A Victim of Serial Sex Offender Rene Naufahu Speaks Out
As the New Zealand actor calls out the “haters” and “hoes” who brought him down, one of the women he assaulted reflects on the damage he did.
Image via Youtube
As the world reckons with a deluge of sexual harassment cases featuring high-profile men, New Zealand's own performing arts serial offender has slipped quietly from the limelight.
It's now been a few months since Shortland Street star Rene Naufahu pleaded guilty to six counts of indecent assault against the women in his acting classes.
Naufahu's response so far has been a largely unstemmed flow of self pity and carefully-worded pseudo-apologies. Initially Naufahu denied the allegations, describing them in a sit-down cafe interview with Fairfax Media as "ridiculous" and "ludicrous". As is often the case with sexual assault cases, name suppression meant the victims were anonymous shadows in the early weeks of the case, while Naufahu skilfully fronted media to discuss his concerns for his family, and his insistence of good intentions. He compared the charges to a bad Shortland Street-review that he would ride out, before, eventually, switching to a guilty plea. In September came the latest chapter in that sequence: a poem performed by Naufahu following the charges but preceding the sentence, in which he calls out the "haters" and "hoes" who tried to bring him down.
"They tried to stop my destiny, thought they had seen the best of me, from the day the cops arrested me, even saw my kin detested me," he reads.
"Abandoned by hypocrisy, once close ties now lost to me, hatred fuelled by jealousy, gossip spread maliciously.
"Haters north, south, east and west of me. Driven to the flame, hoes requested me. Giving into the shame would've been the death of me."
For one of his victims, it was the final straw. Rose [not her real name] is still covered by name suppression following the court case, where Naufahu pleaded guilty to the indecent assault he inflicted on her. This week, she broke her silence to speak to VICE about her experience.
Like the other women he preyed on, Rose was a member of the acting classes Naufahu ran.
She says the inappropriate touching started within group classes, and he then selected specific women for one-on-one classes. His assaults on Rose began with forcible kisses, and escalated to increasingly invasive touching and groping.
"He would push it every time, until the point where I was just actually nauseated by what was happening, to the point where we weren't even doing the things you would do in a standard acting class, to the point where it was just: I'm here purely because I'm too scared to tell anyone."
"He played on weakness and vulnerability, and created scenarios where he could exploit that."
Eventually, it was the whisper network that took down Naufahu. "I started hearing, did this happen to you too? And I realised I wasn't the only one."
"It was only alongside the other girls that I found the strength to actually report it."
Naufahu has never unreservedly apologised to his victims, instead repeating the narrative that he was an actor who allowed his passion for the craft to take his acting lessons a little too far.
"I accept that rather than just being passionate and challenging, my approach was also at times inappropriate and offensive to some," he said in a statement after his conviction.
But Rose paints a different picture: he was an incredibly charismatic leader, she says—almost like a cult leader, who carefully groomed the women he worked with.
"He played on weakness and vulnerability, and created scenarios where he could exploit that," she says.
"If you were a person with a wound, or a weakness, or a vulnerability in a certain area, he was very good at finding those. It was uncanny."
There are plenty of parallels between the cases of Weinstein and Naufahu. Both worked in the performing arts sector, and used the intimacy associated with the practice to manipulate women. Both targeted rising stars: young women at the start of their careers, who were looking for a break. Both managed to establish an almost cult-like blanket of silence that hid their behaviour. In both cases, a few women speaking out began an avalanche of similar claims. The script that Naufahu's offending followed is also one that we've seen recited over and over again in the past few weeks: he used acting classes as a camouflage for his advances, telling women they needed to participate in increasingly explicit sexual behaviour to improve their acting. Weinstein gave massages to help women "loosen up". Art world icon Knight Landesman told one of the nine women who have accused him of sexual harassment that she needed to be "more open to physical contact to succeed".
In Naufahu's case, the judge noted that the most devastating aspects of his offending were not just the physical incidents, but the way he manipulated and betrayed the trust of the women concerned.
"What it does is it puts shame on that person, and then that person doesn't want to tell," Rose says. "You're scared because all your spider senses are telling you, this is wrong this is uncomfortable, but he's saying 'No, this is fine, what's wrong with you, maybe you've had something go wrong in your past, you need to build up confidence'. And you think, yeah, I am scared, maybe there is something wrong with me. You feel embarrassed and ashamed, and suddenly you're locked into this awful power relationship, and you thought you were better or stronger than that, but you aren't."
"You don't know who to trust, you feel afraid, and it seems like the agency's on his side, like everyone's on his side. You do feel isolated. So in the end it took other people being stronger around me."
While Naufahu pleaded guilty to a number of charges, he's never taken full responsibility for the damage he inflicted, Rose says. Instead, he's embarked on a swift rehabilitation of image, beginning with a very public conversion and Christian baptism.
"The baptism was the first thing. I was quite disturbed by that, because in a sense, that's what you've been hoping for—that after it was revealed he would have some kind of repentance, say I'm sorry," Rose says. "But that never happened. It was like, painting this picture of repentance and apology but it hadn't actually happened. It's just insane."
"That was the final straw for me. It was the straw that broke the camel's back, you know. It was like, this has gone too far now."
"I'm sitting here like, come on people! Be pissed off about this! And maybe we're a small country and he's not a Harvey Weinstein but really, what he did is the exact same thing. And how we deal with this does show how we feel about this."
While there's often much talk of sexual assault allegations bringing down prominent men, the reality is that those downfalls are often short-lived, and the cloud of disgrace can clear quickly. In Hollywood, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski remain enormously powerful, respected and successful figures in the industry, despite the numerous allegations that have been brought against them—and in Polanski's case, admitted to. The President of the United States holds one of the most powerful positions in the world, despite allegations against him from ten named, on-record women. Here in New Zealand, Tony Veitch has fully resuscitated his broadcast career after breaking his wife's back. Our collective memories relating to the the shame of sexual and gendered violence can be startlingly short.
As Naufahu embarks on his own journey of reputation-rehabilitation, Rose hopes people remain skeptical. "You hope that most people see that, and they think, 'ok, that's a load of crap'. Hopefully they can sit privately at home, and see through that man's bullshit. But if no-one really talks about it, it can be swept under the rug, he can continue to get away with things," she says.
"If society rallies around this, it does make a difference. I'm sitting here like, come on people! Be pissed off about this! And maybe we're a small country and he's not a Harvey Weinstein but really, what he did is the exact same thing. And how we deal with this does show how we feel about this—how we regard that behaviour in general."
Follow Tess on Twitter: @tessairini