How an ‘acceptable nerd’ became Parliament’s cool kid. Jacinda Ardern talks to Kim Knight.

In light of Labour's leadership crisis, we take a look back at Jacinda Ardern's interview with Kim Knight

Those are her real teeth. She used to be a Mormon. Her family thought she was too thin-skinned for politics. She doesn't want to be Prime Minister. No, really, she doesn't want to be Prime Minister.

"I feel like there's lots of benefits in being really open about your background," says Jacinda Ardern, smiling, smiling, smiling.

Her country childhood. Her island paradise.

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All her facial muscles fully engaged for all the magazines who know she's a Member of Parliament with a bill on child poverty, but would also like her to wear a flower in her hair when she walks on a beach in Niue with her mum. Politicians used to get photographed with babies. Now they must talk about their dentistry and their religion and appear on Friday night television wrapping unsuspecting middle-aged women in a roll of fish and chip paper for a comedy show's hidden cameras. Pierced tragus? Love drum and bass? Smile and spill for the column centimetres that persuade people you should get their vote.

A young Helen Clark never had to do this.

"No," says Ardern. "And it wasn't required of a young Phil Goff, either. And I think for that reason, you only saw a particular version of some politicians. So we're the benefactors of that, but it's also meant that perhaps there's more emphasis on personality.

"There's got to be a line. Where people know who you are, but they've also got to know what you stand for ... people need to know how you're going to vote on their behalf."

Opinions: model's own.

It's the morning after the Labour Party has given Ardern the nod to contest Auckland's Mt Albert by-election. The house she shares with partner and television fishing show presenter Clarke Gayford is a work in progress. Most of the internal doors have been sent away for painting and her dad (New Zealand's high commissioner to Niue) has not-so-subtly given them a lawnmower for Christmas. A spindly white tinsel tree boasts a single, homemade decoration; the armchairs are turned away from the television.

In 1954, former National Party figurehead Rob Muldoon made his first (unsuccessful) bid for Parliament in this electorate, but Mt Albert is most synonymous with three-term Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark. The seat has always been held by the left, most recently the party's 2011-13 leader David Shearer, who resigned last year to head a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. National is not standing a candidate in the February 25 by-election; Ardern's main competition will be Julie Anne Genter, a 37-year-old Green Party list MP with a strong track record in transport planning.

Trevor Mallard, Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Trevor Mallard, Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

The electorate encompasses Pt Chevalier, Owairaka, Kingsland, Grey Lynn, Westmere and part of Sandringham. It has more residents aged 30-49 than any other catchment in the country, but ranks seventh lowest for home ownership (36.4 per cent), fifth lowest for marriage (33.5 per cent) and third lowest for Christian affiliation (38.5 per cent).

It is Ardern's surest bet yet for getting off the party list, after two failed bids for Auckland Central against National's Nikki Kaye.

"It'll be nice to feel like I have the role of representing an area. I always like to feel anchored, I guess."

She grew up in Murupara and Morrinsville, the product of both church and state - her family were Mormon, her father spent 40 years in the police force.

Life lessons: "Nothing was black and white ... behind every crime and tragedy was often whole layers of crime and tragedy."

Politicians must expect to be criticised and held to account: but just make it fair.

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She has described her high school self as the "acceptable nerd", the automatic designated driver, the girl whose parents let her choose whether she was going to play netball on Sundays (she was torn, but eventually decided she was terrible at netball).

"I was novel, but I never felt ostracised."

Sum up her teens in a single story. She's got a job wrapping fish and chips at Morrinsville's Golden Kiwi. On the night of the head boy and girl's party, a "not unattractive" boy comes in and places an order. She's out the back when she hears the till open. There's a chase, but the boy gets away. Ardern gives a description to police and heads to the party.

"And there he was. And I thought, 'oh no, if I call the police, there goes my social life'. And while, you know, 'acceptable nerd', you don't want to shut down the biggest party of high school for the year . . ."

But she can't stop thinking about her bosses and how hard they work in their family business.

Jacinda at the Pride Parade. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Jacinda at the Pride Parade. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

So her friend Victoria goes up to the boy, flirts outrageously and gets his phone number. And then the police get him.

"It was a bit of a dilemma. I remember sitting there thinking 'what do I do?'"

The social conscience, she says, was instilled by her parents. Dad may have been the long arm of the law, but it was Mum who taught her to ice Christmas cakes for delivery to pensioners. She was in her 20s when she left the Mormon faith, mostly as a consequence of its anti-homosexual stance.

"For a lot of years, I put it to the back of my mind. I think it was too unsettling. If something like religion is part of your foundation, and then suddenly you start questioning that - it's quite a confronting thing to deal with.

"Even before the Civil Union Bill came up, I lived in a flat with three gay friends and I was still going to church every so often and I just remember thinking 'this is really inconsistent - I'm either doing a disservice to the church or my friends'. Because how could I subscribe to a religion that just didn't account for them?

