A familiar voice: Judy Lessing

Judy Lessing was Radio New Zealand’s New York-based correspondent for nearly 25  years. She's also one of the University of Auckland's Golden Graduates.

 Judy Lessing visiting Auckland, sitting in a chair wearing pink shirt and a bright beads necklace.
Although Judy Lessing is best known as a foreign correspondent, she is most proud of her post-journalism career. Photo: Elise Manahan

Judy Lessing spent most of her life in journalism on the radio and now she is on Zoom probably praying for a return to the old days. The internet fails – twice – before we reconnect, finally, on WhatsApp. She’s a terribly good sport about the fact our interview has now stretched over two hours. It is fortunate she is trapped in isolation in a Rotorua hotel and has nothing better to do.

Judy, 82, making her first visit back since before the pandemic, is on day three in MIQ. The meals are making her long for airline food, but the staff are “very sweet and trying their best. They wear yellow plastic stuff and blue gloves, and the visor things. It’s the whole nervous works – you’d think they were going to take your appendix out.”

The crystal clarity of Judy’s diction is startlingly familiar. As Radio New Zealand’s New York-based correspondent for nearly 25 years from 1975,  Judy has a voice – honed by a British elocution coach in Auckland from the age of seven because her Australian parents didn’t want her growing up with a Kiwi accent – that’s been heard by tens of thousands of people over hundreds of hours.

She used to think those lessons were a waste of time.

“Then I realised they gave me a career.”

Judy began that career with the then NZ Broadcasting Service in the early 1960s after graduating from the University of Auckland with a BA in history, returning to complete an MA after a year as 1XN’s shopping reporter in Whangārei.

Following stints as a news reporter and current affairs host on 1YA where she ran a three-hour show, Feminine Viewpoint, Judy moved to the US in 1971 after meeting her future husband when he visited New Zealand on a cultural tour lecturing on American theatre. As a founder of the Mercury Theatre, Judy describes their match as “magical”.

Every time New Zealand ministers came up to the UN, I’d be expected to interview them.

Judy Lessing, former foreign correspondent Arts alumna, University of Auckland

One of the first stories she covered was the right-to-die case of Karen Ann Quinlan, who had lapsed into a vegetative state at 21 after overdosing on drugs and alcohol. However, not every story was so compelling.

“Every time New Zealand ministers came up to the UN, I’d be expected to interview them. It was hard work because, most of the time, they weren’t making news.”

Although she is best known as a foreign correspondent, Judy is even prouder of her post-journalism career. She joined four United Nations peacekeeping missions as a public information officer. The first was in East Timor in 1999; then as chief of radio in Sierra Leone, before Liberia, and a mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea. She was awarded the MNZM for her work in East Timor, where she and other UN staff had to be evacuated when violence erupted after the independence referendum in 1999.

When I speak to her, Judy is wearing bright red spectacles and a green T-shirt emblazoned with “Make America Rake Again” from Pennysylvania’s Four Seasons Total Landscaping company. This was the inadvertent site of an infamous news conference by Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. It was certainly not New York’s luxury Four Seasons hotel.

The US will recover from Trump’s presidency, but his impact was “disastrous”, says Judy, who now lives in Brooklyn. An international tennis umpire, Judy often officiated at the US Open, where Trump was a regular spectator.

Have they met?

“God, no. One has standards.”

Story by Donna Chisholm

The University of Auckland's Golden Graduates are those who graduated from the University of Auckland 50 or more years ago, along with graduates aged 70 and over.

Email: ingenio@auckland.ac.nz

This story first appeared in the Autumn 2022 edition of Ingenio magazine.