Perhaps it's no surprise that Shortland Street and Head High actress Te Ao o Hinepehinga Rauna should have a "Miss Friendship" sash in her wardrobe – the one-time international beauty pageant contestant has had the gift of the gab since she was a baby.
"My family likes to remind me that I had to learn to be quiet," laughs the star on a day off from filming.
Chatting to Woman's Day over coffee, dressed in jeans, a checked shirt and Doc Martens, Te Ao's off-duty attire is a world away from the glamorous eveningwear and stilettoes she was dolled up in three years ago.
Before hitting New Zealand screens playing shy, pregnant teen Aria O'Kane on local series Head High and later feisty nurse Waimarama Glover on Shorty, the Gisborne-born 25-year-old was making an impression on the world stage, competing at the 2018 Miss Tourism International pageant in China, where she was named Miss Congeniality.
The competition was a one-off, an opportunity that arose when Te Ao was asked if she'd be interested in competing while working in Sydney as a dancer and model.
Laughing, she recalls, "I was like, 'No, that's not really my thing.' I've always been the type to reject beauty. Brains over beauty every time!
"I didn't really like pageants because, on a superficial level, I thought that's all it was about."
Unbeknownst to Te Ao – who is now studying psychology part-time, in the hope of one day running her own practice to help the disadvantaged – her profile was submitted anyway and after receiving favourable feedback, she was offered a three-week, all-expenses-paid trip to China to compete, with all of her outfits supplied.
Coincidentally, China was a place her grandfather, the major father figure in her life growing up, had fondly talked about, which fostered her own curiosity in the country and its culture.
"He just thought it was the most amazing thing," Te Ao smiles. "He was a Mormon, so this kind of world was not his cup of tea, but he loved the idea of me exploring the world. I would've been a fool to turn it down."
Thanks to her theatre, dance and modelling background, much of the early training in deportment and makeup application was somewhat of a doddle. "Once you've danced the samba in six-inch heels, you know how to walk!" she laughs.
Whereas many of the young women there were experienced on the pageant circuit and took the competition seriously, Te Ao says she didn't feel the same level of pressure, despite the fact the contestants were being judged on the way they carried themselves from the moment they stepped onto the tarmac.
"My mum taught me a long time ago to just let go of what you don't have control of and take advantage of what you do. I just went there to make friends and have an experience."
Te Ao's relaxed attitude to life and gregarious nature is no doubt why she ended up taking home the sash for Miss Congeniality – or "Miss Friendship" as it was called in China.
As well as winning over the judges, who peppered her with questions about life in New Zealand, she bonded with several of the contestants, including Miss Australia, Miss Portugal and the competition's eventual winner, Miss Russia.
"At the end of the day, some of us would hang out in the room, eat junk food, chat, drink way too much fizzy drink and stay up way too late," she says. "We all became pretty close. I still keep in touch with some of the girls."
Te Ao is a talented samba dancer, having learnt through one of the dance companies she worked with in Sydney, but she was adamant that in the talent portion of the competition, she would showcase her culture.
Having grown up on a marae and learning te reo Ma¯ori from her social worker mum, Te Ao – who is of Nga¯ti Ruapani and Nga¯ti Kahungunu descent – sang, danced and performed a haka on stage, as well as wearing a traditional korowai cloak that her grandmother had woven and which garnered a lot of attention from the judges.
Throughout the three weeks, the contestants did publicity and promotion, and "visited so many cities and incredible cultural sites, I lost count", she says. Then came the actual competition itself, much of it occurring on a huge LED-lit stage in the middle of a lake.
These days, although Te Ao has hung up her pageant gowns and thrown herself into the full-time world of acting, with the occasional samba class thrown in when her schedule allows, she still carries with her the relaxed, friendly vibe that won her the pageant sash.
She rarely gets a day off work and is the first to admit she's tired, but this star on the rise is not complaining.
"I'm lucky," Te Ao insists, smiling. "I get to do what I love every day! My whole thing is, we all have a bunch of jobs to do – let's just try to be as friendly and helpful as we can to each other because no one needs to make the job harder than it is already."
Spoken like a true Miss Congeniality!