26 famous New Zealanders – Names you should know
Find out which famous New Zealanders have made waves across the world.
For a remote place with a small population, New Zealanders do well on the world stage.
Seeing how many homegrown stars have become the biggest names in the movie industry is impressive!
In fact, for movie lovers, you can’t go long in a conversation about fantasy, sci-fi, or superhero films and TV shows without one of these famous kiwi names coming up.
And that’s not to mention the hugely successful New Zealand singers and sports stars too. You don’t need to go to a Night Sky Reserve to stargaze in New Zealand – just turn on the TV!
So without further ado, let’s tune in and discover which famous New Zealanders have made their mark globally…
The most famous New Zealanders
Famous Kiwi actors & directors
1. Sam Neill
Whether or not you’re from New Zealand, there’s a good chance you’ve been impressed by one of Sam Neill’s movie performances.
His first international success came after he played the lead in Jurassic Park (1993), which remains a firm favourite with families worldwide.
Interestingly, the dinosaur blockbuster came out the same year as the award-winning New Zealand classic The Piano. This move was a tremendous success.
On the small screen, Neill has played roles in The Tudors, Peaky Blinders and Crusoe.
Sam Neill was born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, before moving to Christchurch in New Zealand at seven years old with his family. Today he is based in Alexandra, where he owns a winery.
2. Sir Peter Jackson
When the now-famous New Zealander Sir Peter Jackson burst onto the global movie scene, no one knew how deeply he would capture the hearts of movie fans worldwide. His renowned film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings not only celebrated Tolkien’s beloved stories but also put the landscapes of New Zealand on the big screens.
Overnight, New Zealand became one of the world’s biggest bucket list destinations, and the remaining movie sets remain a significant source of tourism to this day.
The director began by filming low-budget monster movies, including Heavenly Creatures which starred the brilliant New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey (who’s at #3 on this list).
After a stint of filming Hollywood blockbusters (such as King Kong and The Hobbit series), Jackson remains most interested in creating work he’s truly passionate about.
His recent documentaries, They Shall Not Grow Old and The Beatles: Get Back, gained substantial critical acclaim, with the latter winning multiple awards.
Peter Jackson was born in Wellington, where he remains to this day.
3. Melanie Lynskey
If there’s one New Zealand actress that has gone from strength to strength recently, it’s Melanie Lynskey.
She started her career in Heavenly Creatures (1994), for which she won a New Zealand Film Award.
Some will remember her from chick flicks such as Ever After (1998), Coyote Ugly (2000) and Sweet Home Alabama (2002), along with countless other movie roles, though she is now more known for her work in television.
For many, she’ll be recognised for her role on Two and a Half Men (2003–2015), and in more recent times Yellowjackets (2022) and The Last of Us (2023).
Undoubtedly, she is one to watch.
Lynskey was born in New Plymouth but now lives in Los Angeles with her family.
4. Taika Waititi
Filmmaker Taika Waititi has become hugely influential in recent years, undoubtedly making him one of the most iconic New Zealanders.
For many living abroad, Taika Waititi’s name first became known after the horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows became a cult hit. He co-wrote the movie with another famous kiwi, Jemaine Clement (who features at #12 on this list).
Following a slew of award-winning movies, including Jojo Rabbit, he most recently joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – the world’s biggest movie franchise – when he directed Thor: Ragnorak and Thor: Love and Thunder. He also stepped onto the screen in the MCU, playing Korg in Avengers: Endgame and Thor: Ragnorak.
But locals know that his creative talents shined in his intimate homegrown movies, like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (starring Sam Neill).
Taika was born in Raukokore, Bay of Plenty, under the name Taika David Cohen. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Rita Ora.
5. Dame Jane Campion
With two Academy Awards, two BAFTAs, and two Golden Globes, the filmmaker Dame Jane Campion is often criminally overlooked when we think of the biggest names in Hollywood.
Nonetheless, this groundbreaking kiwi director is among the most successful and renowned female filmmakers in the world.
Jane Campion is the only female to be twice nominated for a Best Director Academy Award and was the first female to win the revered Palme d’Or, the most prestigious prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.
Campion filmed her most famous films, The Piano and The Power of the Dog, in New Zealand.
The Piano truly put NZ talent on display, as it made a then-11-year-old NZ actress Anna Paquin the second-youngest Oscar winner in history.
Campion also co-created, co-wrote, and co-directed the award-winning TV mini-series Top of the Lake, filmed in Queenstown and Glenorchy.
Jane Campion was born in Wellington and now lives across the pond in Sydney.
6. Anna Paquin
Anna Paquin is best known for starring in the vampire-inspired series True Blood, and as Vogue, a mutant in the X-Men movies.
