Kevin Hollingsworth, a Rotorua builder, was dead keen in the 1980s for Donald, his teenage son, to learn a trade. Which he did. Not a standard tradesman sort of trade, though, for Donald. He opted instead for hairdressing and he’s been doing that (and makeup, too) over the last 35 years, starting off near home and then spreading his rainbow wings to Auckland, King’s Cross in Sydney and beyond, and back again now in Rotorua.
It’s been a different world from the one he might’ve experienced as a plumber or carpenter, where the chances are that he wouldn’t have spent much time beautifying celebrities such as Liv Tyler. But it’s been a world where his talents have blossomed — and where he made his dad proud.
Kia ora e hoa. Let’s start with names because that’s a good place to begin. For instance, have you got a middle name?
Yes, I’m Donald Ngaronoa Hollingsworth. And I’m Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine. I was the first grandchild born after my grandmother passed in 1970. Whenever there’s a moko who’s born after an important person has passed, people ask: “Are they in that baby? Are they there?”
For me, Ngaronoa means “long time lost” or “without tapu”, which is essentially the life that I’ve led. I believe my name has strengthened me and kept me safe in the 51 years that I’ve been around.
Tell us about your home life, Donald. And your whakapapa lines.
Well, my dad, Kevin Hollingsworth, was Australian. He was born in Melbourne. My mother Hinepare (nee Waetford) is Ngāti Hine, the youngest of her whānau of 16. Because of that, I’ve got 65 first cousins. So, it’s quite something at reunions.
You say that school life was tough for you. How come?
I grew up takatāpui. I had a high voice, I was naturally effeminate, and I was struggling with that because I had no idea what it was about. And the other kids didn’t know what it was about either.
They’d ask: “Why do you talk like that? Why do you walk like that?” All of that sort of stuff. And I was like: “This is what God gave me. I’m not a mistake.”
At times, it was verging on bullying. But I didn’t want to identify as someone who was bullied and victimised, so I just pulled myself out of it.
I love your attitude, bro. But there must’ve been hard times, as you came to terms with the reality. When did you accept that you were gay? And what was the reaction?
My parents, my aunties, and all the people that I was close to, let me be myself. They never questioned anything.
There are stories of me, as a three-year-old, playing outside with my sister’s little pram — and it’s got a doll in it and I’ve got a little scarf on my head. And Mum would sit there in the washhouse and watch me playing around out the front of the house, and my father would come home from work, and they’d see me doing that.
Did they ever stop me? No. They never did.
I didn’t really sit down with them and tell them I was gay, like a lot of people in the rainbow community have done. I didn’t have to do that. I was able just to be myself the whole time.
At my aunty’s house in the school holidays, I’d go inside and be like: “Aunty, my cousin is being mean.” And she’d go: “Don’t worry about it, boy. You come inside and peel the potatoes with me.” Or set the table. Or scoop out these feijoas and learn how to preserve.
They gave me incredible skills — a skillset that was just normal for me to learn. I’m a great cook because of it. And I know how to keep house.
New Zealand, in the 1970s and ’80s, wasn’t as tolerant as we find ourselves in 2021. Did you ever get depressed with the tormenting from others?
Yeah, definitely. It was difficult through my growing up, and I did feel a bit dark, especially when you’re growing into your adult body.
It wasn’t until I moved to Sydney that I became more confident. I learned from my gay whānau. They taught me just to be myself, so that, whenever there was some sort of homophobia, I was able to handle it.
One thing I will say is that, although I was harassed by other kids when I was growing up, today, with the internet, it’s much worse. What we say to people face to face tends to be more moderate.
But online, you know, they tell you: “Go and kill yourself.” Stuff like that. And there are no words that aren’t used online. They go straight to suicide, which is awful.
Many of our gay community are Māori, and it’s been that way since the year dot. But many gravitated towards Sydney, especially King’s Cross, because that’s where there was a wider acceptance. What drew you to the rainbow community across the Tasman?
It was my career, because I’m a hairdresser. Over there, you’re more likely to meet a rainbow whānau and feel accepted. And then, when you come back home, you’re like: “Hey, what’s the big deal? That’s who I am.”
A good many takatāpui tend to find a new whānau to help them through life — to avoid becoming so depressed, so dark, and so unaccepted.
Acceptance is everything. Once you’re accepted, then you don’t go anywhere near addiction. You shouldn’t spend a lot of time by yourself. We should be with other people.
How did you get into hairdressing?
I did an apprenticeship in a little salon in Arawa St, in Rotorua. I worked there for about three years, then finished my apprenticeship in Auckland and moved to Sydney when I was 21.
I’m glad I started off in Rotorua because my employer there taught me some great skills — and when I moved to Sydney, I learned how to do makeup and stuff like that.
My career was everything to me, but because I had my rainbow whānau over there, I also had a social life where I was accepted and loved. And I had that at work, too.
Growing up being takatāpui, when you go to a hairdressing salon, you’re instantly accepted. That’s why a lot of the rainbow community choose fashion or hairdressing or beauty therapy or that type of stuff, because it’s where we’re accepted. You don’t experience the homophobia you might experience if you went for another trade, like building or plumbing.
I remember my father saying to me when I was 16: “You’ve gotta get off the couch and stop watching Oprah Winfrey with your mother. And get a job. Get a trade, because you can take that anywhere.”
I said: “No, no, no! I don’t want to be a builder.” And he said: “Just do anything.” In about a month, I got a hairdressing apprenticeship, and I couldn’t wait to tell him.
I said: “Dad, I got a job!”
“Oh, that’s good.”
“And I even got an apprenticeship.”
I said: “Hairdressing.”
And he said: “Well, at least it’s a trade.”
