Superimposed text - Illustrious.


We’re not talking 15 minutes of fame here – these illustrious women have truly earned the right to be called famous.

Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde)

Author and poet Iris Wilkinson, who wrote under the name Robin Hyde, lived a short but dramatically adventurous life, which ended tragically with her suicide in 1939.

She grew up in Wellington and became a journalist at the age of 17, writing for The Dominion newspaper and eventually covering Parliament from the Press Gallery. She was plagued by ill-health and disability, which led to an addiction to morphine, and she spent time in mental institutions in the late 1920s. However, she continued to write novels, poetry, articles and newspaper columns – examining feminist themes and she corresponded with politicians about issues such as Māori sovereignty. Her writing was considered very 'modern' for its time, due to both her style and themes. Her best-known works are the autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly and Passport to Hell, based on the life of James Douglas Stark – a legendary, rebellious New Zealand soldier of World War One.

Despite increasing health problems, Hyde travelled to war-torn China in 1938, covering the invasion by Japan – one of the few western journalists to do so. She then settled in London, where she wrote articles and poems about her China experiences as war descended on Europe. It was in London, plagued by problems with money, health and addiction, that she committed suicide at the age of only 33.

No recording of her voice exists, that we know of, but a good friend from her days in Parliament, rebel Labour MP John A Lee broadcast this moving tribute on radio, on her death in 1939. In this excerpt he quotes from her poem Defeat, to pay tribute to the writer, who was later described by her son as "brilliant, beautiful, difficult and doomed". Listen to Lee's full 10-minute radio broadcast here.

Find out more about Robin Hyde:

Read about Robin Hyde Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

View her profile on

Check out this profile of Robin Hyde by Mary Paul.

Collection reference 33112
Year 1939
Credits Speaker: John A Lee, New Zealand Broadcasting Service

Dame Ngaio Marsh


Dame Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch in 1895 and lived most of her life in the city, although she frequently travelled to London.

She studied art at Canterbury University College and initially worked as a painter, exhibiting with the association of Christchurch artists known as "The Group".

In the 1920s she began writing, and from the 1930s onwards her detective novels began to gain widespread international success, earning her the title of "The Queen of Crime", alongside other authors such as Agatha Christie.

In total, she wrote 32 novels and a best-selling autobiography – Black Beech and Honeydew. She also had a great love for the stage, producing several successful modern productions of Shakespearean dramas in New Zealand, and writing several plays of her own. She was a great supporter of early professional theatre in New Zealand.

She was knighted in 1966, becoming a Dame for her services to New Zealand theatre, after already receiving an OBE in 1948 for her literary work. Dame Ngaio was a frequent guest on New Zealand radio throughout her career. In this interview from 1947, she talks about the changes taking place in the crime fiction genre and her own favourite authors.

Find out more about Dame Ngaio Marsh: 

Read the biography of Dame Ngaio on Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. 

Learn more about Dame Ngaio Marsh's birthplace museum.

Listen to Ngaio's beautiful evocation of Christmas 1913, which she spent camping in the beech forests of the Southern Alps.

Collection reference 1465
Year 1947
Credits New Zealand Broadcasting Service

Dame Joy Cowley


Joy Cowley has been writing for as long as she can remember. Her illustrious career began in 1953 when she had an after-school job editing the children’s page of The Manawatu Daily Times. From that humble beginning Cowley has become an internationally recognised author. She has written many novels and hundreds of stories and is the Patron and a trustee of Storylines – the Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand.

A “slow” reader as a child, Cowley’s world transformed when she was given a book that engaged her, turning her into an instant reader. This formative experience also made Cowley an advocate for beginner readers, slow readers and readers who have English as a second language. She firmly believes that “learning to read must be a pleasurable and meaningful exercise. If it isn’t, then we teach children to read and to hate reading at the same time". 

Cowley’s stories are engaging and lively. She believes humour is important, as is relating to children on their level, reflecting their culture to them and making them feel powerful. Hugely popular, her stories are read by children worldwide.

In this excerpt from an interview on RNZ’s Sunday Morning with Wallace Chapman, Cowley talks about her writing process and how she created books to engage her own children with reading.

Listen to the entire interview on RNZ. 

Find out more about Dame Joy Cowley:

Visit Joy Cowley’s website. 

Read more about Dame Joy Cowley on the New Zealand Book Council website.

