Scores of New Zealanders have earned international recognition in many spheres – from sports to the arts, science and entertainment. Here are some of the most famous Kiwi names (in no particular order) that you’re likely to come across:
Sir Edmund Hillary (mountaineer / philanthropist)
1919 - 2008
Sir Edmund Hillary was New Zealand's greatest hero. The tall, gangly beekeeper seized world headlines when he and his Sherpa companion Tenzing Norgay, on May 29, 1953, became the first to scale the summit of Mount Everest. He died on January 11, 2008, aged 88. Sir Ed - as all New Zealanders knew him - never forgot that he reached the summit with Tenzing and he devoted the rest of his life to fundraising to improve the health, education and environment of the Sherpa people of Nepal.
Sir Ernest Rutherford (scientist / Nobel Prize laureate)
1871 - 1937
Lord Ernest Rutherford – New Zealand's greatest scientist and the man behind the face that adorns the NZ $100 dollar bill – was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908, recognising his contributions to nuclear science. Rutherford became the first person to identify the structure of the atom and to successfully ‘split the atom’. The official citation for his prize reads "for investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances".
Sir Peter Jackson (filmmaker)
From humble beginnings Sir Peter Jackson became New Zealand’s most famous film director. Winning three Academy Awards for his work on the incredible The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson brought Middle Earth to life and put New Zealand on the map as a film tourism destination. His career began making slapstick horror comedies such as Bad Taste and The Frighteners which earned him a cult following. His work on the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures with his wife Fran Walsh won them both an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. Jackson followed up his successes with The Lord of the Rings' successes with The Hobbit trilogy which came to an epic finale in The Battle of the Five Armies (December 2014). Jackson is the second highest grossing director by world-wide box office ($6.5 billion).
Jonah Lomu (All Black / rugby player)
1975 - 2015
Born in Auckland, and recognised as the original global superstar of rugby, Jonah Lomu created a sporting sensation from the moment he first burst onto the international playing field. Lomu's biblical name, stature, lightning speed and penchant for running over the top of defenders were always going to create attention, but few predicted the hero status that was bestowed on his brief career. The youngest All Black ever, Lomu remains the official, all-time Rugby World Cup top try scorer with 15 tries. His 63 All Black caps spanned a relatively short period, and it was during the 1995 Rugby World Cup that Lomu cemented his international rugby superstar status. Lomu was just 40 years old when he passed away in November 2015.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (opera diva)
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is recognised as one of the world’s finest sopranos. Over the years, numerous Maori have made their mark on the international arts scene through the beauty of their voices, but Dame Kiri is the best known. She made her international debut at Covent Garden in 1971 and returned there in March 2001 celebrating an incredible 30-year association with the Royal Opera House. Dame Kiri remains one of the leading sopranos of her generation, whose career highlight was to sing at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1981 in front of an audience of 750 million worldwide. She retired in 2017.
Neil Finn (musician)
Neil Finn has had a hand in some of the most famous songs to come out of New Zealand. He and his brother Tim were both members of Split Enz who had a number of hits. It wasn’t until Split Enz broke up and Neil formed Crowded House that he really achieved global fame. Crowded House produced many international hits and best-selling albums. Post Crowded House, Finn continued with a successful solo career making him one of New Zealand’s most famous musicians.
Rachel Hunter (model)
Hailing from Auckland’s North shore, Rachel Hunter became a household name in New Zealand due to her work as a teenage model. After posing in Sports Illustrated in 1989 her international modelling career took off. She married and later divorced rock star Rod Stewart and has also had relationships with musician Kip Winger and National Hockey League player Jarret Stoll. In 2004 she posed in a nude spread for Playboy magazine.
Flight of the Conchords (musical comedy)
‘Formerly New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo' the Flight of the Conchords gained international fame when their television series screened on the American cable network HBO. Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie had previously gained notoriety at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and other comedy events around the world. Clement has gone on to star in films such as Dinner for Schmucks, Men in Black 3 and the critically acclaimed What We Do in the Shadows. McKenzie served as the music supervisor on two Muppet films one of which won him an Academy Award for best original song for the song ‘Man or Muppet’.
Lydia Ko (golfer)
Lydia Ko shot to fame after becoming the youngest person to ever win a professional golf tour event at 14 years 9 months 5 days of age. As a 17-year-old she became the youngest ever golfer to be ranked best in the world (2015). Ko’s work ethic, calmness and consistency has become the stuff of legend on the LPGA Tour, and the Korean-born New Zealand-raised golf champion from Auckland’s North Shore has become one of the greatest players to ever tee the ball up.
Lorde / Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O'Connor (singer-songwriter)
Lorde burst onto the international music scene in 2013 as a 17-year-old when her debut album ‘Pure Heroine’ went to the top of the album charts in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The album's success and nomination for multiple awards, including the Grammys, turned this self-described 'geek' into an international superstar. Lorde’s breakout song ‘Royals’ earned her two Grammys, two Billboard Music Awards, an MTV Music Video Award and a Brit award. She was also nominated for an Academy Award for best original song after writing the song ‘Yellow Flicker Beat’ for The Hunger Games Mockingjay soundtrack. Lorde is continuing to enjoy global success with her critically accalimed second album Melodrama.