Chelsea Winstanley (Ngāti ranginui) has seemingly effortless style - a woman who stands out whether on the Oscars’ red carpet, or in a T-shirt in a Covid quarantine hotel
The Māori new year, heralded by Matariki, has just risen when I speak to Chelsea in Auckland, and it’s clear that an exciting new chapter has begun for her too. After her two week quarantine Chelsea has hit the ground running, exuding an inspiring energy that appears to ping off her exceptional cheekbones.
Home to direct her documentary Toi tū, Toi ora: Visual Sovereignty, Chelsea has recently also been announced as a new member of the producer’s branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.
With a self awareness that’s been hard-earned, Chelsea is ready to carve her own path and author her own stories. “It’s really important for me to do that, because if I don’t I’ll always be ‘the wife of..’ or ‘the ex wife of..’ that will be my label,” she says.
Many women feel the weight of how society wishes to define us, and it’s not hard to imagine that working in the Los Angeles movie scene would exacerbate that pressure. Yet Chelsea is a Māori woman who draws strength from her identity and whakapapa, so she felt literally wrapped up in aroha from Aotearoa when she wore a bespoke Kiri Nathan gown to the Academy Awards in February this year, where she was nominated for Best Picture as a producer of Jojo Rabbit. Chelsea was blown away when the Auckland-based fashion designer reached out to her and made her feel “so humbled, and so loved, to have a Māori design, from home.
Having never had a gown made for her before, Chelsea was so worried about whether she had measured herself correctly she also sent photos, so all bodily features were fairly referenced. “I have zero boobs, I mean, I don’t even make the alphabet!"
Yet Kiri’s elaborate woven design detail, paired with gold jewellery Chelsea’s sister selected, was such a stunning look that Chelsea was stopped all night by Oscar-goers complimenting her gown and declaring ‘THAT is the dress of the night’.
Featuring on best dressed lists across the world, including in Vogue, Chelsea shone and she believes she was just radiating the aroha she felt coming from home. Finalising details together, Kiri and Chelsea exchanged videos and messages online, with tips to use wig tape to secure the dress, and even how to pose to ensure the pockets on the gown were highlighted “but to have my thumbs out or it would look like I didn’t have hands”
Working through the hype of Hollywood in a typically Kiwi way, Chelsea says her publicist has helped her understand the importance of embracing promotion to enhance perception, as part of the machine, but she remains grounded.
Before Kiri made her offer to create her Oscars gown (which will be displayed in Te Papa), Chelsea had planned to go to her favourite vintage store in Los Angeles, Cannonball & Tilly.
Introduced to the shop by a fellow wahine Māori living in the area, Chelsea said the array of vintage gowns to ‘90s cosmic numbers, shoes and bags with colour and texture drew her out of her shell, because she doesn’t particularly enjoy shopping for new things, and finds it daunting.
She even tells a funny story of how she gently turned down a kind styling offer from Chris Hemsworth in favour of a vintage gem from the store.
“We were going to the premiere of Thor and Chris Hemsworth said ‘what are you going to wear?’ I said I didn’t know and he said ‘don’t worry I’ll sort my stylist to help you and take you to the shops, have you ever had that?’ I said ‘No don’t worry bro, I’ll be all good, I’ll go to my vintage store!’
“It was so sweet, and his stylist helped me out, but in the end… I went back to that vintage store. I got a one-shouldered dress because it was actually the best, even next to all these women in fancy dresses, everyone was like ‘damn’ and even the stylist who had originally dressed me said ‘that’s the best, that’s better than what I had put you in’ It was so sweet.”
Chelsea’s sister Janine is the stylist she will happily rely on though, as she has always been a creative influence - ever since she made Chelsea’s first school production stage outfit for the story of Hatupatu. “She’s super creative, and can make anything in to art,” explains Chelsea. She also styled their mother to accompany Chelsea to the Oscars.
Growing up in Mount Maunganui, moving north to go to Auckland Girl’s grammar was a style revolution too, arriving as a ‘“beach chick, long hair with a skirt down to my ankles and roman sandals.”
Chelsea quickly saw that pencil skirts above the knees and Andrea Biani shoes were more acceptable at her new school, and took the lead of the stylish girls in her class like Tiana Epati (now president of the Law Society and still a close friend), who were already putting clothes from Zambesi on lay buy.
Kiri Nathan dress, $750.
Chelsea is happy to take a lead from inspirational women. She often references her mentor Merata Mita, who is regarded as the godmother of indigenous film, as a huge influence, which led to Chelsea producing Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen.
The documentary is now available on Netflix, showed at the Sundance Film festival, and was distributed by Ava De Vernay’s production company. Chelsea says Merata’s wairua (spirit) continues to comfort her in tough times.
Although Chelsea planned to be in New Zealand this year for her documentary, the delays caused by Covid-19 have meant she and her former husband Taika Waititi had to make new plans for their daughters, Chelsea’s youngest two children, who will now join her in Aotearoa when their Dad’s work on Thor: Love and Thunder in Australia gets the go-ahead.
Adapting to a pandemic and finding a way to complete passion projects has made for some guilt-inducing decisions for Chelsea. “I feel guilty about pursuing dreams, that I’m not that Mum interacting with the school at the moment, the general mother guilt of working, and of course you know there will be some consequences of that”.
She’s looking forward to ensuring her girls reconnect with their Māori culture and language when they come home.
Chelsea knows about resilience: she has openly shared her story as a sexual abuse survivor, and says moving to America was a catalyst to truly look at the scars of her past, and actively engage in healing her inner child.
As part of that journey, she hasn’t drunk alcohol for two years. “I knew I had to stop drinking because I was so determined to meet the woman I wanted to be. I knew she was there but I couldn’t quite get to her, that drinking was just in the way, and I had to find that strength.”
It started a raft of healing, and one of Chelsea’s current priorities is “wrapping my arms around my son” who is now 23, born to her as a young single Mum - when she had to juggle motherhood with tertiary study, and putting food on the table.
Chelsea is returning to one of the skills she honed at university, as director of her documentary Toi tū, toi ora: Visual Sovereignty. It will follow the largest ever single survey of Māori art, curated by her whanaunga (relation) Nigel Borrell for Toi o Tamaki, Auckland Art Gallery.
‘Sovereignty’ had to appear in the title as far as Chelsea was concerned - explaining that the importance of story sovereignty, and visual sovereignty is something that producing taught her. No matter who we are, we have to have control over our intellectual property, and our own stories; telling them our way.
Returning to directing means Chelsea is embracing the creativity she hasn’t always been able to express as a producer.
Feeling strong in her own authorship, Chelsea Winstanley is home, and giving herself permission to write her own story, and rejoice in all women doing the same, in their own unique way.
"Don’t ever think that you can’t be the brightest star of Matariki, whatever that might mean for you. If you give yourself that permission to believe and have the imagination to just soar and see where that takes you.”
Photographed by Karen Inderbitzen-Waller & Delphine Avril Planqueel for Ensemble
Styling by Karen Inderbitzen-Waller
Makeup by Kiekie Stanners for M.A.C Cosmetics
Hair by Katie Melody Rogers
Eames DSX Dining chair for Herman Miller, $650, from Mr Bigglesworthy
Thanks to Kingsize Studios