Naturally slender, dressed head to toe in black, and hiding behind her rock star sunglasses – Danielle Hayes is every inch New Zealand’s Next Top Model.
As she poses for Life + Style’s photographer, she turns it on, working her best angles, displaying high amounts of patience as she’s made to repeat her strut down the Mount Maunganui boardwalk again and again.
But as soon as the camera is off, and we’re sitting at a café for a chat, the Danielle we’re familiar with comes out. Foul mouthed, brutally honest and an abundance of excitement and stories – you can take the girl out of New Zealand, but you can’t take New Zealand out of the girl.
It’s been five years since 62 Models’ Sara Tetro announced Danielle from Kawerau, then 19, as the winner of the inaugural competition. She’s spent her early twenties doing what many of us can only dream of: high-flying travel, exotic locations, penthouse apartments and getting paid to party and rub shoulders with Oscar winners and award-winning pop stars.
Has this become the new normal for the small town girl?
“I guess so,” she says, “but coming back here I’m like ‘what’s normal to me?’ I needed a break – I had been working for two years nonstop, so I came home to recap, put things into perspective and figure out who I am besides modelling.”
It hasn’t been an easy ride for Danielle, who was painted as the wild child of the show. Frequently reprimanded for her bad attitude, many were surprised when she took the coveted title – including Sara.
“After the show, I was told all sorts of excuses, so they didn’t put the time and effort into moulding me for overseas work,” she explains. “Sara said I’d never work overseas.”
Landing runway at designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s show at Paris Fashion Week last year was certainly a big “up yours” then.
It took three years to get out of her contract, her winner’s prize, during which time she went back to study and stayed away from the all-consuming, expensive Auckland market. Then, an Australian agent, who had just finished watching NZ Top Model, got in touch to offer representation.
After a little negotiating – Daniele was older, wiser and going on her terms – she packed up her bags and headed to Melbourne. It was a mere four months more before she was off to the US, where her career took leaps and bounds. All before her 25th birthday.
Has she always been this driven? Growing up the middle child of five, Danielle admits finding her own focus was key.
Martial arts helped with that – from age five she was training taekwondo with her uncle in Opotiki, then later her father. It’s easy to imagine the hard-nosed beauty taking no prisoners.
“I was scared of my opponent!” she reveals with a laugh. “She was 10ft tall and I was only little – about six or seven-years-old. I stood there and I just cried.”
While she’s been given the hard word from her agency to stay away from contact sports, there’s enough going in her life now to keep her focused.
Ask her to name a career highlight and there’s too many to pick: Be it celebrating her 23rd birthday in Sweden, shooting for Elle magazine, or Harper’s Bazaar in Munich, and then there’s the Gaultier runway in Paris.
“I only knew of Gaultier, I wasn’t familiar with his work. I didn’t realise how big he was,” Danielle admits, ever the down-to-earth Kiwi girl, unfazed by her surroundings. “That was the first time I got to meet Rihanna too. She got to check out the gowns backstage.”
The former celebrity journalist in me has to ask: So what was she like? “She was short! Most Americans are quite short.”
That’s Danielle for you. Rihanna’s just one name of many she’s encountered – Cuba Gooding Junior, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lenny Kravitz. As a model, she says, you get paid to party, to look good. But for Danielle, there’s nothing glamorous about hard work.
“Every two months I was in a different country – how bizarre is that? When you get thrown into a new country, you have to find your own way, learn the language. It’s a whirlwind.”
Our coffees come out, accompanied by a baking sample. In an industry obsessed with image and body weight, does Danielle watch what she eats? “I eat whatever,” she affirms, as she bites into the biscuit.
“I bought six chocolate bars at the diary – three for me, three for a friend – and the woman at the diary asked me, ‘Are you allowed to eat that?’ I was like, ‘are you allowed to ask me questions like that?’”
The fickle industry hasn’t changed the Bay of Plenty girl. Pragmatic as ever, Danielle knows this wild ride won’t last forever and is already starting to put plans in place for her next step.
She’s released her T-shirt line YY Express and has ambitions to do more than model with her future.
“I’m just ticking things off my life,” she says. “I want to write a book, I want to write a song and get to more than 1000 views on YouTube. Anything is possible, you just need to make your mind up and do it. And at the moment I am just doing everything I put my mind to.”