Editorial: Exceptional talents make one choice impossible

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Dignity, poise and determination to walk their own path are what set Lydia Ko, Lorde and Eleanor Catton apart in a world of copycats

This year, Lydia Ko, Lorde and Eleanor Catton share the accolade of New Zealander of the year. Photos / Getty Images, Listener, NZH
This year, Lydia Ko, Lorde and Eleanor Catton share the accolade of New Zealander of the year. Photos / Getty Images, Listener, NZH

At this time in every previous year, the Herald has been able to select one person from many notable contributors to national life as its New Zealander of the Year. The choice is never easy, but never has it been more difficult than this year.

Three young New Zealanders made major waves internationally, as well as locally. The achievement of each was, in its own way, so extraordinary and distinct that it would be pointless to try to rank them. This year, therefore, Eleanor Catton, Lydia Ko and Lorde share the accolade.

At a first glance, the feats that thrust the three young women to global prominence appear to have little besides their youth and gender in common.

Eleanor Catton is the youngest author to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize; Lydia Ko scaled the heights of women's golf while just 16, becoming the youngest person and the only amateur ever to win an LPGA tour event; and Lorde, at the same age, became the first New Zealander to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States.

But they have some characteristics in common, one of which helps to explain why each has been so successful.

It is the way in which their singular ambitions led them to step outside the usual confines of their respective endeavours.

Eleanor Catton, who is just 28, went very much her own way and asked much of readers with her 832-page The Luminaries, just her second novel.

Lorde's Royals, which stayed at the top of the Billboard chart for nine weeks, was also startling in its individuality. Lydia Ko was also doing things her way.

Many young golfers have grabbed too eagerly at the rich possibilities of a professional career.

She resisted the temptation, winning tournaments as an amateur before turning professional towards the end of the year. Success in a tournament in Taiwan came almost immediately, as did a world ranking of four, the highest ever achieved by a New Zealand golfer, and a contract with IMG.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the trio internationally. In sum, they rendered obsolete any sense that this country's geographic position is in any way an obstacle.

Lorde's Royals has been nominated for four Grammy awards, and she was named Woman of the Year by MTV's College Channel, which also made Pope Francis its Man of the Year.

Both, it said, had challenged followers through unexpected stands.

Eleanor Catton was not the first New Zealander to win the Booker Prize. That honour belongs to Keri Hulme.

But her triumph reinforced this country's growing reputation for producing the very best of literature.

In many ways, the three young women also said something about New Zealand as it is today. Of the trio, only Lorde was born in this country, but then of Croatian and Irish ancestry. Eleanor Catton was born in Canada, where her father was completing a doctorate, though she has lived here since she was 6.

But it is the Korean-born Lydia Ko who says the most about New Zealand's changing face. Having come to this country as a toddler, she has played a significant role in changing perceptions about Asian immigrants. As a captivated nation cheered her on, a study by the Asia New Zealand Foundation found New Zealanders now share a much greater affinity with Asia and immigrants from that region.

It helped that she showed a notable willingness to embrace her adopted country. Never was this better illustrated than in the YouTube video that confirmed she was turning professional.

Customarily, this would be the subject of a staid media conference. But with a quirkiness befitting her youth and character, and this country's most abiding passion, she announced her decision to the All Black fullback Israel Dagg during a round of golf.

Lorde and Eleanor Catton, likewise, highlighted their New Zealand togetherness when, shortly after their individual triumphs, they posed in a New York bed, channelling the photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1969 peace protest.

The three young women were also engagingly similar in the way in which they reacted to success. Global attention at such young ages could easily have led to petulance and an overweening sense of self-importance. But they have all reacted with dignity and poise.

This was especially apparent in Eleanor Catton's acceptance speech for the Man Booker Prize. Their attitude has not passed unnoticed in a world weary of the follies and eccentricities of the most minor of celebrities.

All three, of course, now face the task of following up their initial phenomenal success. It is here that the strong strand of individuality that underpinned their impact at such young ages should stand them in good stead.

Followers are more likely to stick with people with a distinctive style than those who borrow heavily from others. That, however, is all in the future.

For now, we should celebrate three remarkable young women who have changed the world's perception of this country and, indeed, New Zealanders' view of themselves.

- NZ Herald

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