He wahine toa: Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira

Kiwibank New Zealander of the year Jennifer Ward-Lealand and prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: NZer of the Year
Jennifer with husband Michael Hurst. Photo by Andrew Malmo for Silo Theatre’s production of The Goat.
2017 New Zealander of the Year Taika Waititi
2019 New Zealander of the Year Mike King
The extraordinary Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira is officially New Zealander of the Year. It’s an honour she thoroughly deserves.


Actress and te reo Māori me ngā tikanga advocate Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira has been named 2020 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.

Ward-Lealand received the award from the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Jacinda Ardern, and was presented the Kiwibank kaitaka huaki cloak, Pouhine, by 2019 New Zealander of the Year Mike King.

Ward-Lealand has amassed an extraordinary body of work throughout her 40-year career as an actress and director, elevating the significance of the performing arts industry in New Zealand. She is a tireless advocate for the rights and wellbeing of workers and her leadership has helped create a safer and more representative performing arts industry. She is an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit as well as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Ward-Lealand has also dedicated her life to te reo Māori me ōna tikanga. Her leadership has inspired many to integrate the language into everyday life, and increased its use among New Zealand film and theatre for more than a decade. She was gifted the name Te Atamira (The Stage) by Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and the late Dr Te Wharehuia Milroy.

Last night Jennifer began her acceptance speech in te reo Māori, acknowledging tangata whenua Ngati Whatua and the role te ao Māori has played for her. She went on to thank the judging panel and salute her fellow finalists, Jane Harding and Peter Beck, as well as her family - both immediate and extended. See Jennifer receive her award at TVNZ.

On social media the reactions have ranged from personal tributes to official announcements with Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori/The Maori Language Comission tweeting an apt proverb along with expressing the pride shared by the arts community.

Over at Newshub Te Atamira made some candid comments about her win as well as discussing the arts and the "perks" of title.

In an RNZ interview this morning she spoke about the new platform the win gives her and the intersection of her love of te reo and the perfroming arts.

Alice Webb-Liddall spoke to the winner and her great piece was published on The Spinoff today: "Jennifer Ward-Lealand on advocacy and the future of theatre in New Zealand"

Before the win Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira spoke to the Rialto Channel "Reel Women Podcast", humbly acknowledging the nomination but also putting forward a great case for her win:

"I'm thrilled that the arts are seen as significant and I think the fact that I have been a great champion for Te Reo Maori would be in there as well...I don't know who nominated me but it is a deep honour to be nominated for the award."

“A living legend and a role model. Jennifer exemplifies what it means to be a New Zealander. She is truly an inspiration to us all.”

New Zealander of the Year patron, Rt Hon. Jim Bolger had some wondeful comments:

“Jennifer is an outstanding choice for New Zealander of the Year. Her devotion to the performing arts sector has profoundly shaped the industry to better look after its people and represent New Zealand more authentically.

“But her positive influence for change extends far beyond performing arts. Her lifetime of volunteering and advocacy for te reo Māori me ngā tikanga has helped revitalise the language in New Zealand and has created opportunities for the expression of Māori identity and culture.  

“A living legend and a role model. Jennifer exemplifies what it means to be a New Zealander. She is truly an inspiration to us all.”

The arts have been well represented in The New Zealander of the Year Awards, with past winners including recent Academy Award winner Taika Waititi and the aforementioned Mike King - mental health advocate and former comedian.

Past winners, Taika Waititi and Mike King

Jennifer with husband Michael Hurst. Photo by Andrew Malmo for Silo Theatre’s production of The Goat. 



Written by

The Big Idea Editor

21 Feb 2020

The Big Idea Editor

Straight-up career advice from a mentoring expert in the creative community.
A portrait of Tukiwaho, painted by friend Jack Trolove.
Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho’s skillset has never been more important to the arts than it is right now.
Pelenakeke Brown in Excavation: archival process, performed at Gibney Dance Center, NY 2019. Photo: Arielle Knight.
The arts are for everyone, so how do you make sure everyone can participate in your art? Meet one of the NZers leading the way.
How do you handle the biggest career curveball of a generation? One Māori creative organisation is thriving under the new norm.