Interview with Vanessa-Mae

THE HESTER LACEY INTERVIEW: Yes, she's 17; yes, she models for Vogue and looks like a pint-size Pocohontas. But does she measure up as a violin player?
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Vanessa-Mae's hand-span hips, perfect skin and wide-eyed Bambi gaze do not make her popular amongst female journalists. A standard feature of interviews with the fiddle-playing international glamour-kitten is a snidey little complaint to the effect that she makes other women feel like a cross between a rhino and a Chieftain tank. Which doesn't seem quite fair; after all, it's hardly her fault. First of all, surely when you meet someone whose waist has a similar circumference to one of your thighs, the sensible thing to do is not to draw national attention to this unfortunate fact. Plus, whingeing that someone's looks are much too attractive must be much the same in principle as complaining that they are ugly (though somehow far more politically correct, and easier to get away with).

But then again, she does let herself in for it (or, at any rate, someone with a flair for controversial marketing lets her in for it). The publicity shots her PR lady dishes out show her posing in what appears to be a couture version of the string vest, and either the shot was taken on a cliff-top in a force 10 gale, or there was a wind machine in play close by. And for weeks, it was impossible to move around London without being confronted by Vanessa-Mae's torso, emerging from the sea fetchingly outlined in a clinging, soaking-wet, filmy white garment, clutching her violin (does this girl not feel the cold, for heaven's sake?), on a poster promoting her hit album The Violin Player.

Considerable fuss was generated by this poster campaign, something of a new departure for a violin virtuoso (it's hard to imagine, say, Yehudi Menuhin whipping his kit off). So what a surprise to find that Vanessa-Mae is looking positively demure, as she floats into the EMI offices and settles into an enormous pink-and-blue squashy throne that seems to be constructed out of heavy-duty blotting paper (not a prop chosen deliberately; it just happened to be there). And here we go again: "She makes me feel enormous," whimpers the PR lady, sotto voce - an elfin creature who looks about a size eight.

With her high cheekbones, olive skin and long, black hair, Vanessa-Mae looks uncannily like Disney's version of Pocohontas. Today she is covered from collar-bone to ankle, in a long purple velour skirt, purple T-shirt, and cute little crocheted cream cardi festooned with slender ribbons. But despite this unexpectedly granny-like fashion statement, she is not complaining about previous raunchification of her image. "I was amazed by the way some people found the poster so sexy," she says smoothly. "I was happy with what happened then. Everything I do designates a time in my life. All the time I'm changing as an artist and as a person."

The poster hoo-ha was almost, but not quite, enough to obscure the heated debate among music buffs as to whether she is Any Good. The jury remains out. Purist critics can be very sniffy about the mix of classical and pop, trad violin and electric violin (the official term is "techno-acoustic fusion") that have made Vanessa-Mae famous. And EMI's decision to devote considerable resources to developing her image led to a chorus of unmelodious bitching about "hype" and "marketing" when The Violin Player came out (though the fact remains that there is a certain amount of hope for lesser mortals in the notion that one can become a global superstar simply by being Not Bad). Sniffy critics, however, barely ruffle her air of calm. "It was a risk for me to make an album like that," she says. "I could have taken the easy life and just done classical, but I felt very strongly about the album, my first pop album, the first time that I'd fused so many influences. I was very proud when it was in the charts in 25 countries at once. I was just glad to see there were that many people out there who had such an open-minded view of music." (She manages to mention, extremely smoothly, that 25-country statistic three times in the course of half an hour.)

But despite any unfair advantages her pulchritude and willingness to appear in skimpy garments might confer, the global success of The Violin Player (in 25 countries at once, apparently) must say something positive about her abilities. And then there are the bucketloads of awards she has swept up, the sell-out concerts at the Royal Festival Hall and Albert Hall, and a string of youthful triumphs (for example, youngest ever, at 13, to record the Tchaikovsky and Beethoven violin concertos, though it probably helped a bit that her family owned a classical recording label, and, bizarrely, youngest ever, at 16, to address the Oxford Union). All of which is not bad going, when one's contemporaries are lying around picking their spots, reading Sugar magazine and worrying about their exam results. After all, she is only 17, though she has a poise and ageless quality that could pass for much older.

