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Icon of the West – Ewen Gilmour

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The West lost an Icon last month, Ewen Gilmour, comic, councillor, compassionate, all round good guy and Icon of the West.

Before Outrageous Fortune, Ewen Gilmour made being a Westie cool. In many ways he was our Billy Connolly. He took a stereotyped character and made it funny and appealing and self-aware and gently mocking and above all intelligent.

He was very like Connolly with his long hair, scruffy dress, motorbikes, irreverence, willingness to trespass with wit into body parts and bodily functions, and his deep compassion for people and especially children.

Gilmour’s Westie did not mock Westies. Far from it. He was a Westie overegging the Westie stereotype with sketches and statements honed to perfection that were ever so gently mocking those who think Westies are second class citizens. His jokes and routines had a double edge. On the first edge was the often outrageous punch line that made people laugh, irrespective of which suburb they came from. The second edge was the implied question “you don’t really believe this is what Westies are really like, do you?”

As he said, himself, he thought that he was nicer than the character he created. And he was definitely.

It took intelligence and a very fine sense of the ridiculous to take that external character, make it real and then give it the little extra twist that enabled the world to laugh with him and not at him.

He was an old boy of Oratia Primary School and Kelston Boys and an unashamed petrol-head who tried his hand at many things before he burst on the comedy scene in 1995. Among other things, he’d been a car wrecker, radiator repairman, stone mason and grapevine trimmer. He recollected later that he hadn’t got fired from jobs, he’d got bored.

In reality he was serving an apprenticeship in life that, combined with his unique talent, would catapult him to the top of the New Zealand comedy scene.

Within two years he had established himself at the very top of his craft by winning the inaugural Billy T James Award. By the time he died he’d stayed at the top for 17 years, an icon of the comedy world whose undiminished successes year after year, promised a very long and rewarding career.

Like Billy T James before him, he wasn’t defensive about the place or the people he came from; he knew their many qualities and he knew that behind the stereotypes is a salt-of-the-earth community that is proud, caring, generous, and inclusive. They responded by flocking to his shows, declaring him a Cultural Ambassador for West Auckland and electing him as a Waitakere City Councillor. In Waitakere and throughout New Zealand, Ewen Gilmour was cool.

Ewen Gilmour was also very intelligent and he cared deeply about people and particularly children. His career long commitment to Variety and his term as a Waitakere City Councillor demonstrated his love of his fellow man in spades.

Ewen and the late Cathy were childless but Ewen was a tireless champion of Ronald McDonald House, Variety New Zealand with its Variety Bash and Mini Bash and Cure Kids. He would do anything for these causes. He conquered his fear of heights to leap off a 10m diving board during the Comedy for Cure Kids; Good Sports which raised $1.4 million.

He was also a regular on Variety New Zealand’s Mini Bash in which teams went rollicking around the countryside in outrageous fancy dress and outrageous motor vehicles.

Variety vice patron and fellow Bash exponent Simon Dallow said in his tribute: “He became the heart and soul of “The Bash”, admired and loved for his warm personality and tireless fundraising efforts. At the end of a day on the Bash, Ewen was always the last to give up. Many times, he wouldn’t make it to dinner … but he would always turn up later, trademark goofy grin plastered across his face, having walked, hitch-hiked and begged for rides from the public”, Simon Dallow said.

Variety New Zealand Ambassador Mark Wright said: ”Ewen had an amazing affinity with children. I’ve seen him walk into children’s wards throughout the country and bring laughter and joy. His comedy knew no bounds of age or demographic. In recognition of his contribution, Variety made him an Ambassador, of which he was immensely proud.”

He became a Waitakere City Councillor because he believed in the Eco City vision that had been created by Sir Bob Harvey, Auckland deputy Mayor Penny Hulse and the other councillors.

There was a commitment shared by all councillors of all political persuasions, to foster a new way of city-building, one that cared about people, that put children first and cared about working with the environment and not against it. There was a willingness to be different that Ewen shared.

It was no gravy train. There was also a shared commitment that “councillors didn’t come to meetings to be educated.” They were expected to arrive having done their homework. It was time consuming and exhausting but the country’s top comedian, whose own demanding schedule encompassed travelling tens of thousands of kilometres, plunged in with passion.

He didn’t need it; he was already successful and busy as a comedian, a philanthropist and as a marriage celebrant. The Council wasn’t struggling and crying out for celebrity support. He just saw something very special unrolling and wanted to be part of it.

Unfortunately, it was a time cut short when his beloved Cathy contracted cancer and Ewen left the Council in 2007 to care for her until she died in 2011, aged just 36. Ewen retreated to Port Waikato to re-assemble his life. And then, without warning, he too was gone.