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 âhomeâ.
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 Victoriaâs Secret Fashion Show alongside supermodels Adriana Lima, Candice Swanepoel, Kendall Jenner and Gigi and Bella Hadid, itâs 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.
âI was still at school in Palmy at the time, flying up to Auckland for shoots,â she recalls. âI was so excited about it all. I remember being on set for a Farmers catalogue and thinking it was the coolest thing ever,â she laughs. Now 21, Cottonâs 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 âbig smokeâ 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.
âAs soon as I turned 18, I was out of here,â 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.âWe 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.â
Anyone who has ever had to navigate Manhattanâs subway, or hail a yellow cab in the bustling city, will know it wouldnât 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. âIt was horrible, to be honest. I was so lonely and suddenly I didnât know my left from right; I didnât know how to get around. I was so homesick and it was really hard.â But although her family sometimes felt a world away, their support helped her through the tough times. âI always knew I could leave if I needed to. Mum kept saying, âIf you need tocome home, then come home. Who cares?â
Reflecting on those early days, she says there were plenty of times she wanted to pack her bags and get on that plane. âBut I never did, and Iâm glad. At the beginning it was difficult â 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; itâs consistent, itâs fun. You never know what you’re going to be doing.â
Crucial to Cotton feeling more at home in the city that never sleeps was making an effort to experience all it had to offer. âIt was tough making friends,â she says.âBut 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.â
Indeed, the magic and the myth of the place aside, Cotton says it’s the relationships sheâs formed since moving to New York that have made her fall in love with it. âIt’s definitely the people that make it,â she says. âThereâs 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, youâll get so much more out of it.â
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. âI didnât want to leave without knowing when Iâd be going back, so that open-endedness was quite hard. But obviously thereâs 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,â she says.
Itâs 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 (Cottonâs 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.
âI havenât been forced to sit still in ages, so the lockdown was actually really nice and we made the most of the family time.â Despite this glass-half-full attitude, sheâs visibly elated to reunite with everyone and everything that makes New York Cityâhomeâ. âI miss how crazy and fast-paced it is,â she says.
Given the way the pandemic is currently being managed in the US, her family is understandably a little wary. But Cotton says theyâre incredibly supportive of her and her career. âThey understand that I need to live my life and do the things Iâve got to do,â she says. Well aware of the havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked on the fashion and media industries, Cotton is under no illusion that sheâll be returning to the same world that she left behind â 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, itâs not like the old days.â Apparently, models are doing their own make-up and everyone on set has got a mask on,â 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 sheâs been to have a job âthat never feels like workâ.
Sheâs also conscious of the fact that glamorous overseas shoots are off the cards for the foreseeable future, but sheâs 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 Universityâs distance-learning offering. âIâm doing it very slowly, just a few papers a semester because work can be quiet and then it will get hectic,â she says.
One day, she thinks she might like to own a business. âIâm playing it by ear though. At the moment itâs just something to keep me busy.â Whatever the outcome, you canât say her current priorities arenât in the right place. âI think this year is just going to be about survival,â she says with all the pragmatism youâd expect from a born-and-bred Kiwi.
Itâs a reminder that while New Zealandâs rolling hills and rugged coastlines are the antithesis of NewYorkâs concrete jungle, the two places share one big similarity. If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.