Kim Huynh considers why so few of us are prominent across the nation and around the world.
People in regional NSW often talk with great pride about noteworthy figures from their hometown.
Queanbeyan has racing car driver Mark Webber and shares James Bond actor George Lazenby with Goulburn. Bowral has the Don. Crookwell is the birthplace of writer and utopian Mary Gilmore who’s on the $10 note. Poet and environmentalist Judith Wright died in Canberra, but was born in Armidale and lived the last decades of her life in Braidwood.
Who then is the most famous Canberran? It’s a difficult question to answer, not because it’s hard to pick someone, but rather because it’s hard to find anyone.
I have a coffee table book from the Bicentenary that profiles the most famous Australians since 1788. None of them are from Canberra. In 2013 The Australian compiled a list of its top 50 Aussies. Again, no-one from the ACT.
This year ABC 666 investigated who is the most famous person to have been born in the nation’s capital. They came up with a list of admirable high achievers but neglected to mention Alex O’Loughlin who’s in the remake of the American TV series Hawaii Five-O. His Facebook page has over 344,000 likes.
Tennis bad boy Nick Kyrgios regularly makes worldwide headlines and is active on Facebook (238,000 likes) and Twitter (199,000 followers).
Of course, being famous is not solely about having a social media presence. One should also consider endurance, substance, achievement and infamy. And there’s the peculiar phenomenon associated with Reality TV and the internet of people becoming famous without being good at anything other than being famous.
Notwithstanding, the big question for me is, ‘Why are there so few famous Canberrans?’
Here’s four possible answers.
- ‘It’s planned, boring, cold and conformist’ is what one Canberra hater said to me.
- The city is only 103 years old, so there haven’t been all that many Canberrans to become famous.
- Many people migrate to Canberra to work in the universities or public sector. Even if they come to self-identity as Canberrans and make enormous contributions to Australia and the world, they tend to do so quietly. Following this line of argument, it’s worth comparing Canberra to other small capital cities (Wellington has three Oscar winners in Jane Campion, Anna Paquin and Russell Crowe).
- People who feel trapped in small towns often break out by standing out. Those who grow up in cities learn to strive and compete in order to rise above the throng. The Bush Capital occupies an in-between space in which there’s less need to push up and against everyone and therefore less drive to become famous.
With this last answer in mind, perhaps we should celebrate the fact that so few Canberrans are famous. Perhaps this is a consequence of the egalitarianism that comes from high levels of education, social cohesion and engagement in cultural and sporting events. And perhaps it’s better to live in a place that’s broadly successful rather than one that’s known for producing a handful of celebrities.
Who’s Canberra’s most famous person? Do you agree that Canberra doesn’t have many famous people? Is it better to be in a champion city than a city of champions?
Kim Huynh is a RiotACT columnist and teaches international relations at the ANU.