There’s no question that Parris Goebel is a world-class talent with something special going for her. Just ask Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bieber, Nicky Minaj, Janet Jackson, and Rihanna — some of the big names who’ve called on her award-winning skills as a dancer, choreographer, and director.
But what’s also clear from her autobiography, Young Queen, is how hard she’s worked for her success.
“I didn’t wake up successful,” she writes. “No one saw the hours and hours I put into each and every routine . . . No one saw what it took to make all of that happen. That I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating. That this was not luck or chance . . . this was hard work.”
That Sorry music video with the 2.9 billion views, for example. Parris choreographed and produced that in just two days — and then went on to wrap up all 13 music videos for Justin Bieber’s Purpose album in a month.
Parris, who’s 26, is South Auckland born and bred, and the youngest of four children. Mum is LeeAnn (nee Siteine, from Pesega and Sauniatu in Samoa) and dad (“Big Poppa”) is Brett Goebel, her manager.
Parris opened her own (now internationally acclaimed) dance studio, The Palace, in Penrose, at 17. In two years, the studio went from eight dancers to just under a hundred, with four dance crews who regularly cleaned up at the hip-hop world championships — including three-time world champions, The Royal Family.
Not bad for someone who left school at 15. In this extract from her book, she explains why school just wasn’t for her.
High School Dropout
I wasn’t exactly the brightest kid at school. Okay so … maybe I barely even went to school. And when I did go to school, I might have been three hours late or dozing off behind a book. It’s safe to say I pretty much hated school. Not sure how much school liked me back either, lol.
Then, AS IF school wasn’t stressful enough, I hit adolescence and everything just got worse. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I am talking about. I turned thirteen and my curly hair got in the way, so did my acne, and so did my boobs – girls, you feel me?
It’s almost like my Polynesian genes wanted to all of a sudden announce themselves. My hair went from super sleek and straight to super curly, frizzy and just totally out of control. Not only did I get the blessing of the ’fro, but I also started to get the Samoan curves. I’m workin’ them now but back then those milkshakes did not bring all the boys to the yard.
And acne ruined my life and got rid of every last bit of confidence I had. All of us Goebel children were tragically cursed with dad’s horrible acne gene (yeah, thanks Daddy). Meanwhile, Mumma has never had a pimple in her entire life, which I still find hard to comprehend. So I had frizzy hair, was getting extra meat where I didn’t want it, and I had crazy skin. Woohoo! Fun times.
Back then I wasn’t the confident Parris I am now and all these things hit my self-esteem really hard.
Curly vs straight
When I was thirteen, I went to a high school around the corner from us. They call it a Pālagi high school, which means a white high school in Samoan. Basically, I was one of the only Polynesian girls in my year and I clearly remember feeling very different and even a little bit of an outcast.
Because I was half Polynesian and half white, aka “afakasi” in Samoan, I was struggling with my own identity and with fitting in. I was obsessed with trying to straighten my hair every day to look more European and … yes, so boys would like me.
I would spend hours and hours doing it, but then, it’s like, my skin was a little browner and my features more Poly – so I was fighting an uphill battle. At the time being different was really difficult for me personally and, I think, probably for my sisters as well.
I had gone to mostly white schools before this point, but once I reached high school things started to feel more oppressive. You know how it goes – adolescence, hormones, everything is changing and you just want to fit in.
I wanted to write about this because I know so many other young afakasi and Polynesian teens grapple with these feelings as I did. Let me just say, you are not alone. I’ve been there, and trust me it’s a journey worth going through as you will eventually find your way.
Now I have such a tremendous appreciation for my culture and identity, but unfortunately as a young girl I hadn’t figured all of that out yet. I was teased and bullied throughout primary school for the way I looked, so by the time I reached high school I was sensitive and insecure.
It took me to a dark place emotionally and, unfortunately, at thirteen years old, I ended up depressed for the first time. I even experienced suicidal thoughts – I was really struggling with feeling like I didn’t belong.
I went in and out of depression through my teenage years, which was a big challenge for me. To have all this talent and drive, but also so many mind battles and insecurities, was something I had to really work through.
