Arts: Immodest? Moi?

She's brash, vulgar, titchy, and one of the biggest stars to come out from Down Under in many a year - let's hear it for the huge talent of Tiny Tina Arena
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The Independent Culture
"IF I wanted to make a really good living," says Tina, "I could drop out of my pop career and make an extraordinary living in musical theatre. I've been tempted many times." Tina Arena has a fierce certainty about herself. She gives the impression of having absolutely no doubts, and sod anyone who thinks differently. Titchy, with a big bouffant mane of Southern European hair and big, mobile Joan Crawford lips, she lounges in a white vest-top and black bra, snapping the filters off Silk Cuts and holding forth about her career with blithe certainty and no hint of humility.

It could be irritating, this matchless confidence, except that, combined with that blaring Melbourne accent and a cheerful, sweary laissez-faire, it is rather disarming. And you've got to admire it: anybody would have to have an iron-clad sense of self to come out of the Tina Arena experience unscathed.

If you're British, and heterosexual, chances are that, if you are aware of Tina at all, it's as someone who charted in 1995 with the ballad "Chains", and then disappeared. Had the woman who imitated her on Stars In Their Eyes last year had the misfortune to win, she would have been hard-pressed to find a follow-up song. If you're gay, you might well own the single, or even the album Don't Ask. My gay friends have voiced objections that I should get to meet her. My Australian friends say: "You're meeting Tiny Tina? Ask her about Young Talent Time!".

You've got to admire it. Anyone who can start their life as the Aussie equivalent of Lena Zavarone and, instead of succumbing to emotional problems in later years, pulls herself together and becomes Australia's biggest- selling female singer is a pretty determined individual. Tina, 29, has been famous for over 20 years, starting out singing and dancing on Young Talent Time, a sort of junior version of Friday Night at the London Palladium with a dash of New Faces thrown in for good measure.

"It was live, at 6.30pm every Saturday night, with an audience of between five and eight million," says Tina. It was singing, dancing, variety, with a regular team of four boys and four girls. There was a segment where they would have three contestants competing against each other. I appeared the first time at the age of six, and was on four times over a year and a bit, and won three out of the four times against 12, 13, 17-year olds". After that, she joined the regulars as Tiny Tina Arena, and stayed for nearly 10 years.

Which came as a bit of a shock to her Sicilian parents. Her mother, a dressmaker then, and now a nurse, and her father, a printer, weren't exactly classic showbiz parents. "They were bewildered. They were more shocked than I was. They were aware that I was getting myself into something pretty complicated, but I didn't know. I wasn't an offensive, obnoxious child: I was precocious in a very gorgeous and humble kind of way." This last statement is made with a Dame Edna-like grimace.

At nearly 16, she went back to school - "I went `great, TV's over: school, my friends: excellent'." - graduated, and then ran up against a brick wall at 19. "I had a number two single around the country; it was a great pop song, but visually I was still a child: no-one had allowed me to grow up. They were just going, like, `Little Tina? She's not allowed to grow up. She's too sweet'. The past was constantly brought up, and it really nauseated me."

Her solution was reinvention, but reinvention tends to work best if you start out unknown. Feeling that her strength lies in live work - and she is very good live, with a belting voice, those lips working like Terence Stamp's in Priscilla Queen of the Desert - she went back to gigging.

"I was pretty freaked out when I first started playing clubs. The vibe was really cynical, really `What is she trying to do?' The first six months was really hard work: no-one wanted to accept me and they were really horrible. But we ended up being packed out every night. I gigged for three and a half years solid at this club in Melbourne with a live band." Did she ever consider going into, say, accountancy? "It never occurred to me. It would have been like settling for second best. You don't get an ice-cream and settle for an icicle."

A decade later, she's huge in Oz and pretty big in America: Don't Ask, her 1995 album, shifted a little over 3 million copies worldwide, and In Deep, the new album, out on 26 October, has gone triple platinum in the year it's been out in Australia. Partly because she's big on the gay scene.

"Being big with the the gay community is one of the greatest compliments I've ever been given. They understand talent, they're attracted to women of strength, and obviously see something in the lyrics they can relate to. I'm very flattered that they dig what I do. Creatively, the gay community are on the cutting edge: they're always forecasting, and more often than not they're accurate." And they also like lining up at parties pretending to be Celine Dion. She gives a huge, braying laugh. "Yeah, well, you should see the ones lining up being Tina Arena".

The first single off the album, "If I Was a River", was written by Diane Warren, the song writer responsible for the initial success of, among others, Celine and Toni "Heartbroken" Braxton. Is this mere coincidence? Another cackle. "Well, I think I should leave that to your imagination."

In the meantime, Andrew Lloyd Webber has been a fan since she did Joseph in Melbourne in 1993, and has pursued her since. "Let me tell you about that man. He has got his finger on the pulse, and don't believe otherwise. Don't believe all that stuff about that Lord kind of lifestyle. I mean, yeah, he's a very wealthy man, but he doesn't miss a trick." She recorded the title song to Whistle Down the Wind for him, in an hour and a quarter of studio time, "And when I finished, he said `you're one of the finest storytellers I've come across in a long time'."

Like I say, no self-esteem problems here. But she's good at what she does - the girl can really knock out a ballad - and, more importantly, she loves it. "When you hit something right, you get a great endorphin rush... like a constant orgasm. It's the greatest sex I've ever had." She cackles again. "I've had good sex, but you know... that's the only way I can simply define it, is that when it's going really great and you've got it in the pocket, it's like an ongoing orgasm. It's wonderful. Oh, God!" - guffaw - "I'm painting a very ugly picture in England."

`If I Was a River' is out this week on Sony. The album, `In Deep', follows on 26 October

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