"It was one of the issues that became a real flashpoint. You drift along a bit, there are always going to be things you can't reconcile, but I could never reconcile what I saw as discrimination in a religion that was otherwise very focused on tolerance and kindness."

And now?

"I can't see myself being a member of an organised religion again."

Does she talk to God?

Jacinda Ardern with partner Clarke Gayford. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Jacinda Ardern with partner Clarke Gayford. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

"No. But I have a real respect for people who have religion as a foundation in their lives. And I respect people who don't. I'm agnostic. I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. I just think people should be free to have their personal beliefs and not be persecuted for it, whether they be atheist or staunch church members.

"I do draw a line if people are being taken advantage of - for instance, the tithes in some churches. I feel very strongly about that."

And her family, she says, have been "fantastic".

"Families who cut off people for leaving - that's just awful."

Politics are, perhaps, in the Ardern DNA. She drags out a framed copy of the newspaper front page that shows her grandmother meeting Norman Kirk and describes the exact moment, on work experience in Harry Duynhoven's New Plymouth office, that she fell in love with the power of politics.

"Someone came in and outlined all the issues they were facing and I remember thinking how amazing that you can be in Wellington on the one hand changing everything, and then come back here and just change the world for one person. I remember sitting in my little Toyota, thinking, 'that is a cool job'."

But actually being an MP? "No!" On a school trip to Parliament, she left her classmates drinking orange juice in John Luxton's office to ask his private secretary what she should study to become a private secretary.

"MPs? There were only 120 of those. No way was I going to become one of those."

Ardern went to Waikato University, worked in Wellington for both Goff and Clark, did an OE in London in policy advisory roles and was elected president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. In 2008, the Labour Party asked her to stand in Waikato. She lost, but, at 20th on the list, Ardern became an MP.

"There's a lot more personality politics around now," she says. "You often hear people talk about their personal like of individuals. I feel like there was a time when they talked about ideas. 'They're going to do X or Y and I'm not so happy about that.' Now it just comes down to whether you like the individual at the helm."

Lizzie Marvelly and Jacinda Ardern at the Women against Trump demonstration on Auckland's Queen Street. Photo / Doug Sherring
Lizzie Marvelly and Jacinda Ardern at the Women against Trump demonstration on Auckland's Queen Street. Photo / Doug Sherring

In her time in opposition, Ardern has held employment, justice, youth justice, corrections, police, arts, culture and heritage, small business, social development, youth affairs and children portfolios. She has proposed members' bills on adoption rights for gay couples (it failed), the reduction and eradication of child poverty (yet to be drawn from ballot) and worked on Labour's children's policy and dole to apprenticeship schemes. She would like to become Minister of Children but she also wants children and that, she implies, means she could not be party leader (or PM).

"I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but I think they're difficult. If we want Parliament to reflect New Zealand as a society, then we should be able to accommodate both, but at the same time, it's always going to be hard, because you're split-living."

Ardern says she wonders if she's done the right thing talking about her desire for family.

"But maybe there's some benefit out there in being a bit more open about the struggles we all have in balancing these things in our lives? Maybe I just need to be open and have some faith that it'll be okay."

She's 36 years old?

"Yeah."

Smiling, smiling, smiling - even when the questions have become ridiculously personal: "I don't mind people knowing that I have that desire, but maybe I'll keep some explicit timelines out of the picture.

"I have to be really conscious that when I'm talking about these things, it does, by default, drag Clarke in too. Politics does that to our partners and our families, and that's tough."

The couple met when Gayford wrote to her on a constituency issue. They don't do interviews together and he rarely features in her social media. Last year, Gayford told Canvas she was the best thing that had happened to him. "We try and give ourselves a certain amount of privacy," says Ardern.

Labour MP Jacinda Ardern with her caravan at Repco Beach Hop 2015, Whangamata.
Labour MP Jacinda Ardern with her caravan at Repco Beach Hop 2015, Whangamata.

Will they get married? I ask her that, a week after we sat in her living room, as a makeup artist applies foundation for the Canvas photo shoot.

"Why don't you call him and ask him?"

Have MPs always been such public property? Or is this personal scrutiny more especially reserved for the female of the species?

Two years ago, Ardern made headlines when former rugby league coach Graham Lowe referred to her as a "pretty little thing". In 2011, her political aspirations became synonymous with a single sexist phrase: The battle of the babes.

"You just had to ignore it and demonstrate it was a contest of ideas and try to get the public discourse a bit further along. Try to get to a place where it's not a novelty to have two young women running against each other.

"Maybe, two terms on, with Julie Anne and me, it's less of a novelty. I would hope."

Because: "Regardless of gender, appearance should not feature in judgement around competency ... the dilemma I've had is the degree to which you rally against that. Because you are portrayed as humourless if you do, but if you don't, are you copping out of a discussion that needs to be had?"

Politicians, says Ardern, must expect to be criticised and held to account: "But just make it fair . . . I also want young women to know it doesn't happen all the time. It's not a constant feature of my life. We have made progress. I'm criticised far more for my position and views than my clothes or appearance."