My mum realised that I really wasn’t happy, so she asked me if I wanted to change schools. Of course I did. She switched me to an all-girls, more Polynesian school called Auckland Girls’ Grammar.
And so, from third to fourth form, things honestly did get a lot better. For whatever reasons, I felt there was less pressure at the all-girls school. First of all, there weren’t any boys, so I felt like I could be myself a little bit more – like, no one wore make-up and no one shaved their legs.
And even though I still felt different, there were way more Polynesian girls there that I could connect with.
Loud and proud
What I love about Polynesian girls is that they tend to have no shame and are just really fun and funny. So, I naturally felt more comfortable around them. The new school was good for me and definitely helped boost my confidence.
As soon as I changed schools and was around more girls that looked like me, I started to wear my hair curly again and speak up more. I started to find more beauty in me, the real me, which was something that was really liberating. I was slowly and surely on my way to finding out what I love about myself…
Maccas over maths
But … and here comes a big but … even though I was feeling more comfortable in my own skin and enjoying the social parts of school more, I’d still be more likely to wag school with a girlfriend and hit up Maccas rather than go to maths class most of the time.
It was obvious, school itself I still really hated and I wasn’t doing much better with grades. I was falling asleep in classes and I would go late, like, eighty per cent of the time. So that part didn’t change much. Also, I really didn’t get along with most of my teachers, which was sad.
Thinking back, I don’t really remember any teachers trying to help or encourage me. Sure, my enthusiasm for the subjects at school wasn’t there, but I couldn’t help it, all I could think about was dancing behind Beyonce.
As I’ve gone through life, I’ve noticed I’m not the only one who feels like this. I’ve met a lot of people who felt let down by school or a lack of encouragement or positive attention. I think this can be a common feeling in teenagers. I truly believe that with kids like me, who are different, there is an opportunity to engage their potential.
Maybe they aren’t the smartest, but chances are there is something they are really passionate about. When I was at school, I already knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to dance. But people would laugh under their breath when I told them because, in their opinion, it wasn’t a “realistic career”.
Really, the only people who believed in me were my family. I very quickly learned there was no support or opportunity for hip hop in New Zealand. I made a mental note to myself that when I grew up I would do everything in my power to let other young Kiwi kids with a dream believe that if they work hard enough – they can achieve it!
When I was fifteen, my dad went to my parent–teacher interviews. Dad was hearing the same thing from all my teachers: That I wasn’t doing well, I wasn’t engaged, I wasn’t trying. And something else about me being a terrible writer – Ha, look at me now! Add “author” to my CV, Miss – lol.
Anyway, after those fateful parent–teacher interviews, Dad pretty much sat me down and said, “Okay, we’re going to pull you out of school.”
Yeah, not the most normal thing a parent has ever said to their fifteen-year-old daughter, but … how could I say no to that? Of course, I was all for it. You’re telling me I don’t have to go to school ever again?? That’s a big YES from me.
But to be very honest with you, I was also kind of freaking out. It wasn’t like I was sitting there thinking, Yeah, gurl … you got this, now go and kill it. It wasn’t like that at all. It was more like, Hi. Um, my name is Parris, middle name Renee, I dropped out of school and I love to dance.
That was pretty much all I knew, and I really didn’t know what exactly I was going to do after dropping out. I do feel like I have to put a disclaimer here because, let’s face it, for most people dropping out of school isn’t exactly the best idea. Staying in school definitely gives you more options.
But for a small number of people, me included, I don’t think school is the answer. The fact is, I am really lucky to have had the guidance of my family to help me find my way. In that moment, it was a leap of faith, but it just seemed to make the most sense for me and for my dad to take me out of school.
I appreciate my dad so much for recognising who I was and my potential, even though I didn’t totally see it myself at the time. Honestly, if I wanted to be anything – a builder, a dentist, a boxer or whatever – my parents would have supported me. They would never have forced us kids to do anything we didn’t want to do or that we don’t love.
But that’s the thing, school was never going to get me to where I wanted to go. I am really thankful to my dad for realising that first and for having the courage to act on it.
SO, BIG POPPA … WHY EXACTLY DID YOU PULL PARRIS OUT?