Which is hardly surprising; she has had to grow up fast and develop the resources to cope with a gruelling schedule that would have most people begging for mercy. "On my record tour last year, I went to 35 countries, which is quite a lot. I went to towns and cities which I never knew, with funny names," she says. "In January this year we went on the world tour and we visited about 50 different cities in three months. Then the summer tour that I did, I did a week of non-stop concerts in Austria and another week of non-stop concerts in Germany."

So, if it's Thursday, it must be Dresden? "It's definitely like that. I've spent the last two weeks on a tour bus. But I don't mind, I'm a bit of a touring animal. When I'm on tour that is the greatest thrill for me, playing to a live audience. It's a great buzz. But you do live out of a suitcase. I don't even bother to unpack. My housekeepers iron my clothes and they don't put them back in the wardrobe, they put them back in the suitcase, it's ridiculous." This kind of lifestyle, though, is something she has been used to for years. Born in Singapore, to Thai and Chinese parents, she began studying music, initially the piano, at the age of three, adding the violin when she was five. She moved to Britain at four with her mother, a lawyer and semi-professional pianist, was competing nationally by eight, and studied for six months in China. She went professional at 12, and left school and signed with EMI when she was 14. She went on her first professional tour when she was 12 and ever since those cases have stayed packed. Home is London, where she lives with her mother, stepfather, and four Lhasa Apso dogs (who "miss her but get used to it" when she's away).

Doesn't she get exhausted? Oh, no, not really, she says (though she is "too busy" for a boyfriend). "I much prefer it when I'm on tour and I don't have a break, because I get on a roll. And it's something that I enjoy doing. The stage is the best experience in the world. It's a great compliment to be able to share the music, because people can hear my album but they don't get to make the connection in the same way as when it's one-to-one." It's difficult to imagine making one-to-one contact in a packed Albert Hall, but still.

Did she miss - or rather, isn't she missing - her childhood and adolescence? "I've had the best of both worlds. I had my fair share of going to school, going to parties. I feel normal. I like people when I meet them, they like me. To me that's normal. I could have started my career later - now at 17, or at 25, but I think I've had the benefit of experience."

Does this eerily poised creature ever get scared or nervous, as she flits from stage to stage around the world? "When I was 10 I made my first big appearance, that was a bit daunting," she concedes. "But I don't really suffer from nerves. Sometimes I'll say I'm a bit hyper or over-excited, but I don't start trembling."

The only thing that even slightly piques her is to ask if her youth is her main asset. "Okay, people picked up on the fact that I was young, but I was never conscious of it. When I was hailed as a prodigy, okay, I was a prodigy, but people never said `she's good for 12,' or `good for 13', they said `she's good because she's good'. A professional is a professional, I wasn't just a fun package. Professors, colleagues, people I worked with, never made excuses for me being a young child. In a working environment they treated me like an adult." Youthful good looks, she says, don't sell records. "When people listen to my album, they don't know how old I am, they don't know what I look like. They just listen to the music."

Oh yes, the music. Her new pop single is her own adaptation of a traditional composition by Bruch, "I'm a doun for lack of Johnnie"; her new album The Classical Album 1 features Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and more Bruch. Both are out later this month. To the untutored ear (a usefully enormous potential market) they are both really rather pleasant.

The Classical Album 1; a title with plenty of scope for sequels, that. Is she going to keep going at this pace indefinitely? Yes, says this pretty, sweet-faced, gentle-voiced, charming little automaton. "I like touring, I like making records, it's what I've known all my life. For me it's a normal life, though other people might think it's extraordinary. I don't feel I've missed out on anything. Anyway, I've still got plenty of teenage years left ahead of me."

And she floats off, 17 going on 35, to be photographed for the Thai edition of Vogue.

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