How I got two top Kiwi stars together

By Gemma Gracewood

It's been a week since a tweeted picture of Lorde and Eleanor Catton reading in bed together in New York became a world-wide hit. New York-based New Zealand writer Gemma Gracewood explains how she made this 'Awesome Thing' happen

The photo of Lorde and Eleanor Catton in a New York hotel room echoes a similar picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono
The photo of Lorde and Eleanor Catton in a New York hotel room echoes a similar picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Recently, there was a thing that I wished would happen. Then I found myself in a position to make it happen.

This was that thing: photographs of Billboard No 1 artist Lorde (aka Ella Yelich-O'Connor) and Man Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton posing in a hotel bed together, one afternoon in New York City.

Later, Ella's mother Sonja Yelich and I posted the photographs to our Twitter accounts (hers private, mine public). Our online friends, who'd wished, joked, hoped about just such a photo, were delighted about this high-level cultural hook-up.

And then the photographs worked their way around the world and into the media. Reporters suddenly needed to know how, why, where did this happen?

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I happened to be the only one able to answer questions that afternoon; the others were off doing international cultural superstar things. I didn't want to insert myself into the story more than I already had, especially without everyone else's permission, so I gave as little context as possible.

The fact of Ella and Eleanor's brilliant successes, indeed the fact that the two of them simply being together in a photo is major news, is not my story. I just happen to be someone who likes to make Awesome Things Happen. There was no media strategy around what we did, just love and excitement. We thought the photos spoke for themselves.

Reporters like to fill in gaps, however, so my Mum was surprised to pick up her NZ Herald the next morning and discover that a swanky Manhattan hotel was being passed off as my humble Brooklyn apartment.

But, now that I have Ella and Eleanor's permission I'm happy to tell my part of the story. It's the story of an online group of lovely people, a community bookstore, a local coffee shop, the power of social media, and a small country that needed some good news to latch on to in a bleak week.

It started with my sister, Jolisa Gracewood. She put me in touch with Sonja, who is on the road with Ella, because she knows I know what it's like to be in a big, foreign city, in need of a decent cup of coffee or an emergency makeup mission.

Sonja and I met at one of her daughter's New York shows, where I delivered vicarious hugs from various Twitter Aunties from home. (Twitter Aunties is a term coined by @GoodeyeMcWoowoo for an assortment of loosely connected, literary-minded New Zealand women, and some men, who chatter away online.)

Meanwhile, my partner discovered (also via Twitter) that Eleanor Catton would be reading from The Luminaries at the Park Slope branch of the Community Bookstore. Their other shop is just a few metres from the Brooklyn branch of his New Zealand pie-and-coffee mini-empire, Dub Pies. Next thing I know, my boyfriend was offering to cater Eleanor's book reading (and refusing to be paid. Kiwi pride).

Because I make it a habit to muster crowds for New Zealand gigs in New York, I wrangled some fellow New Zealanders along to the reading, and let Sonja know about it in case she was able to come. (She is no literary slouch herself.) She and Ella were booked up with meetings ahead of a massive public appearance for Lorde the next day, performing at the Tilda Swinton benefit event at the Museum Of Modern Art, at which David Bowie would be present (OMG, swoon, etc).

Eleanor's book reading was a hit. She has done so much research for The Luminaries and it's all still fresh, and it tumbled out of her brain in entertainingly generous fashion to the crowded room.

Later that evening, over drinks with fellow expats, I mentioned that Lorde was also in New York and wouldn't it be great ... "if we got together and had a photo where she's reading The Luminaries and I'm listening to Pure Heroine!", Eleanor finished my sentence.

That's all the encouragement I needed. I just happen to be like a Jack Russell with an old towel when there's something cool that needs to happen. I will not let go. I will Make Awesome Happen. Two days later, a window appeared - one hour between appointments, for both women.

Twitter DMs and texting furiously ensued. I wrapped up a meeting in Soho, Eleanor paid for her purchases at a nearby bookstore, Sonja and Ella and acclaimed New Zealand makeup artist Amber D made their way downtown, and we all piled into Sonja's room at a hotel in TriBeCa.

At this point, as the saying goes, what goes on tour stays on tour. Did I want to break out a recording device and interview New Zealand's literary and music superstars while they were in the same room? Oh, yes. Hell yes. Who wouldn't? But it wasn't the moment for that. It was the moment for five hectic women to sit around on a hotel room floor, drinking coffee and talking about Bowie.

We did, however, all agree that a photograph of this auspicious occasion must be taken. The room was small, the artistic options limited. Reading in bed just seemed obvious.

Later, we'd think of John and Yoko's Bed-In, and of a desire to fill New Zealand's newspaper column inches not with men behaving badly between the sheets, but of women cosying up together, conspiratorial, intellectual, and fully-clothed.

Remember October? These two New Zealanders had just reached the top of their relative creative fields. One of those things alone is worth celebrating, but two at the same time? Christmas come early! A chance for accomplished women to lead the headlines.

Well, sure, they got prominent coverage, but the sordid tale of Auckland's mayor's marital indiscretion broke at the same time, taking pole position in the news, so to speak.

Last week, New Zealand's headlines were again awash with a sex scandal, this time involving young men, the male police investigating them, two mouthy male talk radio hosts, and a whole bunch of depressing - yet crucial - national hand-wringing about rape culture. As the photos that Sonja and I took were shared and shared again, I watched delight spread across Twitter and beyond.

We forgot for a few minutes about what else was leading the news. We celebrated Ella and Eleanor's successes. We delighted in the fact that they found each other in a massive foreign city, in the midst of their career whirlwind, and shared the moment with us. A golden image.

I'm thrilled to have been the conduit for this meeting. I did it for the Twitter Aunties and good men and over-it women and anyone else who needed a smile last week.

Read more about the photo session on Gemma's blog.

- NZ Herald

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