My mother hit me and made me kowtow to her… on my knees: Vanessa Mae reveals how her strict tiger mother slapped her face to improve her violin playing

On the morning of her Winter Olympics skiing race in Sochi, Vanessa Mae’s phone pinged constantly with ‘good luck’ texts.

But one message stood out from the others. It read: ‘Good luck, be safe, enjoy.’ There was no sign-off, no kisses, no name.

‘It was so cryptic, I thought, “who the hell is that?” Then it dawned on me that maybe it was my mother,’ Vanessa says, in her first interview since competing for Thailand at the Games in February.

A good luck message from one’s mother is something most take for granted. But for Vanessa the text had huge significance.

She is, of course, best known as the violin virtuoso, a former child prodigy on a par with Mendelssohn.

But the icy rift with her Chinese-born mother, Pamela Tan Nicholson, has dominated her life.

Today Vanessa, now 35, admits for the first time that, when she was a child, her ‘tiger mother’ – far from simply being strict – used violence to discipline her.

Pamela would hit her, often around the face, and even made her ‘kowtow’ on bended knees while making her pull her ears and beg for forgiveness.

The pair haven’t spoken since Vanessa sacked Pamela as her manager on the eve of her 21st birthday.

In fact, the Sochi text was their first communication for more than a decade.

The Olympics may have brought Vanessa and her natural father, Thai businessman Vorapong Vanakorn, back together after a decade-long estrangement.

But today, speaking in her adoptive town of Zermatt, Switzerland, Vanessa is clear that a rapprochement with her mother is not on the agenda.

‘I thought the text was nice, but that’s it. If you don’t wish someone luck before the Olympics then you’re a bit of a Grinch,’ she says tartly.

She did text her mother back a week later apologising for the delay and thanking her, but has not been in touch since. And she admits to having no idea if the pair will meet or even if she really wants to.

There are many who would say Vanessa has much good reason for being ambivalent about a reconciliation.

Her mother twice used the traditional Chinese custom of the ‘kowtow’ to humiliate her.

Traditionally, the kowtow – in which a person must kneel and prostrate themselves – was performed before the Emperor as a sign of respect.

Children were also required to perform it in front of their parents, especially at special occasions.

In extreme cases, it was used to apologise for wrongdoing, but is little used in modern-day China.

‘It’s a subservience thing, not forgetting who is boss,’ says Vanessa. ‘I was made to pull my ears at the same time.’

Vanessa was so tightly controlled by her mother that she was allowed to leave her house alone only when she turned 20.

‘I had faced thousands of people on stage and millions on TV, but I didn’t know how to cross the road,’ she says, laughing.

‘I’d never made my own bed, got  my own breakfast, walked down the street alone or bought my own carton of milk.

Everything was geared towards focusing me on my violin career. You can look at it either as a spoilt existence or a trapped one.

‘Certainly, it was a regimented life, but I’m lucky to have had a childhood that was in many ways pretty spoilt – all I had to do was play the violin.’

But if the young musician didn’t play a piece perfectly, her mother – and often her music teacher – would resort to slapping her.

‘Up until I was 20, if my mother was upset she’d be hitting away,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘She’d hit me on the arms and the face. It was just her form of expression.

‘I was in Lyon once and my mother and music trainer were both upset with me because of some playing issue.

They both hit me at the same time then said, “Stay here, we’re going out. And by the way, load the dish washer.” Maybe I wasn’t thinking about my career enough.

‘My trainer stopped hitting me when I was 15, after I hit him back and he started to cry.

‘My grandmother is the sweetest person in the world, but I’ve heard how she ran around after my mother with a cane. It’s just different times.’

It is commonly accepted that a tiger mother dishes out tough love and expects perfection.

But Vanessa’s admission that her mother used violence to obtain results shines a worrying light on the darker side of this parenting phenomenon, made famous by Amy Chua in her 2011 book, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother.

The Chinese-American author caused a sensation when she admitted calling her daughters ‘garbage’ and threatening to burn their toys if they didn’t get A grades, but even she did not resort to physical violence.

Though Vanessa clearly appreciated the text from her mother, it is perhaps no surprise that she won’t be the one proffering the olive branch. ‘It was an Olympic exchange,’ she shrugs. 

‘I don’t know what I feel, I guess I don’t feel. I was struck more by the spirit of the Olympics than by relations in my own family. I don’t know what it could bring to either of us.

‘I feel so free now and still pinch myself that I’m in charge of my own life. It’s like a delayed reaction.

‘If I want to go somewhere, I can. It’s the greatest thing on earth. To not have that as a young adult was a horrible feeling. My mother is a strong personality who I respect, admire and look up to in many  ways. But even if you respect someone it doesn’t mean they’ll make you happy.

