Oriini Kaipara is no stranger to the headlines. If she’s not reading them as a Newshub presenter and journalist, then she’s been the subject of them as the first wāhine Māori with moko kauae (traditional Māori facial tattoo) to front a mainstream television primetime news show or in her dedicated pursuit to change perspectives of Māori for the better.
Raising four children, managing her busy workload and showing up for her community is a constant juggle. But as she turns 40 and reflects on life, for the first time, Oriini has found a sense of balance and calm.
“The juggle is the struggle and I’m so happy I finally have the balance I have been craving my entire life,” she shares. “Now the goal is sustaining this and making sure I am being present for my tamariki [children].
“Turning 40, I’ve only just got to a place where I’m confident, growing stronger relationships with each of my children and especially myself.
“It’s being more patient and cutting myself some slack. I am not the perfect māmā, daughter or partner, but there is continuous improvement if I make mistakes to learn and do better.”
It’s a deeply honest and candid reflection from the West Auckland resident, who had her first child at 16, shortly after graduating wharekura (immersion Māori high school) and by 17 was a mother-of-two.
Despite the struggles, Oriini says she’s always strived for and been supported to follow her dreams, which has resulted in an impressive television career and becoming a household name in Aotearoa.
But motherhood remains one of her biggest achievements and greatest teachers.
“Being a mum is a blessing, but I’ve only really become better at it in the last three to five years,” she admits. “I’ve learnt to communicate better, to connect deeper and to be more present, and it’s through having those tough conversations and being vulnerable with my tamariki.”
It’s a stark contrast to her own upbringing. While it was full of love, Oriini explains her mother Shirley was fiercely private.
“I grew up with a very staunch mum. She was loving, supportive, protective and totally selfless, but I seldom saw her being open and vulnerable, so I found it hard to have heart-to-heart conversations with her.”
And until recently Oriini says self-judgement and self-ridicule had a big impact on her life.
“I was so consumed by concern I would disappoint my whānau that I barely showed any vulnerability, which is something I picked up from my mum. I put on a front, I kept up appearances because I was afraid to fail again.
“After having kids so young, I was ashamed I wasn’t going to university to become a lawyer like I’d hoped. I felt like a failure, that I disappointed Mum. Truth is, and she told me, I didn’t disappoint her.”
Then several years ago, Oriini found herself burnt out and insisting to her daughter she was okay when it was far from the truth.
“I thought I had to be tough, but in honesty, I was scared to be real. I knew I would break down if I opened up. Mum was so strong and never broke, so it felt like, ‘I’m not strong if I can’t hold up the world and still have a smile on my face.’ My daughter pointed it out. She said, ‘You’ve never told me your story, why don’t you cry?’ I was fighting back tears but she didn’t want me to shut her out.”
Letting her walls down with her daughter is one of the scariest things Oriini has done, but it has transformed her relationships with all her tamariki.
“We have a lot more understanding, respect and a deeper love for each other, and if I’m not okay now, I don’t pretend I am.”
Taking a breath, Oriini shares it was the sudden death of her mother in November 2021 that proved to be the catalyst for this growth and vulnerable courage.
“Mum died of cancer a week before her 67th birthday. She was given 10 weeks to live, the day after the second level 4 lockdown was announced. My whānau and me battled our heartache to keep strong for our mum, who was suffering daily. That ordeal shattered each and every one of us. She was our matriarch, the heart of our whānau.”
Now navigating life without her māmā, Oriini says she has no choice but to step up for her and her tamariki.
“I always leaned on Mum for support, especially with my kids. They loved their nan dearly and she them. We’ve had to learn to lean into one another since she left us, which includes letting our children make adult decisions and help us adults navigate life in a healthier, more balanced way. I think we need them just as much as they need us.”
It’s given her cause to contemplate her own younger years and how crucial the unwavering support of her whānau has been to her success. “They’ve seen and stuck with me through every part of my life, whether I was winning awards or going through a painful divorce. They’ve cherished my tamariki and helped us in our times of need and have only ever wanted me to find my happiness.”
Following the example of those who raised her, Oriini prioritises speaking te reo Māori, practising tikanga (customs}, and fostering strong connections with whānau, marae and hapū (tribe) for her own tamariki.
Raised in West Auckland, her grandparents and mother started a kōhanga reo, the Māori immersion equivalent of mainstream day care.
