Luminous New Zealand women


These creative women, through their artistry and talent, brought us special moments and made all our lives brighter.

Airini Grennell

Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāi Tahu

Airini Ngā Roimata Grennell was born in 1910 on the Chatham Islands, but moved with her family to Banks Peninsula at the age of ten. A talented pianist and soprano, Grennell and her family formed part of the Koukourārata concert party performing to raise funds for local communities during the economic depression of the 1930s. 

Grennell became part of the Waiata Māori Choir organised by Methodist clergyman Reverend AJ Seamer and toured internationally just before the outbreak of World War Two, giving performances in Australia, England and India. She was affectionately known as the “Chatham Islands Nightingale”.

On her return to New Zealand in 1938, Grennell was invited to join radio station 4ZB in Dunedin, as the country's first Māori woman announcer. She had already appeared often on air as a performer, but her immaculate voice training and superb diction in both te reo Māori and English, meant she was well-suited to an announcing role. She went on to work at radio stations in Auckland and Christchurch, creating several series of programmes about Māori myths and history and also working on radio shows aimed at female listeners. She covered multiple royal tours of New Zealand for radio and interviewed celebrity visitors to Christchurch.

Grennell retired in 1966 after 28 years in broadcasting, to Rāpaki on Lyttelton Harbour. In this excerpt from an interview with Grennell from 1987 she tells fellow broadcaster Hēnare Te Ua about her time touring with the Waiata Choir, performing at Buckingham Palace and on some of Britain's early television broadcasts.

Find out more about Airini Grennell:

Listen to a 1964 radio documentary produced by Airini Grennell, about Māori urbanisation. 

Listen to the full 1987 interview with Grennell about her broadcasting career.

Read a biography of Airini Grennell. 

Collection reference 45827
Year 1987
Credits Interviewer: Hēnare Te Ua, Te Puna Wai Kōrero, RNZ National

Ana Matawhaura Hato

Ngāti Whakaue, Tūhourangi

One of New Zealand's first local recording artists, Ana Matawhaura Hato was born in 1907 in Rotorua. She grew up in Whakarewarewa, where her soprano voice was recognised and at 16 she was invited to join the concert party of Guide Rangi (Rangitiaria Dennan) singing waiata Māori in front of tribal audiences and tourists. She joined other well-known concert parties and also travelled to Australia to sing in 1925.

When the Duke and Duchess of York visited in 1927, she sang as a soloist at concerts for them in Ōhinemutu, and in duets with her cousin, tenor Deane Waretini. The sessions were recorded by the Parlophone record company visiting from Australia, and Hato and Waretini were invited to Sydney in 1929 to record more waiata for Parlophone.

Theirs were the first local commercial recordings by Māori singers and their 78 rpm discs sold in their thousands for many years. The songs they recorded have become standards: such as Pōkarekare ana, E pari rā, Hine e hine and Waiata poi.

Hato continued singing with her own concert party, and in 1941 was invited to perform on radio at the opening of flagship Auckland radio station 1ZB's new art deco building in Durham Street. In this recording of the live broadcast from the opening, you can hear the "hotu" or sobbing quality of her voice, for which she was famous. Hato first performs the waiata Whisper of Heaven – Akoako o te Rangi written by Erima Maewa Kaihau – and then she and Deane Waretini perform Alfred Hill's Home, Little Māori, Home, one of their hits from the Parlophone recordings and a song popular with the Māori Contingent soldiers of World War One.

Despite her early recording success, Hato did not become wealthy and did not release any further recordings in her lifetime. She lived in Rotorua all her life, working in various roles in the tourism industry and being involved in her local Catholic church community. She passed away due to cancer in 1953. The Parlophone recordings of Ana Hato and Deane Waretini were re-mastered and re-released in the 1990s by Kiwi Pacific Records.

Find out more about Ana Hato:

Read more about Ana Hato and hear more of her recordings on her Audioculture profile page. 

Ana Hato rāua ko Deane Waretini – Legendary recordings 1927 to 1949

Collection reference 182848
Year 1941
Credits National Commercial Broadcasting Service

Sima Urale

Since the release of her award-winning first film, O Tamaiti in 1996, Sima Urale has been making films, documentaries and music videos that have brightened our lives and which frequently open our eyes to new experiences and different ways of seeing the world.

Samoan born, Urale immigrated to Aotearoa with her aiga and settled in Wellington when she was seven. Learning English and all the regulations made school a chore for Urale and it wasn’t until she was on an Access course as an 18-year-old that she discovered a passion for acting and “really learned something". Following that experience Urale went to New Zealand Drama School and then spent several years as an actor. A strong desire to tell her own stories led her to film school in Melbourne and since then she has written and directed films that speak to us from her heart.