Collection reference A282940
Year 2018
Credits Interviewer: Wallace Chapman, Sunday Morning, RNZ National

Farah Palmer

ONZM, Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto

One of New Zealand’s most successful rugby players of all time, Farah Palmer’s illustrious career includes leading the Black Ferns to three Rugby World Cup victories (1998, 2002, 2006). Appointed captain in 1997, Palmer held the position until her retirement in 2006, and during her nine-year reign the Black Ferns lost only once. 

Palmer’s leadership capabilities are not limited to the rugby field however, completing a PhD in 2000 she has undertaken research and study on how leadership and culture affects success at rugby and how sport impacts the lives of Māori girls and young women. Currently she is Associate Dean, Māori and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at Massey University.

In 2016, Palmer broke rugby’s glass ceiling when she was the first woman ever to be appointed to the New Zealand Rugby Board. That same year the Women’s Provincial Championship was renamed the Farah Palmer Cup in her honour.

In this Ideas programme broadcast on RNZ’s Sunday Morning with Chris Laidlaw, Palmer discusses the evolution of women’s rugby.

Find out more about Farah Palmer:

Read this NZ Herald Trailblazers article.

See Palmer's Māori Sports Awards profile.

See the Farah Palmer Cup fan page.

Collection reference 245714
Year 2013
Credits Interviewer: Chris Laidlaw, Ideas, RNZ National

Queen Sālote III of Tonga

Queen Sālote Tupou III was crowned as head of the Pacific's oldest monarchy in 1918. Only a few years earlier, she had been a student at Diocesan School in Auckland and for many years the Tongan royal family maintained a residence in the city. During her reign, Queen Sālote became a much-loved ruler in her kingdom and came to international attention when she travelled to England in 1953 to attend the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Very few Britons had heard of Tonga in 1953 and during the Coronation Procession to Westminster Abbey, Sālote stood out by refusing to have a cover put over her open carriage, even though it was raining heavily. This meant that out of all the official guests, she alone could be seen smiling broadly and waving to the British crowds lining the wet roads.

Queen Sālote's regal presence made her a public favourite everywhere she went in the British Isles: a popular song was written about her and a race horse was named after her. By the end of her trip she was so popular the BBC recorded her farewell speech as she prepared to board her flight for the long journey back to Tonga. You can hear an excerpt from that recording here which was sent to New Zealand's Broadcasting Service via shortwave radio.

Find out more about Queen Sālote:

Watch a 1953 Pathe newsreel featuring Queen Sālote. 

Listen to a 1936 radio broadcast by Queen Sālote from station 1YA Auckland.

Collection reference 23515
Year 1953
Credits Producer: Radio Digest; BBC and New Zealand Broadcasting Service

Tuīni Ngāwai

Te Whānau-a-Ruataupare, Ngāti Porou

Moetū Haangū Ngāwai was born near Tokomaru Bay in 1910, one of two twin girls. However, her sister died before the age of one, so she received the name Tuīni or Twin, in remembrance of her sister.

From a young age she began writing waiata, and came to the attention of Ngāti Porou leader Sir Apirana Ngata. She wrote lyrics in te reo Māori which reflected current events and the concerns of Māori, especially from Te Tai Rāwhiti.

When World War Two began, she formed a concert party Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū to support the men of the newly formed 28th Māori Battalion. Her lyrics also spoke to the men who were leaving as in Arohaina mai e te Kīngi nui which was sung at the Battalion's departure in 1940 and quickly became a favourite waiata with Māori.

After the war, Tuīni taught waiata and kapa haka to school students in the region and continued writing songs, often about the life of shearing gangs around East Cape. In this radio interview from the early 1960s, she talks about the themes of her compositions. Her words are translated by her niece and fellow composer Te Kumeroa Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi.

Find out more about Tuīni Ngāwai:  

Listen to a recording of Sir Apirana Ngata talking about two of the more famous waiata composed by Ngāwai and favourites of the 28th Māori Battalion during World War Two. 

Watch Te Hokowhitu-a-Tumatauenga: Composers of Genius , a three-part series on the work of Tuīni and her group Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū.

Collection reference 48957
Year 1964
Credits Translator: Ngoi Pēwhairangi; Interviewer: Leo Fowler, NZBC

Rita Angus

A leading figure on the 20th-century New Zealand art scene, Rita Angus is recognised as a pioneer of modern painting. 

Her portraits of Betty Curnow and the sisters Fay and Jane Berkinshaw (now Fay Weldon), have become icons of the genre. Self-portraits were also an established theme and during her illustrious career Angus painted at least 55. 