But she’s also a famous New Zealander that’s worth your time and attention.
Paquin was born in Canada and moved to in New Zealand in her younger years.
During that time, she made a name for herself as an early Oscar winner. That’s right – she won an Academy Award for The Piano at just 11 years old!
If you want to catch her in other work, check out The Good Dinosaur or The Irishman.
Anna Paquin grew up in Wellington and now lives in Los Angeles.
7. KJ Apa
If you’ve seen the popular drama Riverdale, you’ll recognize the next star on this list of famous New Zealanders.
KJ Apa plays Archie Andrews in the CW drama. However, he’s also appeared in A Dog’s Purpose, I Still Believe, and The Last Summer.
New Zealanders, though, will likely recognise him from Shortland Street, a local medical drama that gives lots of kiwi actors and actresses their big breaks.
For his work as an actor, Apa has picked up People’s Choice Awards, Teen Choice Awards, and a Saturn Award!
When he’s not starring in movies, this brunette is working on his indie folk-rock music.
AJ Apa was born in New Zealand and has Samoan/Pākehā heritage. He now lives in Los Angeles.
Did you know? AJ dyed his hair red to play the role of Archie in Riverdale.
8. Rose McIver
Rose McIver started her career playing a minor role in The Lovely Bones.
But she has quickly made a name for herself as one of New Zealand’s finest young actresses.
You may recognize her from The Piano and A Christmas Prince. But fairy-tale fans will remember her as Tinkerbell in Once Upon a Time.
When she’s not behind the camera, this Auckland starlet writes her own work and is an ambassador for the airline, Emirates.
Rose McIver was born and raised in Auckland but now lives in Los Angeles.
9. Karl Urban
Karl Urban is one of the best-known New Zealanders, having played some really memorable characters in recent years… Billy Butcher. Eomer. Leonard McCoy (well, of the Leonard McCoys).
If you’re a sci-fi and fantasy fan, then you’ll recognise Karl Urban’s name in a heartbeat, with three of his most prominent roles being in The Boys, The Lord of the Rings, and the Star Trek movie reboots.
This famous New Zealander has also had roles in huge blockbusters such as Riddick, The Bourne Supremacy, Dredd, and Thor: Ragnorak.
Karl Urban was born in Wellington and is now based in Auckland.
10. Anthony Starr
On that note, it surprises many to find out that Karl Urban’s nemesis in The Boys is also played by another of our most famous New Zealand actors.
Anthony Starr plays the terrifying Homelander – undoubtedly one of the most unsettling villains to reach our screens in recent years.
After starting his career in the NZ soap Shortland Street, Starr went on to star in several hit TV shows, including Outrageous Fortune and Banshee.
Anthony Starr was born in Wellington and now lives in Los Angeles.
11. Russell Crowe
Although widely known as an Australian actor, Russell Crowe was actually born in New Zealand. He lived between NZ and Australia, before permanently moving there at 21.
Russell Crowe is a hugely successful Academy Award-winning actor – to the point where it’s hard to remember all his blockbuster hit movies.
Among his most famous roles are Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander, Robin Hood, Les Miserables, Noah and Man of Steel.
More recently, he entered the MCU, playing Zeus in Thor: Love and Thunder.
Russell Crowe was born in Wellington and later went to secondary school in Auckland. He now lives in Sydney.
12. Flight of the Conchords: Bret McKenzie & Jemaine Clement
Two of the funniest famous New Zealanders are undoubtedly Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement – the hilarious musical comedy duo who make up ‘Flight of the Conchords.’
Starting as a live comedy act, they were picked up for a BBC radio series in 2005 before gaining global recognition following an HBO TV series in 2007 – titled, you guessed it, Flight of the Conchords.
In total, the pair have been nominated for 2 Grammy Awards and seven Emmy Awards and would be equally at home being listed here as musicians or actors.
Flight of the Conchords still has a cult following and one of the most dedicated fan bases of all NZ celebrities.
Both New Zealand stars were born in Wellington, and Bret McKenzie still lives in the capital with his family. Jemaine Clement lives between Wellington, Los Angeles and Toronto.
13. Lucy Lawless
No matter what generation you’re from, if you’ve watched a lot of cult sci-fi and fantasy TV shows, then you know who Lucy Lawless is.
Maybe you grew up watching her as the title role in Xena: The Warrier Princess (in which Karl Urban also appeared) or were on the edge of your seat watching her stint as D’Anna Biers in Battlestar Galactica. Interestingly, one of her Battlestar Galactica co-stars, Alan Dale, was another much-loved kiwi actor.
More recently, fans of Parks and Recreation will recognise her as Diane. Lucy Lawless also appeared in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Salem, and Ash vs Evil Dead.
