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Frequently Asked Questions
About Vanessa-Mae's Career
By Vpa

 

What is her date of birth?
 
October 27, 1978.
 
 
What is her full name, and why doesn't she use it?
 
"Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson" is her full name. "Mae" is only her middle name not her last name as many people think. Like Madonna, Cher, and some other celebrities, she goes by a stage name of only her first (and middle) name. That started from the beginning, at least by her debut classical album when she was 12, not just when she became a pop star. Her full name is no longer mentioned even in the small print of her latest albums and videos. Maybe losing "Nicholson" gives her a more Oriental image; see below about her ethnic background. Another possible reason is that "Nicholson" is only her adoptive surname, and "Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson" is too long and clumsy.
 
 
Whatís the deal with Paganiniís birthday?
 
Vanessa-Mae publicity frequently mentions that both her and Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) were born on October 27. This might seem unremarkable, because after all there have been many great composers and musicians in history so the probability of sharing a birthday with one of them is high. But Paganini is special, and the point is to draw parallels between Vanessa-Mae and Paganini. He was a great violin performer first, perhaps the greatest ever, and only secondarily a composer. He had a very flashy style such that he was sometimes considered as being possessed by a demon. He was very innovative, and was very controversial in his day. However, Vanessa-Mae has recorded very little Paganini, only on the LIVE AT ROYAL ALBERT HALL videotape and a short piece on KIDS' CLASSICS.
 
 
She looks sort-of Chinese but not exactly, and she speaks with a British accent. Where is she from?
 
Vanessa-Mae was born in Singapore to a Chinese mother and a Thai father, but her parents separated when she was a small child and her mother, Pamela, re-married to an Englishman named Graham Nicholson. They moved to London when Vanessa-Mae was four. Vanessa-Mae grew up in London and is a British citizen. She also studied in Beijing sometimes when she was a child.
 
 
How has her ethnic background affected her career?
 
It has probably helped. Her background has added to her appeal in her "native country" of Britain, Singapore, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as among Chinese in the West, mixed-race people everywhere, and Westerners interested in the Orient. One web site refers to her as a "Thai pop star". Also, it helped get her into the Hong Kong hand-over proceedings and allowed her to make the album named CHINA GIRL.
 
Vanessa-Mae has a lot to say about her ethnic background in the Forward of the liner notes of CHINA GIRL". In brief, she explains that she identifies most with being British, but many others have considered her as Chinese. Her maternal grandfather, who died in 1994, was her only link to China, and so the CHINA GIRL album, which explores Chinese themes, is dedicated to him. Anybody who is interested in Vanessa-Mae should read these notes.
 
 
What effect has her family had on her career?
 
Both her natural and adoptive fathers were wealthy. This enabled her to have private violin lessons from top instructors as a child, including studying in Beijing. Vanessa-Mae got her £150,000 antique Guadagnini violin when she was 10, long before she became wealthy herself. Her mother Pamela Nicholson (Tan Soei Luang) is a classical pianist, who had been recorded before her daughter was famous, though she was also a lawyer for a time. She has been an important part of Vanessa-Maeís career: as the producer or executive producer for several of her albums, playing piano on many of her pieces, writing the lyrics for "Happy Valley: 1997 Reunification Overture", providing creative input for THE ORIGINAL FOUR SEASONS, and as an advisor. You can see her mother playing piano for the Shostakovich Trio on the video VANESSA-MAE: LIVE AT ROYAL ALBERT HALL, as well as on some Vanessa-Mae websites.
 
 
What is her education?
 
She attended the Francis Holland School for Girls in London as a young girl until the age of 11, and she also studied for several periods in Beijing under a famous violin instructor, Professor Lin Yao Ji of the Central Conservatory of China in Beijing, to learn both violin and Mandarin Chinese. At the age of 11, she was admitted to the Royal College of Music as its youngest student ever, and studied with other classmates who were much older. She ended her studies there when she was 14. During her concert tours in recent years, a tutor sometimes accompanied her to further her general education, and she studied for British A-level exams.
 
 
What languages does she speak?
 
English, French, Spanish, and a little German and Mandarin Chinese.
 
 
Was she really a child prodigy? What is the significance of it?
 
