Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Creativity, confidence and practical savvy

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Mika with the Mika Haka Foundation, who "dress to express". Photo / Blake McInnes
Mika with the Mika Haka Foundation, who "dress to express". Photo / Blake McInnes

Sometime in the mid-1990s, Mika woke up in Bristol or Brighton to yet another rave review, and yawned. "Because I'm cabaret and flamboyant, the reviews were all the same: 'he's lovely'. I thought: 'is this my life? is this all there is?"'

The reviews were right: Mika is lovely - warm, funny and self-aware. He tells that story to explain why he now heads the Mika Haka Foundation (MHF). He also still performs and loves it (latest single, Coffee, out now!), but whereas your cabaret artiste stereotype is all booze and fags at 3am, Mika allows neither drugs nor junk food in his Mt Roskill studio.

Instead, MHF, a charitable trust, aims to encourage wholesome apple-eating and aroha in young people in Auckland and beyond. Its government-funded Ka (youth) school and holiday dance programmes teach healthy activity to over 10,000 kids a year for free. And through an Emerging Leaders Programme, MHF mentors around 50 young people who want a proper career in showbiz - whether that's music, dance, fashion or screen.

They participate in events like the Pride Festival, Matariki, Fashion Week, the 2011 Aroha Mardi Gras, and Mika's own albums.

This emphasis on professionalism is unusual; while all youth arts programmes aim to create general confidence, Mika also wants to create a few real-live pop stars - in order to spread the word that health, sustainability and diversity are cool.

Don't scoff - it's true. Exhibit A: the JGeeks, MHF's charismatic internet-age sensations who take digs at digging for "fossil fuels" in their song Taniwha.

The creativity is anchored by practical savvy. After working with too many dancers trained for the stage but not for life off it, Mika's big on teaching survival skills, such as financial literacy: "Keep your receipts."

MHF itself runs on a shoestring - about $210,000 a year, depending on the plans. The team isn't well paid but it's a lifestyle, says Mika: they get Fridays off to work on their own projects.

Mika volunteers he's looking for a woman - a wahine co-leader for MHF. This is particularly important as he says young female artists are often less encouraged to use their talents than young men.

We're talking out the back of Manurewa Marae, overlooking a magnificent vista of Manukau mangroves, munching on dates - healthy and delicious.

It's the last day of the Ka 400 Easter holiday programme here, led by one of Mika's Emerging Leaders, Unitec graduate Eddie Elliott. Mika has come to see the kids' low-key hip-hop performance, take pictures of them receiving their certificates, and have some healthy kai with the families afterwards.

Mika's gained the trust of diverse communities while not compromising on who he is: gay and glitzy. "If you've paid your dues, walked the walk, they accept who you are," he says.

He's respected for being a long-time advocate for human rights. And it doesn't hurt that the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, gave him her blessing, in the form of a title: "the official naughty Maori".

- NZ Herald

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