WELLINGTON - New Zealand Prime Minister John Key publicly apologised to a waitress yesterday for insensitively pulling her ponytail at least half a dozen times over six months during visits to her cafe.
As women's groups expressed outrage, Mr Key said he now realised his behaviour was inappropriate but insisted he was merely "horsing around", not acting maliciously.
"It was all in the context of a bit of banter that was going on," he told reporters during a stopover in Los Angeles, en route to Turkey.
He said he had apologised and given the woman two bottles of wine when he realised she had taken offence.
The apology came after the unnamed waitress of an Auckland cafe complained in a blog of the "hair-pulling", which she said was initially taken to be a "playful and jolly" act.
However, she became annoyed and was reduced to tears when Mr Key continued to do so on each visit.
At one point, his wife Bronagh told him to "leave the poor girl alone", the woman wrote, but the Prime Minister gave the impression "that he just didn't care".
"He was like the schoolyard bully tugging on the little girl's hair trying to get a reaction, experiencing that feeling of power over her," she added.
The waitress said she finally confronted the Prime Minister late last month and threatened to hit him if he did not stop.
Only then did Mr Key eventually stop tormenting her.
But he told her he had not realised how upset she was at his behaviour, which made her remark in the blog: "Really?! That was almost more offensive than the harassment itself."
The 53-year-old leader, who won a third term in office last year, said yesterday he had visited the cafe for years and had a fun relationship with its staff.
The row stirred a strong reaction on social media and was soon trending on Twitter under the hashtag #ponytailgate, with most criticising Mr Key.
The National Women's Council said it was difficult for a female cafe worker to stand up to the Prime Minister, and that he had "crossed the line" with his unwanted touching.
Mr Key's portrayal of his actions as "fun and games" has also inspired an online video showing a man stroking the long ponytail of a young blonde girl on the street.