Michelle Cutelli is the hot new name on locals' lips.

In the past fortnight she hit the headlines when news broke that her avant garde, Rotorua-inspired photography's become a focal point in British Vogue's 25th anniversary edition.

It's work done in collaboration with designer Kharl WiRepa (Our People, August 20, 2016).

This marriage of high fashion minds has teamed up again; tonight they're presenting Miss Rotorua 2017, the first time it's been staged for what WiRepa deems "decades".


It was certainly going strong in 1987; Michelle Cutelli was first runner up, making a lie of our opening claim her's is a hot new name on local lips; it was equally hot 30 years ago.

Michelle's one of our home-grown products who've chalked up a catalogue of achievements elsewhere, but boomeranged back several times, most recently in May when her much-publicised relationship with former AC/DC 'bad boy' drummer Phil Rudd fell asunder.

We'll park that topic until its chronological slot in the Michelle Cutelli biography, it's one that frames the picture of a 50-plus woman whose personality is super-charged and has the looks of someone half her age.

For this she blesses her Italian and, very possibly, British royalty's gene pool (see factbox).

A heck of a lot's gone on in the life of the Kawaha Point kid who's back living in the house she grew up in.

With her dad, Brian, in the driver's seat at Bay of Plenty Motors his daughter's initial ambition was to be a mechanic but she learned early on grease under her fingernails wasn't the look she strived for. Working in a stereo shop appealed more.

That's where Rudd entered her life, they dated for a year then both moved on, Michelle into hairdressing.

"I got glandular fever, when I came out of hospital I didn't have a job, Mum saw this ad for an apprentice at Clowns [hair salon] they took me on, I entered a lot of competitions winning the Bay of Plenty and national titles by the time I was 21."

Michelle was selected for the team to represent New Zealand in Europe but organisers' funding issues stifled her shot at hairdressing's big time; to compensate she took herself to London.

"I felt at home the minute I arrived, by the second day I'd got a job as a nanny for a BBC international documentary maker and her writer husband."

Her contract was for six months, she stayed a year, but missed hairdressing, joining the Steiner salon at London's Brent Cross ... "winning senior stylist of the month, month on month."

When her visa expired she returned home, signing on with a Remuera salon, but her ambitions stretched beyond the suburbs, however swanky.

Michelle's Rotorua-inspired photography's become a focal point in British Vogue's 25th anniversary edition. Photo/Stephen Parker
Michelle's Rotorua-inspired photography's become a focal point in British Vogue's 25th anniversary edition. Photo/Stephen Parker

"I went into TVNZ, said I was a hair and make up artist but proof of my qualifications were in a tea chest on the way here, they believed me, said 'start on Thursday'. My first clients were Paul Holmes and Judy Bailey."

Within three weeks she was contracted to style Elle Macpherson.

The June Daly Watkins Model Agency made space for her to teach hair and makeup as a sideline to the TVNZ work. She discovered a yen for photography, with a friend freshly out of graphic design school they toured the South Island styling models for commissioned photo shoots.

"We just exploded onto the market, cleaned up, got these wonderful advertising jobs, having the time of our lives, making amazing money."

A top Aussie photographer enticed Michelle across the Tasman, for three years she alternated between Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland working on top-of-the range labels and with international celebs, Cate Blanchett topped the list.

"One Melbourne Cup I was L'Oreal's front person, being televised for The Face That Stops A Nation, that was a very big feather in my cap because it incorporated Melbourne Fashion Week."

She met husband-to-be Richard Male at a Melbourne fashion show "I was doing his make up thinking how beautiful he was but everything in me said 'danger, danger, he'll break your heart'."

She backed off but subsequently reconnected.

"We married on the 10th anniversary of being together, flying 18 of our closest friends for an all-expenses-paid seven days at the Denarau Sheraton in Fiji, divorcing exactly 10 years later."

By then son Sebastian had arrived, an Auckland-born IVF baby.

"A true blessing, the most amazing kid in the world."

In Auckland Michelle became producer for her husband who was creating music for major ad campaigns.

"Steinlager Pure was a massive client, so was a Dubai department store . . I sung in a few of the commercials."

When her marriage foundered she and Sebastian "soldiered on", returning to Rotorua when he was 7.

"I was a superstar in Oz, here I was a jobless, single mum who had all these skills, I put my name out as a photographer, hair and make up artist, learned to believe in myself."

A shoot with Tauranga human rights lawyer, Craig Tuck, brought Rudd back into her life.

"He wanted me to help with branding images, do the photography for his solo album Head Job.

"One week later he suffered a heart attack, asked me to come from Rotorua to the hospital, that coincided with me finding a massive breast lump; we were having a major health crisis at the same time, luckily we both came out of them okay."

They moved in together in January, all was going swimmingly until Rudd left on his European tour. He hadn't been long gone when the relationship came to an abrupt end - via text.

Michelle unbuttons her previously locked lips to say 'family issues' caused the break up.

"Again I was back in Rotorua, started kicking goals. I'd met Kharl a couple of years earlier, we reconnected, I said 'let's do this beautiful shoot in a volcano'."

Te Puia's geyser field was the volcano.

"It blew British Vogue away at the very time it was hunting for a Maori designer to represent Brand New Zealand.

"Now we're on the world platform, for someone like me it's the greatest privilege to have your work recognised, spotlighted by the greatest editor [Alexander Shulman] in fashion."

Born: Rotorua, 1966.
Education: Selwyn Primary, Kaitao Intermediate, Western Heights High.
Family: Son Sebastian "He's amazingly talented, winning the sacred section of the NZ Aria at 8". Mother Cynthia (Papamoa), father Brian (Tairua), sister, two brothers.
Interests: "Anything involving my son, Skyline, Poly Pools, the Redwoods, horse riding, the beach." "My career, I live and breathe it."
On possible royal heritage: Family tree reveals uncorroborated claim her great grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a British monarch.
On her life: "One grand progression, it keeps growing, evolving."
On Rotorua: "It's always been very good to me, supported me, I'll be forever grateful."
Personal philosophy: "Kindness, trust, focus on what's important."