Tina Arena needs no introduction. The singer/songwriter/actress and producer became a household name at the age of eight when she won hearts across the nation on Young Talent Time. Arena released her debut single in 1990 and her second album, ‘Don’t Ask’, became the highest-selling album of 1995 in Australia and also led to successes internationally – particularly in France where her next album, ‘In Deep’, went platinum three times over making her the first non-native French singer to sell a million albums!
The pint-sized performer has also wowed on stage in the musicals Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Notre Dame de Paris; Cabaret and Chicago. She sang at the 2000 Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, came third on the 13th series of Dancing With The Stars Australia, is an ambassador for Barnados, Soldier On and APRA and has her own jewellery and fragrance lines – not to mention a Spanish language album.
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Her achievements are way too numerous to list, but it should be noted the spine-tingling soprano has won six ARIA awards, two World Music Awards and in 2009 was awarded the Knighthood of the Order of National Merit by the president of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, for her contributions to French culture.
She released her first English album of original material in 11 years in October 2013, ‘Reset’, which became the second highest-selling album of the year, and controversially announced plans to self-fund her Reset tour employing 30-plus people. She now splits her time between Australia, France and the UK but is back home for a very Aussie Christmas with her son Gabriel and partner Vincent Mancini.
RESCU talks to the superstar about her secrets to success in such a long lasting career, and how to deal with both positive and negative attention.
Where do you begin to tell the story of tiny Tina Arena? Christened Filippina, she came to national attention as an aspiring pop princess with a giant perm singing ‘All My Loving’. Now, at 47, with a career spanning five decades and hit single after hit single, the incomparable chanteuse has taken the reigns of her life and career and is proud to say she has no regrets.
It’s clear the Arena we get today is at peace with herself. With her straight-shooting, no-holds barred attitude, one gets the sense it has been a long and arduous road: the well-trodden path full of many bumps, twists, pitfalls and wrong turns along the way. While she has undisputedly our finest voice and has carved a successful solo career, there have been well-documented lows along the way.
Right here, right now, Arena makes no apologies for her journey. She is at the peak of her game and she has an attitude that says: If you don’t like it, then tough.
“I think I’m very confident with where I’m at now — finally,” she sighs with a deep calmness. “I’m at peace with the mistakes I’ve made. I’m also trying to stop to make time to enjoy the successes that I have.”
There have been many Tina’s in this lifetime. Some she would admit to barely recognising now, although she can laugh and embrace them all. While her voice has always been technically faultless she went from pocket-sized poppet to the bodice-ripping 1990 raunchy disco diva in the uncomfortable 1990 ‘I Need Your Body’. (That cringe-worthy video clip she has included in her new tour). From cabaret club-circuiteer to European royalty, she is a woman who has now taken on the big guys at their own game and launched a self-funded tour. It’s not about not trusting those who usually finance and promote a tour. It’s about saying at this moment in time she backs herself. And it’s a powerful message she’s sending.
“With the tour, when I announced that I was promoting myself, that message has become a bit distorted by the media and it seemed to imply that I dislike and distrust promoters,” she explains. “That’s not the case. The real story is a woman with almost 40 years’ experience in the music industry, who was finally ready to take control and work with a small team to manage all aspects of the show. It was a logical progression, a lot of work … but a natural step for me.”
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Arena’s journey of self-discovery has been a fascinating one to watch from afar. She has spoken about the seminal moment during the filming of the SBS series Who Do You Think you Are? — when the pieces of her family puzzle suddenly fell into place. She described it as her “pay day”. Her family’s story was revelationary to the Melbourne girl who grew up “wog-style” with a harsh Nonno. The documentary explained his severe temperament and also why her parents were so eager to spend a life giving back to the community (they opened a nursing home to look after the vulnerable). Her own grandmother had been “a foundling” (an abandoned baby) and her great-great-grandmother had adopted a number of foundlings herself.
“The discovery of uncovering all these genetic similarities is what really shocked me initially. How and why we reproduce such characteristics is now what I understand, and am in better acceptance of. It was amazing to understand my ancestry,” she says, going on to explain, “The family ethos has always been about doing the right thing, treating others the way you want to be treated.”
It’s a mentality at odds with an industry full of self-promotion and, let’s be honest, opportunism. It perhaps goes some way to explain her vocal outrage and sense of injustice for future generations of performers who she sees as being ripped off by the music industry. She is one of only a handful brave enough to speak passionately about piracy and has urged her peers to do so, too.
