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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Pop CultureNovember 11, 2023

A brief history of small town New Zealand beefing with international celebrities

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

From a Chili Pepper up north to a tech billionaire down south, a look back at some of the biggest celebrity-vs-small-town stoushes to hit our shores. 

There’s nothing worse for the national mood than when a big celebrity says something mean about us. Think Mick Jagger calling Invercargill the “arsehole of the world”, John Cleese dubbing “grotty” Palmerston North “the suicide capital of the world” or Keith Richards describing Dunedin as a “tombstone” that “made Aberdeen seem like Las Vegas.” Jimmy Carr said New Plymouth was “frankly no improvement on the original.” John Oliver called us “Australia” just yesterday.

On the flip side, nothing boosts our national morale quite like a glowing review. John Travolta once said, “whenever I feel stressed, I just want to hop on a plane to Queenstown.” Taylor Swift said New Zealand is home to “the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been on in my life.” Oprah Winfrey said, simply, “I love New Zealand”. But this praise comes with its own set of risks – sometimes the celebs love New Zealand so much that they actually decide to make the move here. 

And when flash Hollywood types move in with their diamond-encrusted travel adapters and their big ideas, it’s inevitable that some of them are going to stink up the place worse than an unwashed Benedict Cumberbatch. Here lies a brief history of small town New Zealand beefing with big celebrities. 

Ngātīmoti vs Noel Edmonds

No friendly House Party to be had this time

Let’s start with the freshest beef. Over three captivating stories, Stuff recently delved into the tension between Noel Edmonds (star of Noel’s House Party, Top of the Pops and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Here and friend of Mr Blobby) and the tiny Tasman village of Ngātīmoti. Edmonds first visited New Zealand back in 2016 and must have thought “I’m a celebrity, get me into here”, because he soon bought a home in Matakana and set up a radio station for plants

Edmonds expanded into South Island property in 2022 – including purchasing a vineyard and cafe in Ngātīmoti. Transforming the property into the English-inspired River Haven, Stuff reported that locals were offended by comments on the website that the business was “reviving” Ngātīmoti. “He’s got this attitude… about how he’s improved the place and made it amazing”, one local said. “I just feel like he’s a coloniser and… he’s come in like the Lord of the Manor.”

The people of Ngātīmoti also took issue with his number plate recognition security cameras (“he clearly doesn’t give a shit about anyone else’s privacy”) and some of the “unacceptable” humour at Edmonds’ pub The Bugger Inn (“real Benny Hill stuff”). But wait, there’s more. Edmonds told local cycle trail manager Belinda Crisp “you’re the servant and I’m the ratepayer, so I’m the master” during a meeting about a cycleway that would pass his property. 

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” she told Stuff. “He stood up and pointed at us both, ‘you two need your heads cut off and your brains replaced’.” The House Party star is also said to have raised his voice while saying “you are our enemies. You have to be defeated otherwise you’re gonna bring down this wonderful country.” Edmonds appears to stand by his behaviour, saying that Crisp was “very difficult” and “has set herself against people who pay their taxes.” 

There’s so much we haven’t even covered here, so please do read the whole trilogy. For now, the final word on this sizzling beef goes to a Ngātīmoti local: “He thinks he’s this big, famous person,” they told Stuff. “But people don’t give a shit about that here – no offence to his fame.”

Anthony Kiedis vs Kaipara

Dream of Kaipara-fornication

The Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman first fell in love with New Zealand during the band’s 1992 Blood Sugar Sex Magik tour. “I blame the seduction of the island,” the ‘Snow (Hey Oh)’ singer told New Zealander Zane Lowe during this interview, in which he also wore a bowler hat. “It was so natural and green, and time had forgotten it just a little bit. So, it did feel super inviting the very second that I set foot.” 

He bought a 68ha property in Mosquito Bay, Kaipara, over the phone from Melbourne in 1996. With an unnamed rugby player turned “older, brutish, conniving real estate agent” representing him in the room, Kiedis recalls a hectic bidding war in his 2004 autobiography Scar Tissue. “The next thing you know, I’d bought this place for way more than it was worth,” the ‘Fortune Faded’ singer mused of his $1.42 million purchase. 

“When I got back, people started telling me that they weren’t even sure if there was anyone else bidding, that all these Kiwi businessmen were in bed with each other,” he wrote. His suspicions grew even more when the previous owner revealed he was upping sticks to the GC. “Meanwhile, I was thinking, ‘why on earth would these farmers leave the most beautiful piece of paradise for the crowded-ass Gold Coast?’”

Kiedis soon found out why. “It turned out that I saw the farmhouse on one of the few days of the year when it didn’t rain,” he wrote. “Three hundred days out of the year, that country [NZ] just poured precipitation. It was cloudy, rainy, chilly, blustery, England-on-a-bad-day kind of weather.” 

Kiedis in happier, sunnier times.

Although Metservice agreed there are certain days when the Kaipara region could resemble England-on-a-bad-day “minus the castles”, our national meteorological service had beef with the ‘Suck My Kiss’ singer’s flagrant overestimation of our precipitation. “300 days a year is over shooting the mark,” a spokesperson said. “Dargaville averages around 130 days a year with more than 1mm of rain… Not even Milford Sound breaks 200 days a year on average.

Kiedis also wrote in his 2004 autobiography that “people in New Zealand were known to move in and occupy vacant country properties” and that there was a “Wild West” mentality among locals. One Kaipara local was not willing to let those comments pass under the bridge. “What a crock of shit”, commented Kim on AnthonyKiedis.Net in 2013. “I was a neighbour and there was never any threat of squatting or looting in any of our properties.” 

