Now a staple on TV (again), though for judging other people’s talents rather any of her own, with a musical career of some fluctuation but plenty of persistence alongside the gold albums and ARIA awards, this year Delta Goodrem marks the 20th anniversary of her debut album, Innocent Eyes.
Still a teenager, ferociously ambitious, prodigiously talented, Goodrem came straight outta Melbourne and straight onto charts in the UK and Australia. It wasn’t a surprise to her. As this profile from the dawn of her career suggests, this had been on the cards, or at least on the wall, for some time.
And the forces around her were no novices working on hope and prayers. They knew she was The Voice, and she was prepared to work harder than anyone else and make herself whatever she needed to be to make it happen.
I'm just a girl who can't say no, I'm in a terrible fix. I always say, 'Come on, let's go', just when I ought to say nix."
IT’S EARLY SATURDAY AFTERNOON and 18-year-old Delta Goodrem, the Neighbours star recently crowned with her second successive No.1 single in Australia, Lost Without You, and two days away from seeing her first British single, Born To Try, debut at No.3, is preparing for a performance at Melbourne's Luna Park.
It's just one song for a payTV music channel, but she's been in hair and make-up since 11am, done two phone interviews and has this writer on her doorstep. She needs to be at St Kilda by 3pm. Then there will be a sound check, autographs, the performance, an on-air interview, more autographs and, if she's lucky, home by 7pm.
That's almost snail's pace, though. Eight days earlier, Goodrem finished filming a Neighbours episode on a Thursday night and was driven from the outer suburban set straight to Melbourne Airport to catch a flight to London, via stops in Singapore and Bahrain. From Heathrow she was taken directly to a TV studio for the first of two days and nights of press calls and publicity spots that ended only just in time for her to fly back to Australia.
She returned to Melbourne on Tuesday night and by 6am Wednesday was back on the Neighbours set, as she was again on Thursday. Friday was that rare beast - a day off - but it already seems a distant memory. Not that you're going to hear Goodrem complain.
“You want to make sure you're getting everything done," she explains as we drive from her apartment block in Port Melbourne. “It's just that drive, that I've worked so long for this and I don't want to look back and say I didn't give something so close to me a good chance.”
"Sometimes the sacrifices have to be made,” she says adamantly, her firm hand gestures accompanied by the jingling of a bracelet.
It's a mantra you suspect has been repeated many times before, for it is 10 years since eight-year-old Delta Goodrem announced that she wanted to be a singer and an actor. (That's her story, anyway. Her mother, Lea, who lives with Goodrem, thinks Delta made the decision at least four years earlier but kept it to herself, even after landing a role in the sitcom Hey Dad!, aged seven.)
Of course, many youngsters decide they want to be singers or actors or firefighters. Eventually. When they grow up and have time. Goodrem made time.
Every Saturday, from 9am to 4pm, she had piano, voice and dance lessons. She would put on shows for the neighbours, charging them for tickets and putting the money towards costumes for her next performance. Amateur and professional performances with her dance school came on top of that, as did occasional spots on shows such as A Country Practice and Police Rescue.
On Sundays she would play sport all day: swimming, basketball, skiing. Anything, actually. She was named sports person of the year at her high school. Her mother drily notes: “Delta was quite a driven child. Delta would have done everything if there was enough time in the day,” she says. “I was quite happy she wanted to do lots of things; I didn't know she wanted to do everything.”
Any worries that the full music, drama, singing, sport schedule might be too much for a pre-teen?
“You don't see it as too much if they're enjoying it. The only time she wasn't enjoying herself was when she wasn't doing anything.” Anticipating the inevitable question asked of parents of any overachiever, her mother adds: “It's her dream, not my dream.”
Delta Goodrem, who calls her mother “my best friend”, credits her parents for being encouraging, or at least not dismissing her ambitions. She prefers to cite sport as the fuel for her artistic drive.
“I knew at a really early age that if it's worth doing something, it's worth doing it well, and life's not a dress rehearsal - these positive affirmations I learnt from my parents.”
This parade of motivational slogans isn't just a cliche for Goodrem; it's a guideline. When she was 12 she decided she had written enough songs to warrant recording. One was a Sydney Swans theme song. A tape was sent to the club, and some impressed soul passed it on to another Swans fan, Glenn Wheatley, long-time manager of John Farnham.
“I saw confidence right from the word go,” says Wheatley, who says he normally will not listen to unsolicited material but was seduced by the Sydney Swans packaging. “I saw the spark of ingenuity. She was anxious to get going but I thought she was a little young.”
But even Wheatley was worn down by Goodrem's persistence; he signed her to his management company, Talentworks, when she was 14. Now his son Tim plays bass in her band and several of Farnham's band played on her first album, Innocent Eyes, which has just been released.
