Tina Arena on fame, fights and family

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From young talent to sophisticated chanteuse and mentor – has life come full circle for Tina Arena?

WHILE moving house recently, I stumbled across a bag of bits and bobs I’ve been lugging around since childhood. Prepared for a ruthless cull, there were a few things I simply couldn’t part with, one of which was my dog-eared Young Talent Time fan magazine. I’d saved my pocket money for months when I bought it in 1984. Pouring over the pages I’d skip the opening feature on host Johnny Young and rush straight to the story on my all-time favourite, Tina Arena.

I could practically recite the article about the “retired” 17-year-old team member and how she was desperate for a recording contract. “I have to have that hit record behind me,” she was quoted as saying. “With it would come a film clip that would be played on television and I would be an established performer. So I must wait until the record is right.”

Skip forward to 2012 and Arena has not only achieved her ambition to become an “established performer”, she’s surpassed it. At 44, she has recorded more than a dozen live and studio albums, sold more than eight million records around the world, and scored six ARIA awards at home. It seems fitting, then, that her most recent gig has her back where it all began – on the set of Young Talent Time.

There’s been plenty of musing about Arena’s life coming full circle, given her latest role as onscreen mentor in the 2012 incarnation of the program that made her a household name. But after meeting the straight-talking superstar, it’s clear not everything in Arena’s world has revolved 360 degrees. And that’s not a bad thing.

She says she agreed to be involved in this latest version of YTT (there have been several failed attempts) because she believed the timing was right. “It was time to bring some honest, innocent, wholesome family entertainment back on the screens,” she says. “A lot of the violence on TV has been a grand waste of time. It has polluted a generation of children and we need to be more responsible.”

She says YTT sits in its own little bracket. “I’m so happy to be a part of it, because it’s not violent and makes people smile and feel a great sense of warmth when they watch it. There’s a sense of familiarity and I think that’s really beautiful.”

Arena’s strongest memories of her time on the original series (between 1974 and 1983) are of being surrounded by an abundance of “love and wisdom”.

“I was very young, a baby – YTT was my second family,” says the one-time prodigy who burst on to our screens at the age of seven under her real name, Filippina ‘‘Pina’’ Arena, which was soon changed (at Johnny Young’s suggestion) to Tina – aka Tiny Tina.

Life after Young Talent Time has been littered with highs and lows. Initially she struggled to shrug off the YTT stigma and establish herself as a serious performer. Perseverance paid off, however, and she went on to release several albums in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, which sold millions of copies both in Australia and overseas and spawned such pop hits as I Need Your Body and Chains. Her album Don’t Ask was the top-selling Australian record in 1995.

By the late ’90s, life in Australia had started to sour. There was a bitter divorce from her husband and then-manager, Ralph Carr, and an acrimonious split with her record company, Sony (she says she was politely asked to leave). She decided on a fresh start, heading for London and Paris to explore new musical styles and opportunities.

It proved to be a turning point. After her duet with Marc Anthony, I Want to Spend My Lifetime Loving You (the theme song to the film The Mask of Zorro) went gold in France, she embraced the country, becoming fluent in French and releasing three French-language albums. The locals couldn’t get enough and the records sold millions.

Arena’s personal French love affair was cemented 10 years ago when she met French performing artist Vincent Mancini. The couple has a six-year-old son, Gabriel, who has accompanied Arena back to Australia for her six-month stint on YTT.

While Arena commutes to Sydney each week to record the program, she’s based in Melbourne near her parents’ Moonee Ponds home, where Gabriel attends a local school. Arena says he fitted in immediately. “He’s like a duck to water, he never ceases to amaze me, that little boy. He’s quite inspiring,” she says.

“He loves the lifestyle, the generosity of spirit. Australia equals fun for him. It’s his mum’s country and he loves his [Aussie Rules] football.”

Arena’s return to Australia will also take in her upcoming tour. “Performing is my favourite part of my travelling show,” she says. “I love to get up and sing first and foremost – unfortunately the other stuff sometimes plays too much of a role in what it is we have to do. We’ve had to become media experts in the process, lord knows why.”

The pop siren will sing in front of a 54-piece orchestra, headlining the opening of Hamer Hall in July after its extensive renovations. She will perform a repertoire of her hits and classical pieces. “The song choice is always great storytelling and for me, that’s the ultimate thing. People walk into the show and usually walk the emotional gamut.”

After the tour, Arena will resettle in France, where she and Mancini are renovating their 1930s house outside Paris. Next on her to-do list is a new album full of songs that embrace the storytelling she adores. It’s been nearly eight years in the making, as Arena has worked on interim projects such as French and English greatest hits albums and two collections of covers of her of long-held favourite songs.

“I think people stopped listening to stories [through songs]. They were too stressed with day-to-day living, being slapped with consumerism and keeping up with life, which has become very difficult,” she says. “Australia has become very different to the country I grew up in, which was much more laid back.”

That said, she believes attitudes are finally shifting. “Universally, we have pushed the envelope as far as we can. What do we do now, where do we go? We have to go back and revert.”

Going back to basics is an approach she takes seriously, literally from the ground up. “My son is with my father picking tomatoes and figs and planting herbs. I begged my father to pass on that knowledge to him … his generation need to understand.”

From eating her dad’s vegies to appearing weekly on Young Talent Time, some aspects of life may have come full circle for Arena. But compared with the young woman plagued by insecurities as she tried to find her feet in the music industry, the grown-up chanteuse says she has rid herself of past baggage.

She says she appreciates how lucky she has always been, even through the tough times. “I got a couple of chunks taken out of me, but they grew back. What doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. ”

Arena insists it was the tough times that have made her the success she is today. “It was like life saying, ‘You’re a very privileged, young lady. Don’t abuse what it is that you have. Be very aware that it’s unique and it’s not anything that you should ever take for granted’.”

Wise words that perhaps would have helped the 17-year-old Arena, now safely tucked away in that dog-eared fan magazine, that has secured a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Tina Arena will perform on July 28 and 29, and August 5 at Hamer Hall. Details, visit artscentremelbourne.com.au or call 1300 182 183. Young Talent Time screens on Channel 10 on Sundays at 6.30pm

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