Dad: I went to the parent–teacher interview and the teacher was going on and on about Parris’s essay writing, and I was thinking, Are you serious? What does it matter if Parris is writing essays really well? How is that relevant to her life?
I knew Parris wanted to dance, so I said, “Okay. Parris really wants to be a dancer, so how is this going to help her?” She couldn’t tell me. She just said she has to improve her essay writing.
Just prior to this conversation, we had taken Parris to have some classes with a choreographer in Los Angeles, and that choreographer told us she thought there was something special about Parris. A week or so later, I’m at that parent–teacher interview and I probably still had that in the back of my mind. And so what the teacher was saying just didn’t make sense. The teacher really didn’t understand Parris, and so, yeah, I decided it was the right thing to just pull her out.
I always felt there was something in Parris. There was more, you know. I’m a dream big person anyway, by nature. My other kids were really fine in school, but with Parris it was different, it wasn’t her thing. So I thought, Why keep pushing this? I just pulled her out and said, Okay, let’s go.
It’s interesting, because I only learned years later that Parris was petrified to leave school.
Obviously, I didn’t think about it. Parris had no CV, no experience, but with my kids, whatever they tell me they want to do, I want them to do it and I want to help them to do it. Somehow we’ll do it. I only found out later that she wasn’t sure. I didn’t know exactly how it would happen or what it would be, but I knew that dance was for her.
AND MUM … HONESTLY, WHAT DID YOU THINK ABOUT ALL THIS?
Mum: At first, it was very scary for me and when Brett and Parris came home from that interview and told me, it was a bit of a shock. I can’t say I was happy about it. I thought, My kids can’t drop out of school. Only troubled kids, with troubled families, drop out. That wasn’t Parris. Brett’s view was, “If Parris doesn’t want to go to school, why force her, why force the kids to do anything they don’t want to do?”
He is a huge believer in letting kids be who they want to be, and whatever they want to be. In time I understood what he said and how he felt, so I kind of had to give, but I still wasn’t happy about it. But Brett saw something in Parris long before I did. He is a creative in his own right, so he could see it and he could also really help her to pursue her dreams.”
I have a dream
So that was it. I burned my books and skipped my way out of the classroom. But, as excited as I was, I was also really unsure. After I left school, at first it felt like there was a lot of … nothing.
In fact, that year I dropped out is a massive, massive blur for me now. I remember being a little bit lost and a little bit embarrassed – and also having too much pride to show it.
While I was just starting to blossom and find my way in dance, I was still going through adolescence and experiencing a lot of self-doubt, especially from about fourteen to sixteen. I felt like I was in limbo. I still had crazy acne and frizzy hair.
These might seem like little things, but they were big things to me back then. I know that a lot of girls go through this. To all you young women – I totally relate. I’ve been there, boo.
Although I was this lost little girl in the middle of New Zealand, I was also this lost little girl in the middle of New Zealand with a BIG dream, and deep down inside I was determined to make my dream a reality.
So, the year that I dropped out, there wasn’t a lot happening for me. Still, I couldn’t help but get up every day and move my body. I would dance in my room every day and imagine myself on stage in front of thousands of people. YouTube had only just started up – in fact, I barely knew about it – so I was still pretty blind to the outside world and what was happening in dance worldwide. A beautiful blind, I’d like to think, and I talk about that more later.
I had this raw, original energy. And I just loved to dance. There was little to influence me and, in those days, it was just me, some music and the small mirror in my bedroom. But before long, the universe would start showing me signs that this was what I was born to do. Things would slowly start falling into place and people would begin to recognise my talent.
I can honestly say, that if I didn’t drop out of high school, I don’t know where I would be today – but it certainly wouldn’t be here. It was the best decision I ever made. This girl might have had a year of uncertainty, insecurity and limbo, but … this girl was about to fly.
This is an extract from Parris Goebel’s autobiography, Young Queen, published by Mary Egan Publishing. For every book sold, $1 will be donated to Sisters United — the charity that Parris founded with her sisters, Kendal and Narelle, dedicated to mentoring Māori and Pacific women and youth throughout New Zealand.