Certainly she was. Vanessa-Mae took her first music lesson (in piano) at age 3 and her first violin lesson at age 5, but this fact doesn't in itself indicate talent and is not very unusual for a professional musician. But her accomplishments after 10 years of age prove that she was a true child prodigy. She made her debut with the London Philharmonia at age 10 (1989). At age 11, she was the youngest student ever in the Royal College of Music and was called by its director "a true child prodigy, like Mozart and Mendelssohn". She went on her first international tour with the London Mozart Players at age 12 (1991), and made three records by the age of 14. These are great accomplishments, and the critics who say "So what?" or claim that she doesn't have any talent are unreasonable.
 
But what many people don't realize is that the world is a big place and child prodigies are not so very rare. Several are discovered each year, but only a few of them ever become famous as adults, much less become great composers like Mozart and Mendelssohn whose works are enjoyed for centuries. Vanessa-Mae's background and early achievements have striking similarities to those of Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang, who is 25 months younger. Vanessa-Mae's first three albums were about the same time as Sarah Chang's and have many similiarities; and her sixth album CLASSICAL ALBUM 1 is again quite similar and about the same time as Sarah Chang's sixth album SIMPLY SARAH. Information about Sarah Chang can be found on Tribute to Sarah Chang and also the album descriptions on this site have some comments about similar albums of Sarah Chang. Violinist Leila Josefowicz, whose albums were at the top of the classical-music charts in the USA in 1997, is only a year older than Vanessa-Mae. The latest violin prodigy is Hilary Hahn, who is getting a lot of attention in the USA in 1999. Midori and Chee-Yun were doing similar things as teenagers only a few years before Vanessa-Mae and Sarah Chang, as did Anna-Sophie Mutter when she was a teenager in the 1970s and Itzak Perlman when he was young. The late Yehudi Menuhin gave his first major public performance when he was seven, in the 1920s. Many less famous violin child prodigies have come and gone. And this is only violinists, not yet including child-prodigy pianists, cellists, and other instrumentalists.
 
Vanessa-Mae's work, especially as a composer and songwriter, does not begin to compare with what Mozart had already accomplished by the same age. Mozart, often considered as the greatest musical genius that ever lived, started writing music when he was five, performed all over Europe by the age of eight, and wrote his Symphony #25 when he was 17.
 
Musical talent alone, such as being a child prodigy, doesn't necessarily guarantee a successful musical career. Vanessa-Mae is special not because she was a child prodigy but because of how she has developed from that.
 
 
Why can't I find her first three albums?
 
(or, Why is THE CLASSICAL ALBUM 1 not called THE CLASSICAL ALBUM 4?)

 
They were on a small label (Trittco), not EMI. They have never had anything like the distribution that THE VIOLIN PLAYER and later albums (except THE ALTERNATIVE) have had. All three albums are supposed to be digitally remastered and re-released in 1999. Presumably the lack of distribution in recent years has been because of dissatisfaction with the production quality of the early albums. See my VIOLIN, KIDS CLASSICS, and TCHAIKOVSKY & BEETHOVEN VIOLIN CONCERTOS sections for more about these three albums.
 
 
Why can't I find THE ALTERNATIVE mini-album?
 
(or, Why does the USA STORM have a sticker saying "Vanessa-Mae's first pop album since THE VIOLIN PLAYER" even though it's not?)

 
It was released at first only in Asia, and more recently in a few other places such as South Africa and Eastern Europe, but never in North America or Western Europe. The limited distribution might be because of the unusual six-song 25-minute format, which is intermediate between a full album and a Single. Is THE ALTERNATIVE really "an "album"? Also, four of the songs ("Aurora", "Red Hot live version", "I Will Always Love You", and "Cotton-Eyed Joe") are identical to the versions on the LIVE AT ALBERT HALL video, "Tocatta & Fugue D's Journey Radio Edit" has also been released as a B side of several singles, and the remaining song "Classical Gas Reggae Version" isn't very good.
 
See my new section about this CD.
 
 
Why am I having troubling finding her recent albums?
 
Usually Vanessa-Mae albums are not released simultaneously all over the world, but rather have considerable delays to some countries. THE ORIGINAL FOUR SEASONS was released in November 1998 in Europe but not until March 9, 1999 in the USA.
 
You might also be looking in the wrong place in the record store. Most large record stores carry her albums (even the pop albums) in the Classical bin under "V" for "Vanessa-Mae" or maybe "V" for Violin, but sometimes she is under "M" for "Mae" because many people think that is her last name.
 
