Violinist Vanessa-Mae is credited with sexing up classical music and creating the crossover genre – a move that made her a teen sensation and earned her millions
Vanessa-Mae is startlingly beautiful in the flesh, although not at all in the way you might expect. When she burst onto the classical music scene as a teenager more than a decade ago, her electric violin was considerably bigger than the clothes she wore. Vanessa-Mae became synonymous with red-lipped, windswept, hot-panted glamour. The girl who knocks very quietly at the door of the suite at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, where we will conduct our interview, is quite the opposite; her tiny frame is wrapped in a huge overcoat, her smiling face is bare of make-up, and there isn’t a hint of vampish nail varnish on the childlike hand she puts in mine.
Goodness knows what those fingers are insured for. They are the secret of her success, and her success is quite staggering: Vanessa-Mae, 28, is the wealthiest British entertainer under 30, with an estimated fortune of £32 million. Ever the rebel, she refuses to spend her life wearing kid gloves (quite literally). When she isn’t working, she is skiing (with her boyfriend Lionel Catalan) – and the faster the better, in her opinion. Just back from a month in the Alps, she is in London for a few days and then will return to the mountains for another two weeks. Isn’t it rather risky? ‘Probably, but I don’t really care,’ she giggles. ‘Although I would never ski if I were about to start making an album or something, as it wouldn’t be fair to the other people involved.’
Vanessa-Mae hasn’t made an album since 2004, which doesn’t seem particularly odd until you consider that between 1995 and 2003 she made a staggering 13 of the things. In fact, that is precisely the reason why she hasn’t put pressure on herself these past few years. ‘During the second half of my teenage years and my early twenties, my life was like a treadmill,’ she explains. ‘I wasn’t enjoying it and it became too much. My life was my work and I didn’t have any connection with the outside world. I realised that I was never going to be able to continue producing good work if I hadn’t experienced life.’
Vanessa-Mae’s life has been far from ordinary. Born in Singapore in 1978 to a Chinese mother and an English hotelier father of Thai descent, she was playing the piano by the age of three. A year later, her parents split up and she and her mother moved to London, where her mother married an English corporate lawyer called Graham Nicholson (to whom Vanessa-Mae refers as her father). At her mother’s encouragement, she took up the violin, and it soon became clear that she had a remarkable talent. When she was eight years old, she spent six months at the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, before returning to London. From then on, she spent half-days at her London day school, Francis Holland. The other half of the day was spent focusing on music. At 11, she joined the Royal Academy of Music, where the director called her ‘a true child prodigy, like Mozart and Mendelssohn’, and by the time she was 14, she had made three critically-acclaimed classical records.
It wasn’t until she was 16 years old, however, that she really made her mark with the release of The Violin Player. A marked departure from
her classical routes, it was described by Vanessa-Mae herself as ‘violin techno-acoustic fusion’. It was unlike anything that had ever been heard before, and its album sleeve featured a photograph of a pouting Vanessa-Mae emerging from turquoise waters in a transparent dress with her white electric violin tucked under her chin. The traditional classical velvet-and-tweed crowd did not know what had hit them.
There was one downside to becoming an overnight sensation, and that was the criticism that she faced. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cellist brother Julian gave a speech not long after the release of The Violin Player, in which he decried the state of classical music. Concert halls could no longer be filled, he said, unless there were ‘semi-naked bimbo’ violinists playing in them. Deborah Borda, the Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, refused to play with Vanessa-Mae, saying simply, ‘I don’t think that is the way to advance an orchestra.’ Today, many years down the line, Vanessa-Mae has come out smiling. ‘I didn’t give two hoots what they thought. I wasn’t frightened to be the first to do something new. When I first came onto the scene, what I did was unheard of,’ she says happily. ‘Now crossover has established itself as a genre and I’m very proud of that.’ Certainly, many have followed her lead, and these days the charts are full of ‘sexed up’ classical albums by the likes of Amici Forever, Il Divo and Katherine Jenkins.
Wherever she goes, she takes her violin with her. Sometimes she goes for a week without picking it up, but she is happy just knowing it’s there. ‘When I was 17, I went skiing in Argentina and I decided, for the first time in my life, not to take my violin with me,’ she says. ‘After about a week, I burst into tears because I missed it so much.’
Just talking about her work makes her eyes sparkle, and she falls into a reverie. ‘When I’m on tour, I really come alive,’ she says. ‘Even if I’m nervous before the show starts, once the lights go down and I step onto the stage, everything kind of goes into slow motion and my thinking becomes clearer. It’s as if everything falls into place.’
These days, she has the luxury of ruminating on the idea for an album rather than feeling under pressure to release at least one, if not two, a year. Her next album, which she begins recording in May, will be in a more classical vein than her previous recordings. ‘I want to do something today that I’ll be proud of in 10 years’ time, so the next album will be more grown-up, more orchestral.’ That said, she is insistent that she will ‘never, ever’ do pure classical. ‘I’ve had a taste of what it is to go to the other side and be a bit cheeky, and I don’t want to let that go,’ she confesses. In this, she says, she is very much a product of her generation. ‘I get bored easily,’ she explains. ‘When I watch TV, I am always flicking channels, and when I listen to my iPod, I always have it programmed to shuffle. I find variety very liberating.’
Whatever people might want to accuse Vanessa-Mae of, being ordinary is certainly not one of them.