Tina Arena's Big Talent Time
by Kate de Brito
Tina Arena is an overnight success after 20 years. Her triumph at this week's ARIAs was also a triumph against music industry prejudice and the child star syndrome. Kate de Brito talks to Tina about her battle to be accepted in a very tough industry.
When Tina Arena was 12 her mother was paralysed in a car accident and spent the next 12 months in bed. Although she eventually recovered, during her convalescence she was unable to ferry her daughter to and from the studios of Network 10 in Melbourne.
For one long year Arena, one of the stars of the hugely successful Young Talent Time, was chauffeur-driven to rehearsals in a studio car.
"I copped a lot of shit because of that" Arena says. "The other kids thought I was a bloody upstart."
It doesn't take a genius to realise that during the course of her 20-year musical career Arena has become accustomed to flak.
The first thing that strikes you about Arena is her face. It's so familiar you feel you should greet her like an old friend. She's also far more beautiful in person than she is on camera. The second thing is her voice. It's smooth and musical when she talks. Later when she relaxes her Aussie twang emerges, undiminished by time spent overseas and true to her suburban ethnic upbringing. The third thing you notice is her confidence.
Although you know Arena is a 27-year-old recording artist, engaged to be married and with a triple platinum album to her credit, somehow you expect someone much younger and far more reserved. Instead you get this down-to-earth, loud-mouthed Aussie chick - someone you can imagine letting her hair down with her friends.
She's fun and she's sexy and her whole demeanour screams experience. Above all she lacks the arrogance and haughtiness evident in so many musical artists. She is relaxed and genuine. She is also tired. Arena has barely had the chance to sit down since she scooped four ARIA awards on Monday night.
After a decade-long struggle, success finally toppled into Arena's lap this week when she walked up to collect the ARIA awards for best album, best female artist, best pop release and song of the year (Chains).
That it has taken this long for her to reach the top is testament to the severity of the music industry. That she has made it at all is testament to her will and determination.
For 10 years Arena struggled to dump the baggage she picked up as a Young Talent Time performer. For 10 years she knocked on record company doors and was turned away because she did not fit the image. She left Young Talent Time in October 1983 but it was not until October 1995 that she truly left it all behind.
Picking at a bowl of ravioli in the restaurant of the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne this week, Arena is devoid of the bitterness you'd expect her to feel. It just is not Arena's style to dwell on the knockbacks. She prefers to think her success wasn't due until now - although she has a few words to say on the superficiality of the music industry.
"I never really had a problem with who I was but everyone else did", says Arena playing with her pasta. "I could never quite understand why everyone kept saying 'we can't' or 'it isn't cool'."
She leans forward and points her folk: "You know what I was frustrated about? More than the industry not thinking I was cool I was frustrated because they didn't get the songs. That's what hit me more than anything. One record company in particular basically said 'Tina Arena? You're f***ing kidding! That guy, whom I will not mention and who knows exactly who he is, has since been demoted and unfortunately doesn't understand the crux of this business. This business is about songs and really that's the basic fundamental thing that we mustn't forget here."
If the industry, so often consumed by image, didn't agree with her at the time it certainly does now.
Arena's album Don't Ask remains firmly in the top five after 11 weeks, this week competing against AC/DC's newest album and Janet Jackson's greatest hits compilation. Arena has been in the top 50 for the last 46 weeks.
She is now a "priority artist" for record company Sony which next year plans to launch her into the US market. Her European success has already been realised. Don't Ask went to No 11 in Britain and her first single Chains went to No 7. She is also the first Australian artist in the last 30 years to have an album debut in the European top ten.
It is, by any standards, an achievement to savour, yet Arena says her arrival in the Australian charts held far more significance than her European success.
In Australia Chains languished for two months after release, picked up only by regional radio stations, before it eventually received major national radio play. In Europe Arena was an unknown and fresh commodity. It was a welcome relief to walk down the streets unrecognised after years of ribbing about YTT.