“The manipulation that surrounds all of us today I find fatiguing,” she says carefully, trying to choose the right words to express her emotions. “I’m sure I’m not alone when I say this: Speaking up is something I personally feel we don’t do enough of. This perpetual mindset that everything is perfect is so far from the truth. What that says to me is that ultimately only you can know what your reality is. The public can only assume …
“My reasons for speaking openly about the piracy issue in music is because I don’t really know of any other domain or business where people are allowed to steal so easily. The complexity of the subject is not easy to wrap your head around … to this very day a proper remunerative plan is yet to be put in place!! We’re still waiting. The future generations need to understand that artists need to survive, and I don’t mean just off the smell of an oily rag! Art and music must have a value, and let’s face it, where would we all be without it? This is why it’s important to speak up.”
She also finds troubling that many international media and entertainment companies are known to be avoiding paying taxes in Australia. “I think it’s time we all open up discussion about this a bit more,” she says, her comments made just a few weeks before the ATO opened the same discussion.
While the SBS series was a pivotal moment, Arena says her blinkers were finally taken off about the brutal reality of her industry several years ago. She realised to be relevant and successful she had to embrace everything about the modern workings. Success wasn’t just talent and hard work and being kind to others, as she had always thought. She had to embrace the colder and harsher reality.
“One that happened about seven years ago is that the music industry had changed so drastically, that it will never be the same again,” she says of her wake-up moment. “That’s the commercial reality of this business. Accordingly, diversification becomes very important. Singing in different languages enables me to have parallel careers in non-English speaking markets, I’m worked on a fragrance, jewellery range and a TV show … I’m still co-writing all my music as owning copyright is more important than ever, of course I now produce my records, I’ve written a book (with the wonderful author Jude McGee), and I do public speaking. It’s taken a long time for me to have the confidence to tackle all these projects — but now I feel I have something really worthwhile to say and contribute and a team that really supports, encourages and inspires me.
“Another aha moment last year — something I guess I already knew but hadn’t consciously thought about — was the power of TV,” she says of her appearance on Dancing With The Stars. “I was signed to Channel Seven and had seven albums in the top 50 at once … it’s very powerful. I’d come full circle; I started on a TV show obviously and signing to a network again all these years later was great. Being a part of a big TV series is intense but a lot of fun.”
There are no secrets to her success, she emphasises. Just bloody hard yakka. She sought inspiration along the way from family, friends, places, travels and the cultural differences she experienced.
“I don’t think there’s a real secret to success as such. No two paths are ever the same … it’s about hard work, generosity, belief, being resilient, standing your ground, knowing what you want and ultimately, surrounding yourself with a killer team. Timing and luck also play a big role!”
If she had one piece of advice for aspiring singers it would be to not be seduced by the glamour of the industry. “The only advice I could honestly give anyone is don’t be seduced by the fantasy, cause you only get F***ed by the reality!”
She says wouldn’t encourage her son Gabriel to go down the same path, but wouldn’t stop him either, if he wanted it. “My advice is do it for the right reasons. Fame is an illusion and can be dangerous. If you love a craft like singing or acting go for gold … if you just want to be in magazines for the sake of it you’ll end up pretty unfulfilled.
“Always treat people equally and never get complacent. There are always things to learn and experiences to be had. Have the right team in place as we all have different skills and be careful of social media — don’t buy into either the hype or the negativity.”
Arena has spoken about the duality of fame and the double-edge sword of success, and how with it often comes grief. “The pitfalls are vast and varied usually, and for some, it’s difficult to avoid. If something you do is really working, I can only liken it to a washing machine in its final spin cycle! The workload is so intense that you don’t have a second to breathe. That is a downside. I know now that it’s important to breathe and take time to reflect … I could’ve done with avoiding a couple of pitfalls but, hey, I’m happy! One’s healthy mind and spirit is what counts!”
And as that other French singer Edith Piaf heart-piercingly sang, Arena has no regrets. “Honestly, no” she says. “Mistakes, yes, but regrets, no. It all helps to shape us.”
Arena’s story inspires simply for the fact she has refused to adhere to the expectations of others. At the very nuts and bolts of it she has lived an extraordinary life, full of experiences, beauty and culture most of us can only dream about.
And for now the payoff is an empowered performer, woman, mother and wife who can seek solitude when she wants and back herself the rest of the time. She has arrived at her destination and accepted who she is.
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