However, critics agree it is her landscape paintings that are her most significant work. They are popular with the public too – in 2006 the landscape painting, Cass was voted the most famous artwork in New Zealand by New Zealanders.

In this excerpt from The Big Picture, Hamish Keith outlines Angus’ career: "most importantly of all, the paintings of Rita Angus are images we feel comfortable with. They couldn’t have been painted in any other place".

Find out more about Rita Angus:

Read the DNZB entry on Rita Angus by Jill Trevelyan. 

Read more about Rita Angus on NZ History

Collection reference F104006
Year 2007
Credits Director: Paul Swadel; Producers: Fiona Copland, Bill Toepfer; Narrator: Hamish Keith

Moana Maniapoto

MNZM, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tūhourangi, Ngāti Pikiao

Moana Maniapoto undertook a law degree after school, she finished and passed the bar exams, but the more she learnt how law had been a tool of colonisation in Aotearoa, the less she wanted to practice. Instead she turned to her true passion – singing live onstage –and she’s never looked back. 

In 2004, Maniapoto became the first non-American to win a major United States-based songwriting contest for her waiata Moko – which beat over 11,000 compositions to win the Grand Jury Prize. This illustrious singer has received many more accolades including becoming a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2004), Te Tohu Mahi Hou a Te Waka Toi from Creative New Zealand (2005), the New Zealand Laureate (2007) and, in 2016, she was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.

Watch this excerpt from a Marae, live studio interview with Maniapoto after the announcement of her New Zealand Order of Merit.

Find out more about Moana Maniapoto:

Read Moments Like These: Moana Maniapoto , by Trevor Reekie.

Visit the website of Moana Maniapoto

Collection reference TZP291263
Year 2004
Credits Presenter: Shane Taurima

Dame Gaylene Preston


Telling our stories since she began at Pacific Films in 1977, Dame Gaylene Preston has had an illustrious career directing documentaries and feature films – all of which reflect New Zealand. 

For Preston, cinema is the modern campfire, a place for audiences to gather to listen to their stories and be reminded of who we are, where we have come from and where we want to go.

In this excerpt from Voices on Film, Gaylene Preston is talking to Jonathan Dennis – film expert and first Director of the New Zealand Film Archive – and she talks about how her film War Stories was made as a communal, cinema experience.

Find out more about Dame Gaylene Preston:

Visit Preston's website.

Read Dame Gaylene Preston's profile at NZ On Screen

View the Arts Foundation profile on Dame Gaylene Preston.

Collection reference 21673
Year 1996
Credits Producer: Jonathan Dennis, Voices on Film, RNZ National

Jean Batten


In 1937, at just 28 years old, Jean Batten was 'the Queen of the Skies'. The aviator had just completed a solo flight from Australia to England. Taking five days and 18 hours to complete the journey, she established a record (for pilots of either sex), and in doing so also became the first person to simultaneously hold England to Australia solo records in both directions! 

Although she drifted in and out of public view for the rest of her life, Jean Batten had an illustrious career as the finest woman pilot of the golden age of aviation.

This excerpt from The Garbo of the Skies shows Jean Batten arriving at Croydon airport, in the United Kingdom, in 1937 and the thousands who came to greet her.

Find out more about Jean Batten:

Read Jean Batten's entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Find out more about Jean Batten on

Listen to Jean Batten speaking on the radio after her historic 1936 flight from England to New Zealand.

Collection reference F20063
Year 1988
Credits Producer/Director: Ian MacKersey

Margaret Mahy

Acclaimed children’s author and novelist Margaret Mahy was a natural storyteller. Her illustrious career began when she was a young girl telling wild tales at school. Her first book to be published was A Lion in the Meadow in 1969, and she went on to author more than 120 titles many of which have been translated into 15 languages. 

Over her lifetime Mahy won numerous awards, including winning the Esther Glen Medal six times, winning the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2006 and, in a world first, the Carnegie Medal for her first and seconds novels.

Watch this excerpt from Made in New Zealand: Margaret Mahy, produced by Raconteur International, with funding from NZ On Air.

Read more about Margaret Mahy.

Margaret Mahy – Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Collection reference F94595
Year 2006
Credits Director: Sonja De Friez; Producer: Veronica McCarthy

Ramai Hayward

MNZM, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu

Ramai Hayward’s illustrious career in film and television is one full of firsts – she was the first Māori woman filmmaker. She also starred in Rewi’s Last Stand (1940) – the first local feature to be shown on television – and, To Love a Maori, which was her last film with husband Rudall Hayward and was the first New Zealand feature film to be shot in colour. 

