Child Prodigies: Early promise - This Britain - UK - The Independent

Child Prodigies: Early promise

A 10-year-old diver from Plymouth has been hailed as a new Olympic hope and may even represent Great Britain at Beijing in 2008, when he will be 14. But what about other British child prodigies? How have they fared in adult life? Terry Kirby reports


CHARLOTTE CHURCH, Singer

CHARLOTTE CHURCH, Singer

From the "Voice of an Angel" to "Totty of the Tabloids", the journey of Charlotte Church over the past few years has been remarkable.

Born into a working-class family in Cardiff, her singing talents were apparent before she was 10 and by 12 she was signing a five-album deal with Sony, via an appearance on Jonathan Ross's Big Talent Show on television. Performances in front of Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton and the Queen followed and she topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps it was being voted Rear of the Year at the age of 16 that was to blame. Or perhaps angelic-faced children naturally grow up to become stroppy and rebellious teenagers. But, now worth around £15m, she split with her manager and then with her mother who had taken over the role and scandalised her middle-of-the-classics-road audience by confessing that her personal listening favourites were The Corrs and Gloria Estefan.

A series of stormy relationships with unsuitable boyfriends followed, together with the inevitable appearances in the News of the World and pictures of her looking the worse for wear after leaving nightclubs. She is currently said to be dating Gavin Henson, star of the grand-slam winning Welsh rugby team.

JAMES/LAUREN HARRIES, 12-year-old antiques expert

While some prodigies rebel or fail to fufil their potential, some turn out to be not quite what they were made out to be. And some change sex. Lauren Harries was both.

In 1988, at the age of 12 and at that point James, he made an appearance on the Terry Wogan show, and was hailed as an antiques expert whose parents claimed he had a rare talent for finding bits of rare china in car boot sale.

Dressed in velvet suits and bow ties with trademark blond curls, he appeared in 55 television shows around the world and claimed to have begun the "antiques-on-television" boom. His first book, Rags to Riches, was published when he was 14.

However, his parents, it was later claimed, coached him with his answers and his promotion may well have been a good business idea. At various points, his parents also claimed to be marriage counsellors and private detectives and ran a florist's and a fancy-dress hire business. His father went to prison for arson and fraud after one shop burnt down.

James was educated at home, but only obtained three GCSEs. In 2001, he underwent a sex-change operation and was last heard of hoping "for a career in television".

HEATHER RIPLEY, Child actress in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'

The acting world is littered with the cases of child stars who find that their youthful success does not translate into later life and for every Jodie Foster, who went from good reviews in Bugsy Malone to mega-stardom in Silence of the Lambs via Taxi Driver, there is a Heather Ripley.

In 1968, at the age of eight, she played Jemima in the Hollywood musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, playing one of the children of Dick Van Dyke's Caractacus Potts, for which she received £7,000, a lot of money in those days.

After the fuss over the film died down, she returned to her native Scotland where, she later claimed, she was bullied for losing her accent. She also blames the film for the collapse of her parents' marriage.

Miss Ripley developed drink and drug problems and became a single mother living on benefits. She spent some time as an eco-warrior, opposing nuclear bases and road development in Scotland.

Now living in Dundee with her two grown-up children, she is keen to break back into acting while still maintaining that her childhood brush with stardom was "the worst thing that ever happened to me".

It was, she insists, "a terrible thing to inflict on a child".

SUFIAH YUSOF, The 15-year-old undergraduate who ran away

In July 2000, Sufiah Yusof initiated a national debate on the pressures and pains of being a child prodigy when she disappeared from Oxford University, aged just 15, the day after her third-year exams. Starting her course at 13, she had equalled the record of the maths genius Ruth Lawrence, who later became the university's youngest graduate.

She was eventually found living in Bournemouth and working in a hotel; she refused to rejoin her family whom she claimed put pressure on her. Both her parents had given up their jobs to educate their children at home.

Ms Yusof never equalled the post-Oxford academic success of Ms Lawrence, who is currently working in Israel. After spending some time with a foster family in Bournemouth, Ms Yusof returned to Oxford in autumn 2002 to complete her final year, but failed to complete her course or obtain her degree and vanished from public view.

Last year, she reappeared in the headlines when she married a trainee lawyer from Oxford, who had converted to Islam, of which she is a strong follower. By then, she was working as an administrative assistant for a construction company.

RUTH LAWRENCE, 12-year-old maths genius

When it comes to successful child prodigies, the one that is often cited is that of Ruth Lawrence, home-tutored by her father, who passed O-level maths at eight, pure maths A-level at nine - a record which still stands - and entered Oxford at 13 in 1984 having come first out of 530 candidates in the entrance examination.

She completed her course in just two years and became Oxford's youngest ever graduate, gaining a first-class degree. She was chaperoned through her Oxford years by her father Harry - although they later fell out over her marriage - which may have helped her avoid some of the problems that befell Sufiah Yusof. Both her parents, computer experts based in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, gave up their jobs to educate their daughter.

After Oxford, at the age of 19, she became a fellow at Harvard University where she helped developed the "knot theory" of mathematics. While working at the University of Michigan, she married Israeli mathematician Ariyeh Neimark. The couple have two children and she now lives in Jerusalem where she is associate professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University. She now prefers not to talk about her days as a child prodigy, but has been quoted as saying that she wants her children to "develop in a natural way".

TERENCE JUDD, Boy pianist who committed suicide

In his early twenties, Terence Judd appeared to have the world of classical music at his feet. He had been hugely talented as a child, nurtured by his parents (both professional bassoonists), and won the 1967 National Junior Piano Playing Competition at the age of 10.

Two years later, he made his Festival Hall debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and made his first appearance in America at 13. At 18, he won the British Liszt Piano Competition and at 22, he took fourth place in the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, in the days when Russians would normally expect to take the first six places.

By now he was recording and performing regularly. And yet, just before Christmas 1979, when he was due to play a series of recitals around Russia and perform with the Leningrad Philharmonic, he was dead, having committed suicide by throwing himself off Beachy Head.

Although he is remembered now by only a few classical enthusiasts, some of his recordings are still available and his name lives on in a bi-annual piano competition, The Terence Judd Award, established by his parents and organised by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester.

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