LITTLE Nikki Webster is immediately identifiable to nearly every Australian. Put her before an audience – of a dozen or a billion – and she sings her heart out. Put her in front of a photographer, and she’s all smiles and big, brown eyes. Happy to oblige. Tilt your head. Sure. Look that way. Sure. Smile… well, just try to stop her.
She’s thrilled to be recognised in the street, to be asked to sign autographs and pose for happy snaps. The PR machine has coached Nikki well. Every question receives a positive, happy response, but her nervous, girlish giggles reveal a little shyness.
And privately? She’s probably just a normal 13-year-old kid. She loves shopping for clothes, listening to music, horse riding, seeing her friends, playing with her maltese-cross dogs.
But Nikki is already a Very Big Star who has signed movie and album deals, appeared as a cover girl, sung to a worldwide audience and calls Kylie Minogue a friend.
And it’s all happened since that magical night at the Olympics opening ceremony when she rose to fame as surely as she ascended 30m by invisible wire into the night sky.
The teenager with long, naturally curling blonde hair, wearing a pink floral dress, became a household name. In her role as the Hero Girl, she was a symbol of youthful Australia and reconciliation.
The next morning her feet were back firmly on the ground, but the fairytale continues. Her English grandfather, Brian Keane, says with certainty: “You haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg with Nikki – you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Celebrity manager Max Markson agrees. “I think (Nikki’s) tremendously talented and fresh,” he says. “She’s so young, her future is very bright. She’s got a movie next year… and she could be our next international star.
Markson says the risk that the young star’s popularity will fizzle out in a few years seems slight. “Look at someone like Tina Arena,” he says. “She was on Young Talent Time, then she went away and came back as a pop star. Kylie Minogue was the same. She was an actor, and came back as a pop star.
“If you have the talent to go away and keep reinventing yourself, then you have a very long career ahead of you. I think that’ll be the case with Nikki.”
Markson says the Australian public feels linked to her success. “She’s someone everyone is going to remember – everyone wants to see her succeed,” he says. “And when she does it’ll be fantastic for her – and for us.”
With a public poise way beyond her years, Nikki has her eyes set on a future in entertainment. Considering her aspirations and the adulation she receives, there is no sign of a prima donna. But it takes only a signal from Nikki for the minders to close in and clear a passage to privacy. Grandma Marjorie says Nikki loves it all.
“Nothing fazes her,” she says. “She doesn’t get nervous or scared. But you can’t push her into something if she doesn’t want to do it. She’s stubborn as anything. She says, `I don’t want to do that, Nana’, or she gives us a look, and we know that she’s not happy with it.”
“She makes her own mind up. At night sometimes, when it’s all over, well, you wouldn’t want to see her.” And even though Brian reckons Nikki is an angel, he adds: “When there’s something she wants, you can’t budge her. But she’s not spoilt at all. We have our little fights – family things. I don’t let her have her way all the time and she won’t always let me win.”
In the past few months Nikki has criss-crossed the country, lined up a modelling shoot, featured on magazine covers, signed a multi-album recording contract and locked in a movie deal.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do; I like being busy,” she says.
“I want to be an all-round performer. Singing, dancing, acting, everything. I just want to be an all-round performer for the rest of my life.”
Last Saturday Nikki sang at Sydney’s Carols in the Domain, and tomorrow night she performs at Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight before flying home in the morning.
But two weeks ago she was performing to smaller crowds – from the back of a tray truck or on a railway platform in the heat and dust of the outback.
The Indian Pacific train hosted her Christmas across the Outback tour, from Perth to Sydney, bringing Christmas glamor to isolated communities.
Nikki wore shiny silver pants and a transparent, fur-trimmed red coat that she designed herself and which was made by a family friend. Families from across the Nullarbor ironed their T-shirts and drove up to two hours to see her sing two carols.
Nikki’s grandparents, who visit Australia for three months a year, travelled with her. Brian says Nikki’s dancing talent will be the next big thing to emerge and boost her career. “She’s just amazing,” he insists, clearly delighted, but also a little bewildered by the enormity of the attention on his granddaughter.