Ramai Hayward was both an actor and a filmmaker and, in 2006, she received a New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to film and television.

In this excerpt from Koha, Ramai Hayward reflects back on her career.

Read more about Ramai Hayward on NZ On Screen.

Collection reference F4629
Year 1987
Credits Producer: Morehu McDonald; Reporter: Lawrence Wharerau

Witarina Harris

QSM, Ngāti Whakaue, Te Arawa

Witarina Te Miriarangi Parewahaika Mitchell is New Zealand’s original movie star. In 1929, she starred in Universal Pictures’ Under the Southern Cross, but she chose not to pursue a career in Hollywood. 

Living to the grand age of 101, Witarina Harris had an illustrious career, not only as a film star, but also as a founding member of the Māori Women’s Welfare League and Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club. 

Harris also worked for Māori Affairs Minister Sir Apirana Ngata, was the Kaumātua for the New Zealand Film Archive for many years and, in 1986, she received a QSM for Community Services.

In this excerpt from Women in the Frame, Witarina Harris looks back on her time as a film star and her work as Kaumātua for the New Zealand Film Archive.

Listen to a radio interview with Witarina Harris talking about her life

Collection reference F21073
Year 1993
Credits Director: Phil Wallington; Presenter: Ross Stevens

Barbara Kendall


Boardsailor Barbara Kendall became the second New Zealand woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal when she won at the Barcelona Games in 1992. (The first was long-jumper Yvette Williams some 40 years earlier.) She followed this success by winning a silver medal at the Atlanta Games in 1998, bronze in 2000 in Sydney. 

Kendall also competed at the 2004 Games in Athens and 2008 Games in Beijing, making her the first woman from New Zealand to compete at five Olympic Games. She has served as a New Zealand Olympic Ambassador since 2010.

Listen to this Radio New Zealand news bulletin from 3 August 1992 announcing her gold medal success – and a short interview with Kendall in Barcelona.

Find out more about Barbara Kendall:

Read Kendall's Olympic profile page. 

See more on Barbara Kendall's own website

Collection reference 9601
Year 1992
Credits Newsreader: Hewitt Humphrey, Morning Report, RNZ National

Professor Dame Anne Salmond


Professor Dame Anne Salmond is an internationally recognised anthropologist, historian, conservationist and author of many books about aspects of te ao Māori. 

Salmond became a fluent speaker of te reo Māori in the 1970s, when it was not common among Pākēha, writing her first books with the assistance of elders Eruera and Amiria Stirling (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou).

In this bilingual radio interview from 1976, Salmond explains to broadcaster Selwyn Muru the importance of Māoritanga and te reo in her life.

Find out more about Dame Anne Salmond:

Read a Anne Salmond's Comment Column, "Racist Underbelly Seethes Just Beneath the Surface", published in the New Zealand Herald

Watch the television series Artefact presented by Dame Anne Salmond. 

Listen to the full 1976 radio interview with Selwyn Muru

Collection reference 43355
Year 1976
Credits Interviewer: Selwyn Murupaenga, Te Puna Wai Kōrero, RNZ National

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

ONZ CH DBE AC, Ngāti Maniapoto

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is an internationally renowned soprano. In 1965, she won New Zealand’s Mobile Song Quest and with it a grant to study overseas. Since that time, in a most illustrious career, she has headlined in every major opera house in the world. 

In 1981, she performed at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer and became the first singer in the world to be seen and heard by 600 million people simultaneously. She has 11 honorary degrees, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Classical BRIT Awards, has starred on Downton Abbey and her recording of the Nuns' Chorus from Casanova was the country's first gold record. 

Te Kanawa has retired from singing and has established the Te Kanawa Foundation to provide financial and mentoring support to outstanding New Zealand singers to develop international careers.

In this excerpt from New Zealand’s Top 100 History Makers (episode 4) we hear more about the illustrious career of Te Kanawa.

Find out more about Dame Kiri Te Kanawa:

Read more about Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Find out about the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation.

Read about Dame Kiri Te Kanawa on

Collection reference F88832
Year 2005
Credits Director: John Bates, Mitchell Hawkes; Narrator: Rāwiri Paratene; Presenter: Alison Mau