If you have trouble finding them in record stores, try the major online distributors. European based ones like www.entexpress.com might have a few that US-based ones like www.musicblvd.com don't, but will be more expensive especially for North American customers.
 
Fans have many criticisms of Vanessa-Mae's management, and think that unnecessary problems have held back Vanessa-Mae's popularity especially in North America. For example:
 

  1. Vanessa-Mae has made several MTV-style music videos, but few people anywhere in the world have ever seen them. The majority of her fans have never seen even one of them, although some short AVI clips of some of them are available in the Multimedia section of this website. What was the point of spending so much effort on all these videos but then not doing anything with them? Hopefully they will do better with the new short film "The Violin Fantasy".
     
  2. The US release of STORM was delayed for nine months, which her management said was to wait for a US tour to promote the album. But in the end, the tour never happened, nor was any other type of promotion done in the USA; STORM just appeared in the classical bins of US records stores under "V" or maybe under "M" without any publicity. That could have been done months earlier. LIVE AT BERLIN and other albums and videos had similar long delays.
     
  3. One of the greatest strengths that Vanessa-Mae has is a very large, active, and loyal group of fans of all ages all over the world. For example, the number of Vanessa-Mae websites is far out of proportion to her sales. But she and her management have almost no communications with fans or announcements to them. Fans rely mostly on third-hand information or rumors to know what is going on. Every week, somebody complains on the Internet that they missed a nearby concert or TV appearance or public event with Vanessa-Mae because they didn't know about it. Tour schedules are seldom announced properly. Vanessa-Mae often makes Internet appearances such as live broadcasts or chat sessions, but fans almost never know about them in advance. A small newsletter is published about once a year and sent people in the UK who have mailed in a stamped self-addressed envelope. Many fans are in awe of Vanessa-Mae but very frustrated with this lack of news, all the more so because most of the complaints could be eliminated by a secretary spending a hour per month or so on the Internet.
     
  4. Communications with record companies and distributors seem to be little better than communications with fans. They seem to have no clue of what Vanessa-Mae is doing or what her plans are. According to one report, about two weeks after the European release of THE ORIGINAL FOUR SEASONS, Virgin Records not only had no plans to release it in the USA, but were not even aware of its existence.

 
"The management" probably includes her Manager Mel Bush, a pop music veteran with years of experience; her mother and Executive Producer Pamela Nicolson who has a lot of knowledge of both classical music and business law; and perhaps to an increasing extent Vanessa-Mae herself, no longer a little girl. Only the inner circle knows exactly who decides what, or how much of what happens is dictated by record companies rather than being their own decisions.
 
 
What ages are her fans?
 
Vanessa-Mae is very unique among classical performers in that she has a huge following among teenagers, even down to 10 or 11 years old, although many older, traditional classical-music listeners (like myself) also like her music. There are a few teenage fans of other young classical violinists, but not nearly as many, because of them only Vanessa-Mae is a pop star as well as a classical violinist.
 
Many young violin students are Vanessa-Mae fans, and many young students have been influenced by Vanessa-Mae's example to take up the violin.
 
Her popularity among teenagers is undoubtedly a reason why some adult classical music listeners dislike her, out of prejudice against any music that teenagers listen to.
 
 
In what countries is she popular?
 
Vanessa-Mae is not very well known in the USA, although THE VIOLIN PLAYER, CLASSICAL ALBUM 1, CHINA GIRL, and STORM are available in the Classical racks of most record stores. She is far more popular in Europe and in Asia. THE VIOLIN PLAYER had gone platinum by 1996 in the UK, Germany, Australia, Poland, Singapore, Brazil, and Malaysia. She is very famous in Hong Kong, so much that she can do commercial endorsements. Few artists have so much geographic diversity in their followings as Vanessa-Mae does, and therefore her worldwide popularity is not fully appreciated by people in any one country. Probably the geographic diversity is because of several reasons:
 
  1. Instrumental music can have a broader international appeal than vocal music, because people who don't know English (or whatever language the vocals are in) don't miss anything.
     
  2. Local culture elements are put into the concerts: such as use of local music or influences, and always speaking a few words of the local language to the audience whether German, Spanish, or Chinese.
     
