One of the things Leeds is best known for is being a university town, and boy, aren’t there a lot of universities in our city. Here is a rundown of 10 alumni that you may or may not have heard of, but that you certainly should know about. And to keep things fair, we’ve picked and mixed from all of the universities so as not to stoke any ongoing rivalries!
Actor Chris Pine was actually born in Los Angeles but spent some study time here in little ole Leeds. You may know him more closely as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek remakes, and he’s also featured more recently in Wonder Woman. Pine did a year-long exchange at the University of Leeds from his home university of Berkeley in California. What a shock that must have been, going from the sunshine state to the bleakness of Yorkshire!
Former Labour Party Home Secretary Jack Straw was also one of the University of Leeds’ alumni, having even been voted president of the Student’s Union. But in February 2000, Leeds students actually blocked Straw from entering his old haunts and revoked his life membership of the union, citing ‘anti-libertarian’ policies as their reason. He had been president of the SU from 1967-68 and went on to head up the National Union of Students from 1969-71, kickstarting a long political career.
The founding members of band Alt J met at Leeds Metropolitan University and started jamming together back in 2007. Only 5 years later in 2012 and they had been awarded the coveted Mercury Music Prize. Gwil Sainsbury (guitar/bass), Joe Newman (guitar/vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboard) and Thom Green (drums) began recording at Gwil’s home, after Gwil was inspired by his father who is also a guitarist. Formerly known as Films, the band chose to change their name as another band called The Films already existed. Wise move!
English singer-songwriter and electro-pop DJ Victoria Christina Hesketh was a Leeds University graduate. Hailing from Blackpool, she won the BBC Sound of 2009 award even before releasing her debut album Hands which sky-rocketed her to fame. Her stage name comes from the Portuguese word for “little boots” which is Caligola, but is also a reference to her unusually small feet!
Alistair McGowan is a very entertaining impressionist, comedian and actor who had a series of his own shows on the BBC that became the top-rated BBC One comedy programme for four years running! He even won a BAFTA in 2003. McGowan graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English in 1986 and went on to further study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. McGowan is a huge Leeds United fan and even wrote a book about football in 2009 entitled an honest A Matter of Life and Death.
Yes, there is a real man behind the architectural monstrosity that we now know today as the Edward Boyle library at Leeds University. The son of a barrister and educated at both Eton and Oxford, Lord Boyle became Vice Chancellor of the University for a sizeable 11 years between 1970 and 1981. He had relevant training having previously served as the Minister of Education for the Conservative Party from 1962 to 1964. His aim for Leeds University was “teaching in an atmosphere of research” and one that remains very tangible at the institution today.
Corinne Bailey Rae
Calming and soulful singer Corinne Bailey Rae was born and raised in Leeds, graduating from the popular alumni degree of English Literature in 2000. During her studies she worked evenings at a local jazz club and after gaining confidence, would join the in-house musicians to sing onstage. She’s released multiple albums since starting off with her self-entitled debut back in 2007, and still enjoys a successful jazz and soul career.
Piers Sellers, originally from Crowborough in the UK, was a British-American NASA astronaut and meteorologist. Sellers studied for a doctorate at the University of Leeds in 1981 where he met his ex-wife Amanda Lomas who was from Hebden Bridge. He was a veteran of three space shuttle missions over his lifetime. He sadly passed away in 2016 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but leaves a huge legacy behind having won many prestigious medals and recognitions, including NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1994.
Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson attended Leeds Metropolitan University and formed his band formerly known as Parva in 2000. After changing their name to what we know them as today, the band went on to have great success. Ricky has more recently featured on singing competition show The Voice but left the series when it moved from BBC to ITV. He even taught at Leeds College of Art for a year as he had studied Graphic Design at Leeds Metropolitan. Ricky really spread his creative seeds throughout the city!
Alastair and Jonny Brownlee
Two of the UK’s most successful ever triathletes, Alastair and Jonny Brownlee, are both brothers and graduates from the University of Leeds. They have won an array on national, international and Olympic medals and have kept up a strong and active involvement with Leeds University since graduating in 2013. The brothers even have a Triathlon Centre in Leeds named after them, reflecting their absolute dedication to their sport and encouraging the rest of us to aim high!
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