Wish upon a star
by Diana Wichtel
Hayley Westenra’s debut international album sold two million copies, but now she’s 18, New Zealand’s angel-voiced star is aiming ever higher with her new one, Odyssey.
There was the strange business with the eggs. A couple of hours into the photo shoot, we trail back to the suite. Cleaning is in progress. Disaster. The poached eggs have gone awol. What? It seems that, too polite to keep the press waiting, our national songbird had only a bite of her breakfast, then hid it away for later.
We’ll order more, suggests the record company guy. But no. Hayley Westenra wants those poached eggs. Hearing that they are languishing among the debris on a trolley down the hall, she sweetly but insistently requests that they be fetched back and devours them while we chat.
It’s almost a relief to see this poised and perfect creature acting … odd. But then the life she leads could well make one so young and remarkably unspoilt by the glamour of it all cling to the comforting certainty of poached eggs on Vogel’s.
You have to wonder if she knew what she was signing up for. Hayley Westenra’s phenomenal career arc has seen her, by the age of 18, sell two million copies of her first international album, Pure, and perform with the likes of José Carreras, Bryn Terfel, Russell Watson and her idol, Andrea Bocelli (she has, Bocelli told her, the voice of an angel).
It has also seen her having to share a bill with SpongeBob Squarepants while performing on a float with a huge cartoon dog (SpongeBob’s estimation of her vocal ability remains unknown).
A glimpse of the global multimedia spectacle that is life on Planet Hayley these days can be found at hayleywestenrainternational.com. This unnervingly enthusiastic fan site –
“Following the rise of a star!” – doggedly records her every move. It’s a Faustian pact indeed with the devils of fame and fortune that includes appearing with Donny Osmond on something called Christmas Mania.
You could call this the mixed cultural bag of the internationally successful crossover artist or a bit of a madhouse. A simple interview with Westenra these days involves a cast of thousands. Reporter, photographer, photographer’s assistant, record company guy, make-up person and, wandering in after a while, Hayley’s mum Jill: “I just got lonely.”
Westenra, 18 last April, is the still, serene centre of this promotional whirlwind of an extended family. In trackies and tank-top, she greets us at the door of her room at Sky City’s Grand Hotel with what may be the loveliest voice in the world. She has the clear eyes and perfect skin that a non-smoking, non-drinking, all-organic pesca-vegetarian deserves but few achieve.
She is the girl next door (home: Fendalton, Christchurch). But life hasn’t been remotely normal since she was 13, when she went to Auckland to record her first album with Universal. “It’s the past two years that it’s just been crazy. I’ve spent probably a total of two months at home, if that, you know what I mean?”
Westenra’s a trouper, professionally intercepting questions lobbed into the flurry of wardrobe activity and answering with a slight mockney inflection – know what I mean? – acquired in London, her base camp for her next assault on the charts.
Isn’t she sick to death of all this, you wonder, as we begin yet another long day’s photoshoot into night. “It’s a completely different experience when you’re at home,” she says, dodging diplomatically. “It doesn’t feel like work. The last week I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I’m going home, yay!”
But, as she remarks at one point, “There’s no such thing as time off when you’re surrounded by industry people.” National Anthem at Lions v All Blacks. Promote new album. Back to London to finish recording new album. Concerts. Back to New Zealand for the release of new album. Photo shoot, photo shoot, photo shoot. This in a year that has already included a trip to Ghana as UNICEF’s youngest goodwill ambassador. No wonder she has called the new album Odyssey.
It’s exhausting even hearing about it, but Westenra is undaunted. This is her beautiful life. There’s a major concert coming up. At Kenwood House. With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. “I’m headlining the show,” she adds, dripfeeding the impressive details so that it doesn’t sound like skiting.
No chance. On the contrary, Westenra is in urgent need of a course in Diva for Beginners. Marched around the hotel half-dressed and required to crouch in high heels and a mini puffball skirt (in which she still manages to look wholesome), she responds with an infinitely obliging stream of “No worries” or “Whatever you need …” “Don’t be so nice,” wails the photo-grapher. The only time that Westenra stages a muted mutiny is when she’s asked to look coy or saucy. “I don’t know how.”
Nice, wholesome. These are terrible words to invoke in the whacked-out, sensation-hungry world of show biz, but they are unavoidable. Westenra is incredibly nice. So is her mum, who chinwags merrily about family, recording deals, the horrors of entering a posh hotel gym sans make-up.
“You’re having a nice wee chat there, aren’t you?” says Hayley fondly. Is this some sort of family code for “stop talking now”, you wonder, as a “What? What did I say?” look flickers across Jill’s face.