Cantabrians see red over celebrities

17:00, May 28 2011
RED ZONE: Former supermodel Rachel Hunter poses outside the earthquake damaged Christ Church Cathedral on a tour that sparked controversy in Canterbury.

Celebrities getting royal treatment in the red zone have upset some Christchurch residents, Katie Pickles reports.

There she was: our Rachel Hunter in hard hat and luminous jacket surveying the ruins of Christchurch.

The down-to-earth Kiwi supermodel who married Rod Stewart and became surrogate royalty in New Zealand, who managed to have a family yet soldier on with her career at a time when she weighed twice as much as most in the modelling industry.

Yet Hunter's visit to boost morale and raise money for earthquake-stricken Canterbury met with opposition from some of the good citizens of Christchurch, who penned angry letters on her presence in the red zone.

It appears that our previously sleepy southern city is suffering from celebrity-exhaustion. While people with urgent and pressing need to get into the forbidden zone wait, the likes of Prince William, Russell Crowe and Kevin Rudd have received the royal treatment.

And because she hails from up north and lives in California, Hunter is effectively another overseas visitor being shown the red zone carpet. Meanwhile those bereaved and wishing to visit the sites where their loved ones perished, those with businesses frozen in time, and those wanting to reclaim the central city, feel shunted aside.


In the "new normal" Christchurch it is emerging that one-eyed Cantabrians haven't shaken their famous and longstanding parochialism and suspicion of outsiders. Red and black is still our colour combination, you understand. We're fine that you wore it on a special day to raise funds for us, but that's where the friendliness ends and the competition recommences.

Contributing to the resentment of outsider celebrities is a knee-jerk reaction of "if you weren't here you can't understand" so why should you take centre stage? Yet, while we're over famous visitors taking the spotlight, tourists and their full wallets are as welcome as ever.

It's understandable those grieving for loved ones, those without homes, those who have lost livelihoods and the basics of civilised life feel angered by the presence of sparkling visitors who lack the malaise that has engulfed the city.

But while there may be opposition and unease, we need the celebrities to keep us in the glare of the international media and to raise money and awareness. Love them, hate them, or feel indifferent, these are our messengers in a time of disaster.

And let's remember that ownership of this disaster goes far beyond city and provincial limits. Many victims in Christchurch were international language students, adding to the global wave of grief.

In the rush to vilify Hunter, there is a sense of her being more than in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hunter has always cut a controversial figure as a sex object in a time of second wave feminism. Through the 20th century there was a movement in the West for women to gain access to careers of substance, so that they might be amongst the firefighters, police, army, doctors, journalists, engineers and politicians who have been allowed to enter the red zone.

While hardworking and determined in her industry, Hunter came to prominence primarily because of the way she looked. But she has also tried hard to fashion a separate self of substance from her image. In the 1990s she embarked on a career in television and acting, working as a reporter for Entertainment Tonight. In 2004 she appeared on the Christmas special of The Vicar of Dibley. And like so many celebrities of our times, she has tried to use her fame for good, first saving gorillas and now Cantabrians.

But, for some people in Canterbury, her latest helpful mission has gone unappreciated. Some opponents have lumped her in the same basket as other recent celebrity visitors. Others have gone further and questioned what she has to offer. She is considered a walking coathanger lacking a mind of her own.

Unsurprisingly, a cartoon has emphasised her buxom appearance, and has repeated her famous words from a shampoo advertisement: "It won't happen overnight, but it will happen."

Those mostly female readers of women's magazines who have spent the past 30 years getting to know her alongside Princess Diana and Kiri Te Kanawa are rallying to her defence. The reaction to Hunter demonstrates that those who rise by their image will be trapped and fall by it too. It is a lesson that applies to places as well as people and parochial post-quake Christchurch is no exception.

Katie Pickles is Associate Professor in History at the University of Canterbury.

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