Model Manahou Mackay and photographer Rob Tennent are no strangers to CPC. This time around, besties are here to help us celebrate Pride with a fun and socially-distanced photo shoot in collaboration with our pals over at Calvin Klein.
Bordering on soulmates, the pair are the blueprint for infusing romance into platonic relationships with their deep and meaningful connection. Mana’s free-spirited nature combined with Rob’s tendency towards structure makes for a perfectly balanced friendship – one that is built on support, ambition and curiosity. Despite currently living in different countries, the Aotearoa locals have kept the friendship flame alive by hosting virtual dinner parties and swapping cuddles for FaceTime hangs.
Jamie Heath recently photographed them, managing to work around their distance by shooting Mana in Sydney and Rob over Zoom. Afterwards, the pair discussed their idiosyncratic friendship, the evolving nature of queerness, and collaborating as artist and muse, which you can read all about below.
Hi! Can you introduce yourselves for any CPC readers who might not yet know you?
Manahou Mackay: I would describe myself as “Manahou Mackay, a human simply being”.
Rob Tennent: I am Rob Tennent. A twenty-one year old content creator and photographer. I was born in Cambodia and moved around for a lot of my childhood. I settled in Aotearoa when I was eleven. I have worked in the fashion industry for three or so years.
What drew you two together?
M: Robs and I were acquainted for some time before we connected on a deep level. I had just returned to New Zealand after a trying few months and we caught up and clicked instantly. I remember sharing life philosophies, future ambitions, stories of strife with each other and falling in love with him that day. I’ve been annoying him ever since.
R: At the time, we were going through similar life stages. Mana had just moved back from Sydney after a rocky time and I had just broken up with my boyfriend. We just kept running into each other and one day I went over to hang out and I ended up staying for a few hours just talking about the things we had been through.
Can you describe the dynamic of your relationship?
M: Robs is definitely the analytical and structured half of our duo. I am a big dreamer that admittedly can be a bit all over the place and he introduces balance to me, and I him.
R: We bring such different things to our relationship. I went to boarding school for five years so I am very structured and strict when it comes to time management. Mana brought a carefree attitude to my life. She came into my life and taught me compromise. We are pretty much in a relationship at this point.
How do you maintain a sense of connection across seas?
M: You come across people in life where no matter the time or distance you know there is reciprocal love flowing always. I miss my Robs every day. Speaking via social media doesn’t compare to dinners, cuddles and philosophising together, but I can always rely on him to send me memes that are 60% funny. We’re always there to celebrate each other's peaks and provide perspective when low and I’m very lucky to have him in my life. Even if that is via social media for now.
R: We talk a lot. We FaceTime sometimes but we should do it more!
What is something that sets queer relationships/friendships apart from other forms?
M: I can only speak to my own relations but both forms are nourishing in their own way. That being said there is a sense of profound safety and comfort that exists when surrounded by the queer family. Not exclusive to true ally’s. There are shared experiences that cannot be explained, only lived.
R: I think we just have more stories to share. We have hardships that bring each other together and we relate to different experiences. It just feels super safe. As queer people of colour, we’re often forced to carve out our own spaces and forge our own families.
Can you elaborate on the importance of community?
R: Surrounding yourself around people that have lived similar experiences makes you feel safe. Having a space where we can fully be ourselves without judgement and without harassment. Growing half European and Vietnamese, I never felt like I could fit in with white people or asian people, because I was always viewed as either one or the other. After I left high school, I realised I didn't need to fit in with any group specifically, I could be myself and my energy would attract the people I need in my life.
How has your idea of queerness changed over time?
M: My idea of queerness is ever evolving. I used to believe the term queer was bound to the lgbtqi+ community, however as time passes I see queerness not as something that can be defined. That is the whole point. Queerness is a refusal to allow definitions of one's identity, sexual, gender or otherwise limit their life experience. Queerness if a refusal to allow societal expectations keep you in a box.
R: It is never black and white. I remember exploring my gender and sexuality after getting out of high school. I challenged gender norms as a way to find who I was and what my queerness meant. I think I just now realise that queerness comes in so many different ways and that sometimes labelling only just restricts us. Instead of saying I am gay I tend to say queer.
How do you think queerness and creativity are linked?
R: It is a form of self expression. Growing up in boarding school we were all moulded to be the same, I never had the chance to explore until I was 18 and started playing with clothing, make up and my appearance. I think research and history of queer figures expands our creative knowledge.
You’ve worked on multiple projects together as designers, photographers and models. What was it like collaborating together creatively?
M: Just like anything, there are projects that are as easy as breathing, and others that require a little more configuration. Working with someone who is first and foremost a close friend can at times be strenuous on a relationship, but you (hopefully) quickly learn the subtle art of compromise and are ultimately better off.
R: It was a challenge because we are both very independent people. But I think after a few projects we started to understand the way each other moves creatively. As I started shooting, the relationship became one similar to a muse and an artist one.
How do you navigate expressing your sexual and/or gender identity in online public spaces such as Instagram?
M: I much prefer to discuss myself on platforms that are not my own personal instagram, there is something about talking to a faceless nameless crowd that allows greater vulnerability.
R: I think my identity is far more complex and my gender and sexuality are just aspects of it. As a cis gay man, I don't think my opinion is needed all the time. I use my voice and platform to speak up and magnify smaller voicer/ creators. Other than that, I just spend my time at the beach or on set.
What are you most proud of?
M: My incredibly loving and inspiring community in New Zealand.
R: I’m proud of the people I have chosen to surround myself with. My friends are all open people that constantly want to grow. I am proud of the work I have put in the past year.
What does being a QPOC (queer person of colour) mean to you?
R: It’s like a secret club, a worldwide network. It’s an immediate connection.
Any advice for people struggling to express their authentic selves?
R: Take your time but also understand that there are people just like you and you are not alone in this. Find your chosen family and support each other. I’m speaking from a place of privilege as my parents were extremely accepting, but I know people are in different circumstances.
How do you think others can be better allies for the LGBTQIA+ community?
M: Educate yourself, watch a few seasons of drag race. Live and let live.
R: Support. Donate. Show up. Scream with us. March with us. Fight with us.
Created in collaboration with Calvin Klein