  3. The marketing and tour schedules may have been deliberately arranged to promote Vanessa-Mae in smaller markets rather than in the USA, where the competition is much more, huge marketing budgets are needed to have an effect, and classical music is especially unpopular. However, she did do a small concert tour of the USA in late 1996 and a publicity visit in November 1997 including several TV appearances.
     
  4. Her background as a Singapore-born, mixed Chinese/Thai race, British citizen gives her a strong international appeal.

 
 
How have her sales been?
 
Of course the exact sales figures are confidential and anyway they change every day. The Storm tour booklet in 1998 mentioned total sales of over 4 million. THE VIOLIN PLAYER was by far the most successful album so far, with sales of 2.8 million copies being quoted recently in a British magazine. (Most classical albums have 5-digit sales, though successful pop and rock albums often sell millions of copies. Michael Jackson's top record sold 45 million copies.) CLASSICAL ALBUM 1 was the fastest selling classical instrumental album ever upon its release, no doubt because of fans of THE VIOLIN PLAYER and Vanessa-Mae concerts picking it up, and has sold over 500,000 copies in the first two weeks alone. Sales of 600,000 were quoted recently. In 1997, Vanessa-Mae won the World Music Award for Best-Selling Classical Artiste. CA1 was back on the Classical charts again in late 1997.
 
But apparently her other albums were not quite as successful.
 
The first three albums, on the tiny Trittco label, before she was a pop star, must have had limited sales even by classical music standards, and have never had any real promotion. THE ALTERNATIVE also was never widely distributed, having been launched only in smaller markets but never in North America or Western Europe.
 
CHINA GIRL seems to have done OK, considering its specialized nature and the fact that it had no concert tour to promote it. It was on the Top 10 of Classical Albums in the USA briefly when it was launched and again after Vanessa-Mae's November 1997 publicity visit. Clearly it was not the huge commercial success that CLASSICAL ALBUM 1 was, but probably it was not intended to be.
 
Sales of the STORM album, tour, and singles, however, seem to be a disappointment so far. This was a heavily commerical album that took clear aim at the mass-market mainstream of pop music -- and missed. The "Storm" single never sold much, the "I Feel Love" single of Vanessa-Mae's singing never made the British Top 40 as it was intended to, and a "Can-Can" single was planned but never released. According to Internet reports of the STORM tour, the concerts were not anywhere close to selling out. Poor sales were possibly the reason for the repeated delays of the US release. Publicity about "the world's sexiest violinist" and "classical music's bad girl" went to Linda Brava, who appeared nude in Playboy. Also, at 19 her age didn't attract quite as much attention as it did when she was 16. However, Vanessa-Mae still remains an outcast to the classical music traditionalists.
 
STORM has stayed on the Classical Crossover Top 10 charts in the USA for many months despite a complete lack of promotion, sold mostly to fans who heard about Vanessa-Mae by word of mouth, but not to real fans who had already bought imports.
 
In 1997, Vanessa-Mae won the World Music Award for Best Selling Classical Artist, but she was not in the running for any World Music Awards in 1998.
 
But maybe the lack of success as a mainstream pop artist, at least for this year, will ultimately be a good thing, allowing her to remain as a musical innovator close to her classical roots rather than becoming a media personality.
 
 
What is her relationship with critics?
 
In general critics despise Vanessa-Mae and she despises them. Some of the criticism against her has been unbelievably vicious and personal. For example, in early 1998 British composer and classical luminary Julian Lloyd Webber gave a speech decrying the state of classical music, saying that concert halls could not be filled unless there were "semi-naked bimbo" violinists. Although Vanessa-Mae was not specifically mentioned by name, and although "bimbo" may not be an appropriate word for somebody who went to music college at age 11 and probably has an IQ of about a million, nobody has any doubts of whom Julian Lloyd Weber was refering to. Debra Bodra, Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic, was more specific when she explained her orchestra's refusal to play with Vanessa-Mae. She was quoted in the Singapore Straits Time on June 15, 1998: "I have nothing against her personally, but I don't think that is the way to advance the orchestra." "The challenge is to change but remain dedicated to artistic excellence. We must resist things that look politically correct but are just somehow....destructive to the arts." Her harshest critics are less polite, and have even compared her to a prostitute or worse.
 
