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So sweet, so fine, so polite – who?
So sweet, so fine, so polite – who?

Pop CultureMay 2, 2019

Who is she: A quest to find the women behind our most famous song titles

So sweet, so fine, so polite – who?
So sweet, so fine, so polite – who?

Many of the great New Zealand songs have one thing in common: a woman’s first name as their title. Alex Casey went on a mission to find the real women who inspired them.

She keeps me waiting in the morning by tying ribbons in her hair. She’s just so sweet, so fine, so polite too. She’s oh, so nice, and easier to love than I. She’s one of the many women who have been forever immortalised through the majesty of New Zealand song, her name sung off key at many a drunken night out. She’s Lydia. She’s Sophie. She’s Cheryl Moana Marie. She’s Victoria.

But who is she, really?

‘Cheryl Moana Marie’ by John Rowles (1970)

Is she real? She’s bloody real!

Despite multiple attempts to contact the Rowles empire, I was unable to get anyone to talk about this song for my investigation. Luckily, better journalists in the past have managed to unearth the truth. Get ready: she’s real but… she’s also his sister. Talking to the Dominion Post in 2014, Rowles said that he came up with the song from his hotel bed in London. “I just thought for a while and my sister’s name came to me, Cheryl Moana.”

He already conjured up the lyric “there on the shore she waits so patiently,” the story goes, but needed to add something to her name to make it rhyme. Stealing another one of his sister’s middle names, Marie, he created the hybrid name for a slam dunk 1970s Kiwi classic. “For many people it’s a song they love and they connect with special memories,” Cheryl told Stuff in 2014, “it’s lovely he wrote something like that and I’m connected with it.”

Let’s ignore the Lannister vibey lyrics and crash onto the next song.

‘Maxine’ by Sharon O’Neill (1983)

Is she real? Real person – not her real name

Speaking to me over the phone from Australia, Sharon O’Neill was more than happy to reminisce about the enigmatic woman who inspired ‘Maxine’. “I was based in Kings Cross with my band in 1980 and we were doing a lot of touring that took us out of town. We would be getting back quite late at night and that’s when I noticed her – pretty much every night we would get in and she’d be there.”

Despite never talking to her, O’Neill found herself scribbling down an imagined version of ‘Maxine’s’ life. “She was working small hours of the morning and in those days it was very rugged for street girls – every conceivable scenario unfolded up there, a lot of underworld crime, so I really felt for her.” Keen to take her time with writing it, she sat on the song for a few years. “It was one of those things that I really didn’t want to rush.”

Not the real Maxine

The name Maxine came from a woman who O’Neill met through one of her male castmates during a pantomime production in her hometown of Nelson, many years prior. “I always thought it was a really cool name – as soon as I met her I thought that.” Returning home after the single was released, her ex-castmate came to the gig to tell her that he had since married and had kids with Maxine. “I still tell him to give my love to Maxine,” she laughs.

As for the woman who inspired the story in the song, O’Neill has no idea what happened to her. When the video for the single was filmed in Kings Cross in 1983, the real ‘Maxine’ was nowhere to be seen. “Everyone knows that song and everyone still sings along to it, so I have a lot to thank her for,” says O’Neill. “All I can hope is that she’s still alive and she got out of there. Maybe she found her own Richard Gere, that would be nice.”

‘Victoria’ by The Dance Exponents (1983)

Is she real? Real person AND real name aka BAZINGA

Due to the rich vein of ‘Victoria’-based content out there already, I don’t even really care that Jordan Luck didn’t respond to any of my requests for comment – it’s fine actually, I don’t think about it at all. Ever. Not even now. Hey anyway so VICTORIA IS REAL!!!!!! “I recall lots of stuff but I don’t recall paying rent,” Luck told lucky old Stuff in reference to his flat in 1980s Christchurch. “Our landlady, Vicky, did not seem to mind us.”

Part escort worker, part landlord, that same Vicky became the central character in what is largely considered one of the best New Zealand songs of all time. Although Luck reflected in the same Stuff interview that the domestic violence theme in the song could have been made stronger –  he feels weird singing it at weddings – Vicky herself was happy with the song after it was released. She even put large promotional poster for the single on her wall. Iconic.

‘Glorafilia’ by Zed (1999)

Is she real? Not in the slightest, lmao.