Kim also wondered if there was any mention of the local hospitality shown to Kiedis during his time in New Zealand. “Hangis, bbqs were all put on for him,” she wrote. “None of us gave a rat’s arse about his music, he was treated just like a regular person but shown much more kindness than your average neighbour.” She recalled fond memories of helping Kiedis catch his first fish, and him nicknaming her young children Buzz and Woody after the Toy Story characters. 

“They are in their 20s now and they feel proud to have eaten a meal and had a sing with the famous Anthony,” she added. “Pity it’s now tainted with insults and lies.” Kiedis may be long gone, but the scar tissue remains. 

Shania Twain vs Wānaka

Wānaka, home of Shania Twain’s first bad track

The country superstar first began negotiations to “come on over” to Aotearoa way back in 2003, requiring government approval to buy a high country station in Wānaka. “Locals are either staying silent about their new resident – or are just as much in the dark as everyone else,” the NZ Herald reported at the time. One local said he had “never heard of Twain” and another criticised the potential sale as it might impede access for hikers and bikers through the land. 

The property was purchased in 2004 for $21.5 million by Shania Twain and her then-husband Mutt Lange, and locals had beef before Twain even set a single leopard print boot on the property. Proposing a new track and huts that would bypass their property, Twain and Lange immediately caused a “sour reaction” and “disquiet” in the community. Neighbours Don and Vicky McRae were quoted as saying they were “totally shocked” by the plans. 

Years passed and negotiations continued, and Twain visited the property every year. “I would go there for several months, living in a small caravan parked in one of the sheep paddocks”, she wrote in her memoir From This Moment. In 2008 an agreement was reached and Shania Twain opened her backyard to the public, even going on a ceremonial walkabout on “a small, heavily tussocked section” of the new track with then-prime minister Helen Clark. 

“Miss Clark laughed when asked what her favourite Shania song was,” the Stuff report reads, with Clark replying “I’m a Mozart fan, I’m a Mozart fan.” 

James Cameron vs South Wairarapa 

Cameron getting Foxy in Featherston

The Titanic director, notorious vegan and motocross enthusiast started buying up large in the South Wairarapa in the early 2010s. Purchasing over 1,000 hectares of land, the arrival of a Hollywood megastar was welcomed by mayor Adrienne Staples. ”I’m pleased when anyone from outside the district moves to South Wairarapa, whether they’re from overseas or from here, but the fact we have such a high profile person really lifts the morale of everyone,” she said. 

Others were reserving their judgement. “I don’t know the man, I’ve never met him, so I don’t know if he’s good, bad or indifferent,” a neighbour told Stuff. “If these people come here to live and be a part of our community, then I would have absolutely no problem with that. But if he’s just here as an overseas absentee landowner, then I have reservations.” According to OIO documents, the Cameron family intended to reside on the property and operate it as a farm. 

That former dairy farm was soon turned into 5,000 hectares of organic fruit, nuts and vegetables, with produce sold at their store Forest Food Organics in Greytown. Again, the neighbours took notes quietly. “Anybody coming in and specifically wanting to grow new sorts of crops and vegetables – which was their emphasis – we thought ‘well, this is going to be interesting to watch’” a neighbour said. “I think they were unrealistic given the sort of climate and conditions.” 

Indeed, after a few years, the organics shop was shuttered and locals noticed hundreds of dairy cows grazing on the property. “It’s not being nosy, it’s just kind of the Kiwi way in farming communities – people like to sort of learn from each other and look over the fence and see what somebody else is doing”, said McKenzie. Another local farmer, Jim Hedley, had beef with Cameron’s vegan messaging, while he was also making money from dairy.

“Perhaps he looks into taking a rowboat back to America when he goes back so he lowers his carbon footprint,” he said. 

Peter Thiel vs Queenstown Lakes District

Over the hills and far away, Peter Thiel comes to play

The billionaire Trump-backer first bought property in the South Island in 2011 with Queenstown’s “plasma house”, but it was the plans for his 194ha lifestyle block on Mt Aspiring Road in Wānaka that caused locals to say “nay, pal” to the former PayPal CEO. After gaining citizenship despite only spending 12 days in New Zealand, it was revealed that Thiel had an elaborate vision to build a hillside bunker, designed by the people behind the Tokyo Stadium. 

The consent application detailed a series of buildings embedded into the hill, which would house 10 bedrooms, a meditation pod, a library, a theatre lounge and a spa pod. Locals were not happy. “We stopped the Auckland rich-listers. Great. Now we’ve got to take on an even richer person,” said Upper Clutha Environmental Society president Julian Haworth. “I think they are dressing it up as visitor accommodation,” he added. “A meditation centre? Bollocks.” 

Alas, Thiel’s bunker dreams were not to be, as the council refused consent in 2022. “All members were shocked at the frequency at which substantial parts of the proposal would be in plain and direct view,” said assessors, ruling the building would “substantially detract from the quality and naturalness of the outstanding natural landscape”. Local submissions stated the lodge would “destroy our beautiful lake environment” and “cause significant adverse physical changes.” 

On Facebook, a platform that Thiel himself made over $1 billion from, Wānaka locals were not quite as delicate with their words. “Don’t come to NZ and ruin the scenery with your concrete jungle bullcrap” wrote one. “Don’t think this country needs to spend any energy on vanity ego projects for the offshore elite,” added another. Commenters also expressed amusement at the curved hill-shaped design in Thiel’s plans, likening it to the set of a 90s childhood favourite. 

“Anyone else having visions of Teletubbies?” asked one. “Only on shrooms”, replied another.

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