The Daily Telegraph, 8/1/1997
Her pop album sold more than two million copies. But, asks Jan Moir, is there more to Vanessa-Mae than slick marketing?
VANESSA-MAE is trying really hard to think of sormething she has been denied during the 18 gorgeous, exciting years that have elapsed since her birth. The celebrated violinist — once known as the "Teeny Paganini" — furrows her perfect, cinnamon forehead and closes her shiny, almond eyes as she concentrates. "I wasn't really one to throw tantrums, but... was I denied anything? If you ask my parents, they could probably recollect, but I don't know." She gazes around the chilly Frankfurt hotel bedroom that has served as a base on this whistle-stop promotional tour — yesterday it was Norway, tomorrow she is back in London — and thinks again. She remembers that, as a child, she was crazy about keeping pets and that her mother once said "no more" because their spacious, gracious home in Kensington was being turned into a menagerie. Still, as she already had a chinchilla, four dogs, and a selection of birds hedgehogs and hamsters, this particular deprivation was not too severe to bear.
"I know!" she says in triumph. "I was not allowed to go riding, because it was so dangerous for my hands." This is surprising news, considering that she has been skiing since she was five and is now an accomplished veteran of Europe's notorious black runs. "No, no, riding is much worse, and particularly dangerous if you do it in central London. My mother was once riding in Hyde Park and her mount bolted because of some traffic noise. She ended up still on the horse, outside Harvey Nichols." Vanessa-Mae — "you can call me Vanessa" — permits herself a small titter at the memory, although such girlish lapses are rare. She does have the teenager's trait of speaking quickly but this is the only surface evidence of her tender years. In general she has the poise and hauteur of a senior Tiffany's shop assistant who — while being perfectly polite and charming — is certainly not going to show you the velvet pad with the best diamonds.
For this interview, she takes the unusual precaution of switching on her own tape recorder because, she claims, sometimes people write strange things about her. She is forthright and self-possessed, clearly used to laying down the rules and setting her own parameters. "That is not something I really want to talk about," she says when we get to the pesky subject of boyfriends. "I will take time out to sign autographs after a concert, so long as my public is told very clearly to queue up in a line," she says on the topic of personal security. "My public love me and I love them back," she says of the popularity that has resulted in more than two million sales of her pop album, The Violin Player.
As well as referring to`her following as "my public", she has the queasy habit of talking about herself in the third person ("Next week I begin a Vanessa-Mae tour") and generally seems to fuel the notion that being a child of enormous privilege and talent inexorably results in becoming an indulged woman. Perhaps I'm being unfair; perhaps, like many in her position, she has a trusted team of advisers to turn to for guidance and experience. "My mother," she says cooly, "is one of the very few people I will take constructive criticism from."
Does she heed her advice? "Up to a point. We have a close relationship, we go on holiday togther. She is a professional pianist and sometimes she plays with me during my concerts. She is someone I do respect in a certain way."
Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson was born in Singapore but left for England with her mother when she was only four, after the break-up of her parents' marriage. Her father, with whom she remains on good terms, runs a large chain of hotels in the Far East. Her mother, Pamela, subsequently married Graham Nicholson, a corporate lawyer, who formally adopted Vanessa-Mae. So now she has two fathers — "I call them both Daddy" — and a British passport. Her mother, also a lawyer, retired to look after her only child and has been the driving force behind her daughter's career.
Vanessa-Mae's musical ability was first noticed when she started playing the piano at three. She switched to the violin when she was five, and at eight — already a child prodigy — was whisked to the Central Conservatoire of China in Beijing to be tutored by Professor Lin Yao-Ji. At 11, she became the youngest ever student at the Royal College of Music, and by the next year she had embarked on a world tour with the London Mozart Players. By 14, she had recorded both Tchaikovsky and Beethoven violin concertos.
At this stage in her career, she would appear on stage in sweet little puff-sleeved blouses. She could have continued in this vein — playing to standing ovations on the limited circuit of classical concert halls around the world — had two things not happened.
First, she grew up to be astonishingly beautiful, with a taste for designer clothes befitting someone who was dressed in Dior as a tot. Today, she plucks at her blazer, white polo neck and size-four jeans with a mildly disdainful gesture that tacitly pleads: what, these old things? "I like to be comfortable, that's all," she says. But isn't that a Ralph Lauren jacket she's wearing? "Er, yes. It is."
Second, she decided in 1994 — by now she was signed to EMI — that she wanted to release a pop album, or, as she prefers to call it, a "techno- acoustic fusion album". This was enough in itself to outrage the purists who had followed her career. But when a barrage of sexy, new publicity photographs appeared, such was the furore that one half-expected her to dive into sensible cardies for 10 years.
Somewhere, at some point it had been decided to cash in on perhaps her biggest selling point: her burgeoning sex appeal. Vanessa-Mae was pictured in a swimsuit, rising out of the sea. She was snapped in mini-skirts, hands on hips, her high leather boots saucily planted three feet apart. When she took to appearing on stage in pink hot pants, one commentator went so far as to point out that she looked like a teenage prostitute.
Vanessa-Mae is irritated by such criticism. "I thought that was shocking because it was a very rude thing to say, and also quite vulgar. No artist would have as many kid fans, as many teenage fans, and as many approving parents as I have if I really did look like a child prostitute. "
In retrospect, does she not feel that any of those photographs were sexually provocative? "No. People have said to me, 'Wow, that was sexy and we found that really attractive'. and I guess all I can do is take it as a compliment. Beauty or finding something sexy is really in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I don't find my image sexy at all." Maybe so, but it is not inappropriate or unfair to suggest that her career has been launched on her good looks. "I don't think so, otherwise all the supermodels would have number one hit singles around the world," she argues. "I don't base my career on my looks and I don't think that is what sells my music. Anyway, once you listen to a record, you don't know what someone looks like, so who cares?"
Vanessa-Mae has played the roles of kiddy novelty genius and — despite her protestations — unexploded sex bomb with fabulous applomb and to great effect. Her latest release, The Classical Album 1, is a straightforward Bach to Bruch compilation that sold 250,000 copies in the month it was released. Coming out so soon after The Violin Player — which sold in 25 countries, as she keeps reminding me — it was certain to do well. However, the key question, as she becomes older — more ordinary, less special — is: will she continue to do so well?
Let us say a music enthusiast had no previous knowledge of her history and her hot pants; if he then heard a Vanessa-Mae track on the radio, would he think her performance special enough to warrant global attention?
Norman Lebrecht, a music columnist for this newspaper, feels she is not — and on present form might never be — a compelling classical interpreter, although "only a curmudgeon could fault her new release".
James Jolly, editor of Gramophone Magazine, says he finds it difficult to judge her as a musician at all, given that her career and her small repertoire in classical music has to be developed before definitive decisions can be reached. Other critics have roundly sneered at the cheesecake marketing and insist that the only route for her, if she wishes to be taken seriously, is to button up her blouses and concentrate on more substantial works.
Hovering in the wings is the awful spectre of Nigel Kennedy — perhaps her closest rival in terms of career arc, although, by general consensus, a far more talented classical musician — who managed to butterfly between pop and classical genres for a while before (let's be frank) the public grew weary of his antics. So what lies ahead for Vanessa-Mae, the sophisticated child-woman who is now too busy to practise playing the violin every day? At the moment, despite the carping, she is Bodytaining enviable sang-froid. "At the end of a classical concert, I get bravos and encores and cheers. After a pop concert, I get shouting and screaming. Basically, I always get a standing ovation."