How Makaia Carr is using her influence to help those in need
Behind the screens of her social media success, Kura Kai founder Makaia Carr tells Sophie Neville what inspired her to help those in need.
She's one of New Zealand's original influencers, who, at the peak of her social media success, earned a six-figure salary, was invited to every party in town and received package after package of free products every single week. If it sounds good, it was, and for a while it looked like Makaia Carr was living the Instagram dream.
But turning 40 – and with a global pandemic thrown into the mix – has changed the lens for this inspiring mum of two, prompting a complete re-evaluation of her life.
“This year has been such a huge time for all of us and I know I’m not the only one out there whose priorities have totally changed. There’s Covid, of course, and all the job losses and financial insecurity, but also the Black Lives Matter movement..."
I’m just far more conscious now about living responsibly and trying to make a difference.
Makaia, who first found online fame with her Facebook company Motivate Me back in 2012, has always been aware of her “influence”. With over 55,000 followers on Instagram and a whopping 120,000 on Facebook, she has one of New Zealand’s highest profiles in the social media space.
But as she welcomes us into the Papamoa home she shares with husband Jason, 42, and their children Gabriel, 22, and Jana-Lee, 15, the Instagram queen isn’t busy on her screen – in fact, she’s spent the past four hours in the kitchen, whipping up another huge batch of homecooked meals for her newest project, Kura Kai, a charitable trust she set up to help families doing it tough.
If you’d have told Makaia at the start of the year that she’d be running a charitable organisation, she might not have believed you. But 2020 has been transformative on many levels, and Makaia tells us she was spurred into action after hearing about a local school that had a “compassion freezer”, where families could help themselves to a meal when they needed it.
“I had this lightbulb moment of ‘Holy s***, that’s so simple yet so effective.’” Knowing her unique platform would make it easy to spread the word and get others on board, she decided to take the initiative further and set up Kura Kai.
In the past six months, it has provided freezers for 20 high schools from Wellington to Northland and one in Christchurch. Through the power of Instagram, she’s rallied more than 1000 people to become Kura Kai volunteers.
The initiative has been so successful, Makaia is hoping to roll it out further and double the number of schools involved in 2021.
“The first time I put the word out, I got 80 meals delivered in two days, so it was obvious people want to help if they can,” she says. “It showed how powerful social media can actually be for getting people aware of causes and motivated to actually do something to help. There’s something really special about cooking for other people, it’s all done with so much love.”
Having grown up the eldest of six girls in Manaia, Taranaki, Makaia knows first-hand what it’s like to live in a struggling household. If she can help whānau like hers in one small way, she’ll be happy, she says.
"After my parents’ separation when I was 10, the financial struggle in our whānau was very hard,” she recalls. Her solo mum, Jeanette, worked as a nurse and studied, all while raising the girls and running the household on very little money. “We often needed food grants from WINZ,” Makaia says. “Us girls were taught very young about our household budget and where every dollar went. We knew not to ask for things as we knew there was no money.”
While she often worked several part-time jobs at a time to help her mum out financially, Makaia made the heartbreaking decision to leave school at 16. Taking a full-time role in a local bread factory, she felt there was no other choice – a situation faced by many young people this year after the financial impact of Covid-19.
“I know the conversations and pressure that will be going on in many Māori and Pasifika homes right now,” she says, passionately. “And I know that there are high expectations of our rangatahi (youth) to help contribute to the whānau. So if Kura Kai can help provide dinners to whānau that need a bit of help right now, that’s amazing.
If Kura Kai is one more reason that stressed-out and struggling parents send their kids back to school, because they will bring home a free dinner, then that’s amazing too. And if Kura Kai can be just one more reason a young Māori girl stays in high school and completes her education, then that’s even more amazing.
As a mother to a teenage daughter and a son in his twenties, Makaia knows all too well how important the high school years are for our young people. She is passionate about helping all kids, but particularly Māori, to give them self- belief and show them they have choices.
“I want young Māori kids to experience a full education, to grow up knowing they truly matter and that they deserve to have the same opportunities as everyone else. Life’s struggles don’t have to determine where they’ll end up.”
