The Daily Telegraph
Violinist Vanessa-Mae talks to Elizabeth Grice about her first serious relationship, the public separation from her mother — and bizarre fans.
VERY beautiful people attract very strange followers, and Vanessa-Mae is doing her best to understand why anyone should want to leave an offering of cow hearts outside her hotel room. Cow hearts?
Vanessa-Mae was amazed at the fuss caused by the album cover of her in a wet T-shirt: 'It was just me at 15 with not much shape'
"Cow hearts," she repeats, as though everyone is familiar with such practices. "And intestines were sent to my manager's office." She giggles. "I can't say too much about them because it gives obsessive fans too much attention." Such presents, she suggests, are not necessarily negative. "Fans come from a different perspective and they really believe this is a gift. They are not always mad. It's just that they are not in the same sort of society as the rest of us."
Gifts of offal, apparently, are among the penalties of being a supremely successful violinist, a child prodigy and a performer of great sexual allure. Cow hearts and other unwanted forms of flattery are among the reasons why Vanessa-Mae needs a bodyguard when she is on concert tours. "You don't want strangers opening the bus door and getting into your bunk."
The bodyguard is not a regular member of her entourage. The Vanessa-Mae industry operates on a modest staff of four: her manager, Mel Bush; a make-up girl called Lucy; a PR; and an all-purpose path-smoother called Aaron. She calls her company Fretless, after a silly pseudonym she used to use when checking into hotels - Miss Fretless Bowstring - and because a violin, unlike a guitar, has no frets. "Fretless also means no worries," she says, with a tinkly laugh.
Markedly absent from her team these days is Mrs Pamela Nicholson, her Singaporean Chinese mother. Pamela had been co-manager, producer, piano accompanist and chaperone for her only child since Vanessa-Mae gave her first public performance, aged only 10. She nurtured her daughter's precocious talent from the age of three, first on the piano, then on the violin. She clothed her in designer rompers and Dior frocks; bought her a £200,000 Guadagnini violin, made in 1761, when she was 10; supervised several hours' practice a day; paid for private education; and shopped with her at Harvey Nichols for the pink hotpants that were to take her stage career into a new dimension.
Then, just before Vanessa-Mae's 21st birthday last year, Pamela disappeared from the side of the young virtuoso. Sacked, as the headlines put it. Gently removed, as Vanessa-Mae prefers to describe it. No rows, no anger, she claims, just a rational acceptance on both their parts that the time had come for a parting of the ways.
"It was very gradual. For a couple of years we had started having a bit of breathing space away from each other. Once she had kicked off a tour with me, she'd go home and I'd continue on my own. So I think we were preparing each other, organically, gradually, for a more formal arrangement not to work together any more. The idea was for her to take time off and enjoy being a wife again, possibly a new mother."
Pamela Nicholson is 42. In the controversy surrounding their split, no one has ever mentioned the prospect of another baby and Vanessa-Mae seems a little unsure whether she should have mentioned it. "Well, that's what I wish," she says. "I have two half-brothers but no sisters. There was talk of it. But that's her life. She's incredibly busy with lots and lots of new projects. I think she's got a new lease of life. It is only fair that she should have a chance to achieve something on her own and that I do my own thing, both in my career and personally."
Though the rift is said to have been preceded by months of arguments and anguish, Vanessa-Mae swaddles the whole subject in a blanket of sweet reason. Was her mother upset? "Some people," she says dreamily, "won't admit to things. Others blow up their emotions in front of the public. I'm not that kind of person. I don't think she is either. We like to keep things to ourselves. Obviously when there's been a very close mother-daughter and working relationship, change is inevitable, but it is the hardest thing. It is a challenge for her and a challenge for me. We're ploughing on with our own lives."