Nikki, already a multi-platinum recording artist, thanks to the Olympics opening ceremony album, has signed an international multi-album deal with John Farnham’s label, Gotham Records and BMG, and her talent is being compared with that of her role model, Kylie, whom she counts as a friend.
“I want to make an album that sell lots of copies,” she says. “I have always wanted to record songs that are loved by everyone. I like all different sorts of singing, a bit of everything, for different age groups and stuff like that.”
AND instead of starting Year 9 at McDonald College of Arts in Sydney in February, Nikki will be on a movie set filming Vanilla Gorilla, playing a girl who helps an albino gorilla escape from a zoo to Rwanda.
“I’m filming a movie and that’s my dream,” she says. “We’re in South Africa for eight weeks. I’ll have a tutor. I’ve always really liked school.”
Especially, Nikki says, her performing arts subjects (two hours a day of jazz, tap, ballet, music and singing), English and even maths.
Nikki began racking up frequent-flyer points from infancy. “We used to go every Christmas to America, Fiji, Singapore,” she says. “I can’t remember where else. I’ve been going since I was little.”
Most people could see she was going places when she swam with the inflated sea creatures in Ric Birch’s opening ceremony surreal dream sequence.
“I just told the story,” she says. “It’s pretty hard to explain because you need everyone else around you. I was just running through all these different sections telling the story.
“It all went very smoothly. I wasn’t nervous at all, I was just excited.”
Even with the world watching?
“No, that didn’t bother me. I didn’t really know in advance how many people. But, I mean, it’s the Olympics, I hoped everybody would watch it.
“It was a great memory for me. I’ll never forget it. I had heaps of fun doing it and I met lots of nice people there.”
Nikki won the plum role from 500 hopefuls. “The first audition was the beginning of March, then I found out I had got the part in August. I just had to know how to sing, dance, act and basically fly, or whatever… not be frightened of heights.”
Confirmation of the role was followed by a quick phone call to her grandparents at home in London. Her grandmother asked: “How will I find you, watching the TV? What will you be wearing?”
Nikki replied: “Don’t worry, Nana, you can’t miss me.”
Nikki dodges the odd curly question with a giggle. How friendly is she with Aaron Carter, the 13-year-old American pop singer? “We’re just friends,” she says. “I saw him when he was out here (promoting his album).”
Despite the hype, the experience, the tutoring, the natural poise, she is still just a 13-year-old girl. Her brother Scott, 16, sings opera, but there is no entertainment background in the family. Mother Tina is a childcare centre director and father Mark is an electrician. Her grandparents are retired but own a large pet-shop business in London.
Nikki started dance classes at four and had acted in a dozen commercials, as well on stage in The Sound of Music, Les Miserables, Cinderella and Aladdin, and TV roles in GP and Home and Away – her favorite TV show.
She sang a duet with Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour in Sydney and sang the national anthem at the Melbourne Cup this year.
But since the Olympics, life has taken on a whole new aspect. How is she handling the exposure?
“I think fine,” she says. “I’m having a lot of fun. I’m not having any difficulties. It hasn’t changed me but it’s changed my life, especially with people recognising me.
“It doesn’t bother me; it makes me happy because it means people recognise me and they congratulate me on what I’ve done. Everyone has been really nice.
“People treat me the same, they know I’m the same person. I have the same friends as before.”
Brian confirms that Nikki puts contact with people high on her list of priorities. She answers her fan mail personally, and this month has posted Christmas cards to her admirers.
She will be celebrating the New Year with the friends she made while starring as Brigitta in The Sound of Music.
She fears neither overexposure nor burnout. Nikki Webster has come a long way. Her New Year’s resolution is simply to continue her success. Nothing could be more certain.
Nikki Marie Webster
Sydney, April 30, 1987
McDonald College of the Arts, Sydney
With parents and 16-year-old brother
Purple and blue
Olivia Newton-John and Kylie Minogue
Favorite TV show
Home and Away
Favorite school subject
Grease and Ten Things I Hate About You