Force for change
While Makaia made her name through Motivate Me, which had a fitness and diet focus, she sold the business in 2016. She’s now committed to promoting general wellbeing, while still working with some of the brands she loves.
It’s this drive that also saw her speak out earlier this year about the sometimes- murky business of “influencing”. Using the hashtags #bethechange and #readtheroom, she made a bold stand, urging others on social media to be more mindful of their posts during what was a difficult time in many people’s lives. She felt it was inappropriate to continue showing off the endless free gifts of make-up, clothes, food and jewellery that influencers are inundated with each week.
"So many people were struggling to even buy groceries, so it just wasn’t the right time to be seeing all the fancy free products that turn up on our doorsteps every single day. It shouldn’t be plastered on Instagram when a lot of families out there didn’t know where the next pay cheque was coming from. Imagine how that was making people feel.”
On top of that, Makaia says, she felt many influencers were not being transparent with their advertising work, sponsored content and gifted items. She’s a huge supporter of new Advertising Standards Authority guidelines that require greater transparency.
“It’s about respecting your audience,” she explains. “I don’t like the blurred line of being connected to someone and then realising you’re being sold to without being told. It’s misleading.” At the same time, she focused on her own Instagram conduct, making a determined effort to show her audience that she was “aware, connected and capable enough to discuss what was happening in the world”.
"I needed to show that I had more purpose than just showing off some new workout tights."
Describing herself as “an advocate for change”, she says the public embraced the new approach, many messaging her in support. But she also copped criticism, particularly from other influencers.
“I think for many, it was too confronting for them,” she says. “Instagram can be a fun place, and a great place to escape sometimes, but it also can be a very toxic and superficial space.”
In fact, Makaia upset fellow influencer Simone Anderson so much that Simone took legal action against her under the Harmful Digital Communications Act. The saga, which was due to be settled last week, started when Makaia requested evidence from Simone showing she’d actually made promised charity donations from selling her gifted products via a private Facebook page.
Makaia is unable to comment for legal reasons, but Woman understands she began speaking out after being contacted by women who’d asked to see the receipts, which had not been forthcoming. Her posts asked Simone for evidence the money had been donated.
Despite the drama, Makaia says she’s reached a point now where she feels comfortable with her place in the online world. She insists she doesn’t care at all about how many followers she has – instead she’ll continue her focus on being “socially responsible” and “socially brave” to address what really matters.
“Issues in our society, like racism, politics, poverty and treatment of minorities, are typically topics that influencers avoid so as not to divide their audiences and lose followers. But for me, my thought process changed and I weighed up what was important."
Speaking out about what was right and what I believed in was far more important than the number of followers I have.
While the online world can be dramatic, happily, her home life is the opposite. After a “rough few years”, she’s now more settled and content than ever before. Her marriage is back on track after a brief separation and the pair, who had Gabriel when Makaia was 17, are loving their new life in Papamoa.
They recently celebrated their 25-year anniversary. “We both knew we had too much history to walk away from,” she says. “We became parents so young and the fact we’ve made it work this long is something we’re actually f***ing proud of.
“We put in a lot of work to get back on track and things are really great, we have an amazing bond. Things aren’t perfect, but we use what we’ve learnt to deal with challenges and we’ve had amazing support from close friends.”
In her year of transformation, Makaia (whose whakapapa is Ngā Ruahine; Jason’s is Ngāti Ruanui) is also embracing her Māori heritage, doing all she can to reconnect to her culture. A 12-week online course earlier this year has reignited her te reo journey and now she’s determined to keep going, enrolling in an immersion course next year.
“For a long time, it was ingrained in us that we’d be better without it,” she says. “But I’ve come to realise I need to take that journey. The time is right to respond to this deep calling from my tīpuna. It’s always been there inside me, just waiting until I’ve been ready to embrace it.”
She adds, “It’s a wonderful thing to have the confidence now to be a mana wahine and to drop that shame and guilt that many of us grew up with.”
And for Makaia, giving up city life in Auckland has been one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“Reaching your forties makes you see life a bit differently, and being in lockdown showed us what a slower pace looked like. We needed to simplify things. My whole wairua feels good where I feel at home.”
Photography by: Jamie Wright.