Vanessa-Mae was born in Singapore in 1978 but moved to London three years later after her mother and father, Vorapong Vanakorn (an English hotelier of Thai descent), divorced. Her "second father" is the lawyer, Graham Nicolson. She wanted for nothing but repaid her parents' intense investment in her talent by becoming a wunderkind. At eight, she went to study at the Central Conservatoire of Music in Beijing. At 11, she was the youngest pupil at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
By the time she was 12, she was touring with the London Mozart Players. At 14, she had become the youngest person to record the Tchaikovsky and Beethoven violin concertos. And at 15, pictured wearing a clinging, wet white T-shirt and playing her violin in the sea on the cover of her first single, Toccata and Fugue, she caused a sensation bordering on the hysterical.
The "techno-acoustic fusion" album itself, The Violin Player, sold three million copies worldwide, against a background of puritan outrage at the shameless marketing of an innocent girl.
"Even now that I'm older," she says, "I don't see it as a scandalous picture. You can't see anything through the dress. Not even a hint of anything. It was just me at 15 with not much shape. I don't have an hour-glass figure. Some people might find it sexy; some people might find it frigid. I see nothing to be embarrassed about. If people thought it was bordering on the pornographic, they wouldn't approve of their kids buying my albums or coming to my concerts. I would never gratuitously bare my body. I chose the picture because it was young and fresh. I never thought it would cause such a fuss."
The classical music scene never really recovered. Vanessa-Mae's explosive performances and publicity stunts brought traditionalists out in foaming denunciation of "semi-naked bimbos". During her American debut tour in 1995, she stopped the traffic in Times Square by leaping on to the roof of a passing yellow cab with her white electric violin. Promoting new musical ideas demands strong visual images, she argues. "I am not a person who makes an impression with her body. I am someone who makes an impression with the music. I am not a face and a body. What makes Vanessa-Mae is her violin, not anything else."
Vanessa's tiny body is dressed in a skimpy handkerchief top with bootlace straps, and tight jeans with studs down the outer leg. Her hands are small and bony and look as though they belong to someone 20 years older. Apart from a pinkish blush all the way from her eyelids to her browbone, she is devoid of make-up, yet still manages to look like the sort of creature Singapore Airlines would die for. She is a size six to eight and finds it easier to shop in the Far East.
She delivers her manifesto so seriously and looks so devoid of artifice that you begin to ask: is it her fault that she looks like a siren?
"I am quite capricious, quite fickle," she says. "From day to day, I change my mind. That is why I haven't set myself long-term goals."
For all her obvious dedication to music (she confesses that she wants to be buried with her Guadagnini and cried for three days when she was first separated from it on holiday), Vanessa-Mae must have been quite a handful. Even under her mother's aegis, there was a dangerous defiance about her. "I listen to advice from those I respect," she says. "But nobody can really influence me. That's the bad thing about Vanessa."
She persists with three sports that would give any manager or underwriter nightmares: ski-ing, water-ski-ing and Rollerblading. "Life is so short. I believe in predestination, fate. You can be paranoid and things can still go wrong, so I am willing to increase the risk if that means living a little more." They are in the middle of reinsuring her at the moment - not just her hands, but the whole mercurial package.
Eighteen months ago, on the ski-slopes of Val d'Isere, Vanessa-Mae met Lionel Catalan, 31, son of the resort's mayor, who is her first serious boyfriend. His big passions are wine and fast cars; they have a Lotus and Vanessa is taking driving lessons in it. "I am not one of those girls who believe in being with somebody just to pass the time and gain romantic experience," she says. "I would not have been with him for one and a half years unless I loved him."
Vanessa cannot cook to save her life and looks completely shocked when I ask if she knows how to change a plug. But she is wonderful with animals and if she didn't have such a stunning career in music, she would probably be running a menagerie. As it is, she shares her Kensington house with three lhasa-apsos Tibetan terriers, a Chinese shar-pei called Gaspar, a cockatoo and a parrot. "Someone gave me a chameleon for my birthday, but I had to let him go. It was too much: you have to feed them live crickets."
She thinks her pets may have started as sibling substitutes. "I liked caring for something. You spend so much time caring about yourself that it's nice to have this little responsibility that cries out for you."