Hayley Westenra - 'I'm a tough chick'

By Michele Hewitson

Hayley Westenra, that sweet little songstress with the lovely ringlets and skin like a porcelain doll, says, right at the end, "You know everything about me. I feel quite exposed."

I look at her sharply as she says this. Is she being sarcastic? Having a bit of fun at my expense? The look on her face is her usual serenely smiling one. Those extraordinarily big eyes hold only kindness.

She has just endured an hour and a half in a drearily bland hotel room being asked questions about herself. Which is what people do in interviews, obviously, but she is 20 years old and any normal 20-year-old would be bored out of her mind and hard pushed not to show it.

And Westenra is all too aware, in a way nobody of that age should have to be, that people want her to be more interesting than she is. They want her life to be glamorous. They want her to behave like a rich, spoiled just-past-her-teens celebrity.

This peculiar set of expectations could - as could many of the other things in Westenra's life - be a burden for a girl of her age.

People have been predicting the worst for her since she became a bit famous, then quite a bit more famous. At 16 she was profiled in the Guardian. The piece ended, after a quote from Westenra, "I'm sure I'll survive," with the line: "And you hold your breath and hope you can't see her future."

Wrong girl. She's a Kiwi girl, "through and through", with a temperament as solid as a good old kauri villa. She would (hopefully) never go on Celebrity Survivor but if she did, she'd probably win the thing, especially the "outwit" part of the game.

I don't think she sets out to outwit, but she is aided in her ability to do so by a couple of things. The way she looks: angelic, as though butter wouldn't melt.

And the fact that beneath those perfectly curled tresses is a sharp, determined mind. I bet more than a few people have underestimated her.

She has an awareness and understanding of self which must come partly from having looked for years at images of herself used for public consumption. But she says she doesn't really know what her image is meant to be. The pictures on the inside cover of her new album Treasure show her reclining on a window sill; sitting mock primly on a chair.

She's dressed in serious black and in both of these pictures her very nice legs end in high-heeled pumps and are very much on display. They are not overtly sexy images, but she does have great legs.

"I just think I look like a young woman. I look very much my age. I like to think I look classy, ha ha ha, and sophisticated. Perhaps!"

This is said tentatively; hopefully. She must, though, look at these pictures and think: Wow, I've got nice legs.

"Thank you. Umm, I haven't actually let me have a look at it. Ha, ha. Yeah, I guess! I don't mind that picture."

All right, it's a bit mean getting anyone to look at their own publicity pictures and then comment, but the one thing you get to know about Westenra pretty smartly is that nobody's going to get her to do a damn thing she doesn't want to do.

"I'm still caught with cheesy smiles a lot of the time but, you know, I guess my image is a very true sort of picture of who I am."

So "I don't mind that picture" is just, and understandably, not wanting to be seen to be vain. But I'd put money on her having had the final say. She mostly does. She chose all the songs on her new album; her record company had "no say in the matter. I basically didn't let them in on what I was recording until the last minute so they had no choice. I didn't give them much room to disagree. Ha, ha, ha".

She likes to think, and say, that she's just a normal girl leading a life that is not so normal. Which is why, with a sort of stubborn determination, she persists in behaviour which in other people might be normal but in Westenra (wealth unknown, of course she's not about to say; people at her beck and call if desired) looks not very normal at all.

She brings a half-eaten salad with her, stores it in the fridge and retrieves it at the end of the interview. "Well, it's a nice salad," she says, a little sheepishly. She could easily buy, or send somebody out to get a fresh salad but she is frugal, and normal, to the point of eccentricity.

Her idea of a treat is to splash out on health foods.

She used to be something called a Pesca-vegetarian and that is her natural inclination. She doesn't like the idea of eating "cute, fluffy animals".

She does eat small amounts of meat now because she is obsessive about getting her proper nutrients and on the road she can't cook up her vege meals. And this is someone who made PETA's (People for the Ethical treatment of Animals) sexiest vegetarians list. "I'm completely bursting the bubble now, aren't I? That's that ruined. Ha." She is nothing if not a pragmatist.

Never mind, she'll always be little, lovely Hayley to us. I tell her I saw a recent telly clip in which the voiceover went something like: "Little Hayley, lovely Hayley, is all grown up." You'd think, or I would, that that sort of stuff would make anyone want to sick up. Westenra looks a little taken aback when I ask if it made her want to be sick but she does a quick recovery, this nimble-minded girl.

"Um, I understand it. Because when I first came out in New Zealand I was only 14 years old. For me, it's just one continuous path, really, and I don't see the big jump. I guess I'm just glad that people are aware I'm growing up. That they're noticing that I'm growing up as opposed to 'oh, stay little, stay cute', you know."

She either learned diplomacy at a very young age or it comes naturally. She says she has never had any media training but her record company recently decided it had a duty to offer to get her some. They must be nuts. She could give media training.

Anyway, she doesn't think she wants it. She holds on for dear life to any chance of spontaneity in a life that has work commitments as far ahead as next year.

She doesn't think she wants to be trained in how to give answers to questions. And "it sounds like hard work to me. And I know what I'm talking about. I mean, I just feel like I've been giving interviews for years and if I had a really scandalous life, then maybe".

Now that is being a minx. "I'm used to people constantly looking for dirt, not dirt, but just something, I don't know. Something a bit more interesting than just me."

She has, I think, a horror of anything that might be construed as precious. She's sold albums by the millions, has sung for George Bush, Tony Blair and the Queen, three times.

There was a wonderful headline from 2003 which read, "The Queen in Hayley's audience, again."

So she could be forgiven for having got a bit silly in the way that celebrity people can be silly. She hasn't, or her people haven't, tried on that particularly silly trick of asking for copy approval. She grins - a long way from cheesy, this is a knowing, cheeky grin. "Should they?" she asks. "Do we have the opportunity to?"

There is a publicity person in the room (against instructions, but I think that was a cock-up in communication) and there is also her mum. I blanched a bit at this and the publicity person says it's just because they see so little of each other now Westenra lives in London that they like to spend whatever time they can together.

This sounds like nonsense. How is being in a room while your daughter's being interviewed spending quality time together? Mum, I thought, must be there as a sort of chaperone.

I couldn't have been more wrong. They should, really, have an odd relationship, given that mum and dad used to manage Westenra until she got too big for them.

Mum still does daughter's washing when she's home but, and this is the odd bit, it is Westenra who seems more like the mother.

A fairly typical exchange. When I ask her whether it's hard for her to meet people who aren't also rich and famous because of the imbalance in any potential relationship, she looks at her mother, who is looking, with keen interest at her. "She's curious! Ha."

And Jill Westenra says: "I know the answer but I'm just curious to hear what you're going to say." Hayley, much amused, says, "Oh, do you just! I'm going to try to say something just to surprise you."

When I ask what she believes in she says, "I believe in living life to the full and staying close to family," and her mum cries.

"Oh, come on, mum! She's terrible. At the airport she started crying and made me cry too. It was horrible."

Mum is the real sook.

"She'll cry at the end of movies when it's a happy ending. Nobody's died and she's in tears."

Whereas little lovely Hayley is as tough as old boots. "Oh, yeah. I'm a tough chick."

She's joking. I wasn't.

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