Lucy Lawless was born in the Mount Albert suburb of Auckland and still lives in the city.
Celebrity musicians from New Zealand
Lorde is an award-winning singer-songwriter who has become one of New Zealand’s most recognisable global stars.
Since her single ‘Royals’ hit the top of the charts in 2013, Lorde became an overnight celebrity.
Since then, she’s sold millions of albums worldwide. She’s won two Brit awards and two Grammy Awards. Lordge was even nominated for a golden globe following her brilliant contributions to the Hunger Games: Mockingbird Part 1 soundtrack.
Still close to her roots, Lorde recently released an EP entirely in te reo Māori, with proceeds donated to New Zealand charities.
Lorde was born in Takapuna, Auckland, under the name Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor. She has dual New Zealand and Croatian citizenship, and now splits her time between Auckland and Los Angeles.
15. Keith Urban
Keith Urban is a famous New Zealander best known for his country music.
And being married to Nicole Kidman, of course!
His accomplishments stand independently though; he has won an impressive four Grammy Awards during his decades-long career!
He’s released several impressive tracks and frequently plays the piano, sitar, and guitar at his gigs.
And in case you were wondering, his most popular track is still Somebody Like You which rocked the Billboard charts back in 2002.
Keith Urban was born in Whangārei and now lives between the US and Sydney, Australia.
With two Grammy Awards, four ARIA awards, and seven New Zealand Music Awards in her possession, Kimbra has left a big impression on the music industry.
This talented New Zealand singer-songwriter is best known globally for featuring on the 2011 hit single Somebody That I Used To Know by Gotye.
However, her other albums have also been hugely successful, especially in Australia and New Zealand.
Kimbra was born in Hamilton where she got her start competing in Rockquest, the national school’s music competition. She now lives in New York.
17. Kiri Te Kanawa
If you’re a fan of opera, then you’ll probably know of bona fide songbird Kiri Te Kanawa. If not, you’ll want to find out.
Hailing from Gisborne, Dame Kiri has been performing opera since the 1970s when her career first took off.
But she truly rose to fame when she was chosen to sing for the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
She’s known for her full and robust lyric soprano voice which easily carries above an orchestra.
And with her immense talent, she’s sung everything from Verdi to Mozart over the years!
Over the course of her incredible career, she’s picked up a Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and a Brit Award.
Kiri Te Kanawa was born in Gisborne on the east coast of New Zealand. Though she lived in the UK for much of her life, she is now enjoying retirement in the Bay of Islands.
18. Neil Finn – Split Enz & Crowded House
When it comes to famous New Zealanders who have changed the music scene, Neil Finn should be right at the top of the list.
This popular musician quickly rose to fame with the band Split Enz and found great success with the hits I Got You and One Step Ahead.
Although the band split in 1984, Finn went on to create the iconic band Crowded House which played in packed venues until 1996. Their music was prolific, critically acclaimed and wildly popular.
Despite being in his golden years now, Finn still shares his music with the world. In fact, he recently toured with Fleetwood Mac.
Neil Finn was born in Te Awamutu, near Hamilton. He now has a home in both Los Angeles and Piha, Auckland.
Well-known NZ sportspeople
19. Sir Edmund Hillary
The famous New Zealander and mountaineer Edmund Hillary is best known for being one of the two climbers to first climb Mount Everest, along with Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.
Everest is the tallest mountain in the world at 8,849 metres tall. That’s considerably taller than NZ’s highest peak. In fact, Mount Cook seems small at 3,724 metres in comparison!
However, Mount Cook National Park was still where he did the majority of his training, and the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre serves as a reminder of his extraordinary accomplishments.
Sir Ed, as he is affectionately known, spent much of his life giving back to the people of Nepal.
Sadly he passed away in 2008.
Edmund Hillary was born in Auckland, where he returned throughout his life, between many other impressive expeditions.
Did you know? Sir Ed is featured on the $5 note in New Zealand.
20. Steven Adams
The professional basketball player Steven Adams began his sports career playing for the Wellington Saints before taking the NBA (National Basketball Association) by storm.
The star moved to the USA in 2011, where he started by playing for Oklahoma City Thunder. He now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies.
But Steven isn’t the only athlete in the family! He has two sisters; Valerie Adams, a retired shotputter with several gold Olympic medals (and a lady that very much deserves a place on this list), and Lisa Adams, a gold medalist at the Paralympics, also in shot-putting.
Their two other brothers also played basketball professionally in New Zealand.
The talented Adams family were born in Rotorua, but he now lives in Memphis in the USA.
21. Dame Sophie Pascoe
The Kiwi para-swimmer Dame Sophie Pascoe became a household name in New Zealand in 2008 when she represented the country in the Summer Paralympic Games. Impressively, she won eleven gold medals, seven silver medals, and one bronze medal!
