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TEEN SENSATION: Hayley Westenra has international success in her sights. But the teen sensation has no desire to be the music world's next wild child.
DAVID WHITE/Sunday Star-Times

Music: Pure by name

06 July 2003

Posh wants her for parties and Sting for snaps but Hayley Westenra isn't letting fame go to her head, as Jane Wynyard reports.

She looks like an angel, has a sensational new album called Pure and likes nothing better than hanging out with her mum and friends in Christchurch.

So much for the new Charlotte Church.

Kiwi good girl Hayley Westenra is sailing through her teenage years with narry a blemish to sully that perfect complexion and reputation. Meanwhile in Britain, Church, the Welsh teenager who sold millions of albums in a similar lite-classical vein to the Christchurch teenager, has sacked her manager mum, become engaged to a bad boy DJ, taken up smoking and drinking and verbally abused some of pop's top divas.

While this unruly behaviour has raised eyebrows among Church's fans (and detractors), it's done little to rattle Westenra's secure cage. Despite being hot property at just 16, Westenra says she's determined not to follow in the footsteps of her Welsh contemporary.

"I don't mind the musical comparison to Charlotte because it helps people to understand where I'm coming from in terms of the music I'm singing," she says. "But in terms of the other stuff, that will never happen to me. I'm just not that sort of person. It's just not me."

She's just returned from four months in the UK recording her new album with Beatles producer Sir George Martin and his son Giles and says she would one day love to be as successful as Celine Dion - with a more classical edge.

Three years ago Westenra was busking on the streets of Christchurch with her younger brother and sister. Her CV now includes dates with Britain's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and an appearance at the Classical Brit Awards in London this year. She's just signed an international contract with Decca Music Group - the label behind Pavarotti and Russell Watson - which says it will make the Kiwi songstress its number one international priority.

The young woman with the voice reviewers describe as an angel's is sitting in the hip offices of Universal Music in Auckland wearing flared jeans, platform shoes and a trendy "rock and roll" coat from London. The transformation from gangly Kiwi teenager to worldly star is marked.

She has a make-up artist and hairdresser at her beck and call, travels the world, has her own website and fan club and even manages her own financial affairs. And although Westenra is heavily marketed and managed, her label, Universal Music, insists it won't do anything to compromise her wholesome image.

But this self-confessed "down to earth Kiwi girl" has already started to attract attention overseas. Victoria Beckham invited Westenra to sing at her lavish birthday bash, she's been photographed with Andrea Bocelli and Sting and partied at the same London Fashion Week function as Holly Valance and Christine Aquilera.

"A photographer must have thought I was famous because he took my photo at the event." she says with a disarming giggle.

She still acts like a typical teenager - she loves talking about clothes, her friends and family and her dislike at having to do homework. But behind a microphone or in front of an audience, she transforms into a singer mature beyond her years.

Sir George, whom Westenra describes as "very lovely and down to earth", says the young Kiwi is a brilliant singer.

"It's great to see her singing because she doesn't look like she's really trying and what she is doing is incredibly difficult," he says in Westenra's promotional video. "People who have been doing it for years can't do what she does."

In Pure she explores pop, traditional Maori choral singing and well-known classical repertoire. There's her version of Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights", a rendition of "Hine E Hine" and Westenra's favourite, "Who Painted the Moon Black".

This month, Westenra heads off on a promotional whirlwind to launch the album in Australia, Asia, the UK and America and plans to return to New Zealand at the end of the year.

She admits to getting homesick and missing her friends. She struggles to keep up with her schoolwork, doesn't have time for a boyfriend and is constantly on the move. But she's also living her dream and these are small sacrifices to make.

"It's hard to step back and think Owow, look at my life' because most of the time you are dealing with what's happening along the way. But yeah," says Westenra, "I'm living my dream."

Pure is released on July 17 (2003).

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