The 50 coolest Kiwis ever (+photos)

From pop stars and artists to inventors and war heroes, these are the past and present New Zealanders who stood out from the crowd.

These are the Kiwis of past and present who we think have stood out from the crowd. Photos / NZ Herald
These are the Kiwis of past and present who we think have stood out from the crowd. Photos / NZ Herald

America has Elvis and Marilyn. Britain has Kate and baby George. Australia has... mainly people they stole from us. So who are the coolest New Zealanders of this and any other era?

We got such a strong reaction from readers when we ran a story about the American National Portrait Gallery in Washington putting together a list of the top 100 coolest Americans, we thought we would apply it to New Zealanders.

Here's our selection of an all-time top 50 for you to debate this holiday weekend. We could claim it was based on rigorous selection criteria - but we'd be lying. Cool is a hugely subjective term, based largely on your age, interests and social background, and the final choices have caused heated arguments around the Weekend Herald newsroom. However in the interests of transparency, we can say our favourites had at least one of these things in common:

1. Profile: You know who they are. In many cases they've helped shape the way we feel about ourselves as New Zealanders.

2. Originality: They do things their way - they're trend-setters, not followers.

3. Controversy: If everyone loves you, you're boring. Cool people tend to polarise opinions.

4. Sex appeal: Not essential but it helps.

Because any cool list tends to change rapidly, we've highlighted a few contenders who were hugely popular in their day and thrown in an extra 10 names who are on top of their game right now.

So try out our selection and tell us what you think. If you believe we've missed someone essential or included someone you don't rate, make sure you comment below.


The top 10

1: Willie Apiata: Won the Victoria Cross for carrying a seriously wounded colleague to safety through a barrage of enemy fire in Afghanistan. Became an instant pin-up boy for the SAS years later when he was photographed in Kabul wearing a caveman beard, a modified M16 assault rifle and an Alpha Male don't-mess-with-me look that went straight down the barrel of the camera. Movie stars can't compete with that.

2: Lorde: The most famous and admired New Zealander in the world right now, not just because of her much-imitated hit Royals but for the sassy attitude she brought with it. Turned down the chance to tour with Katy Perry, called out Selena Gomez for anti-feminist lyrics and generally doesn't hesitate to say whatever she thinks of the music business.

3: Ralph Hotere: Any colour you like, as long as it's black... Hotere did use colour but his legendary black-on-black paintings and sharp political humour ("Land of the wrong white crowd") made his name. A golf fanatic - rumour has it the conservative Balmacewan clubhouse relaxed its "no hats" rule especially for him - he cooked a mean muttonbird and veges dinner.

4: Nancy Wake: "Blisteringly sexy, she killed Nazis with her bare hands," gushed the Daily Mail when she died, aged 98. Wake who married a Frenchman, played a vital part in helping more than a thousand escaped POWs and shot-down Allied airmen escape from occupied France. Dubbed the "White Mouse" for her elusiveness, she was No.1 on the Gestapo's most wanted list. Once when her parachute got caught in a tree, her local agent said he hoped all trees could bear such beautiful fruit. She replied; "Don't give me that French shit".

5: Sonny Bill Williams: The most naturally talented rugby union/league player of his generation, SBW seems to switch codes at will just in time to turn up for the next World Cup final. Stunning to watch on the field - his unconventional back-of-the-hand offload has now become standard in both codes - and idolised off it by male and female fans. Never mind the team, he's the star.

6: Jean Batten: They called her the Greta Garbo of the skies. Batten made the first solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936 and broke a host of long-distance flying records. She always emerged from the cockpit in make-up and a white flying suit but her glamorous image hid a vulnerable side. She died alone, a recluse, on Majorca.

7: Bruno Lawrence: Crazy drummer who formed his own band (Blerta) and became an instant film star in the Kiwi classic Smash Palace. "When he tried to act, he wasn't very good, but his instincts were superb," said fellow actor Keith Aberdein. "You kind of worked on the edge with Bruno and that was a very good place." Lawrence later won over Australians in cult comedy Frontline. Died aged 54 of lung cancer.

8: James K Baxter: "Young, gifted and twisted" as another poet David Eggleton put it, Baxter gave New Zealand a voice and got under its skin. The Jerusalem commune experiment didn't go so well but just listen to the closing lines of High Country Weather; Upon the upland road/Ride easy, stranger:/Surrender to the sky/Your heart of anger.

9: Anna Paquin: Went all the way from child star in The Piano on Karekare Beach to sizzling Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood. Now one of the world's most talked about celebrities, from her marriage to Stephen Moyer and twins Charlie and Poppy to her open acknowledgment of her bisexuality - which didn't hurt the show's ratings at all.

10: Bruce McLaren: Tragically killed aged 32 when he crashed in training, McLaren created one of the most successful teams in Formula One and was an equally brilliant driver and mechanic, who knew his cars inside out. Dominated the motor racing world in the late 1960s with Kiwi compatriots Denny Hulme and Chris Amon.


