Tina Cross is one of New Zealand's best-loved entertainers. She sang the winning song, Nothing But Dreams, at the Pacific Song Contest in 1979, conquered the charts on both sides of the Tasman and even sang the Shortland Street theme song in 1992. This year Tina celebrates 46 years in show business.
I'm from a large family in Ōtara. There were seven kids and I was right in the middle with three older and three younger siblings. We're Māori on both sides as well as Croatian on mum's side, as her grandfather came out here in 1916 when he was just 16 years old. We didn't have a car till I was 11 and although we had whānau scattered throughout Auckland, being a big family, we weren't so mobile. I look back, and compare our lives to today and think of all the things people feel they must have, but we never went without. There was always food on the table. We always had clean clothes even if they were hand-me-downs. We had what we had and I never thought it wasn't enough.
Mum said I sang all the time when I was little, that they couldn't shut me up. When Dad became a bus driver for The Ōtāhuhu Bus Company, sometimes he'd take me to work. I'd sit in the wee passenger seat at the front of the bus and sing to the passengers. Even when I became shy, when I was about 7, I'd still sing along to the radio, and Mum said even then, they knew I was really good.
My whole family was musical. There were always guitars in the house. When the aunties got together, mum and her sisters, someone would start singing and someone else would chuck in some harmony and, as a kid, I learnt by osmosis.
In 1969, my older sister and I won our first talent quest. We'd been visiting our grandfather in Kaitaia, I was 10 and she was 12, and we won $100. That was big back then, but there was no money for lessons. But from fifth form, when I was at Penrose High, I auditioned for school productions and I joined the school band. When we did Battle of the Bands in 1975, that opened the door for me to audition for television.
I was just 16 when I got my first TV gig. I was paid decent money too, and that was the start of my career. I hardly went to school in seventh form, even though I was deputy head girl. This was the heyday of light entertainment, and TV was big, but I never considered it a career. I had ambitions to study social work at university. Then, when I'd just left school, I bumped into Lew Pryme, who managed some of the biggest entertainers of the day. He said he'd heard about me and offered me management on the spot, including a year-long contract with a show called Top of the World. So straight out of high school, aged 17, I was working full-time in TV.
I was thrown in the deep end but I never questioned it, I simply believed I could do it. The first time I sang on live TV, To Sir With Love, I felt very natural in front of the camera. Although we used to pre-record the vocals, then mime to our own voice. You wouldn't do that now.
One thing rolled into another, and I was doing too much live work when I got vocal nodules. This was the same time a small group of us went on tour to the United States with Sir Howard Morrison, doing a show to promote tourism. My ENT specialist said I needed to rest my voice for six weeks, but I went anyway, having decided to mime everything. But, in Honolulu, Frankie Stephens was in the audience, and I told the production person I was going to sing. I knew I was supposed to be preserving my voice for the Pacific Song Contest, but I couldn't mime in front of Frankie. I'd feel like such a fake. So I sang live, although I wished I hadn't as my voice wasn't up to it. I mimed the rest of the five-week tour and I got home five days before the contest. I missed the first orchestra rehearsal and when I opened my mouth for the final rehearsal for Nothing but Dreams, my voice was perfect. That was a real lesson about listening to the professionals, and not being too cocky with what I thought I could do.
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Singing the winning song by composer Carl Doy – it's the songwriter who wins, not the singer – that turned me into a household name. That was 1979. I also realised what I could do in New Zealand was limited. Despite having a good recording contract with PolyGram Records, and a TV series called Nothing But Dreams in the pipeline, in 1981 I moved to Australia. Being 22 and still living at home, I knew I needed a challenge.
I met Leon Berger in Sydney, a Russian Australian singer/songwriter who was looking for a female artist. We demo-ed a couple of songs, and because his writing and my voice worked well together, we formed a band, Koo De Tah. Back then, I was the girl next-door, singing covers. I had long curly hair, a perm past my shoulders, so I was taken to a hairdresser, a make-up artist and a stylist. They created a totally new image. It was almost androgynous with my hair shaved at the sides with a big rooster down the front. My look changed overnight.
Koo De Tah was a techno-pop band. When our first single took off, and we did the TV shows, we scrambled to put a band together, because we needed to get out on the road. But touring burnt me completely. Management was mercenary, they didn't think about longevity or vocal rest. Some days we'd perform in one place, then get up really early and travel six hours to the next gig, set up, do the gig then go back to where we came from, because they couldn't get the nights to line up. But pushing myself night after night, I came a cropper. I was run down and my voice packed up. Having had nodules before, I went to a throat specialist who told me to take time off. I felt I was letting the band down, but I couldn't sing, so we cancelled shows and lost earnings. That was the beginning of the end. There were arguments, lots of pressure on me, and the band dissolved. It wasn't a great time, We were together three years and it was brilliant, but Leon and I parted ways. I had no choice.
Based in Australia, I did gigs in India and Asia, at big hotels in Bangkok and Mumbai, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Bahrain, Dubai. They'd bring women in from the west to do floor shows. Nightly cabarets. Sometimes it felt surreal. The songs and costumes were always vetted, particularly in the Middle East. In Bombay I'd parade my costume to management, to make sure it wasn't too risqué. They'd direct their questions to my partner. They'd ask him about technical things, about lighting, sound, the band, that only I knew about. He'd say, "you need to talk to Tina". But they couldn't get their head around me being in charge.
My parents supported me, but they never told me what to do. My mother had a very quiet way about her. She didn't want to be noticed. When various programmes wanted to do pieces on me, she was reluctant to be involved. But my father, he'd show off to anybody who'd listen, to tell them I was his daughter. He died way too young. We lost him in 1982, when I was 22 and had just moved to Australia. That was incredibly difficult, and my mum died last year. She'd moved to the Gold Coast 14 years earlier, for the warmer weather and to be near whānau. She made it to her 88th birthday, seven days after having a stroke, and she died the next day. Mum always said, "you'll know when I'm about to kick the bucket, I'll tell you, and you'll be able to bring me home". She always thought she'd be buried at her urupā at Ngātaki, but that wasn't possible. I know I'm not the only one to lose a parent during Covid, but you don't realise until you're restricted, how hard it is. She was a straight shooter my mum, and she didn't mince words. She wasn't frilly or emotional. She didn't say "I love you" very often, but when she said it, you knew she meant it. The grandchildren received more of her love, but I know she was proud of me. I'm lucky to have such an incredible family.