SOCHI, RUSSIA – Violinist, Now Olympic Skier Vanessa Mae was the child star nicknamed the ‘Teeny Paganini’, a prodigy on a par with Mozart and Mendelssohn.
But after two decades of musical stardom, violinist Vanessa Mae has finally realised her life’s ambition by becoming an Olympic downhill skier for Thailand – a country that doesn’t even have snow.
Now, as she prepares to take to the slopes, she has spoken exclusively to The Mail on Sunday about the extraordinary story behind her journey to the Games in Sochi.
Wearing a glittering floor-length golden gown – ‘My only gold moment at these Olympics will be this dress,’ she quips – Miss Mae reveals how her estranged mother did not bother to contact her when she qualified for the Games.
But she also tells how her achievement in qualifying for the giant slalom has reunited her with her Thai father after a rift lasting ten years.
The 35-year-old star, who was brought up in Britain after her parents separated, will compete as Vanessa Vanakorn following her emotional reunion with her Thai father, Varapong Vanakorn. Miss Mae has always loved to ski. But her passion for travelling down mountains at high speed is also at the heart of her lengthy estrangement from her mother, Pamela Tan-Nicholson.
‘There are moments, such as Olympic moments, when you bury your differences,’ says Miss Mae. ‘But that hasn’t happened to us.’
Ironically, Pamela taught her daughter to ski at the age of four – the same age she introduced her to the violin – paying for private lessons and family holidays to fashionable ski resorts such as Val d’Isere in France, St Moritz in Switzerland and Bad Gastein in Austria.
Yet once Miss Mae revealed her gift for music, Pamela – who also acted as her daughter’s manager – tried to ban her from any activities involving the slightest risk.
Miss Mae recalls: ‘I gave up horse riding as a child because my mother didn’t like me doing anything that was dangerous.
‘It wasn’t a big sacrifice as music was more important to me. I was honestly not rebellious as a child – except when it came to skiing.
‘My mother introduced me to skiing but when the violin became a big part of my life she didn’t want me to doing something she thought could be dangerous.’ For Miss Mae, the breaking point came years later when her mother arranged for her to paraglide on to a frozen lake before a performance in St Moritz.
‘I questioned her whether that was safe,’ she explains. ‘To her mind it was because I was paragliding into a show. She said, “Skiing is just for yourself.”’ I couldn’t understand that reasoning.
‘It is important that you have a dream. I am here and this is the fulfilment of a second dream following my dream to be a successful musician. However, I don’t believe in happiness without sadness.’
Pamela has not spoken to her daughter since she removed her as her manager when Vanessa turned 21. ‘Unfortunately, relationships can be sometimes transient,’ says Miss Mae. ‘I accept that if I wasn’t pushed as a child I wouldn’t have achieved a quarter of things I have achieved until now.
‘Your parents are important but you also have to have your own dreams no matter how hard, or how risky, they might be.’ At least her father acknowledged her desire to challenge herself at a sport she has loved for so long, and the Thai authorities were delighted to have her as an Olympic competitor.
She became a citizen of Thailand in 2011 to ensure she could compete for her father’s country – and it was through this that the pair became close once more.
‘I didn’t speak to my dad for ten years,’ says Miss Mae. ‘We just grew apart when he went back to Thailand. He was a monk for ten years, but he is now back doing what he does best – management.’ On Friday, Miss Mae marched behind the Thai flag with her sole team-mate during the opening ceremony.
She plans to see much of the Olympics as a guest of her sponsors, Omega, before she competes in the giant slalom in nine days’ time.
‘For most people to start something like this, this late in life, it is too late,’ says Miss Mae. ‘But the spirit of the Olympics is such that they realise the girls at the back, like me, are here to participate.’ – By Malcolm Folley and Amy Oliver