Urale willingly shares her passion for directing – she has worked in Samoa and Fiji upskilling Pacific Islanders in directing television commercials. In 2010 she began lecturing at Unitech Film and Television School and, from 2012 to 2015, she was head tutor at Wellington’s Film and Television School. 

In this excerpt from Tagata Pasifika, Urale talks about her passion for filmmaking and how she decides what films she works on. The interview was broadcast in July 2008, when her feature film Apron Strings was about to premiere and open the 40th Auckland International Film Festival.

Find out more about Sima Urale:

See E-Tangata “Sima Urale: No longer a doongy”, by Dale Husband, 28/11/1.

Read the Sima Urale biography on NZ On Screen. 

Collection reference TZP355103
Year 2008
Credits Director/Reporter: Vae Mafile'o

Rangitiaria Dennan (Guide Rangi)

Tūhourangi-Ngāti Wāhiao, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Tarāwhai

For more than 40 years Rangitiaria Dennan had an illustrious career, guiding tourists through Whakarewarewa village in Rotorua. Globally she is known fondly as 'Guide Rangi'.

She was born in 1897, at a time of a crossroad between traditional Māori and Pākehā ways. As a young woman she heeded a call by Apirana Ngata for Māori to acquire Pākehā skills to benefit their people and in 1914 she decided to become a teacher. Ill health prevented her developing her teaching career and in December 1921, when she agreed to help guide a party of tourists at Whakarewarewa, she discovered her vocation. She was a guide until her retirement in 1965 during which time she guided hundreds of thousands of tourists through Whakarewarewa and met many famous people.

For Dennan guiding was an opportunity to promote a Māori world view. Believing Pākehā needed to be more accurately informed, she attempted to give her tour parties an introduction to Māori attitudes and values, and always encouraging visitors to ask questions. With her own Te Arawa people she always spoke te reo Māori, telling them that although they had to live in the Pākehā world, they did not have to be absorbed or overwhelmed by it.

In this excerpt from Kiwi Country, Guide Rangi explains aspects of Māori culture to interviewer Sam Gardiner.

Find out more about Rangitiaria Dennan (Guide Rangi):

Read Dennan's Dictionary of Biography entry by Cushla Parekowhai. 

See this article from 1966 about Guide Rangi's retirement.

Read more about Māori guides.

Collection reference F5571
Year [1966]
Credits Reynolds Television; Interviewer: Sam Gardiner

Anika Moa

Ngāpuhi, Te Aupouri

Christchurch-raised singer-songwriter Anika Moa burst onto the music scene after winning Most Promising Female Artist in the 1998 Smokefree Rockquest competition for secondary school musicians. This led to her being signed by Atlantic Records in New York to release her debut album The Thinking Room which went double-platinum in New Zealand. However, by 2002 she was unhappy with the corporate music world and the way her career was being controlled by others, turning her back on the United States record deal she returned to Aotearoa. Since then she has continued writing, recording and touring both solo and in collaborations with many other New Zealand artists.

After coming out as gay in 2007, Moa became an advocate for same-sex marriage and LGBTQI+ rights, and motherhood has seen her write and record best-selling albums for children.

More recently, her exuberant personality has lead to a successful career as a television host. Moa has fronted several talk-shows, including her own show Anika Moa Unleashed , as well as other projects such as the 2012 series Songs from the Inside in which she and musicians Maisey Rika, Ruia Aperahama and Warren Maxwell worked with prison inmates to explore songwriting and music making as a way for them to express their creativity. 

Listen to this interview with Moa recorded shortly after her Rockquest success.

Find out more about Anika Moa:

Visit the Anika Moa website.

Explore this Anika Moa page on the Audioculture website

Collection reference 30350
Year 1999
Credits Producer: Pepsi Smokefree Rockquest

Suzanne Cowan


In 2018, Suzanne Cowan became the first person in the world to graduate with a PhD in dance while being a wheelchair user. Disabled after a road accident while on her OE (overseas experience), Cowan gave up dance for ten years but returned to it after seeing a performance by the Touch Compass, a mixed-ability dance company. Cowan joined Touch Compass and later Candoco –  an international company based in London. 

Returning to Aotearoa, Cowan has pursued an academic interest in the role of art as a vehicle for raising consciousness around disability and the way we view it. Cowan’s advice to anyone especially anyone with a disability: “don’t listen to other people’s limitations, the possibilities are limitless.”

In this excerpt from Inside Out, we see Cowan in London rehearsing with Candoco.

Find out more about Suzanne Cowan:

Watch a Seven Sharp interview with Cowan.

Read an Arts Access Aotearoa article about Cowan.

Read a Radio New Zealand Article about Cowan.