Sophie was the youngest ever Kiwi to compete at the Paralympics (and to win a medal) and remains the country’s most successful Paralympian to this day.
The accomplished swimmer is still competing as an athlete, and most recently won a silver and bronze medal at the 2020 Summer Paralympics.
Though she may not be as recognised internationally, we firmly believe she deserves a place on this list.
Sophie was born in Christchurch, where she trained as a swimmer at the QEII swim club. She still lives there now.
22. Dame Lisa Carrington
Another one of the most famous New Zealand celebrities in the sports world is the canoeist, Lisa Carrington.
This NZ star has an impressive number of medals (5 gold and 1 bronze) and is the country’s most successful Olympian.
She is seen as a role model to Kiwi girls and is widely supported in Aotearoa.
Along with Sophie Pascoe (above), Lisa was promoted to Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit at the 2022 New Year Honours.
Lisa Carrington was born in Tauranga and raised in Ōhope Beach. She now lives on the North Shore in Auckland.
23. Jonah Lomu
Jonah Lomu was an incredible rugby player in Aotearoa.
When he was 19 years old, he appeared in his first game with the All Blacks against France in 1994. He was their youngest-ever player.
As he weighed an impressive 120kg and was almost 2 meters tall, he was an immense force on the field.
Fans will know that he played on the left wing, but almost Kiwi will be able to tell you that he played in the number 11 jersey. At one point, he even shaved a #11 into his eyebrow.
After a long battle with kidney disease, Jonah sadely passed away from complications related to his kidney disease in 2015.
He will, however, go down in history as one of the most successful New Zealand sportspeople of all time.
Jonah Lomu was born in Auckland and lived between Tonga and New Zealand in his early years.
Other famous New Zealanders
24. Jacinda Ardern
It’s rare that a New Zealand politician becomes a globally-recognised name, but that changed when Jacinda Arden became Prime Minister of Aotearoa.
Ardern initially made headlines for her somewhat less traditional lifestyle (in comparison to some other global leaders), but it was her leadership style that kept her in the worldwide press. Following a string of devastating events, she was used as an example of empathy, calm and compassion in crisis.
People abroad might have first seen her in the viral video in which Jacinda Ardern calmly continues a speech during an earthquake – a unique sight for people living outside of the Ring of Fire.
No matter your politics, Jacinda is undoubtedly one of the most famous kiwis.
Jacinda Ardern was born in Hamilton and has lived between Wellington and Auckland in recent years.
25. Ernest Rutherford
One of the oldest people on this list of famous New Zealanders, Ernest Rutherford is famous on the global stage.
This incredible scientist is known for his contribution to nuclear physics and was the first person to successfully split an atom.
For his commitment to chemistry, Rutherford picked up a coveted Nobel Prize in 1908. He was knighted in 1914 too.
To honour his work in science, Element 104 was even named Rutherfordium to immortalize his contributions to the field.
Ernest Rutherford was born in Brightwater, near Nelson. He passed away in 1937.
Did you know? Ernest Rutherford features on the $100 bill in New Zealand.
26. Kate Sheppard
To round off our list of famous New Zealanders, we have the legendary political activist, Kate Sheppard.
New Zealanders owe a lot to Kate, as she worked tirelessly alongside 600 others to improve women’s rights in New Zealand.
This Christchurch suffragist is best known for helping women win the right to vote in 1893 – New Zealand was the first place in the world where this happened.
She also established the first female-owned newspaper in the country.
Without Kate’s help, life in New Zealand would have looked different for women for years to come.
Kate Sheppard was born in Liverpool in the UK in 1847. She migrated to Christchurch in her early twenties, where she lived for the rest of her life. She passed away in 1934.
Did you know? Kate can be found on our $10 note.
Wrap-Up: Famous New Zealanders
That wraps up our list of famous New Zealanders.
We’ve mainly focussed on current celebrities on this list, while including a few iconic New Zealanders that have since passed.
This is far from all of the famous kiwi though. Yachtsman, Sir Peter Blake, and politician, Dame Whina Cooper, all come to mind.
As for famous New Zealand actors, honourable mentions go to Keisha Castle-Hughes and Cliff Curtis who made their starts in Whale Rider before having international TV careers.
And Star Wars fans will recognise Teumara Morrison, who made his start in Shortland Street, before starring in several projects in the famous franchise – you can currently see his impressive acting in The Mandalorian.
Still, hundreds more innovators, trendsetters and changemakers have made our beautiful country what it is today.
Let us know who your favourite New Zealand celebrity is in the comments below, or let us know which NZ famous person we’ve missed on this list…