My Oh Maia: Kiwi Model Maia Cotton on Her Meteoric Rise in The Fashion World

Kiwi model Maia Cotton was conquering New York City when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Following three months in New Zealand, and on the eve of her return to the Big Apple, she reflects on the meaning of ‘home’.

Photography by Stephen Tilley

If you had told Maia Cotton back in 2015 that in just a few short years, she would be walking in the internationally renowned Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show alongside supermodels Adriana Lima, Candice Swanepoel, Kendall Jenner and Gigi and Bella Hadid, it’s hard to imagine a response other than disbelief. After all, at the age of 15, the part-time model, full-time high school student from Palmerston North felt like she was already living her best life.

“I was still at school in Palmy at the time, flying up to Auckland for shoots,” she recalls. “I was so excited about it all. I remember being on set for a Farmers catalogue and thinking it was the coolest thing ever,” she laughs. Now 21, Cotton’s meteoric rise within the modelling world perhaps should have been seen coming. Within a year of being discovered by Andrea Plowright, director at Auckland-based modelling and talent agency 62, Cotton was signed with agencies in New York, London and Sydney.

At the age of 18, when most of her peers were dealing with the daunting prospect of moving from the provinces to the ‘big smoke’ of Auckland or Wellington for university, Cotton was sizing up the Big Apple. Not easily intimidated and with the fashion mecca of New York City beckoning, she wasted no time throwing herself out of her comfort zone and booking a one-way ticket to the US.

“As soon as I turned 18, I was out of here,” she laughs. Determined to make things work, but realistic about the challenges the move would bring, Cotton initially brought her mum, Luanne, along for the ride.“We said we would do one month and see how it went, and then do another and see how that went. And, at some point, I ended up just deciding to make a go of it.”

Anyone who has ever had to navigate Manhattan’s subway, or hail a yellow cab in the bustling city, will know it wouldn’t take much for a Kiwi to feel like a fish out of water. And despite having gotten to know her way around a little bit, Cotton admits it was nerve-wracking saying good-bye to her mum and having to tackle it all alone for the first time. “It was horrible, to be honest. I was so lonely and suddenly I didn’t know my left from right; I didn’t know how to get around. I was so homesick and it was really hard.” But although her family sometimes felt a world away, their support helped her through the tough times. “I always knew I could leave if I needed to. Mum kept saying, ‘If you need tocome home, then come home. Who cares?’

Reflecting on those early days, she says there were plenty of times she wanted to pack her bags and get on that plane. “But I never did, and I’m glad. At the beginning it was difficult — just getting around the city on my own was hard. If I had a number of castings, it was an accomplishment if I made it to all of them and survived the day. But now I love it. Work has been really good; it’s consistent, it’s fun. You never know what you’re going to be doing.”

Crucial to Cotton feeling more at home in the city that never sleeps was making an effort to experience all it had to offer. “It was tough making friends,” she says.“But once I started putting myself out there and talking to other girls at castings and at the agency, I found my people and everything became so much better.”


Indeed, the magic and the myth of the place aside, Cotton says it’s the relationships she’s formed since moving to New York that have made her fall in love with it. “It’s definitely the people that make it,” she says. “There’s so many incredible things to see and do as someone from a sleepy town on the other side of the world, but if you can create a family for yourself, you’ll get so much more out of it.”

That, of course, was before the global COVID-19 pandemic struck. Cotton had already planned a trip home for her 21st birthday when the virus began taking hold around the world and Kiwis living overseas started booking emergency repatriation flights. “I didn’t want to leave without knowing when I’d be going back, so that open-endedness was quite hard. But obviously there’s no better place to be right now than here in New Zealand. Compared with everyone stuck in New York I feel very lucky to have had this safe harbour,” she says.

It’s the first time in over three years that Cotton has been in the country for more than a week or so, and since her last visit, her parents (Cotton’s father is celebrated artist Shane Cotton) have relocated from Palmerston North to Russell. The quaint Northland township is worlds apart from the metropolis of Manhattan, but Cotton says she quickly embraced the slower pace of life.

“I haven’t been forced to sit still in ages, so the lockdown was actually really nice and we made the most of the family time.” Despite this glass-half-full attitude, she’s visibly elated to reunite with everyone and everything that makes New York City‘home’. “I miss how crazy and fast-paced it is,” she says.

Given the way the pandemic is currently being managed in the US, her family is understandably a little wary. But Cotton says they’re incredibly supportive of her and her career. “They understand that I need to live my life and do the things I’ve got to do,” she says. Well aware of the havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked on the fashion and media industries, Cotton is under no illusion that she’ll be returning to the same world that she left behind — especially where work is concerned.

Updates from friends in the city confirm that the modelling gigs are few and far between, and if you do get booked for something, it’s not like the old days.“ Apparently, models are doing their own make-up and everyone on set has got a mask on,” she says. Wistfully recounting highlights from last year, including a trip to the South of France to shoot a campaign for surf label Roxy, she acknowledges how fortunate she’s been to have a job “that never feels like work”.

She’s also conscious of the fact that glamorous overseas shoots are off the cards for the foreseeable future, but she’s got plenty to keep her busy is the meantime. Always looking to add another string to her bow, Cotton is studying a business degree via Massey University’s distance-learning offering. “I’m doing it very slowly, just a few papers a semester because work can be quiet and then it will get hectic,” she says.

One day, she thinks she might like to own a business. “I’m playing it by ear though. At the moment it’s just something to keep me busy.” Whatever the outcome, you can’t say her current priorities aren’t in the right place. “I think this year is just going to be about survival,” she says with all the pragmatism you’d expect from a born-and-bred Kiwi.

It’s a reminder that while New Zealand’s rolling hills and rugged coastlines are the antithesis of NewYork’s concrete jungle, the two places share one big similarity. If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.

Lean In To New Zealand’s Wild Spring Weather With This Watertight Karen Walker Collab

If wild weather up and down the country has all-but triggered a new bout of seasonal depression this week, you’ll be hanging out for spring to move on and make way for warmer, drier summer days. The bad news is meteorologists have warned that with a La Niña weather system still headed our way, the rising mercury will come with a high dose of humidity and a summer tempered with sporadic tropical storms.

The good news is we can dress to these slightly disappointing conditions in style, thanks to Karen Walker’s new collaboration with the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Comprising a number of weatherproof options in the form of anoraks, ponchos, rainhats and the virtually indestructible, limited-edition Blunt umbrellas, the capsule collection extends to ready-to-wear pieces — think relaxed linens, Breton knits, chambray separates, and sweatshirts featuring a boat-ready Runaway Girl — that wouldn’t look out of place on a cruise, catamaran, canoe, or wherever there’s a view of the water and G&Ts on tap. 

And for true maritime history buffs, T-shirts, scarves and blouses emblazoned with archival imagery including a photograph of Cape Brett, an 1857 chart of the Waitematā Harbour, and Neville Sotheby Pitcher’s 1921 painting Royal Yacht Britannia — gifted to the RNZYS by former Auckland mayor and avid seafarer, Sir Ernest Davis — are sure to delight. 

With the bulk of the collection available now, and a final few special pieces coming into dock by the end of the month, set sail for your nearest Karen Walker store or stockist, or check out the full range at