The path to the top can begin in unusual places.

For Paula Bennett, it was performing as Rizzo in a high school production of the musical Grease.

The teacher who ran the production at Taupo-Nui-A Tia College was at Government House yesterday to see Mrs Bennett sworn in as a Cabinet Minister and National's highest-ranking woman.

The teacher Nigel Vanner said it was outside the classroom, in the high school musical, that he first forged a friendship with Mrs Bennett.


"I always knew she was going to achieve something," he said. "She had the skills and the drive."

Both he and Mrs Bennett agreed politics was not an obvious course for her.

"I was into drama then," Mrs Bennett said. "I've just got a different version of drama now."

The two have been in touch a couple of times a year since she was in school. When Government launched a website earlier this year to recognise inspiring teachers, she singled him out.

Mr Vanner also taught Labour's Louisa Wall, who pioneered the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

"But I've never taught anybody else who's made it to number five [in Cabinet]. I guess if I had some small hand in her achieving this then I feel really proud."

So was there a bit of the Grease character in 16-year-old Paula?

"I wasn't like Rizzo. I was acting a part," the minister said, before admitting that like the character she was a rebellious teenager who smoked, wagged and acted tough.


"I was pretty confused," she added. "I didn't know who I was, I was a strong personality, I got in with a bit of the wrong crowd.

"Mr Vanner never judged me. He always used to tell me he believed in me and what I could do.

"I didn't believe him at the time. But when I was ready to turn my life around I remember him for backing me at a time when quite frankly most others had given up on me."

The Upper Harbour MP is one of the big winners in National's new cabinet. She has been allocated the state services and social housing portfolios, moved up four places in the rankings, and is being tipped as a future party leader.

After shepherding through controversial welfare reforms in the last six years, she will be responsible for an equally fraught area - state housing reform. The debate is likely to be less personal this time. While Mrs Bennett has been hounded as a former beneficiary who was "kicking away the ladder", she has never lived in a state house.