‘Our rift has made me so much stronger, I feel I can handle anything. Any disappointment cannot be worse than not having your mother in your life.’

Born in Singapore, Vanessa moved to London with her mother, a pianist and lawyer, when she was four after her natural parents split up and her mother remarried.

She started learning the violin – and how to ski – that same year. She showed such promise in the instrument that at eight she decided it would be her ‘vocation’ and was packed off to the Central Conservatory Of Music in Beijing for intensive training.

By 13 she had recorded three acclaimed classical albums and at 15 caused a storm after posing Lolita-like in the surf in a wet T-shirt for the cover of her pop crossover album, The Violin Player.

To date, she has sold more than ten million albums and is worth at least £40million.

FHM magazine once named her one of the world’s sexiest women and, after the Olympics, she is an unlikely have-a-go hero. It is an extraordinary list of achievements.

But the most obvious ‘life goals’ – marriage and motherhood – are notably absent. Vanessa has been with her partner, Lionel Catelan, 44, a French wine expert, for 15 years – the couple celebrated their anniversary last month – but is adamant she won’t get married.

‘For me, marriage means nothing,’ she says. ‘I’m not against it but I’m not especially for it.’ Children, too, seem unlikely.

‘I enjoy the freedom I have,’ she says. ‘When you have a child, it’s not like you are trapped, but you have to think twice about everything. You can’t suddenly have a new dream and not put your child first. Perhaps, if I am honest, I am too selfish for wanting to hold on to this freedom.

‘But you have to be 100 per cent sure you won’t kick yourself for making the wrong decision for your child. And I’m not sure I could forgive myself if I did make the wrong decision.

‘Apart from that, if I had a child I’d want them to be an Olympic skier who wins gold,’ she says sadly.

‘I’d want them to be an extraordinary something. All children are extraordinary to their parents but I’d also want them to be extraordinary in the CV world.’

It is an incredible admission from a woman who, after spending her childhood cocooned from the real world, now almost selfishly protects her freedom like a pardoned prisoner. Surely she wouldn’t want to be a tiger mother, too?

‘I’m my mother’s daughter,’ she says. ‘I expect dedication and perfection from others and that can be taxing. I’m either into something obsessively or it’s out of my life, and you must never give up on your children. That’s why I’m not a mother.

‘That said, nothing is set in stone. Never say never. I wouldn’t hit my children, though, and I wouldn’t make them kowtow.’

At 35, Vanessa is a curious child-woman: stunningly beautiful, with a sheet of pitch-black hair and Angelina Jolie lips, her body is still doll-like.

Emotionally, though, she seems rudderless, a classic victim of pushy parent syndrome. She constantly contradicts herself and admits to a topsy-turvy attitude.

‘As a child I was told I was the best, but I’d also be pulled down. Sometimes I couldn’t care less about things but then, at other times, I think, “I’m such a bad skier. I must make myself a better skier” so that’s why I wanted to improve and qualify for the Winter Olympics.

‘I have this see-saw thing in life and admit I can be contrary.’

Vanessa had a very protected existence until she broke free of her mother who was terrified that she would break her bowing arm or even get kidnapped.

Her life was so focused on the violin that other activities were heavily restricted.

‘My mother did introduce me to skiing when I was four, but at 18  she was strongly against me continuing,’ she says.

‘For her, it wasn’t worth the risk since she had invested so much of her time in my career, but for me skiing symbolised freedom and something away from music.

‘That was probably the start of the turning point when I wouldn’t give in. I gave up horse riding, no problem. I gave up my friends. That sounds awful but I had much more of a problem with giving up skiing.

She says she will also continue to ski, but going for the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018 doesn’t seem likely.

‘Qualifying for Sochi was the most stressful period of my life,’ she says. ‘I only started training in May 2013. I thought I was going to die from a heart attack from it all.

‘The thought of doing that again for South Korea puts me off.’

Vanessa came a very imperfect 67th and last of the finishers in her giant slalom alpine race at the Olympics – almost a minute behind Tina Maze, who took gold – but ahead of a quarter of the racers who didn’t even make it to the finish line.

But, for once, not winning didn’t bother Vanessa.

‘I didn’t know that coming last would still be such a good feeling,’ she says. ‘I didn’t feel disappointed, which was an epiphany for me. What I realised after Sochi is that it is better to have done something, even if not perfectly, than not to have done it at all.’

It is a well-trodden ‘life philosophy’ and one, no doubt, her mother would baulk at. But for Vanessa it is a wide-eyed revelation and yet another thing she finally has the freedom to explore.

hi-res images can be found on our website


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s