The rest

Musicians

Chris Knox: The grumpy Godfather of New Zealand's alternative rock scene, whose cult love song Not Given Lightly made the all-time best New Zealand songs list and became the theme music for Vogels bread.

Shayne Carter: The spiritual heir of his good mate Knox, with better cheekbones. A musically restless force of nature from his Straitjacket Fits heyday in the late 80s to the Adults today.

Gin Wigmore: Started out as Virginia Claire Wigmore from Devonport but that didn't quite fit the bad girl image. Loud, brassy and unstoppable on a good night.

Zane Lowe: BBC Radio 1 DJ who championed breakthrough bands like Arctic Monkeys (see YouTube for his interview with Kanye West in full egomaniac mode). Lowe's own band Breaks Co-op produced Otherside, perhaps the ultimate Kiwi summer soundtrack.

Actors/comedians

Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords): New Zealand's "fourth-best folk comedy duo" gained cult status in America, thanks to their self-titled HBO show and songs like Business Time - "You know when I'm down to my socks it's time for business/That's why they're called business socks". Brett now sings with Kermit the Frog and Jemaine is a cockatiel in Rio 2, which counts as making it in Hollywood.

(Cool in 1997) Lucy Lawless: Shot to international stardom and gay icon status as Xena, Warrior Princess. Since arrested for occupying a Shell oil rig and briefly had a new planet named after her. Not bad for a girl from Mt Albert.

Karl Urban: Starring roles in not one but two mega-fantasy franchises (he played Eomer in Lord of the Rings and Dr Leonard "Bones" McCoy in the latest Star Trek film series). Unavailable for James Bond - luckily for Daniel Craig - but you can't have everything.

Robyn Malcolm: She'd be the first to admit she's not as cool as her signature character Cheryl from Outrageous Fortune (fish pie, anyone?). But it took guts to take on the Government over the Hobbit deal with Warner Brothers.

(Cool in 1976) John Clarke: The catchphrases of his alter ego Fred Dagg ("that'll be the door") have entered our language and our psyche. Still brilliantly funny, even if he has worked in Australia ever since.

Billy T James: No one else could have got away with racially stereotyped gags like the te reo teacher who told his students that "kotanga" was Maori for "car aerial". Succeeded because of the underlying warmth of his humour and rapport with his audience. The high-pitched giggle helped too.

Artists

Frances Hodgkins: Best known for her sentimental favourite Mother and Child - which would probably annoy Hodgkins, who broke ties with New Zealand and realism to forge her own modernist path in 1930s Britain.

Colin McCahon: His giant Victory over Death 2- better known to most of us as "I am" - still inspires awe. Literally changed the way we see our landscape.

Writers

Katherine Mansfield: The original literary rebel, her motto was "risk, risk everything". Hung around with Virginia Woolf, who used to grumble jealously; "The more she is praised, the more I am convinced she is bad".

Sam Hunt: The bare-footed bard and poetic descendant of James K Baxter. Relentlessly parodied, always a good sign.

Ronald Hugh Morrieson: "The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut," reads the opening sentence to The Scarecrow. As he put it, "one of those buggers who get discovered when they're dead" and still unappreciated in his native Hawera, which replaced his home with a KFC store.

Filmmakers

Taika Waititi: Launched Poi E back on the airwaves with Boy and feigned sleep during his Oscar nomination for Two Cars, One Night. The Americans still haven't got it.

Jane Campion: Put us on the map with The Piano and proved she's still got the touch with David-Lynch-goes-to-Queenstown TV drama Top of the Lake.

Sex symbols

Freda Stark: Known as the "Fever of the Fleet" for her nude, gold-dust covered performances at the Civic in wartime. Sensationally outed as a lesbian when she appeared as a witness in the 1936 trial of Eric Mareo, twice convicted of murdering his wife (and Freda's lover) Thelma Trott.

(Cool in 1989) Rachel Hunter: Never mind New Zealand's Got Talent. You had to be there for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and her marriage to Rod Stewart. And don't get us started on the Trumpet ad...

TV and radio

Karyn Hay: A generation still looks back fondly on Radio With Pictures, in which Hay championed NZ and alternative music and (gasp!) talked in a broad Kiwi accent. We've come a long way.

Samantha Hayes: Forced to fend off mischievous claims that she's too hot to be a serious journo. Third Degree co-host Duncan Garner must wish he had the same problem.

Kim Hill: There's no one else like her on radio. Doesn't pounce quite the way she used to but never leaves you wishing she'd asked that question - because she always does.

Heroes and villains

Charles Upham: Won the Victoria Cross "several times over" for his extraordinary bravery under fire. Once played dead to lure two German soldiers closer, shot the first with his arm in a sling, reloaded one-handed and shot the second.

