Helen Clark on life after politics and the Jacinda effect

Our former Prime Minister and recent movie star’s up for any new roles.

By Sophie Neville
It's been less than 48 hours since Helen Clark touched down in Aotearoa after an intrepid six-week trip through Mongolia, Russia and Arctic Norway.
While many of us might have opted for a day or two to put our feet up, not so for our inimitable former prime minister, whose June departure from the United Nations certainly hasn’t seen her take her foot off the pedal.
Today, she’s catching up with Woman’s Day to promote My Year with Helen, a documentary by film-maker Gaylene Preston that follows her unsuccessful bid for the role of Secretary-General at the UN.
Next stop is a visit to her 94-year-old dad George in Waihi, before heading south for a spot of hiking.
“My life is over-full!” she tells us.
Since departing the UN, Helen Clark has been busier than ever.
“There’s a lot of demand for me to do this, do that, chair this, speak at that, so I can pick and choose what I can do. I’m a freelancer. Have opinion, will travel!”
She’s clearly happy to be home, though, and insists she doesn’t miss the UN, despite spending the past eight years heading up its Development Programme, where she was named one of the world’s most powerful women by Forbes magazine.
“I have a capacity to move on very very quickly. When I stopped being prime minister, I took a long holiday and went on and found the next thing to do. So after the campaign, I finished up the last six months of UNDP, tidied up in New York, slammed the door there in early June and got on with life.”
She headed off on a dream trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Russia to China and Mongolia, enjoying being “incognito” for the first time in many years.
Fortunately for her fans, 67-year-old “Aunty Helen” is an avid social media user. Most days, her followers are treated to a photo from her travels on Instagram, an insightful tweet or a funny Snapchat.
She proudly tells us her favourite emoji is a red rose, a nod to the Labour Party emblem, and she’s designed her own avatar, a cartoon version of herself.
“It’s called a Bitmoji and it’s what you do on Snapchat. It’s a lot of fun and it reaches a youthful audience.”
She’s still giggling over a recent tweet that went viral, when a user mused that Helen, who was prime minister from 1999 to 2008, would never have accepted a knighthood, unlike her counterpart Sir John Key.
“All I wrote was one word: Correct. And it went viral. It took off!” she says with a laugh.
“I don’t write a tweet to go viral, though. I write it because I think the issue is important to draw attention to. Like the one that took off when I took on the idiotic questions Jacinda Ardern was getting asked.”
She’s referring to the sexism debate that was sparked when Labour’s new leader Jacinda, who worked for Helen in 2004, was asked about her baby plans.
Woman’s Day has earlier been warned that Helen won’t be talking about current politics – “they don’t need me chirping from the sidelines” – but her excitement over Jacinda is obvious.
“She’s had an amazing start,” asserts Helen. “The campaign was shaping up to be very, very boring, but it galvanised it. It has put some life into it and got people talking about it. And that’s got to be good for democracy.”
And it’s the film that Helen is really keen to talk about. She’s thrilled that Gaylene, 70, has shone a light on gender issues within the UN, where all nine Secretary-Generals have been men.
An Instagram photo of new Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern with the former Prime Minister.
“I never say I didn’t get the job because I’m a woman,” insists Helen.
“There were a lot of factors, but I don’t think gender was helpful to me. If you’re known as an independent-minded, reforming woman from an independent-minded country that doesn’t take its orders from anyone, you become quite threatening to people.”
She says the glass ceiling at the UN was the first she’s been unable to crack – “it was more like a steel ceiling”.
Helen adds, “Young women need to get organised! The battle isn’t won and that’s one of the clear messages from the film.”
For most of us, the idea of being followed around by a camera crew for 18 months might be a little daunting, but Helen tells us she didn’t think twice when Gaylene first approached her.
“When you’ve been in public life as long as I have, any publicity is good publicity, so you roll with it.”
Helen even took the crew along to visit dad George – “he wins Best Supporting Actor!” – and in the film, which is released on August 31, reveals a chest freezer stocked to the brim with homemade dinners.
Margarine containers of chilli con carne, and pork and pineapple – all made by Helen on one of her whistle-stop trips home.
“No matter your job, women still have family responsibilities,” she says.
“In the end, that’s what makes women different as leaders. They have different life experiences and that’s a good thing.”
So will she be busy cooking when she gets to Waihi this weekend? “I’ll have to see what’s left in the freezer,” she quips.

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