“I’m sorry to tell you this but Glorafilia is fictitious,” says Ben Campbell from Zed. “She’s inspired by different people and frustrations, but the name itself doesn’t specifically reference an existing human.” As a punter who rocked out hard to this song at the Masterton Summer Hummer in 2001, this one stung. Campbell penned the lyrics at the tender age of 17 after staring at his parents bookshelf for inspiration. “I randomly grabbed one called The Glorafilia Needlepoint Collection.”

He was instantly charmed by the name. “It had an interesting roll to it phonetically, it created a hook instantly as soon as I sung it. That whole chorus just came out in one go, and then the verse came out. It was one of those songs, just like most best poppy songs, that comes really quickly.” Fellow bandmate Nathan King came over later that afternoon and helped him finish the last verse. “We never even questioned the name Glorafilia. It was just a girl’s name to us. Except it absolutely wasn’t.” 

According to my professional Facebook stalking and a fruitless, confusing call to Births, Deaths and Marriages, there is nobody in New Zealand who has been named Glorafilia after the song was released. Nonetheless, her blonde-dreadlocked legacy lives on. “It’s part of my history and I’m proud of it,” says Campbell. “I love it for what it is – a very sweet and innocent and naive love song written by a 17 year old. Plus, she got us a record deal and a career in music.”

I asked if he could imagine what Glorafilia, our national manic pixie dream girl, would be doing now. It really felt like he already had already thought about it for a long time. She’d have to be a milliner or a curtain maker now. I think she’d be like Josie from the Giant’s House in Akaroa – Glorafilia has definitely spent most of her life making mosaics.” 

‘Lydia’ by Fur Patrol (2000)

Is she real? Yeah, nah, not really.

“Lydia is an amalgamation of a couple of situations,” Fur Patrol’s Julia Deans tells me. “I’d say she’s like a dream character, like someone who is a little bit of yourself and a little bit of someone you know and a little bit of someone you’ve never actually met before.” Deans wrote the song in her early 20s, while she was trying figure out the intricacies of relationships and rejection. What I was trying to get at was – even though that shit hurts, there’s no point in holding onto bitterness.”

She remembers the song coming to her incredibly quickly one afternoon. “It really felt like the song just fell out of the ether and straight into into my guitar and mouth. I literally wrote it in about five minutes, it was one of those moments as a writer that you just live for. I still have no idea where it came from, so it’s incredibly humbling that it’s still around.” As for the name? “I just plucked it out of the air. There’s something about it that allows you do that kind of ‘ugh’ schoolgirl emphasis on it, which I love.”

To this day, people come to Deans and tell her that they were named after the song. “I think that’s really sweet but then a part of me is like… is that a nice idea?”

‘Sophie’ by Goodshirt (2001)

Is she real? YES YES YES YES 100% YES!!!!

Skin my knees and throw me to Fiji, baby, because Sophie from ‘Sophie’ is about as real as bloody climate change. “I was a teenager and there was this girl in my drama class that I liked, so I thought it would be quite edgy to write a song about her,” says Gareth Thomas from Goodshirt. “I managed to sound out the alliteration early on – she was sweet and fine and polite so that quickly became the chorus.” He liked the song, but he didn’t tell anyone about it for years.

What he didn’t manage to keep secret were his feelings for Sophie. After writing the song, he finally built up the courage to ask her on a date. It was a special date too – a romantic dinner for two at a posh restaurant that he had won through a radio competition. “I was so shy,” he remembers, “she was the first girl I ever took out to dinner.” He walked her home, but there was no kiss and no second date. They both went off to university and never saw each other again.

It was years later when Goodshirt formed that the song resurfaced again. “We had just got together and we needed some songs to play, so I brought out Sophie.” The rest of the band liked it, the record company liked it, and it was set to be their first single. “It was a real shock at first,” says Thomas, “but then it became a really good feeling because I was finally able to let go of this song.” By 2001, the song was out in the wild and everyone was singing about Sophie.

The question remains: what does the real Sophie think about the song? Thomas recalls one instance where a radio station tracked her down, but she denied it was about her. “She was so modest,” he remembers, “it definitely was.” The Spinoff made several attempts to find Sophie, but she clearly got the same memo as John Rowles and Jordan Luck and did not respond. Although Thomas has since moved on with his romantic pursuits, he’d still love to talk to her again.

“I just hope she’s doing well. She’s helped me pay off my student loan, so I’d really like to thank her for that.”

Keep going!