Last Sunday, Stevi-Rae Ofanoa was watching The X Factor NZ with her four-year-old son, excited to see their favourite contestant Joe Irvine hit the stage.
A few weeks earlier she had gone along to The X Factor Boot Camp performances with her sisters and a close friend, where she developed a “soft spot” for Irvine.
“I really like Joe,” she says. “He is such a genuine, nice guy.”
The 23-year-old couldn’t believe what she was hearing as ex-judge Natalia Kills launched into a verbal attack as Irvine stood half smiling, half about-to-cry on stage.
“You're a laughing stock,” said Kills. “I personally found it absolutely artistically atrocious. I am embarrassed to be sitting here in your presence even having to dignify you with an answer.”
Kills accused Irvine of aping Moon’s style. “As an artist who respects creative integrity and intellectual property, I am disgusted at how much you've copied my husband.”
Moon added to the attack, comparing the contestant to Psycho character, Norman Bates. “It’s just a little bit creepy, and I feel like you’re going to stitch someone’s skin to your face and then kill everybody in the audience.”
The young mum from Ngaruawahia was upset by the outburst and didn’t want her son thinking that this type of bullying was okay.
“I couldn’t believe what I had seen and I thought I should do something about it. I have always believed in the quote ‘Te kore te tangata, e kore e tauiraa tupu’ which means, ‘without people, change doesn't happen’”.
Stevi-Rae is the creator of the Take Natalia Kills off Xfactor online petition that collected more than 77,000 signatures in two days.
She originally set the target for 30,000 supporters and was “completely surprised” when that number more than doubled.
Like many others, Stevi-Rae felt an urge to jump to Irvine’s defence. The 25-year-old from Invercargill is easily the most emotional guy on the show, wearing his heart on his sleeve.
“He put out his mana, his pride, onto the stage and it was walked all over. That’s just not what we stand for in New Zealand”.
Stevi-Rae says being a mother and studying early childhood made her particularly sensitive to the judges’ actions.
“We’re taught as early childhood teachers to role model how we want out children to behave and seeing something like that just really took me aback.”
While most of the messages she saw were fair, Stevi-Rae thinks some took it too far and starting to bully the judges back.
“Some people just get so passionate but don’t know how to word their feelings,” says Stevi-Rae.
“They get angry and they want to do something about it but don’t always think properly about the right thing to do.”
After scrolling through some nasty comments on Natalia’s Facebook page, Stevi-Rae decided to post an Instagram video on the petition and ask “Are we becoming bullies ourselves?”
In the video X Factor judge Stan Walker asks fans to not “fight fire with fire”, but most of the 100 comments under Stevi-Rae’s post didn’t see a problem.
One person even replied: “No. We're just standing up for Joe. There is no middle ground here. Which side are you taking anyway?”
Its out of control now... Were better than that... Justice will prevail... Dont attck her cos ur just falling in2 her trap.. Then u become the bully... Dont exalt her by insulting her cos u are making her more famous... Like i kinda am now lol... Aaaarrrgg this is stressful... God bless everyone.... Peace & harmony yall...
A Facebook page also calling for Kills’ dismissal had garnered over 65,000 likes. The page has recently been removed.
Some posts seem to attack the judges personally, with one post from radio personality Dominic Harvey saying Kills must be “sexually frustrated” due to the size of her husband’s penis.
Another post from former X Factor contestant, Tom Batchelor, said Kills should “suck a d**k” and “go back to America”.
“They were doing exactly what she was doing to Joe. That’s what we didn’t want to happen,” says Stevi-Rae.
Soon after the judges were fired, The Mental Health Foundation released a statement on Facebook supporting the decision saying their comments “glorified bullying and demeaning behaviour.”
But they added that while they were pleased to see New Zealanders stand-up against bullying, they didn’t “support or endorse anyone bullying or saying cruel things” back to the husband and wife.
So is there a line between standing up to a bully and becoming a bully yourself?
Comedian Guy Williams, and host of The Xtra Factor, thinks there is and he says he saw a lot of people cross it.
“It’s actually quite embarrassing how proud we are of basically bullying them out of the country,” he says.
“What Natalia did was terrible but at the same time, it’s not worth calling her a slut and telling her she should die.”
The shit people have thrown back at Natalia Kills "Slut" "Whore" "Bitch" is 10 times worse than anything she said on #xfactornz FUCK— Guy Williams (@guywilliamsguy) March 16, 2015
He says Kills and Moon failing to apologise definitely exacerbated the issue but doesn’t believe it excuses the cruel comments hurled at them.
“Yes, they’re in the wrong but everyone bullying them is in the wrong as well. “I know people want to knock them back but I don’t think they realise how damaging it is.”
Natalia Kills bullied someone so we bullied the shit out of her! Great work guy's hi 5.— Guy Williams (@guywilliamsguy) March 16, 2015
Although criticism comes with the territory, Guy thinks there is a misconception about how much hate celebrities can actually handle.
“I’ve learnt that people, especially in New Zealand, aren’t these big powerhouse superstars that we think they are.”
“I’ve made Shortland Street people cry and here I am thinking I’m speaking truth to power. Little do we know how poor some of them are paid and how badly they’re treated. It’s an empire of sand really.”
Guy says its “hard to admit”, but he’s been called a bully online. “I’ve done a lot of stupid shit but as long as you delete, realise what you’ve done, and sincerely apologise it’s good. You learn from it and you progress.”
The outspoken personality has had his share of insults, often saving the comments he finds amusing.
“You get the most ridiculous remarks. Sometimes I quite enjoy it. I once got a tweet from a guy saying ‘fuck off back to John Key’s mansion, you homo!’”
As the global backlash against Kills and Moon continues, some are suggesting we look back to Irvine who exemplified grace in the face of cruelty.
Writing for The Herald Duncan Greive says he was surprised by Irvine’s composure, a contestant known for “openly weeping at his every success”.
“[Joe Irvine] smiled calmly throughout those mad, brutal words. And he showed dignity and humour in his response on social media.”
After being verbally battered by Kills’, Irvine delivered an almost unreasonably kind response saying: “thank you Natalia, you’re beautiful”.
Irvine topped it all off by thanking his supporters in an emotional post on Twitter full of heartfelt emotion, the kind that Greive says makes him a “folk hero”.
Thank you all so much I'm so exhausted I've tried to read every1s messages you are all amazing pic.twitter.com/vCqoSN3fPJ— joe irvine (@jooe63_joe) March 16, 2015
Of course it’s not the same story for the banished judges, and despite their newfound notoriety, Guy thinks the backlash might be a “killer blow” to the couple’s careers.
“It’s great to be infamous but not this kind of infamous,” he says.
“It’s almost better to be Chris Brown and labelled a ‘thug’ or a ‘wife beater’ than be labelled a bully. They’re going to have to do some amazing stuff now to keep relevant otherwise that might be it for them.”