From here, she continued her schooling in total immersion – with just a one-year break in mainstream education when she was 10.
The experience was neither good nor bad, Oriini explains. “It was different. Learning in English was quite foreign to me and while I liked it, I really missed the comfort and safety of my ao Māori, hearing and feeling my reo being spoken every day.”
Growing up, Oriini initially dreamed of a law career, but while watching Tini Molyneux presenting Māori news show Te Karere as a youngster, Oriini began to imagine a future in television instead.
“It was rare to see and hear Māori on screen in 1980s and early 1990s. Tini was a real role model, her skin colour was the same as mine and she spoke fluent Māori like me. It was moving and powerful, and inspired me to not be so afraid of being Māori outside the comfort of my whare [home], kura [school] and marae.”
With her loved ones’ backing, Oriini enrolled in film and television school in 2002. She quickly excelled, despite her teachers needing to find someone to assess her projects, which were entirely in te reo Māori.
While it was a first for the institution, being a native speaker, Oriini was just doing the only thing she’d ever known.
After graduating, she took on a range of television roles, working behind the scenes before she was offered a fulltime reporting and newsreading role at Ruia Mai radio station in 2003.
“There weren’t many jobs where te reo Māori was crucial to the role. My first language is Māori, so I took an instant liking to presenting and reporting news in te reo Māori.”
It was the beginning of her 20-year career as a Māori journalist, and she’s adamant it was her peers at the time who nurtured her to grow while motivating and encouraging her to rise through the ranks.
“My passion and respect for the mahi [work] started at Ruia Mai,” she says. “I realised how privileged I was to be able to talk to so many Māori from all over the country and form relationships that have held.
“It’s been a long and beautiful haerenga [journey], and I still love meeting people and helping in whatever way, shape and form I can.”
Becoming a fulltime presenter for Newshub in recent years changed the landscape of television; Oriini generated global attention as the first woman with moko kauae to read primetime national news.
But holding such an important position has also come with the weight of responsibility.
“I know my role is more than just reading the news,” she says. “I’m representing my culture, my people and normalising te reo Māori in spaces where it’s rare to see and hear it. I’m breaking barriers.
“I have inspired a lot of Māori and indigenous peoples around the world to be proud of their culture, reconnect to their whakapapa [genealogy], to start their reo journey, to enrol their tamariki in kura kaupapa and kōhanga reo, and I see many more Māori obtaining their moko kanohi. It’s uplifting and reassuring that I’m making a big, positive difference.”
Oriini still faces criticism and racism online, but she’s grateful she hasn’t yet been confronted with backlash in person. In fact, on many occasions, Oriini has been approached by strangers saying she has changed their opinions of Māori for the better.
“There have been so many negative narratives written about Māori over so many years that it becomes the perception on who Māori are and what the moko is,” she says. “Some say my moko is intimidating, others dislike hearing me speak Māori and some just don’t like me because I’m Māori. But the truth is, I receive a lot of lovely and uplifting feedback that really helps me to keep going, and it tells me that the more I’m seen on screen, the more normal it becomes for others to accept me for me.”
Oriini hopes to one day return to her ancestral homes in the Bay of Plenty to help her community revitalise their reo and tikanga. She dreams of one day running a kōhanga reo for her whānau back on their marae.
“I’d love to pick up and carry on what my nan, koro [grandfather] and Mum gave me. I want to give back to my people, and make sure my own mokopuna keep their language and culture alive when I’m gone.”
Next year, Oriini will join the New Zealand Olympic Committee as the organisation’s Māori culture lead. At 40, Oriini is determined even more to make the most of all life has to offer.
“Being Māori means I’m not guaranteed another 40 years, so I’m prioritising my whānau and my health,” she says. “I’m also setting boundaries and making meaningful decisions that have a long-lasting, positive impact for my tamariki, mokopuna.”
Oriini celebrated the milestone starting with a weekend getaway to Tāhuna Queenstown with her partner, eating her favourite carrot cake with her whānau, then capping it off with a night of drinks and dancing with her nearest and dearest.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever celebrated any of my birthdays properly,” she tells. “I usually overlook them and think, ‘oh, it’s just another day.’ But I’m a bit wiser now and being present with my whānau and friends to celebrate is the greatest gift of all.”