For many years wherever she went Arena endured the inevitable but good natured taunts of "Tiny Tina" and impromptu renditions of All My Loving, the Beatles tune that became synonymous with YTT.
"I loved every minute of that - of people now knowing who I was" Arena guffaws. "I guess it was tiring fighting the individual thing. It was good to not be apart of a past and being accepted as an artist. Not having to carry this Young Talent Time luggage which was constantly shoved in my face."
Arena became a regular on Young Talent Time when she was 'eight and a half' - a grade four student with a passion for music.
"I was singing before I could put sentences together. I would dress up in my mother's clothes and I was like three or four years of age and I'd put on these gowns and heels and jump on chairs and sing", she says. "I was pretty young and I was doing it pretty regularly so my mother realised I was passionate about music early on."
Arena appeared as a contestant four times - on her first appearance she performed ABBA's Ring Ring - before host and producer Johnny Young called her parents at their Moonee Ponds home and said he'd like to meet their daughter.
"Of course I was delighted," Arena says. "But my mother was dubious initially. She realised it was a major sacrifice and she said 'as long as you understand it's a big commitment and we all have to adjust our lives to accommodate this dream of yours - as long as you appreciate that we will take it, we'll do it. I said 'absolutely' but what did I understand. All I wanted to do was perform."
So began the career of one of Australia's favourite television personalities.
Over the next seven years Tiny Tina, as she became known, danced and sang her way into the hearts of Australians of all ages.
As with many young soapie actors Australia watched as Tina grew from a big voiced, chatty little girl into a voluptuous young woman. It was never easy. There were taunts from her schoolmates and the lack of a normal life, but Arena insists she had a dream she was prepared to follow.
"I grew up in a western suburbs area that was predominantly 'Anglo' and I was an ethnic child who copped a lot of flak", she says. "It was not very cool to be Italian in the '70s - that was a major hurdle. That and being on TV. Kids can dig their heels in without realising the damage they're doing. They could be cruel."
At 16 Arena decided she'd had enough. Although by tradition Young Talent Timers were "retired" at 16 to make way for younger members Johnny Young was eager to keep her on board. She said no. "I told them I was going and they were not very happy because they wanted me to stay", Arena says. "I had had enough. I wanted to get some normality back in my life."
The normality Arena craved came in during her final two years at school when she "caught up on being a normal kid, hung out with my friends and really enjoyed myself."
Arena admits that the eager young eight year old who joined the show in 1975 had no idea that the show would prove to be such a drawback to a career as an adult performer. But she remains genuine in her love and appreciation for YTT. Unlike artists Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan who have shied away from their early showbiz roots, Arena had remained resolutely proud of the program that made her a household name.
When record companies suggested she change her name she told them to go to hell. "I actually laughed when I heard that. I thought it was a ridiculous suggestion" Arena says. "I've still got the same face, I'm not prepared to go under the knife to change my identity for anybody", she says. "Yes, Young Talent Time was corny but it's a shame that kind of commitment and that feeling isn't around any more. It really was a great, great show - it was an institution. A lot of people loved it, a lot of people lived for it - that one hour every Saturday night. I don't know anyone who, deep down, didn't like it."
In 1987, four years after she left YTT, Arena was asked to support American artist Lionel Richie on his Australian tour, following a number of charity performances. After the tour came a singing and dancing part in the David Atkins show Dynamite and the single I Need Your Body which was accompanied by moderate success, a bosomy video clip and little credibility. Later she took on the part of narrator in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
Surrounding it all was widespread lack of support from record companies and song-writers who refused to believe Arena could do justice to their music. At one stage she took a job at State Insurance but "didn't enjoy it at all". She also considered a career as a teacher but eventually decided that music was where she wanted to be.
Eventually she began writing her own music. She co-wrote all the songs on Don't Ask and is already at work on her next album.
Arena's strength is derived from her parents and her two sisters whom she says are her greatest friends and greatest supporters. She is unequivocally proud of her parents, who arrived in Australia from Sicily in the '50s with little else than a barrel of clothing and linen. "They didn't speak any English and they didn't have any money. They are completely self made," Arena says.
