The Daily Mail, 4 March 2000
One minute she was an innocent-looking, puff-sleeved classical prodigy, the next she was a sexy siren of the music scene. Now, at 21, violin virtuoso Vanessa-Mae has sacked her mother from the role of manager, found a new playboy lover and turned to the world of techno fusion for musical inspiration. MARY RIDDELL meets a young woman learning to pull as well as play the strings. Body photograph by JOHN PAUL BROOKE.
Last October, on the eve of her 21st birthday, Vanessa-Mae finally excised her mother from her professional life. For the previous decade, Pamela Nicholson had nurtured the virtuoso career of her violinist daughter. Not only was she her personal manager, she was also her piano accompanist and the producer of several of the albums that established Vanessa as one of the world's most successful and wealthy musicians.
For half of Vanessa-Mae's lifetime, Pamela had calmed her in the fraught moments before she walked on stage. She had shopped with her in Harvey Nichols for the cerise hotpants that provoked a storm over the overtly erotic packaging of a 16-year-old girl. In the moment of her dismissal, in her own kitchen, Pamela reportedly turned her head away to shield her pain from her daughter's eyes.
"Sacked", screamed the headlines, when the news of her redundancy leaked out a few weeks ago. And how, one wonders, is Vanessa coping professionally without the assistance of the mother who orchestrated her dazzling career? The first signs do not augur well.
Vanessa-Mae is late. Not a little delayed, but so overdue that other exemplars of tardiness — Godot, Richard Branson trains — look punctual by comparison. Her office aides phone in sporadically with gloomy updates on Vanessa's sagging timetable until, exactly two hours after our appointed meeting slot, she appears in a west London hotel.
Past profiles of Vanessa-Mae suggest precocity bordering on grandeur. Possibly she thinks it wise, in the circumstances, to suppress any such traits, or perhaps she is actually as childlike as she appears. I'm sorry you had to delay and delay,' she says, injecting her own small plea for sympathy. "I've been stuck in a car, in such tedious, boring traffic. And I've just eaten an onion sandwich. I hope I don't smell." She is diminuitive, pretty and so apparently vulnerable that one wonders how she ever mustered the courage to fire a formidable mother whose managerial role has now been condensed to caring for her daughter's pets; two, dogs, a cockatoo and a cockatiel. In fact, Vanessa-Mae was tougher than has ever been suggested. The dismissal of Pamela Nicholson was not, as reported, a one-off coup but the result of months of insistent lobbying, punctuated by tears, anger and arguments.
Musical Youth: Vanessa-Mae, top, the teenage prodigy, and with her mother, above, whom she sacked as her manager and piano accompanist last October
Vanessa-Mae obviously loves her mother, and so she tries to put as tactful a complexion as possible on the split she engineered. 'Every mother and child relationship is the strongest in the world,' she says at first.
"Because I'd worked intensely with my mother since I turned professional at 11, it was a particularly strong bond. The feeling that I must become independent built up over years. She wasn't sacked. It was all very organic," she explains, as if we are discussing carrot cultivation. But the story was that Vanessa-Mae, advertised by her record label, EMI, as "the bestselling violinist in the world", felt pressured by her punishing international concert schedule and became desperate to reclaim a normal life. "I don't remember saying that I want to live a bit. I have lived more than most people."
And still, you imagine, she must have felt that she — the cherished only child — was also the vehicle for her mother's ambition. "There was much more personal determination and dedication because she was my mother. She always said to me: "I'm not doing this just because you are my daughter. If I didn't think you had talent, 1 wouldn't waste my time." If you disagree with a manager, that is one thing. But if a mother thinks something is best for her child, she won't let it lie. I wouldn't be here today but for the support she has given me.
"And still, I had to do it." She means, though she puts it carefully, that her working relationship with her mother had become too close-knit to endure. But the seeds of that claustrophobia were sown long before.
Vanessa-Mae was born in Singapore; the child of a Chinese mother and a Thai father, an affluent hotelier. Pamela was 21 — the age Vanessa is now — when she gave birth to the baby she doted on and "dressed like a dolly".
Water music: The cover for her first single, Toccata & Fugue, above, caused a sensation in the normally drab world of classical music. But Vanessa-Mae chose the image herself.
Vanessa was two years old and graduating to Dior frocks when she first became aware that her parents' marriage was disintegrating. "I remember them being unhappy. No child likes to see her mother cry." Pamela quickly married again, to Graham Nicholson, a British lawyer whom Vanessa has always regarded as her natural father. "My first dad is great. I still see him about once a year, but 1 don't think he could ever have looked after me on a day-to-day basis. I consider Graham my real father. He is the one who lavishes the thought and care on me." At eight, she was studying at the Conservatory of Music in Beijing before moving to the Royal Academy of Music in London. By 12, she was touring with the London Mozart Players; a virtuoso armed with the �250,000 Guadagnini violin her parents had bought her when she was ten. At 14, she had become the youngest artiste ever to record the Tchaikovsky and Beethoven violin concertos.
Although she attended Francis Holland School in London, her life — conducted under Pamela's watchful eye — was not a normal one. She was debarred from horse-riding and even from slicing a loaf of bread, in case she damaged a hand. Skiing, which she loves, was permitted, but only with a personal instructor and never on a school trip. "I don't think I totally missed out," she says, "The thing I really remember was my mother once promising that we could stop practising at 5pm so that I could watch the film of Lassie. I got over-emotional, and she was over-absorbed. Suddenly I realised that I had missed the programme. She worse than me; so upset that she hadn't stopped."