Collection reference TZP264578
Year 2002
Credits Reporter: Minnie Baragwanath

Dame Judith Binney


Australian-born, Judith Binney moved to Aotearoa as a young girl. An academic and non-fiction writer Binney focused on New Zealand history, particularly Māori history. Binney altered the way we read history and, in doing so, transformed many New Zealanders’ understanding of our colonial past. 

In her research Binney drew on oral histories, communal memories and photographs. This expanded on and challenged traditional historical research enabling more voices to be heard, particularly those of Māori and women who generally did not feature in colonial histories. 

Binney’s luminous career included her twice winning the Book of the Year Award, the Prime Minister’s Award (2006) and the Elsdon Best Medal (2009).

Watch this farewell to Judith Binney broadcast on Te Karere.

Find out more about Dame Judith Binney:

See Binney's author page Bridget Williams Books.

Read her obituary from the Royal Society.

View Binny's obituary from the New Zealand Review of Books.

Collection reference TZP394623
Year 2011
Credits: Reporter: Shane Taurima

Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku

MNZM, Te Arawa, Ngāi Tūhoe, Waikato

Professor Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku is an anthropologist and art historian at the University of Waikato. She was active in the 'second-wave' of feminism in the 1970s and was one of the first to articulate the intersections between feminism, Māori sovereignty issues and gay and lesbian rights. 

As an openly lesbian academic, she was denied entry to the United States in 1972 on the grounds that she was homosexual. She returned to the United States in 1994 to represent Aotearoa New Zealand at the "Stonewall 25" celebrations and international gay and lesbian human rights conference in New York.

In this excerpt from a radio interview recorded then, she talks about the impact colonialism has had on the tradition of same-sex relationships which once existed across the Pacific, and her concerns for young homosexual people living in small towns.

Find out more about Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku: 

Read about Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku on

See the Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku entry on Wikipedia.

Collection reference 42631
Year 1994
Credits Interviewer: Judy Lessing, Te Puna Wai Kōrero, RNZ National

Dame Rangimārie Hetet

MBE CBE DBE, Ngāti Maniapoto

Together Dame Rangimārie Hetet and her daughter Diggeress Te Kanawa helped to revitalise the art of traditional Māori weaving in the 1950s. 

A foundation member of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, Hetet used the League as a platform to teach weaving to many, and was made a lifetime member in recognition of her efforts. In a radical departure she decided to part from the customary tradition of teaching only within one’s iwi – and over the years taught innumerable students – helping to ensure the art would not only survive, but thrive. 

Rangimārie Hetet exhibited her craft all over the world and received many honours, including an Honorary Doctorate from Waikato University in 1986. Hetet had a lifetime commitment to her art as the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography noted: “Failing eyesight and arthritis limited her ability to complete intricate weaving. But nothing could dull her passion; up until the day she died she continued to weave”.

Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato is the kaitiaki of Dame Rangimārie Hetet’s work.

In this excerpt from Wairoa – Rangimarie, Hetet talks about her early life in and around Ōpārure.

Find out more about Dame Rangimārie Hetet:

Read the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry for Dame Rangimārie Hetet. 

Visit Te Papa collections online to learn more about Dame Rangimārie Hetet. 

Collection reference F13721
Year 1987
Credits Production Company: Waiora Broadcasting

Dame Jools and Dame Lynda Topp


Since the early 1980s, twins Jools and Lynda Topp – The Topp Twins – have been entertaining New Zealand with their humour and music, and at the same time raising the country's collective consciousness on issues such as feminism, Māori land rights, homosexual law reform and anti-nuclear issues. 

The Topp Twins were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards 2008 with a lifetime achievement award for songwriting.

In this radio interview with Kim Hill from 2007, Jools and Lynda Topp discussed Jools' diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. In typical Topp fashion they managed to find the humour in even grim situations, such as their description of a hospital oncology appointment.

Find out more about The Topp Twins:

Visit The Topp Twins' website.

Read about The Topp Twins on

View The Topp Twins' profile on Audioculture.

Collection reference 158448
Year 2007
Credits Interviewer: Kim Hill, Saturday Morning, RNZ National

Keri Hulme

Ngāi Tahu, Kāti Ruahikihiki

In 1985, West Coast author Keri Hulme's first novel, The Bone People, won the Booker McConnell Prize – one of the world's leading literary awards (now called the Man Booker Prize.) The novel was written over many years, with Hulme saying the characters revealed themselves to her in dreams. It combined Māori and European mythologies, language and worldviews. 

Some critics loved it, others called it unreadable, but it sold over a million copies, making it one of the most significant novels by a New Zealand writer. 

Hulme lived, wrote and caught whitebait on the West Coast.

In this short sound recording you can hear she was as stunned as anyone to receive the news of the Award. She was in the United States at the time and unable to attend the awards and was told via telephone from the Booker ceremony in London.

