Hey moz! have you got any more of this gravy?” Tina Arena calls out across a café in Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street. She’s a regular here since moving back to Melbourne in late 2015 after almost two decades in London and Paris, and the owner gives her the thumbs-up and brings over a small jug. Arena is tucking into a plate of braised lamb with the same relish she approaches her career and her conversation. She’s never backward in coming forward, swears like a sailor and holds forth on everything from her personal life to attitudes towards women in the music industry. As she prepares to turn 50 in November, Arena is already celebrating with the release of Greatest Hits & Interpretations, which includes a disc of cover versions by the likes of Jimmy Barnes, the Veronicas, Katie Noonan and Dannii Minogue.
You grew up in public on Young Talent Time from the age of eight until just before your 16th birthday. How tough was it to leave?
Oh, it was a slap in the face. When you go from living this incredibly active life, then all of a sudden that dwindles to nothing, it’s a shock. A deep shock. So I grieved the process of letting that go. Saying goodbye to Johnny [Young, the show’s host] was like saying goodbye to my father. He had tears in his eyes. He’s like a second dad to me. He’s always been very honest. He’s told me things I want to hear and he’s also told me things over the years that I don’t want to hear, but in a beautifully protective way. He’s an honourable man.
Did you feel that even though you grew up, the public still saw you as frozen in time as a kid?
I was a frozen embryo called Tiny Tina. That’s for sure. Put on ice. It was frustrating. I wasn’t cool back then, honey.
There’s a history of child stars not making the transition to adulthood very well.
Yeah, I haven’t held up any 7-Elevens yet. [Laughs] I went through the personal angst, but I went through everything very privately. My philosophy is that it was my business and not anybody else’s. And I still feel very strongly about that. When I see what’s happening today with people in the public eye being gratuitously attacked because they’re trainwrecks, and the fact that people have created an industry over it, for me that’s fucking reprehensible.
What’s your reaction to people who say, “Well, look, you’re in the public domain and you’ve courted publicity, so you’re fair game”?
Fuck off, is what I say to them. My job is a public job. I understand it’s a public job. I’m grateful for my job. However, when you leave the office at night, you clock off and go home, don’t you? Well, why shouldn’t I have the privilege of being able to clock off?
Back in 1990, “I Need Your Body” was an obvious move to sexualise you and prove that you were a grown woman.
Absolutely, but the video makes me shudder. I was somebody who was very non-sexual at that time in my life. Sexuality was a discovery for me when I met Vince [Mancini, her partner of 17 years]. And I was 33 years old. Talk about a late fucking bloomer!
In your 2013 memoir Now I Can Dance you wrote that you didn’t really feel comfortable in your skin until your early thirties.
I had a real stagnation of growth from 25 to about 33. I was imprisoned, really.
That coincides with your first marriage to then-manager Ralph Carr . . .
Yes. It was a difficult time. It wasn’t a happy union. We came together for a reason. We had a shared passion, which was the music, and that was beautiful, but we were very different. Stratospheres apart.
The irony is you were enjoying huge commercial success at that time. Don’t Ask was the highest selling album of 1995 in Australia and it was estimated at the time that one in four households owned a copy.
I know, but I wasn’t able to enjoy my success at the time. I started enjoying the musical aspect of my life when I started going to France in the late Nineties and moving there. I was finally free of Tiny Tina, Young Talent Time and preconceived thoughts. France was just a gift. It gave me this blank canvas to paint on. The song from The Mask Of Zorro, where I got to work with Jim Steinman and the beautiful, late James Horner, was a gift too and then that opened all these doors and before you knew it I’d become the variety TV queen of France.
When you were inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame in 2015, you gave a passionate speech about ageism and the sexist attitudes towards women in the music industry. Do you think things have changed much since then?
I think there’s an awareness. But then, there’s a difference between awareness and a difference. I grew up in an era where women performers were seen as more viable if they were sexy. And I don’t just blame men for that. I really feel that women have to take a sense of responsibility too. They have to have enough strength and self-awareness and faith in what they do.
On the new album you duet with Dannii Minogue on “Sorrento Moon”. Do you feel like you two understand each other because of your shared history coming up through the ranks of Young Talent Time?
Definitely. And that’s why it was so incredibly poignant to have her on the record. I’ve known her since she was a baby and watched her grow. She and Kylie are such gorgeous human beings and they’ve got a great supportive family. I’ve got a great family too. It all boils down to that in the end. La famiglia.
From issue #788 (July 2017), available now.
Photograph: Matt Coyte