(Cool in 1963) George Wilder: Serial burglar and prison escaper in the 1960s who left thank you and apology notes for his many victims. Became a public folk hero immortalised by the Howard Morrison Quartet as 'George the Wilder Colonial Boy'.

Tame Iti: The mokoed public face of Tuhoe independence and the "Urewera Four", imprisoned for two and a half years on firearms charges after the Crown failed to convince the jury of a terrorist plot. Has an unfortunate tendency to mix guns and public places.

Adventurers

Bill Denz: Legendary tough-guy mountaineer, who terrified even fellow climbers with his daring ascents. Denz famously used an old coffee jar as his water bottle and once left it near the top of Mt Cook.

Sportspeople

Bert Sutcliffe: Came out swathed in bandages to smash sixes around Ellis Park with Bob Blair, the young fast bowler who had just learned his fiancee had died in the 1953 Tangiwai rail disaster. One of our greatest batsmen too.

(Cool in 1981) Allison Roe: She blitzed the Boston and New York marathons that year, breaking the world record in New York. Instant stardom followed in the US - or at least instant coffee ads with David Bowie and Dustin Hoffman.

Jonah Lomu: The sight of him trampling over helpless England fullback Mike Catt in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final reduced veteran commentator Keith Quinn to moans of excitement.

Maria Tutaia: Silver Fern glamour girl who shoots from anywhere, dates AFL star Kurt Tippett and (as she once revealed to the Herald) wants to design her own shoes.

John Walker: The first person to run a mile in under 3:50 and a 1500m gold medallist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics (it wasn't his fault Filbert Bayi couldn't be there). Great hair.

Lisa Carrington: Came from nowhere to win kayaking gold at the London Olympics and dazzle us with that smile. Great shoulders.

John Kirwan: So he's just another struggling coach right now, but he's always had style - from his glory days as an All Black wing to a lifelong love of fine food and clothes that made him so at home in Italy.

Innovators/enterpreneurs

Ray Avery: Former street kid who designed a cheap high-quality lens that gave back sight to millions of Third World people suffering cataract blindness.

Rod Drury: Took an obscure accounting software company called Xero into the sharemarket stratosphere. Finally someone who walks the talk about innovation being this country's future.

Sam Morgan: TradeMe founder who created a $700 million company that won Kiwis over before eBay even realised where New Zealand was.

Burt Munro: Immortalised in the film The World's Fastest Indian, Munro spent decades modifying a 1920 Indian motorcycle to set three land speed records in the US. The last, which he achieved aged 68, still stands today.

Foodies

Al Brown: From upmarket (Depot) to everyday (Best Ugly Bagels), he consistently gets it right in the overcrowded foodie market.

Sarah and Otis Frizzell: They plan to turn their hugely popular Lucky Taco foodtruck into a "global Mexican food brand". Next step world domination?

Politicians

John A Lee: The man who really gave us state houses. Former criminal and war hero who became the enfant terrible of the first Labour government.

Marilyn Waring: Took on former PM Rob Muldoon over nuclear ship visits and the world's economists over women's unpaid work. Lost both battles but might be winning the war.

(Cool in 1972) Norm Kirk: David Lange may have got the anti-nuclear laughs with his throwaway "I can smell uranium on your breath" line at the Oxford Union debate years later, but sending a frigate to protest French testing at Mururoa - as Big Norm did - shows you really mean it.


Cool right now

Steven Adams: The first New Zealand basketballer to become a first-round draft pick for America's famed NBA - and make a big impression on court.

David Dallas: If Americans could hear Running, would he be as big as Lorde? Hip-hop for the masses but with a strong Kiwi flavour.

Ashleigh Good: One of the world's top models. Left North Shore for New York two years ago, now a firm favourite with big names such as Chanel boss Karl Lagerfeld.

Kody and Ruban Nielson: Made their name with the "troublegum" pop of the Mint Chicks. Still trailblazers with Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Ruban) and Opossum (Kody).

Florian Habicht: Let New Yorkers decide the plot in his quirky first feature Love Story. Does it again in his upcoming documentary Pulp, which asks Sheffield pensioners what they think of Jarvis Cocker's eccentric Britpop band.

Eleanor Catton: Our Booker prize winner must be the most reluctant media star ever but getting into bed with Lorde confirms you've made it.

Richie Hardcore: Community drug and alcohol worker, kickboxer and bfm punk and hardcore DJ. You could say he's an all-rounder.

Emilia Wickstead: As the world now knows, she makes frocks for Kate - and Samantha Cameron, the British PM's wife. Classy but not stuffy.

Jacinda Ardern: About as cool as a current MP gets (sorry, Winston). Did her own DJ set at Laneway this year.

Levi Sherwood: Red Bull stunt rider who spends a lot of time hanging upside-down in mid-air. Just watch the video here.

- NZ Herald

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