Times OnlineSeptember 24, 2003

Times 2 - features

Emotional intelligence

Pure, but is she talented?

She's top of the classical charts, but does Hayley Westenra's appeal lie in her ability or her innocent image

THERE HAS been no time to put the bouquet in water so it lies by the kitchen sink. The detritus of female teenager life spreads over the sofa: Heat magazine, a couple of T-shirts (worn), a Louis Vuitton handbag (fake and bought in Hong Kong). Plus a BBC guest pass and a guitar.

Hayley Westenra is as close to a normal 16-year-old as any freshly harvested musical icon. This week her international debut album became the fastest selling in the history of the UK classical charts. It is called Pure, which you may take to refer to her soprano voice, which is indeed lovely.

Or, if you are more cynical, you may spot a reference to her sexual innocence. It has been said that she has the voice of an angel, and when you recall that this used to be said of Charlotte Church, you will also remember that the Welsh 17-year-old has now moved on, courtesy of an unsuitable boyfriend and a not unconnected public row with her mother.

Whatever Church’s next professional incarnation turns out to be, it will not be as a heavenly body.

No, that mantle has been passed to Westenra, and she wears it with enthusiasm and grace. If there is a chaotic teenager snarling behind the flawless complexion, Westenra is concentrating too hard on her work to notice it. “Focused” is the word she uses to describe herself, and it is apt.

Some years ago I interviewed the violinist Vanessa Mae, then 16 and two years into her international career, and found her scarily controlled and controlling of those around her. Westenra is very different: poised and bright, still excited by her success, and comfortable in her skin. She is also a native of conservative New Zealand and not yet entirely streetwise.

How will she cope if she finds herself going through a difficult patch in public, I ask?

“That would be quite tough,” she replies. “Oh, gosh, I haven’t really thought about this one, have I? You just have to make sure you have your own life. You have to be quite thick-skinned.” Then she switches to the third person. “They can’t escape, though, can they?”

She recognises that she has been given a remarkable opportunity to enter her chosen profession, and considers that well worth the sacrifice of a few parties. When she tells her story, though, it becomes clear that the Covent Garden flat where she is currently installed with her father has not come her way by accident.

The oldest of three children, she grew up in Christchurch with her father, Gerald, a gemologist, and her mother, Jill. When she was six a teacher said that she had perfect pitch and she was cast as the lead in the school production of The Little Star. She sang around the house, she sang in countless musicals and talent festivals. At the age of 10 she started busking and by 12 she had saved up NZ$700 (£250), which she spent recording her voice in a studio.

“It wasn’t for anyone in particular. I just thought it would be fun,” she explains. “I was shy as a child but singing was something I was confident about. Especially busking. It made me feel really independent, making my own income, getting applause. If I wasn’t any good I would not have continued with it but I did get a really positive response.”

Her public wanted to buy the recording and she obliged by selling it in the street and through friends. Demand grew, she realised she needed a thousand copies and, happily, a family friend stumped up the required NZ$5,000, which she has since paid back. Naturally she also sent the disc to recording companies.

“Universal Music New Zealand signed me up without even meeting me. It was exciting, but scary. What if I am not what they expect?”

Oh, Hayley, how could you not be what they expect? Pretty, pert and with an expression that the Times photographer accurately describes as “desperately innocent”, you are a marketing man’s dream. As Decca’s brochure gushes: “When you are in the presence of beauty it is not something you have to think about. Whether it is aural or visual, or in Hayley Westenra’s case both, you tingle with the feeling that your soul has been touched.”

No wonder the deal was worth £3 million. Not least, as one seasoned music critic suggests, precisely because of your vulnerability. “At a time when society worries about young girls growing up too quickly I find it strange that the music industry promotes a young artist in an adult way,” he says. “There’s something slightly Lolita-ish about it.”

Westenra does not recognise this, but then she wouldn’t. She chooses the clothes for the promotion pictures, she says, and has not been photographed wearing anything in which she does not feel comfortable. “I feel I am being projected as who I am. Just that in-between age. I am not particularly sophisticated and I don’t want to wear little dresses.”

So she wears the Gap jacket she was allowed to keep from the album shoot, and very nice it is too. But she is missing the point: she may not have been photographed in a wet T-shirt (as Vanessa Mae was at 14) but her visual capital is being tapped and not, one imagines, for the benefit of other teenagers. Why does she think adults listen to her music? “Because it’s easy listening,” she says. Not because of her appearance? “Not really. This is what I always wanted to do. I have got no reason to complain. Ideally I would have a bit more of a social life and spend more time with my friends, but I might not have this opportunity again.

“I have performed with Bryn Terfel and José Carreras, which is incredible. Everyone expects it must be because of pushy parents. I wouldn’t be here without their support. There are a lot of kids out there who have talent but they don’t have the support. I really appreciate (my parents’) help, they are like friends.”

So she has spent most of this year in the UK, Asia and Australia with one of her parents and hasn’t once slammed a door? “There are times, obviously, but I’m pretty good,” she says. “I’m sure the time will come when I can have more time off and get more balance. At the moment I haven’t got a lot of time to spend with people my own age. Occasionally I get offered a glass of champagne but I don’t really have the opportunity to get drunk, and I am not that kind of person. I can’t afford to have a hangover the next day.”

Last weekend she was invited to a teenage party given by her publicist but had to take up a front-row seat at a fashion show instead. “That was important,” she explains.

She shows me a photograph album. The first picture shows her modest family home. The other pictures are of her family. Does her father have any fears for her?

“I would have reservations if Hayley was a different person, if she became precocious,” he says. “But that hasn’t happened to date.

“She will be taken out for a meal by the record company and try to choose the cheapest thing because she does not want to run up a big bill, or we might be in a hotel and she won’t touch the mini-bar. The upbringing she has had has been frugal and she is not used to running up large bills. The way my wife and I see it, we have just got to make sure she enjoys it. It’s got to be fun for her.”

Hello! has booked her, as has Parkinson for Christmas Day; Westenra is unquestionably on her way. Nice family, nice girl, still grounded even if she does have a handshake that could pulverise sunlight. But would you really want to be a teenager who had been branded as Pure?


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