Show me the girl at nine and I’ll show you the woman at 51.
Tina Arena first appeared on Australian television screens in the children’s talent show Young Talent Time in 1974. Known as Pina at home, the little girl with a big voice was so popular with viewers that the station was inundated with requests to give her a regular spot.
She worked six-day weeks during her seven years on the show while also studying, including a gruelling commute from Moonee Ponds across Melbourne to Nunawading.
That was the girl. Tina Arena at 51 – still tiny, still with a big voice – continues to work like there’s a demon on her heels. As well as live shows, retrospective albums and a memoir, she recently starred in the hit musical Evita to great acclaim. This week she appears at the Melbourne writers’ festival for an evening of stories and song with opera singer Deborah Cheetham.
Meeting Guardian Australia towards the end of a long Melbourne winter, Arena sits in a crowded Kooyong cafe, recovering from a cold. She’s almost unrecognisable – swamped in a big jumper, no makeup and large, clear-framed glasses.
Arena has had decades in the public eye. One of the few globally famous Australian pop stars, she has sold more than 10m albums worldwide, with her second solo album, Don’t Ask (1994), yielding the hits Sorrento Moon (I Remember) and Chains. She has worked across genres and mediums, appearing in musicals, on reality TV (Dancing with the Stars) and at music festivals.
She spent two decades living outside of Australia, settling mostly in France, where she found fame: in 2011, she became the first Australian to be awarded a Knighthood of the French National Order of National Merit, presented by president Nicolas Sarkozy, for her contributions to French culture.
When she returned to Australia a few years ago along with her husband and son, she says she noticed Melbourne was different. “Everything became really fast and everything took twice as long to get anywhere. I was permanently lost on the roads. I noticed that the energy had changed and the city had changed really drastically. There was something that had become impersonal about it.
“The move [back] to Australia came with challenges to adapting from a Mediterranean way of life to a pretty Germanic, Anglicised country that functions in many ways quite rigidly.”
This rigidity encompasses what Australians expect from its artists. In many ways, Arena has served as a bellwether for how Australia treats women in the spotlight at different stages of their careers.
In her youth, it was all about cuteness, costumes and cover songs.
In her 20s, when she wanted to break into mainstream pop, the media focus switched to her body: specifically, she writes in her memoir, her cleavage in the dress she wore in the film clip for I Need Your Body.
And post 40, the only local station that would play her music was Smooth FM.
With a frankness that is characteristic of our two-hour breakfast, Arena says: “I hated the fact I hit 40 and radio wouldn’t play me. I think it’s bullshit. I don’t get it … Someone of a certain age and certain experience and certain gender is no longer relevant – says fucking who?”
Still, Arena is too popular, talented and outspoken to stay in her box. And she has found something of a new audience: Gen Z have discovered her and made her an icon of nostalgia in the same way they have with Daryl Braithwaite. Arena has performed twice at Splendour in the Grass, with Client Liaison and Matt Corby.
Like John Farnham, Jimmy Barnes and Kylie Minogue, Arena has been famous for most of her life, and so is uniquely placed to talk about how that level of fame feels.
Take, for example, selfies. Or rather, don’t take them. Arena is not a fan of the smartphone – “With technology I have even seen my anxiety levels rise to disproportionate levels” – but gets asked to take them on an almost daily basis. She prefers a chat instead.
“I don’t do selfies. Since I stopped doing that, I’ve had some of the most wonderful rapport and conversations with people that have asked me for a selfie. And I say ‘you know what, I’m not comfortable doing that anymore’ because 99.9% of the time you look back at the photos and you look like shit.”
Then there’s how the images are used on social media: “I’ve known you for 10 seconds … I’m not your best mate and you’re not mine. We’re just having a fantastic human interaction. And people are amazing when you are honest with them and tell them how you feel.”
Arena’s fans span all ages and walks of life, and include prime minister Scott Morrison, who once named her his favourite pop star.
“He’s got bad taste. What can I say,” says Arena dryly. Then she turns serious. “He’s a sweet man … I met the prime minister on a few occasions and he and his family have been really delightful. I look at him as a human being first and foremost, not as the prime minister. He’s a pretty cool man. He has quite a lot of humility.”
Humility is something Arena prizes. While some people struggle with invisibility, fame brings the opposite problem.
“There is too much visibility. You become the focus of everything and everyone and it’s not healthy. It’s not healthy and it’s not natural,” she says emphatically.
“It makes me feel for those around me … You see people literally gravitating towards you and everything else is a blur. That makes me very uncomfortable.”
But it is hard to be normal when celebrity creates a distorted lens with which to view the world.
“I think I got disconnected after being on the road for so long and having weathered so many different trials and tribulations during that time and journey. I spent years going on and off planes in different countries in different time zones … 14 to 15-hour days for two to three weeks in a row. At a certain point your brain is fried, which is what happened to me.”
But weren’t those years at least a bit glamorous?
“It’s one of the loneliest existences around, actually … on the outside [that person] seems to be living an extraordinary journey; the way they are living privately in a lot of cases is completely different. It was very lonely.”
In those years on the road, her first marriage broke down. Her second marriage though, to Frenchman Vincent Mancini, is extremely happy. They both love nature, travelling and exploring the countryside.
“We go bushwalking. Vince opened up my eyes to another world … We’re a little bit more hippie at heart.”
As for what’s next, in the short term, at least, Arena is really looking forward to some rest. It’s been a long time coming.
• Tina Arena is performing at Melbourne writers’ festival with Deborah Cheetham on Friday 6 September