Vanessa-Mae Is IT!


No more mummy's little girl

The Sunday Times

It was on the eve of her 21st birthday that Vanessa-Mae, for 10 years the world's favourite child prodigy of pop-classical music, finally decided it was time to grow up and sack her mother.

She did not choose to do so lightly. Pamela Mae Nicholson, 42, had been producer and piano accompanist for her only child since she first stepped onto the stage as a 10-year-old.

Pamela may have been expecting the blow, and standing in the kitchen of her rambling family home in West Kensington, London, she drew upon her own childhood in communist China: she quietly turned away to hide her feelings.

But her daughter felt good, "uplifted" even, she said last Friday, as she prepared for yet another sell-out concert in Switzerland. The problem had been gnawing at her for months, and finally she had to act. Now her career is in the hands solely of Mel Bush, a quietly spoken pop music manager who has worked in tandem with her mother over the past eight years.

Perched calmly on a brown sofa in the Hotel Inter-Continental in Zurich, conservatively dressed and wearing almost no make-up, the star presents a very different character from the alluring nymphet that emerged in the 1995 video for her souped-up version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue, playing her violin in a clinging white dress, knee-deep in ocean spume.

She betrayed no guilt. "I was playing hundreds of concerts a year, and I wanted to change my direction, do something fresh. My mother knew that, we had talked about it for months, and she remains my mother, but not my manager. That is all."

Had she felt exploited, unfairly treated, in a fine tradition of pushy stage parents? "It was not like that. There was no row or anger. No, I just did what I had to do and went back to work."

That meant, that night, shooing off her three dogs and retreating upstairs to her old bedroom. It is still kept in pristine teenage state despite the fact she has her own luxury flat around the corner. Ensconced there, she dug out her school French text books.

She had a radio interview in Paris the next day, a task she resented clashing with her birthday, but as a showbiz professional she prepared herself. She speaks several languages, including French and Mandarin Chinese, but likes to swot up to be sure she is in control.

Even streetwise stars, however, can be set up: the next day, October 27, a birthday she shares with the original "demon fiddler" Nicolo Paganini, she settled down on the Eurostar to Paris only to discover that she was not destined for an interview - instead, her mother had arranged a surprise birthday party.

"Everyone was there on the train: all my friends and family and people from my office. We took over the carriage and then spent the day playing at EuroDisney. Yet I did not feel as happy as I would have done at 16. I suppose it was another sign that I am growing up."

The violinist is, indeed, blossoming into a woman. In the spring she had met a new boyfriend while skiing in Val d'Isere. Lionel Catelan, the 31-year-old son of the mayor of Val d'Isere, known as something of a playboy, appears to be her first serious affair. Skiing has become one of her favourite sports and she will be back on the slopes today, but she remains guarded about Catelan's influence.

"I am happy, happy, happy, that is all I am willing to say about it," she said, with untypical coyness.

Relationships between stars and their parents inevitably change with time. Some prosper, such as pop star Paul Weller and his father-manager John Weller, while others end in disaster, such as Macaulay Culkin and his father Kit, who, having squandered the Home Alone child actor's fortune, has ended up home alone in a Arizona desert shack.

Vanessa-Mae says she was never under pressure. "Music began as a hobby when I was three, playing along with my mother on the piano. Neither I nor my mother, nor my father [as she calls her stepfather, Graham Nicholson, a lawyer who married her mother after her divorce from a Thai businessman when Vanessa-Mae was a toddler] thought it would grow into a career.

"My mother wanted me to be a lawyer, like her and Dad, something respectable and nice. Even my first couple of albums were not professional: all the money went to the NSPCC. Those are going to be reissued by my mother later this year, so we will still be working together on that.

"It was my father, not my mother, who turned me from the piano to the violin because he played viola and wanted me to accompany him. It was me, not my mother, that caught the bug and became addicted: she went along with it, trying to steer me a little, but I knew what I wanted. It was music."

She emerged as a star in the mid-1990s, when the surge of classical music sales generated by the switch from record to compact discs had exhausted itself. Recording labels with a massive investment in the 19th-century repertoire were looking for something to rejuvenate sales.

While her musical credentials have never been seriously challenged - she was admitted to the Royal College of Music at 11 — it was the packaging and her sense of global youth culture that has earned her an estimated £30m from concerts and 6m album sales over the past decade.

Ten years ago most young classical performers were regarded by the mass market as over-earnest and badly dressed. Nigel Kennedy rocked the boat, but Vanessa-Mae, all leather boots, micro-skirts and pout, added the sex.

"I wanted to get serious music across to wider audience, to do for the violin what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar," she recalls, "and if that means going a bit over the top, dressing like a typical teenager rather than in a penguin suit, filming classical music like a pop video, then I was more than willing to try it."

Inevitably, she created a hostile reaction. Julian Lloyd Webber, the cellist, complained that only "semi-naked bimbos" were filling halls. Debra Bodra, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, refused to play with her. "I've nothing against her personally, but I don't think that is the way to advance the orchestra," said Bodra.

More seriously, she was accused of "bastardising" classical music by watering it down, adding clumsy rock beats to a more subtle form of music. But her CD, The Violin Player, sold 2.8m copies, helping create a "classical crossover" chart in the United Kingdom.

She also cleared the way for another generation of young violinists: Linda Brava, the "Finnish sex bomb" employed briefly by Lord Lloyd-Webber, Korean-American Sarah Chang, who is 25 months younger than Vanessa-Mae, Leila Josefowicz, whose albums recently topped the American classical charts, and Hilary Hahn, the latest child sensation.

"They are getting younger every day. I have no advice for them but to focus on what they want and ignore the criticisms," said the veteran of 21.

Where do these young pretenders and the management change leave Vanessa-Mae? She is about to take six months off to record a new album and work on a "new sound" that may replace some of the rock rhythms she uses with a more cutting edge Ibiza-style clubbing sound. "I want to reinvent myself again," she said.

Outsiders are often fooled by her apparent fragility; friends say she is determined and clear about what she wants. "She went to the traditionalist Francis Holland school for girls in London and her parents were wealthy enough to buy her a £150,000 Guadagnini violin when she was 10," said one of her circle. "She never felt the need to rebel and she is not doing it now."

She may have changed managers, but the show goes on. She has the giant market of North America in her sights.

"I think the time is coming when I shall spend a lot more time there, maybe next year," she said. "That's my future." With or without her mother.

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