Empowered Pasifika Women: Hanelle Harris

In 2018, when I came back to the States after being in the NZ for my cousins wedding, I was looking for anything that would allow me to feel like I was still surrounded by other Pasifika people. I was calling my cousin probably every other day, and it was on one of those phone calls that my cousin suggested the web series, Baby Mama’s Club. Think John Tucker Must Die, but all the girls got pregnant by the same man and he goes missing. It’s an amazing adventure that you need to check out. 

What makes this show stand out is the trail blazing creator, Handel Harris. Someone who I have looked up to ever since seeing this show. She is a woman who is an ally, outspoken, and when she speaks, people listen. I think what I admire the most about Hanelle is how she creates space for everyone at her table. But, she doesn’t just invite people at her table. She brings them in and then teaches them how to build their own table. Making waves that will change the face of film and tv for generations to come. 

I was honored that she took a Zoom call with me to share a bit about the work she is doing and her story. 

Empowered Through Activism and Screen

Sipping Koko: In your own words, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m an Aries. Uh let’s start there! I am a proud Polynesian woman. I am Maori. I’m from the tribes of Ngati Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau and Ngapuhi. Ngapuhi women, we’re from the far north of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and we’re known to be quite fiery and natural leaders. Meri Mangakāhia was actually the first woman to actually cross the parliamentary floor boards even though history would say it was Kate Sheppard. Or, history would focus on Kate Sheppard as being the trailblazer for the women’s movement. But, really history records Meri Mangakāhia as being the first woman to cross the floorboards and table that not only should women be allowed to vote, but they should also be members of parliament. Meri was from up north. So, yeah, I would describe myself as quite fearless – a disrupter. I’m not afraid to confront systemic issues, but also a big fan of stories and a big fan of Indigenous and Polynesian people. And, I’m a mum of three!

Sipping Koko: What sparked you to go down this path?
I always wanted to be an actor as a child, much to my family’s disappointment. They thought I would go into law school. They always wanted me to be a lawyer. I was raised by my grandparents. The very first play I did when I was 7 was a pantomime of Cinderella. Every girl auditioned for Cinderella. I auditioned for the step mother cause I thought she had the best role and was the funniest. As an actor I’ve always been drawn to the antagonistic characters. I thought they were always more interesting. People always see them on the surface as one way, but actually, they have a backstory and lived experience that makes them behave and react the way they do.

This play my grandmother came to when I was 11 was Oliver Twist, and I was the Artful Dodger. And, I actually alternated the role with my crush. When my grandmother came to watch me in that play and I got off stage, she told me performing was my gift and what I was meant to do. I went through high school doing debating, speech competitions, and anything around performance. 

I then went to drama school when I was 17, and came out into the industry when it was quite desolate. There was nothing filming over here and got I depression really quickly at the whim of the industry. As an actor you’re in a powerless position. You can’t be creative or express your creativity unless you’re cast. We don’t really have acting classes over here. My best friend (Taofia Pelesasa) and I started writing a short film, and I was producing. Cause I’ve always been organized and driven. We were mentored early on by Sima Urale, the first Pasifika female to ever make a feature. We started applying for funding for this short film. We got shortlisted and didn’t get the funding, but it was enough for us to go, “We might actually be good at this!” Cause both Taofia and I were going through the same thing. We weren’t getting booked and weren’t getting creative. So, getting creative in another way through writing filled that gap. 

Then you get down to the politisl of it. Thinking – do I actually want these roles I’m auditioning for? Do I really want to be the “prisoner who is in jail because her husband beat her so much till she snapped one day and stabbed him to death and then she committed suicide and is now a ghost.” These are the roles I’m still getting hit up to audition for. When you take a step back and think, “Are these the roles we are really scrapping for?” Roles that are just so dehumanizing and degrading. It was at a time I just became a mom and I was more than these things. It’s sad that the world only knows Maori as Once Were Warriors. And, that’s it. Now Taika has done a good job with what he’s done. So, it’s a new perspective. But, where are the voices of our wahine? On a call recently to the US, I was saying that Polynesian women got the sauce, we’re hot, we’re smart, we’re funny! Everyone knows about The Rock, Taika, and Jason Momoa, but they don’t know about us, Polynesian women – we got it all! I’ve always found it hard when people criticize the women of Baby Mama’s Club. Like why are they trying to be like the Kardashians? And, I respond, “Are we not allowed to be sexy? Are we not allowed to be hot?” What’s wrong with looking at a Polynesian women and being like “that’s wifey!” Because if we know the layers, we’re trying to unpack the Eurocentric beauty standards and how us as Polynesian women don’t meet those standards. I don’t see it as a problem, I see it as the opposite. We’ve been mindful to have a diverse range of brown women. That’s what’s great about SIS is that we can have women from all socioeconomic backgrounds. At the end of the day I think Polynesian women should be exalted for the absolute goddesses that they are!