While unrebellious, Vanessa-Mae seems to have borne, from an early age, a burden of loneliness forged partly out of an imposed isolation from her peers, but Bodyly because she was an only child; accustomed always to listen as adult conversation drifted above her head.
"I still feel lonely; even in a room like this, full of people. As a child, with my mum, my dad, my grandparents and even my friends, I felt disconnected. I once met Annie Lennox, when we did a pop festival together, and the only thing she said to me was, 'My dear, this is a lonely life.' It made me feel that I wasn't a freak."
It is hardly surprising that, when Vanessa-Mae belatedly discovered men, her chosen escorts were a glamorous counterpoint to a rigidly-structured existence. Her first serious boyfriend was the Canadian Grand Prix driver Jacques Villeneuve, who turned out to be as driven and controlled as she. "Formula One is even harder than music. Your responsibilities. are the same. It is quite shocking to be with someone just like you," she says briefly.
Ten months ago, and shortly before her final ultimatum to Pamela, she met Lionel Catelan — 31 years old, the son of the mayor of Val d'lsère, a ski-shop proprietor and, according to media reports, a playboy by instinct.
Previously, Vanessa-Mae has only vouched that she is "happy, happy, happy", but now she says earnestly, almost as if she has rehearsed her declaration, "I just want to say that I am completely in love. There is no point in being with someone unless you are in love with them. That is a complete waste of time. As a child, I played songs about love, and it is great when it happens to you. I am really happy about it. It was love at first sight; the sort that lasts for ever. It is good to be with someone who is the mirror image of your life. Opposites, attract."
Do her parents approve of their protected daughter's liaison with a glamorous Frenchman? "I think they are happy for me. Until now, I wasn't ready to be in a relationship. I was a capricious girl, very fickle, and I wasn't interested in boys until I was 20. I didn't feel responsible enough to care for someone else. I was always quite flighty, and now I feel I am much more caring. I do think of marriage and children, but I don't think you need something legal to bind people together. It's not a priority."
"Anyway, I don't think I would want to have a child at the age my mother had me. You have to achieve all your goals first. I've always thought a long-distance relationship would be great — just seeing someone at weekends — but when you're in love, you want to spend as much time with them as possible."
This naive little speech is redolent of all the contrasts, or conflicts, of her life. Once a sedate child prodigy in puff-sleeved blouses, she altered, at the age of 15, into a juvenile siren. The evolution from Pollyanna to Little Miss Hotpants caused an uneasy stir. In particular, the cover of her first single, Toccata & Fugue, from her album The Violin Player — in which she was shot emerging from the sea with diaphanous white skirt clinging to her legs — suggested flagrantly sexual packaging.
"I chose that picture. It wasn't sexy or obscene to me — just very natural. I wouldn't have done a nude, but I was happy to do something that I thought was young and fresh. EMI never told me what to wear. If parents thought I was a Lolita trying to be sexy, they would have steered their children clear of me, but they didn't. My clothes reflected the cross-cultural, open-niinded approach my mother's always had.'
If Pamela was instrumental in defining her daughter's flamboyant image, she was also determined that window-dressing should never replace hard graft. Or, as Vanessa-Mae puts it, "She didn't care how I got to a target as long as I did it.I But even at the peak of her achievement, other musicians in the classical world looked on askance. Juhan Lloyd-Webber, the cellist, complained that concert halls could only be filled by "semi-naked bimbos", and others mourned her lack of purism and narrow mastery of the classical repertoire.
Vanessa-Mae is unwounded. A new pop album of what she calls "techno-acoustic fusion music" will be out soon, and she cares little for opposition. "I'm not out to prove anything. I want to have a good time. If you've been a child prodigy, you have focus and discipline instilled in you naturally." As for the work of other violinists, such as Nigel Kennedy, she is ultimately cool. "There is no one out there I would die for," she says.
Vulnerable and protected as she may appear, she is also steely. I ask her again how her mother accepted her dismissal, and she says, "She is positive to me. But other people say her reaction is different. I don't think hurt is the word. She is happy to have a new lease of life." Does she think that Pamela may, in private, have wept many times as she mourned her daughter's decision? "Yes, I guess she might. She's very emotional. I find it hard to cry when something tragic happens. I cried more when my hedgehog died than when I lost my only grandfather, who was very close to me. But I hope my mother feels a vacuum of relief, rather than a void."
"I am starting my life, and she is at a crucial stage in hers. It's vital that something like this happened, whether it was easy or not. Whether I end up achieving less or more in my career than I did with her doesn't really matter. She keeps herself busy. She has time to socialise. We'll be working on re-releasing three albums, but after that we have no formal plans to do anything else together."
How tough she must have been to stipulate such terms. "I am tough. I'm not hungry-tough. I am a tough cookie though." No doubt she needed all her firmness to fashion her new life. Vanessa-Mae has her own home now, near her parents' house in Kensington, west London, and an independent manager in Mel Bush. She was also able, without doubt or fear, to adopt the mantle of the wise adult adult and explain to the mother who has always sheltered her that it was imperative they went their separate ways.
And who could reproach her for that? At 21, she has acquired most of the lessons of survival. Most, but not all. Pamela Nicholson, eased out of her daughter's glorious career, clearly knows how rejection feels. Vanessa-Mae, with her wealth, her success and her glamorous French boyfriend, has still to learn.