Vanessa-Mae has made little effort to disguise her contempt for her critics, and has responded by numerous barbs, jokes, and comments about classical music critics. She says that they become critics because they are incapable of performing music themselves. She calls some of them "simpletons" in THE CLASSICAL ALBUM 1 Forward. The CHINA GIRL liner notes again have several comments about music critics. Once, she even took out a newspaper advertisement in the British newspaper against a critic who gave her a bad review and suggested that she was lying about her date of birth, in which she stated her own qualifications as a musician and personally questioned the critic's qualifications. Vanessa-Mae can afford to thumb her nose at critics because she is so popular and well liked by record companies and promoters. Reviews have little effect on sales.
 
We should remember that Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky received similar harsh criticisms in their day.
 
 
What awards has Vanessa-Mae won?
 
1995 BAMBI International Classical Artiste of the Year Award in Germany Nominated for BRIT Awards, Best Female Solo Pop Artiste, in January 1996, and again in 1997 Two ECHO awards for Best Seller of the Year Classics without Frontiers World Music Award for Best Selling Classical Recording Artiste HMV Silver Clef Award for Top International Artiste
 
Also, she was selected by People Magazine for its "World's 50 Most Beautiful People for 1996" although this is for her looks and/or her clothes not for her music.
 
 
What ambitions has Vanessa-Mae expressed or implied?
 
The CHINA GIRL, CLASSICAL ALBUM 1, and THE ORIGINAL FOUR SEASONS inlay notes show clearly that classical music is close to her heart, and that she wants to be recognized as a serious artist. Also, these notes imply that she is a composer and a musical innovator, as well as a performer, and that she is proud of having taken new musical directions both with techno-acoustic fusion and with the new musical concepts of her classical works.
 
Also, breaking down barriers between different forms of music is clearly a part of her direction. She always introduces some straight acoustical classical music into her pop concerts and some of the energy of pop into her symphonic concerts. Introducing more young people to classical music, especially the violin, is important for her.
 
She has said in an interview that she wants to do for the electric violin what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric guitar.
 
 
What about Vanessa-Mae's personal life?
 
Nobody who has written about Vanessa-Mae really knows her personally, and she has been very good at protecting her own privacy. She is extremely capable in interviews and press conferences, able to give well-considered answers to difficult questions. Most Vanessa-Mae fans agree that knowing about her private life is irrelevant to enjoyment of her music.
 
 
What about her recent ventures outside of violin music: pop singing, acting, and fashion modeling?
 
In her 19th year, Vanessa-Mae has gone into three new endeavors, all highly glamorous and none involving violin music. Perhaps they were to build her image, or maybe to increase her fame beyond being just a violinist, or maybe just for fun - who knows?
 
In late 1997, the single of "I Feel Love" was released in Europe. This song is different from all other Vanessa-Mae singles, because it is neither classical music nor techno-acoustic fusion - it is mainstream pop music, and it is vocals not violin music. Madonna, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, or any other female pop singer could have done it. Maybe it was influenced by her session work on Janet Jackson's album THE VELVET ROPE. The "I Feel Love" single didn't quite reach the British Top 40, and her management was disappointed.
 
"I Feel Love" is on STORM, as is one other track of Vanessa-Mae vocals without violin titled "Embrasse Moi". That one is sung in French and English, and is very similar to the style of French pop singer Vanessa Paradise - two teenagers named "Vanessa" singing in French. These two songs were not Vanessa-Mae's debut as a singer, she had already done some vocals on "I'm a-Doun for Lack O'Johnnie" which was on Classical Album 1 in late 1996, but that song was still classically-inspired techno-acoustic-fusion violin music. The new ones are not.
 
If she really intended to launch a new career as a pop singer, it seems to have been unsuccessful. Vanessa-Mae's voice isn't bad but neither is it exceptional enough to stand out in this overcrowded field.
 
In September 1998, Vanessa-Mae made her acting debut in a short, unusual art movie titled THE VIOLIN FANTASY. You can read more about it on other websites such as Ultimate Vanessa-Mae; its webmaster was one of the extras in the movie. It features music from the new album, THE ORIGINAL FOUR SEASONS.
 
Vanessa-Mae missed the London premiere of her movie debut because she was making her fashion-modeling debut at a show in Paris, helping to introduce a line of Gaultier. You can read the details and see photos at Ultimate Vanessa-Mae which got it from the London newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

 

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