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Keisha Castle-Hughes Read by Jo Holley

Keisha Castle-Hughes is a young Māori actress who is excited to celebrate her heritage on and off-screen. She speaks out about protecting the earth and being open about mental health.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Emily McMahon-Wattez and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Jo Holley. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers were Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!


Eleven-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes sped through the water, clinging to the back of a giant whale. She held her breath, tightening her grip so she wouldn’t fall off as they dipped beneath a wave and then came rushing back to the surface. Keisha felt like her whole body flushed with adrenaline as the sun bathed her skin. She was scared, thrilled, and having the time of her life!

Now, Keisha was an actress, filming a movie. And that whale she was riding was actually just a model of a whale tied to a boat, which was pulling them through the water. But those waves were very real, and Keisha and the film crew were miles from shore. Holding on while plunging underwater was extremely tricky, and yet, Keisha was excited to have this chance to shine.

She felt like she was diving into her ancestral Māori roots, gathering strength from all the people who’d come before her, and shouting, Here I am!

Ready to do it again? asked the director.

Keisha nodded. She was more than ready. She was born for this role.

Aaaaand… Action!

I’m Jo Holley. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.

On this episode, KEISHA CASTLE-HUGHES, a young Māori actress who is excited to celebrate her heritage and her mind on and off-screen.

Keisha Castle-Hughes was born in 1990, in Australia, and moved to New Zealand with her family when she was four. Keisha’s mother was Māori – which means their Polynesian ancestors were the first people to populate New Zealand, over a thousand years ago. In school, Keisha got to practice the ceremonial Māori dances called Haka. There were so many rhythms and movements to study! She also dreamed of becoming an actress, but everyone told her that wasn’t a very realistic dream. So, Keisha figured she’d be a science teacher – science was interesting, and she was pretty good at it.

One day, when Keisha was eleven years old, a casting director who was looking for a young Māori girl to star in a new movie, came to observe her class. The movie had to do with the legend of Paikea, who was said to have led the Māori people from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand, on the back of a whale. To Keisha, that sounded terrifying and amazing all at once.

When the director interviewed some of the children, Keisha was unapologetically herself — smart, outgoing, and funny.

“Hi Keisha, it’s nice to meet you. Tell me, can you ride a bike?”

Keisha smiled and answered quickly, “Yes!”

“Can you smile underwater?”

“Sure!” I mean, she hadn’t ever tried, but how hard could it be?

The filmmakers met with over ten thousand kids, and in the end, Keisha won the lead role in a new movie called Whale Rider.

Filming Whale Rider was a two-month-long-whirlwind adventure. The film told the story of a young girl named Pai, who proves her worth to her Māori community when she helps save a beached whale, riding it out into deep waters.

Keisha felt so honored to play Pai, who was written as an ancestor of Paikea, the original whale-rider from Māori legend. In the film, Pai brought her modern Māori community together, at a time when many were struggling to feel a deep connection to their ancestry. The film showed the strength of women and young girls and introduced people all around the world to Māori traditions. And it became a massive success.

Keisha was so convincing in her role, that at thirteen, she became the youngest person to ever be nominated for an Academy Award! That’s the biggest acting award there is!

Keisha’s life changed after that. She had to do hundreds of interviews and walk down red carpets in fancy gowns. She went from being a pretty normal kid, to someone who was taking limo rides, and staying in luxury hotels all the way across the world in Los Angeles. All of it was a dream come true, but at the same time, there was a big part of Keisha that just wanted to be back home, hanging out with her friends and going to school.

People would say to her, “You’ve done it! You’re in the prime of your career!” But she was only thirteen! How could this be her prime already?

Keisha also felt like everyone expected her to be perfect, and nobody’s perfect. Growing up is about learning, trying new things and often making mistakes. She felt torn between two different personas. There was Keisha Castle-Hughes, Academy Award Nominated Actress. And then there was just… Keisha. A girl who worried a lot, and would get sad sometimes, without even knowing the reasons. A girl who missed her friends, and would talk to them on the phone for hours when she was away. A girl who just wanted to feel normal.

As Keisha got older, things felt more and more complicated. On the one hand, she was a successful actress busy filming movies, and she was so grateful for all of her experiences. At the same time though, life felt really unpredictable and scary, like she was still riding on that model-of-a-whale, being pulled through the ocean. The littlest ups and downs would send her plunging below the surface, and then blasting back into the air.

Eventually, Keisha was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She learned that her brain was structured in a different way from other people’s. Highs felt higher, and lows felt lower, and that wasn’t Keisha’s fault, it was just how she was built! Sometimes Keisha felt hopelessly sad, without any specific reasons that she could explain. And sometimes she felt like she had unlimited momentum and could do anything! Keisha never knew which way she was going to feel, or why she was feeling that way, which was really confusing and upsetting.

For Keisha, understanding her diagnosis and talking about it made all the difference. Now that she knew why she felt the way she did, she could learn about things that might help her feel more balanced and centered.

Keisha started going to therapy, eating healthier foods, and exercising more. It took some time, but these things helped her a lot. She began to feel like Keisha-the-actress and Keisha-the-human could co-exist. They were both important parts of her. She’d never be perfect, or exactly who anyone else expected her to be, but she was honest, open, and truly herself.

If you were to ask Keisha today, she would tell you that she would never take a ride on the back of a whale, ever again. It was way too scary! But she’s proud of herself for doing it, and for how it changed her life. It gave her a chance to connect with her Māori traditions and feel the strength of her ancestors living inside her.

Keisha is still acting today. She also works hard to use her fame for good, fighting against climate change, and talking publicly about mental health.

The biggest thing Keisha wants everyone to know is that each individual is unique and amazing.

As she says, “We need to talk more and worry less about what other people think.”

If you’re lucky enough to have a brain that works differently than other people’s, celebrate it! Because we all are riding waves of unpredictability and adventure, bursting into the air with a new chance to smile. Just like Paikea and Keisha, we are drawing from the strength of our past and present to greet a new and magnificent future.


This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

This episode was narrated by ME, Jo Holley. It was produced and directed by Haley Dapkus, with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media.

The story was written by Emily McMahon Wattez and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking by Joe Rhatigan. Our executive producers were Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe.

Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.

A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible! Until next time, staaaay rebel!