New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is being called a “playground bully” after a waitress claimed that he repeatedly pulled her hair during visits to the cafe where she worked.
It is only the latest controversy for Key, who has previously come under fire for gaffes ranging from joking about cannibalism to “mincing” on a catwalk. But #tailgate (the Internet can never resist a terrible pun) might be the most bizarre yet.
“He would come up behind me when I was at the ordering terminal, tug on my hair and then pretend that his wife, Bronagh, had done it (much to her embarrassment), and she would tell him to stop it. As he rounded the corner behind me he commented ‘that’s a very tantalising ponytail,'” the waitress wrote in an anonymous blog post Tuesday. “… It seemed as though the more I disliked it and made myself absent the more fun it became for him, the more he enjoyed the challenge of approaching from behind me, unsuspected.”
A spokesman for Key issued an apology Wednesday, saying it “was never his intention to make her feel uncomfortable.” And speaking with reporters in Los Angeles, Key said he had a “warm and friendly relationship” with the staff at the cafe.
“We have lots of fun and games there, there’s always lots of practical jokes and things,” he said, according to CNN. The ponytail pulling was “just horsing around.”
Neither the spokesman nor Key challenged the waitress’s version of events.
In her post, written for “the Daily Blog,” the waitress said that the hair pulling started during election season last fall.
“He was like the school yard bully tugging on the little girls’ hair trying to get a reaction, experiencing that feeling of power over her,” she wrote.
After months of this, the she turned around and wagged a finger at the PM, saying “no” repeatedly until he backed off. A month later, she says he approached her with his hands raised, singing the theme from “Jaws,” and gestured as if to reach behind her. Key’s wife told him to stop, but he pulled the waitress’s ponytail again on the way out the door. She threatened to hit him, and he left, returning later with two bottles of wine.
“I didn’t realize,” she says he told her.
“‘I didn’t realize.’ Really?! That was almost more offensive than the harassment itself,” the waitress wrote.
This isn’t the first time Key has gotten in trouble for strange or inappropriate behavior. It’s not even the first time he’s been caught hair pulling — he was filmed yanking on a little girl’s pigtail in 2014.
Key was criticized in 2010 for joking about cannibalism when he said that a Maori tribe might “have him for dinner” during a dispute over land. In 2012, he triggered an international backlash for using the word “gay” as an insult. (That controversy spread as far as actor Ian McKellan, who wrote in a blog post “Mr Key should watch his language.”)
He’s been mocked for performing the viral dance “Gangnam Style” and “mincing” down a catwalk during the unveiling of Rugby World Cup volunteers uniforms. And last winter online commenters accused him of making fun of domestic violence when he wore a shirt that read “I’m not sorry for being a man” — a reference to a Labour politician’s speech in which he apologized for domestic violence perpetrated by men.
“‘Going too far’ is part of Key’s deliberate trade-craft as a Prime Minister,” Audrey Young, political editor for the New Zealand Herald, wrote in an opinion piece Wednesday. “He does things ordinary people might do but that have shock value because he is Prime Minister.”
Women’s groups and Key’s opponents were quick to condemn him for the incident.
“It’s a sign of how out of touch John Key has become when he can’t even monitor how inappropriate his personal behavior is, and when people are not comfortable with how he is behaving,” Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei told the New Zealand Herald.
Sue McCabe, chief executive of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, said it indicates broader problems in the county’s culture.
“The fact that our Prime Minister has joined the list of people outed for sexism highlights how much sexism is a part of our culture. And it starts at the top,” she wrote in an open letter.
As for the rest of the world? Many are reevaluating their complaints about their countries’ politicians.