I’ll always remember that.
Back when I worked with Liv Tyler for the Lord of the Ring premieres, I toured with her, doing her hair and makeup for all the big occasions.
There was one major performance in Wellington, and I was in the hotel after I’d just done Liv for the breakfast that she had with the prime minister at the time. I think it was Helen Clark.
Anyway, I was sitting in the hotel waiting for Liv to come back for me to prepare her for the premiere, and one of the Rotorua radio stations rang my hotel room and said: “We’ve been talking to your dad.”
“Oh, what did Dad say?”
“He said you were ‘down in Wellington with Liv Tyler’.” I always remembered that about my dad.
He was a builder. When he passed, Mum and I went up to his workshop to clean out his little office, and above his desk, he had a framed picture of me on the red carpet with Liv Tyler.
I hadn’t been aware of that before, but I knew then that he’d been proud of me.
Let’s talk about hair and makeup. Obviously, you’ve got to factor ethnicity into your work. You’ve got all different hair types and skin colours. Are you good at making up and styling brown people?
Yes. That’s essentially the kaupapa of my salon. It is a pro-Māori salon for Māori and Pacific Islanders, because I can handle their hair. I find a lot of manuhiri come, too, because I’m genuinely interested in manuhiri as well.
When you come to my salon, you don’t just come in and get your hair cut. You come in and have a chat, and I like to serve nice coffee or kawakawa tea. There’s good wifi here, and there’s a table where people can work while I’m doing their colour.
A lot of intimate kōrero goes on in these places and, from my own experience, I know some hairdressers talk and some don’t. They normally take their cue from the client. So, what’s your attitude to it — things that are shared in the salon stay in the salon?
Always. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you’ve got to be careful.
Sometimes, I have clients whose ex-husbands come here as well. And then the ex-husband wants to introduce me to the new girlfriend. So, I’ve got to be aware of that. I’ve also got to be aware that you don’t know who’s listening. We’ve got to be discreet.
Politics is another one. A customer with different political leanings could be bagging Jacinda. Or the Nats. And you could find yourselves on opposite sides of the fence. Do you have to be careful with that?
That’s a situation which has arisen for me a few times, especially with Covid because there are incredible conspiracy theories out there. I just agree and go: “Okay, okay, that’s fair enough. But let’s get your colour on now?”
I’ve been in this industry for, like, 35 years, and I’ve got my own shop here in Rotorua. But that doesn’t mean it always works out between hairdresser and client. You may be too aggressive, or you may not be that nice. And I might say to someone: “I’m not the hairdresser for you.” I’ve said that before.
I’ve also had a client tell me that I’m an abomination. Because, you know, I speak very openly about my life. I said: “It’s interesting you say that while I’m cutting your hair.” But I gave her a very good haircut.
Some of my friends were like: “Oh, you must have chopped her hair off.” I said: “I’d never do that. I just say to them I don’t want to do their hair anymore.”
You moved back home, which may have surprised some of your peers and friends. Tell us about your decision to set up your own salon?
I was in Sydney, working for Channel 9 in the hair and makeup room, and I thought: “It’s time to go back home.”
So, I came back and got a job in a national salon brand. I was there for about 10 months and, in that period, in round figures, I made $150,000 for them — and I got $40,000. So, I thought to myself: “What am I doing? I’ve got to open my own place.”
And I found this place, a former hairdressing salon that had been closed for five years.
And people have warmed to it? Would you describe it as being a success?
Yeah. It’s very successful. You know how I know it’s successful, Dale? It’s because of all the tax I pay! Oh man! The tax.
I’ve got a great regular clientele. I’ve got people coming from all over the place. Ōpōtiki, Whakatāne, Hamilton, Tauranga. It’s definitely my kaupapa. I like to make people feel special.
You’ve got a few staff. But, as the owner of a small business, you’ve had the lockdowns throwing a few curveballs at you. That’s including the tourism market shrinking and you having to rely on domestic clientele. And there’s the need to have your staff staying true to your kaupapa.
I get the hairdressers working with me, to rent the space. They pay a daily rent when they come in and work, and that means that I protect myself. When you have hairdressers who’ve been around for a long time and are renting chairs, they run it like their own business. So, they really look after it.
After the last lockdown, I decided that I wouldn’t have any staff that I had to have on the payroll.
What else are you hoping to do, workwise? What goals have you set yourself?
When I first opened the salon, I had a five-year plan. Then Covid happened, and all those plans have gone out the door. I’d say my biggest goal now is to remain open for the next couple of years.
Any ambitions to have your salons dotted around New Zealand?
No, no, no. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be too big. I’d like to look at maybe a product, something that involves rongoā Māori. That’s something that I’ve been looking at for the last couple of years, developing a product.
And then my salon will just be a sort of special studio space. I’ve rented it out a couple of times. Like when Vegas and Kairākau were being filmed in Rotorua, some of the makeup artists worked from here.
My salon has become a kind of a creative space for Māori. I have somebody who does mirimiri here, and someone who does Māori crystal readings. That works quite well.
Have you been lucky in love, Donald?
No, not really. I’ve had a couple of relationships but now it’s just my ngeru (cat), Hori Mikaere. Fortunately, my hairdressing salon’s very social. And at the end of the day, I like to go home and be quiet.
Congratulations on your career and the way you carry yourself, Donald. But, finally, is there some other interest that you want to share?
Cooking. Especially during lockdown in my bubble. I love to cook.
What do you think would be the meal you make that you could be remembered for?
That would be shakshuka. It’s a North African chili. And you poach eggs in it. I’m known for that one.
I’m a big fan of Monique Fiso, that beautiful chef down in Wellington. I love her book and cook a lot of her stuff.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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