Find out more about Keri Hulme:

Listen to a 1987 radio interview with Keri Hulme

Watch an excerpt from NZ On Screen from Gaylene Preston's 1987 documentary Kai Purakau, about Keri Hulme.

Collection reference 204359
Year 1985
Credits Radio New Zealand

Ella Yelich-O'Connor (Lorde)

In August 2009, long before she became ‘Lorde’ and shot to international stardom with her first single "Royals", 12-year-old Aucklander Ella Yelich-O'Connor joined Jim Mora for a chat. She also played a couple of songs live in the Radio New Zealand Auckland studio, along with her bandmate Louis McDonald. 

Since Lorde's stellar career has taken off, the singer-songwriter has won four New Zealand Music Awards and two Grammy Awards for "Royals", as well as two Billboard Music Awards, one MTV Video Music Award and three World Music Awards.

In this excerpt from their interview you can hear how Yelich-O'Connor's powerful voice impressed Mora – and she tells him about her plans to become a lawyer! 

Find out more about Lorde:

Listen to Ella and Louis' full 2009 performance on RNZ's website.

Visit Lorde's website.

View Lorde's profile on AudioCulture

Browse RNZ's Lorde collection.

Collection reference 255323
Year 2009
Credits Interviewer: Jim Mora, Afternoons, RNZ National

Mavis Rivers

Samoan-born Mavis Rivers has been described as one of the world’s greatest female jazz singers – Frank Sinatra is said to have called her the ‘purest voice’ in jazz, comparing her to Ella Fitzgerald. 

Rivers sang on many of New Zealand's earliest popular music releases on the TANZA and Zodiac record labels in the early 1950s, but also developed her talents as a jazz singer. 

Rivers moved to the United States and after marrying and starting a family, resuming her career in the late 1950s when she was signed by Capitol Records and then Sinatra's Reprise Records. She released several albums which sold well and she enjoyed a long career touring and performing at jazz festivals on both sides of the Pacific.

In this interview from 1963 Mavis Rivers talks about the thrill she gets from performing with leading jazz musicians of the day.

Find out more about Mavis Rivers:

Read the Te Ara biography of Mavis Rivers. 

Read more about Rivers' career on AudioCulture.

See Mavis Rivers's profile on

See Mavis Rivers' Trailblazers profile. 

Catalogue Reference 24832
Year 1963
Credits: Radio New Zealand

Janet Frame


Janet Frame is an internationally renowned author of both fiction and non-fiction. She overcame the challenges of a childhood marred by poverty, debt, illness and tragedy and later, eight years of hospitalisation (and a mistaken diagnosis of schizophrenia), to become one of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors. 

The Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, the inaugural Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, four Goodman Fielder Wattie Awards and four New Zealand Book Awards, the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Achievement in Fiction and being twice short-listed for the Nobel Prize for Literature are just some of the many awards this luminous woman gained.

In this excerpt from Three New Zealanders: Janet Frame, she responds to the question “have you ever considered the proposition that you might be one of the great writers of the twentieth century?” with characteristic modesty.

Find out more about Janet Frame:

Watch the entire episode of Three New Zealanders: Janet Frame.

Read about Janet Frame at the New Zealand Book Council

Discover more about Frame – one of the Legends – on NZEdge

View Frame's profile on Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

See Janet Frame's profile on The Arts Foundation

Collection reference F7088
Year 1975
Credits Endeavour Television

Diggeress Te Rangituatahi Te Kanawa

CNZM QSO, Ngāti Maniapoto

The daughter of renowned weaver Dame Rangimārie Hetet, Diggeress Te Kanawa was named by her father, Tūheka Taonui Hetet, in honour of the trench diggers of the Pioneer Battalion in World War One, of which he was part. Home schooled by her mother, Te Kanawa had made her first piece of weaving by the age of 12. She worked closely with Hetet to revitalise the traditional arts of weaving, which in the 1950s were in danger of dying out. 

Te Kanawa was a founding member of Aotearoa Moananui a Kiwa, the first national Māori and Pacific weavers’ organisation and travelled extensively to research cloaks in overseas museums and to pass on her skills and knowledge. 

Te Kanawa received many awards in recognition of her craft, including Ngā Tohu a Kingi Ihaka Award (2001), Te Tohu Tiketike o Te Waka Toi – the premier award for a lifetime commitment to Māori weaving (2006) and an Honorary Doctorate from Waikato University (2007).

In this excerpt from a Waka Huia profile of Diggeress Te Kanawa, she talks about, and demonstrates, her craft.

Find out more about Diggeress Te Kanawa:

Read The Arts Foundation Diggeress Te Kanawa profile.

Visit Te Papa collections online to learn more about Diggeress Te Kanawa.

Collection reference TZP229015
Year 2000
Credits: Director / Presenter / Reporter: Tini Molyneux