Walking down the beach boardwalk, looking like a swimsuit model with her long brown hair flowing in the wind and surfboard tucked under her arm, Maaia Reid-Bennett is every bit Miss Mount Maunganui.
“I’m a local girl and I’ve grown up surfing with my entire family,” says Maaia. “I just love the beaches here, it’s so nice. I’ve seen so many places around New Zealand and nowhere is like here.”
Posing for The Weekend Sun photographer Tracy Hardy, the 16-year-old looks born for the beach and it’s clear Maaia just wants to get in the surf. She’d just been out in the waves when we called her.
The Mount Maunganui teen is the first local winner of the annual beauty pageant competition since Gypsea Harrison in 2010, after she was announced the 2015 winner of the competition’s new online format this month.
“I think it’s quite cool being the first online contest and I won it – that’s pretty crazy,” says Maaia. “I had lots of notifications and messages and phone calls. I felt so famous.
“I think the online was way easier, I don’t know if I could get up in front of everyone.”
But if the surf is the stage, Maaia’s all for it. The cousin of Mount surfing sensation Kehu Butler, Maaia is preparing for event one of the 2016 Billabong Grom Series at Mount Maunganui on January 30-31.
“I surf almost every day, practising for competitions working on improving my skills,” says Maaia.
The annual beauty competition made the transition to online voting for the first time this year, breaking a 60-year New Year’s Eve tradition of a beauty pageant style at Mount Main Beach.
For six decades, bikini-clad beauties have been invited to grace the beach stage in a bid to be crowned Miss Mount Maunganui on New Year’s Eve. This year, the competition ran across two days on January 2-3 and encouraged entrants to have their picture taken on the beach opposite Mount Drury, with photos uploaded to zmonline.com for a week-long public vote.
Maaia was with her aunty Summer Bennett when she entered unintentionally. “She tricked me into entering. I just came in from a surf and she was like: ‘Come get a photo with me and we can win a Frisbee and some nail polish’. Then they told me this was for Miss Mount Maunganui and I was like: ‘Wait, what?’”
While previous Miss Mount competitions have invited entrants to perform a talent on stage in their bikini and answer questions, this year’s online format only required a photograph to be taken.
“It wasn’t a competition on looks,” says NZME central region brand engagement manager Matt Davy. “A photo can speak a thousand words. It came down to finding the personality in the photo.
“The girl who won [Maaia] had her surfboard, she’s a surfer chick from the Mount so she fits that part really well.”
Liam Whareaitu, 19, was crowned Mr Mount, with the Little Miss Sunshine competition left off the beauty pageant schedule this year.