika X (yes, that Mika) and stay the night at the venue, according to the Rotorua Daily Post.

A write-up titled “Tiki tacky — Suzanne Paul comes unstuck with Māori plan” in the Sunday Star Times noted “warriors in dry ice, a cash bar under the stage and polystyrene animals carved by her fiancé,” but criticisms of the venture being “clichéd and inappropriate” hadn’t “impressed [the village’s] cultural advisors.”

Northcote’s Awataha Marae worked with Paul to bring her dreams to life, but other local iwi had distanced themselves from the project, with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s Tiwana Tibble telling the New Zealand Herald the venture was “not well designed and thought out.”

But that was just dirt off the moa’s back for Paul, who told the Sunday Star Times those criticising Rawaka were “people who are wanting to open their own cultural show on Bastion Point,” referencing Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and tourism company Oceania Attractions’ plans for a major Māori tourism facility which never eventuated.

An excerpt from Zella Morrison's interview with the NZH.
Actor Temuera Morrison and his sister Zella, a business advisor, were initially approached to consult on the project, but said Paul did not take their advice seriously. Credit: New Zealand Herald.

Paul tried to enlist the help of Temuera and Zella Morrison, two people who are famously Māori, but was turned down after failing to take their suggestions on cultural sensitivity seriously. “She has a good heart, but she’s not in tune with the seriousness of what she is doing,” Zella told the Herald at the time. Māori are not a product you can merchandise like Natural Glow.”

The Morrisons took issue with how quickly Paul managed to get her idea of a Māori tourist destination in Auckland up and running – what should have been an 18-month build in the Morrisons’ eyes was rushed by Paul, who continuously changed the venue’s opening date as builders failed to keep up with demands.

It seemed the bad press was getting to Paul she had at first denied the Herald’s Michele Hewitson an interview and walk-about ahead of Rawaka’s official opening because she was tired of playing nice with journalists then seeing them go away and write something “nasty.” But Paul gave in, Hewitson did get the tour and interview, and justified her subject’s fears of a negative story.

Paul envisioned “Māorioke” sessions (as in, Māori karaoke) of Pōkarekare Ana, joining the cultural performance with her own poi, and faux flax wallpaper. “The endearing thing about Paul is that she doesn’t pretend she doesn’t absolutely love being rich and famous,” Hewitson wrote. “She knows she is a show-off. She adores red carpets and dressing up and being photographed.”

When the venue was liquidated and put back on the market in July 2004, a report by liquidator Mike Lamacraft valued the venture at $1,163,500, with  $482,000 owed to staff and $326,500 to tradespeople and other creditors. A year later, Paul was declared bankrupt.

Among the exhibits planned for Rawaka was a ‘writhing’ animatronic moa being attacked by an eagle.

Maybe it wasn’t Paul’s fault after all – as one Barbara Doyle told the New Zealand Herald in 2004, the venue itself was actually “cursed.” Her reasoning? She went bankrupt in the same location after opening the Doyles restaurant there in 2000. By the end of the year the eatery was, like its surroundings, liquidated.

At night time if you came up into the main part and got a drink out of the bar, you’d think, ‘Get the hell out of there, really quickly,’” she said. “The place is haunted, it really is.”

But ghosts in the walls and owed creditors are nothing to a woman who could sell suntan to a seashell, and Paul quickly got to work doing what she does best: smiling and promoting, signing a deal with As Seen On TV Wholesalers for advance payments on Radiessence, the Massage Pillow and other infomercial classics. 

Between December 2005 and March 2007, Paul was paid $331,000 by ASOTV, but after she made a request to pull her image from ASOTV endorsements in 2008, the company sued her for $300k the following January, before withdrawing their suit days out from the hearing.

She famously appeared on and won the third season of Dancing With The Stars, with her $142,879.65 in prize money going straight to Starship Children’s Hospital. A Herald cartoon by Rod Emmerson at the time depicted Paul on the television, and a row of her creditors waiting to vote to keep her on the screen.

Paul and DWTS NZ partner Stefano Oliveri danced their way to glory in 2007

In 2008 Paul released her memoir But Wait There’s More, and in 2010 she told Women’s Weekly she was ready to leave her darkest days behind her and move onto her next venture, in a totally untapped market (unlike bronzer): clothes for petite women.

There’s a reason Metro magazine stuck to its guns and named Paul the “woman with the most integrity” in 2006, despite her Rawaka fallout – that reason being Metro was able to understand the New Zealander psyche of the 2000s, and know that no matter how bankrupt or racially insensitive you are, there will always be a spot for you on the television.

Look at any write-up of Paul’s life, and you’ll be pressed to find a mention her Rawaka venture, with writers opting to pass it off as a blip in her finances, a mere bankruptcy flop era. Say the name “Suzanne Paul,” and most minds will wander to the glory days of 90s infomercials, or one of her many other television ventures, such as being the face of everything

Despite being three years old when it opened, the legend of the Rawaka Māori Village rings in my ears whenever I hear the name “Suzanne Paul”. I’m sure the same can be said for Temuera and Zella Morrison, and probably Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, too (unlike Awataha Marae, who have other things to worry about now).

Keep going!