Jennifer Ward-Lealand - New Zealander of the Year

Actor, advocate and long-time local Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira.

“It’s a huge honour to be chosen”, says Jennifer. “When I got the call, my jaw dropped to the ground and basically it’s still there. But you know, I will just keep doing what I do, which is advocating for the arts and te reo Maori.”

The list of organisations and causes supported by Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira is long. She is a patron of Theatre New Zealand, has been the President of Equity New Zealand since 2007, is co-founder and artistic board member of The Actors’ Program, and a patron of Q Theatre to name just a few. Her awards are also numerous. In 2019 alone she received the Women of Influence Award, Arts & Culture, Best Actress Award for Vermillion at the Los Angeles Film awards and was appointed as Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

“I have about seven different kaupapa supporting the arts this week and they were all arranged before this [New Zealander of the Year] award so I will just keep focused on the work.” Jennifer believes it’s vitally important to give back when you’re in a position to make a difference. “I think teaching and directing and supporting actors in my capacity as president is even more important than ever. Since Jennifer has been president, Equity New Zealand’s membership has grown to number over 1000 – an impressive feat for a union in a predominantly freelance labour force.

Jennifer explains that actors are among the most vulnerable workforce with only about 10 to 15% able to sustain a living from their craft. This combined with the nature of the work, which requires actors to give so much of themselves to a performance, is one of the reasons actors’ mental well being can suffer more than most.

As President of Equity New Zealand, Jennifer notes the industry has some very real issues. “We, as a union, are very conscious of the fact that our statistics are not good when it comes to the mental health of our members and we’re about to hold our first Ways to Wellness forum, which will be open to all performers.”

Beyond the arts, many have seen Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira as a champion for te reo Maori me on a tikanga. She explains her journey to become a fluent speaker has been a long one. However, she recognises it as one that has been travelled without the mamae (hurt) of generations of language trauma. “Recently, I was dismayed to hear my love for te reo Maori had been overstated into a role that I would never claim for myself. I consider myself a soldier for te reo, that’s it.

“I was given the name Te Atamira which means ‘the stage’, so I say: Ko Te Atamira te ingoa – Te Atamira is my name. Ko Te Atamira te w-ahi mahi – the stage is the place I work. Ko Te Atamira te whai i e whakatairanga ana ahau i te reo Maori – the stage is the place where I champion te reo Maori. That’s the responsibility I have by being given this name.” Jennifer believes if just one person is inspired to learn te reo or keep learning because of her profile, she is in some way meeting that challenge.

As New Zealander of the Year, Jennifer will continue as before. She will continue to work on behalf of New Zealand actors, supporting them and improving industry standards as well as doing what she can to support the flourishing of te reo Maori.

Jennifer’s cat Ruby (pictured on the cover) has stolen over 200 items in her lifetime - toys, bras, caps, togs, swimsuits, tea towels and socks. “But now that she is nearly 12, Ruby has got a bit lazy and just drags a teddy around the house delivering it under my office desk. What a gal.”