Sipping Koko: If a young Pasifika girl asked you, “Why is it important to empower other Pasifika women?” What would you tell her?
We can be harder on each other. We talk a lot about competitiveness in our industry. You feel it. It’s definitely out there. You either get two extremes. When you got something that’s successful like SIS. That has pierced the international spheres. You get people that are your biggest supporters or you get the people who will drag you. The people that will drag you the quickest and mostly your own – other Polynesian people. I think reminding our women, and not only our women but our people in general, is that there’s already enough dragging us down in the world. We have enough to fight in terms of systemic racism without having to drag each other. Which is not to say everyone should like SIS cause we’re brown. But, there’s a clear difference between giving feedback and being a hater. Because I think, as well, people need to understand that white people see us do it to each other and that actually gives them permission, when we’re dragging each other, to do it to us or to justify these reasons they’re not to give us these opportunities.

For me, there’s been work from other Polynesian people that I’ve seen that I’ve been like, “That’s not my cup of tea,” or I wish it was like this or like that. At the end of the day, when any work comes out that’s Polynesian we all get brushed with the same stroke. We do feel that burden of representation. For SIS, we’re constantly thinking how can we make this the best that it can be so when the next brown woman goes to a network they don’t have to go through everything we went through. SIS and Baby Mama’s are examples of shows that were at so many levels with so many powerful people saying they are not original ideas or they don’t have an audience. We got so many no’s to get here. We’ve had to fight against a lot of doubt to get here. Now that we’re here we have to ensure we’re not giving the networks a reason to say no to someone else. We actually all play a part in that. We play a part in supporting each other. 

It’s not just that Polynesian women empower other Polynesian women, but that Polynesian people support and hold space. That we protect our community. We need to protect each because there’s already so many people waiting for us to fail out there that we shouldn’t be tripping each other up before we’re off the starting block.   

Sipping Koko: Who do you look up to as role models?
Merata Mita. Berry Barclay. My Grandparents. My children and the next generation are the motivation for what I do, but my grandparents are the inspiration for why I work so hard. Just those old school values.

Sipping Koko: What song empowers you?
Already by Beyoncé

Sipping Koko: What movie brings you inspiration?
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen

Sipping Koko: What is one quote that you think of when needing encouragement?
“There’s an ‘i’ in illness, but a ‘we’ in wellness” – Grayson Goffe, SIS Kaitiaki (Spiritual Guide). And, any of our old sayings – Māori Proverbs.

Sipping Koko: What is your advice to Pasifika women who are on the journey to empowerment?
Back in the day, often our purpose would be bestowed upon us by our elders. We would be born and a lot of our birth stories – our names that we were given were often indicators with what we did with our lives. I believe that some of our gifts, callings, purposes have been handed down to us by our tupuna. It could be as simple as looking at the name that you carry. Do you carry any ancestral names? Learn about that tupuna. What did they do with their life? Both of my middle names – one of them was a land activist and the other one was an advocate for Te Reo Māori. So, it’s no surprise to me that I am what some call an advocate or activist. Cause I just have to look at my name and who I was named after and understand both of those women and what traits they carried.

Identify your calling through the gifts you were given. Cause we all have certain gifts. You have to strip everything you know. For our Pasifika whanau as opposed to our Māori whanau, Christianity is a bigger player. The church plays a bigger role than it does for Māori people. To be successful [in a colonial sense] is to be a lawyer, doctor, teacher. These are all colonial success metrics. People need to look beyond. Yes, it is some people’s calling to seek justice for people or their calling to share knowledge. But, oftentimes that’s not why people are encouraged to go into those professions. It’s more the way that it sounds on paper. 

I could have talked with Hanelle and picked her brain all day. She is a wealth of knowledge and inspiration. It was a joy and blessing to have the time with her. Her story is one that I will be sharing with my future children to inspire them on their journey to understanding their purpose in our community. I have so much appreciation for the work she does to uplift our collective voices. Be sure to follow her on social media and support the works she and her team are doing. Like she said in the interview it is when we support each other that we show the world what we can do as a people.


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