Now Arena's mum, who stayed home to raise her three children, runs a rest home for the elderly. Her father, who worked for the Victorian railways for 20 odd years, is retired and "assists my mum."
Arena still lives in the family home with her younger sister, while her parents now reside at the retirement home. She is renovating an old terrace where she hopes to one day live with her fiance and manager Ralph Carr.
Arena is elusive on the subject of Carr, saying only that they have been friends for a long long time. Somewhere along the line, she admits, they fell in love but due to their tight schedules there are no immediate plans for marriage. "I've been engaged for a long time", she says sneaking her hand, with engagement ring, behind her back, her body language uncomfortable. "We've got a good balance. He does his work and I do my work and we try not to step on each other's toes. Quality time is very difficult to find these days and that's the most important thing in a relationship. That's the commitment we both made to our work. We've got a great understanding."
Music pundit "Molly" Meldrum applauds the determination Arena has used to overcome prejudices within the adult music industry towards "child stars". "If you'd told me six or seven years ago that she would have got this far I would have laughed. You know the attitude would have there is no way, no room for you", Meldrum said this week. "To be accepted into this industry she had to go through shit with the Young Talent Time thing and just for being Tiny Tina Arena. It's a mark of the woman that she did not become the precocious child star, she has a lot of dignity and has come through it with that intact. She's a workaholic who puts everything into her music."
Janet Jackson, who appeared on the ARIA Awards with Arena, was, according to Meldrum, floored by the lack of hype in her approach. "Janet said to me she could not get over how Tina has just won four awards and was obviously the star of the night but still came up and humbly introduced herself," he said.
Founding editor of Juke and rock historian Ed Nimmervoll also believes Arena's achievements are extraordinary considering her background. "The biggest hurdle she has had to overcome is that thing of the past", he said. "The irony of the awards night was the people patting themselves on the back about the 'new guard' but Tina was up there saying 'Here I am after 20 years'. The other thing is that she has lived with that past and that's the victory she has made. She has said, 'This is what I am' even when the record companies pressured her to change her name. She told me that on the way to LA to record the album she was so scared about what would happen she cried on the plane. She knew it was such a big step. This was the record she wanted to make, not something that was forced on her like the last dance record. The great thing about it is it's a true record."
Nimmervoll said her talent was something which eventually overcame the prejudices. "I was at Premier Artists (the booking agents) the other day and somebody who worked there had rung through from her rehearsals - they were so moved by what they were hearing they wanted others to listen on the phone. She has a voice that can give you goosebumps."
He too identifies the workaholic side of Arena. "She should be relaxing now, the records done better than she could ever hope to and she's been accepted, but she's still working with the same intensity. It's like a marathon but she's still going, her race isn't over."
The day after the ARIAs Arena played the first concert of her national tour of Australia. Surpassing even her own expectations every venue has sold out except for a few remaining seats in Geelong, a fact she puts down to her support for the Carlton AFL team which beat Geelong in the Grand Final.
Another thing you notice about Tina Arena is the way she makes people smile. There's a dawning smile as they realise that the tawny haired woman standing on the promenade at Southbank is someone they've known for a very long time.
Arena handles her notoriety with aplomb, warmly thanking the fans who literally chase her down the street to congratulate her on her success. She asks each individual autograph hunter their name.
Arena has not yet watched footage of her gleeful acceptance of the ARIAs. "I think I'll get really embarrassed when I watch it. I'll feel like the biggest dick of all time". Then she pauses. "The old quadrella huh. I wish I'd placed bets. I reckon a few people made some money on me the other night."
Thursday was Arena's night off and she planned to celebrate with a dinner with her family and parents whom she has not seen since her awards win. The silver ARIAs only arrived on her doorstep that morning in an ordinary looking brown box, labelled office supplies.
At last sight Arena, shoulder-length hair blowing in the wind, was trudging alone down the pavement of the chick Southbank. The box of ARIAs was in her arms.