Wheatley is in the middle of a Farnham national tour so the phone on his hip rings constantly, but throughout the afternoon he's never far from Goodrem, their heads bowed together. Unlike the small, nervy Wheatley, Goodrem is tall, slender (and a little more shapely than your standard stick-figure teen pop singer) and almost impossibly poised.
Though there's make-up on (and more will be layered on later), she is prettier than the publicity shots and album cover suggest. She's also quicker to smile than you might expect from the songs and the publicity photos of a wistful or stern-looking young woman.
Together, Wheatley and Goodrem head to the stage to set up under the flight path of the noisy Luna Park roller-coaster and alongside another rickety, clattering ride. Teen and pre-teen girls come from everywhere, surrounding Goodrem, squealing and calling out to her as she walks.
“We love you, Delta,” they cry.
One gets a hello from Goodrem and gasps to her friend: “She talked to me! She talked to me!” Another has her photo taken with Goodrem, but it will probably be a blur as the 12-year-old can't stand still or stop screaming as the picture is taken.
It's the kind of excitement you usually see at the visit of a pretty-boy band.
On the way back to the dressing room, Goodrem is once again surrounded, her head and shoulders visible over the pack of young bodies even as she bends down to sign autographs and speak to the palpitating throng. Eventually they pull her away, with Goodrem calling out to the fans: “I promise you I'll come back.”
But Wheatley isn't happy and, by the time she returns in an hour, there will be a cleared and secured path to the stage. It's the kind of micro-management Wheatley is anxious to perform.
Having declared that “I knew I was taking her for the long haul” when he signed Goodrem four years ago, he's now looking at the prospect of massive international success, beyond what he saw with Farnham's You're The Voice fame and the decade-long run of US success enjoyed by his other charges, Little River Band.
He reveals with a mix of trepidation and pleasure that when he heard Born To Try would have a top-five debut in Britain, “I told [wife and business partner] Gaynor, 'This is going to change our lives'.”
As he sees it, that success is a fair reward, not just for the lightning trip Goodrem made to London, but for the foresight in getting her into Neighbours and signed to Sony, the home to a Goodrem favourite, Celine Dion, and the former home to another favourite, Mariah Carey.
Neighbours, in fact, approached Goodrem after seeing the film clip for her 1999 debut single I Don't Care. In the show, she plays Nina Tucker, an aspiring singer.
Wheatley says: “We didn't want that soap star-turned-singer vibe, but how cool would it be if she already was a singer? Neighbours developed a character to suit her rather than the other way around.”
Eventually Goodrem, as Nina, sang Born To Try on the show, gaining a level of exposure almost impossible to buy, especially with Neighbours reaching several million viewers a day in Britain.
So far, everyone has done well out of the deal, even if Goodrem hasn't entirely shaken off the tag of the next one off the Kylie/Natalie/Holly soap production line.
But, as Wheatley says, things will get trickier as the mid-year British release of Innocent Eyes, and the inevitable US release, will demand more and more of Goodrem. Goodrem is committed to Neighbours until the end of the year but it's clear that something will lose out. And it won't be the singing career, if Wheatley can help it.
Which will bring conflicting feelings for Goodrem. The Neighbours offer came at what was probably her lowest point so far. Having signed to Sony at 15, she was being groomed, in typical record-company fashion, with clothes and hair make-overs and an image that would fit with the then ever-present Britney Spears school of teen pop.
Although she had her own songs, the company commissioned one for her from a trio of songwriters for hire, including Australian Steve Kipner, who had his big breakthrough in the 1980s with Olivia Newton-John's Physical and, most recently, was a co-writer of teen sexpot Christina Aguilera's massive hit Genie In A Bottle.
The song Sony commissioned for Goodrem, I Don't Care, was a flop. Not necessarily surprising - most first singles are - but it was a devastating blow to Goodrem.
“I had ripped out a (top 40) chart to put on my wall, whited out whoever was No.1 and written in I Don't Care.”
It was the first time that something she planned for, worked towards, had failed.
“Of course. I thought it could go to No.1 because I believed in it,” she says, as if it's blindingly obvious. “You can't think (it might fail). Then what's the point of doing it?”
Wheatley and Goodrem agree it was a mistake to let Sony try to change her. Instead Sony now lets Goodrem work on her own piano-based style. The result is an album full of ballads.
“(If the first single had succeeded) I would have been stuck doing something that wasn't my niche,” says Goodrem. If she didn't believe in the song or the image, she rationalises, the public couldn't, either.
“It's hard enough for a 15-year-old to find out who they are, let alone trying to make sure they're portraying an image to people.”