Labour MP Jacinda Ardern is used to people judging her on her ambition and her appearance, rather than her politics.
But whether she’s making her presence felt in parliament, or good-naturedly posing for New Zealand Woman’s Weekly’s photoshoot, there’s an incredible amount of substance behind the wide smile.
Intelligent, with a quick wit and self-deprecating humour, Jacinda (33) was once a tractor-driving, accident-prone Waikato farm girl, who sported one of the most impressive mullets New Zealand has ever seen.
“Oh, come on, I was a child of the ’80s!” she protests with a laugh.
“For all I knew, it was the height of four-year-old fashion.”
Since starting her political career six years ago as a “young gun”, and becoming well-known for regularly appearing on TVNZ’s Breakfast opposite National politician Simon Bridges, Jacinda is now one of Labour’s most popular members.
But though she’s now a list MP based in Auckland Central, in a small apartment with a fridge that stores condiments and not much else, she’s still the same clumsy, opinionated girl who once crashed her dad’s tractor into a nashi pear tree on the family orchard.
“I hit the clutch instead of the brake,” she explains. “But it was fine, Dad managed to jump on before I hit the second tree!”
Born in Hamilton and raised in Morrinsville, after a brief stint in the small Bay of Plenty town of Murupara, Jacinda had a childhood that reads a bit like the ultimate Kiwi cliché.
“Dad was a policeman, and Mum worked in the school canteen,” she tells.
“My first real job was at a fish and chip shop, and I had a pet lamb called Reggie, who I tried to train up for the A&P show. But all I did was teach him how to escape through an electric fence. So I guess it’s as Kiwi as you’ll get!”
Although she’s been voted New Zealand’s Sexiest Politician twice, once in 2011 and again in 2013, Jacinda says she was a complete tomboy growing up, preferring to help her dad dock sheep and pick fruit rather than play with dolls.
“I had the job of making sure our little fruit stall, complete with honesty box, was always stocked too,” she remembers.
“Granddad made this little tray that sat on the golf course we lived next to. When the golfers came down the fairway, there were always apples for 20c. That was my pocket money.”
Jacinda first acted on the instincts that led her to politics, after seeing rampant inequality in Murupara as a little girl.
“I always noticed when things felt unfair,” she says thoughtfully. “Of course, when you’re a kid, you don’t call it social justice. I just thought it was wrong that other kids didn’t have what I had. When we moved to Morrinsville, I was eight years old, and I started doing something about it – joining human rights groups at school and things like that.”
It was there where, despite being “pretty much the only leftie in the village”, Jacinda experienced her first taste of political victory – convincing the Board of Trustees at Morrinsville College to allow girls to wear trousers as part of the uniform.
“And it was probably the last time I won an election,” she laughs wryly, referring to her defeat in the Auckland Central electorate against National MP Nikki Kaye.
Despite the upset, Jacinda remains high on Labour’s list thanks to her “pragmatic idealism” – a quality gleaned from her years of living on the family orchard.
“You have to be practical when you’re in small rural places, but you always want things to be better,” she says. “So I think that’s where I get that from.”
These days, she still carries with her a measured optimism – a talisman to protect against the often brutal world of politics – and while she’s known as a tough nut to crack, she admits she’s a lot more sensitive than people might think.
“My skin isn’t thick at all,” Jacinda says. “I get upset by stuff, absolutely – like when people think I’m not doing a good job. But the real trick, something I’m constantly trying to keep in check, is that you have to find a way to filter things, but still be empathetic. So I don’t want to get too thick-skinned.”
She’s also a good sport, laughing when the opposing sides of her personality are pointed out as she sits atop a tractor in her gumboots, while asking for a single shot, trim flat white.
“It’s okay,” she says, shrugging. “Although the people of Morrinsville have told me that if I ever come back to town driving a Prius, it’s all over!”
These days, life is hectic – a million miles away from the idyllic orchard. While Jacinda tries to maintain a work-life balance, in an election year, her social life does tend to suffer.
There’s not much time for friends, family or relationships – “although I’m not sure I can blame that last one on my job!” she offers sardonically – but she’s okay with that.
“I know it’s important to stay in touch. I’m better at my job if I give myself some space, but I have this thing where I feel guilty – there’s always an event I could be at, or a door that I could be knocking on.”
When she does find herself with a few hours spare, she indulges in a bit of cooking. “Not baking. Massive difference!” she adds quickly.
She does miss her parents, Laurell and Ross, currently New Zealand’s high commissioner to Niue, and sister Louise, who resides in London.
But Jacinda is almost thankful they no longer live in New Zealand, as they’ve never seen the worst of the abuse she sometimes suffers at the hands of the public and vitriolic internet bloggers.
“My family has warmed to the idea of me being a politician,” she says. “They are really supportive of me, but like any family with a member in politics, they worry a bit. They see it can be quite brutal.”
Despite the demands of the job, work is still her number-one priority, irrespective of the stress, the late nights and personal sacrifices – and she says she is much better at “letting go” of criticism than she was at the beginning of her career.
“If I didn’t, I’d be constantly in a foetal position in the corner of the room,” she jokes.
“I have a ‘what will be, will be’ approach to life. The priority is just to be happy. If I’m getting satisfaction out of my job, and I’m being a good sister, daughter and friend, then that’s a good enough formula to make me happy.
“I am happy most of the time. I get a lot of joy out of my job. Not everyone has that.”