Wednesday 28 February 2024

Let’s do Lunch …with Chiara

When she went to the Eurovision, there were those who criticised her, but when she almost won, she returned to adulation and praise. Despite her contagious giggle and child-like face, her level-headed approach towards life reveals a wisdom beyond her years

This interview was first published in October, 2000

Because of her commitments, lunch with Chiara had to be switched to dinner. She chose Jakarta in Marsascala:
“I have been coming here for over five years, from when it was just a small restaurant. I was here just two weeks ago celebrate my birthday! I feel really comfortable here, the service and the food are great. When I saw this new place I was amazed.”

Jakarta has now moved to larger premises, where meticulous attention has been paid to getting the decor just right. From the black lacquered dividers which give each table privacy to the smart white, Mandarin-style uniforms of the attentive staff. Chinese dragons, delicately patterned wallpaper and other Oriental decorations complete the look. A lovely, tiny Chinese young lady dressed in an embroidered red satin dress acts as hostess.
The owner Joe explains that the secret of the success of his Malaysian restaurant is that they use only natural ingredients and prime cuts; even the mince is made from fillet.

Bubbly and smiling as always, Chiara tells me that she has just returned from Taormina where she was the personal guest of Sebastiano de Luca, the President of the Regional Hotels Association of Sicily. Originally booked for two shows, she ended up singing at all the hotels, winning over her audiences with that pure, crystal clear voice we all know so well.

“My mother says that at the age of one, I would crawl onto the table and sing to them!” She has never had voice training; never studied music theory: she was born with an ear for music and with that voice.

Chiara’s introduction to the music scene came through a school friend. “When she heard me singing at our farewell party, she told me that her brother had a recording studio and urged me to let him hear my voice.” The girl’s brother turned out to be none other than Jason Cassar – the man who would one day be responsible for writing The One That I Love.

With her typical easygoing nature, she went along to the studio, not really expecting anything from it. “At first I thought, “where am I going?’ There’s a big difference between enjoying singing, and taking part in festivals!”

But when Jason heard that voice, he had no such doubts. “When he asked me to sing something, I chose I Will Always Love You, which had just come out. I remember he gave me this look as if to say ‘il-lamì, this girl, she hasn’t even begun singing, and she’s chosen such a hard song!’. But I had been singing it for ages along with the radio! When I finished they just stared at me with their mouths open. The next minute, Jason asked me to sing one of his songs in Il-Festival ta’ San Pawl.”

The way Chiara tells the story, with no hint of guile or showing off, is characteristic of this talented singer. Where someone else might sound like an insufferable so-and-so, she is so open and natural about her talent and speaks with such delight at the way she was ‘discovered’, that she just makes you smile.

In L-Ghanja tal-Poplu Chiara came to public attention with the hauntingly beautiful song Ismaghni Ftit Habib. She was just 17. Her climb to the top was breathtakingly rapid. Before she knew it, she was participating in the Song for Europe, and the rest, as they say, is local music history.

However, it almost never happened. She had just been released from a one month’s stay in the hospital and was still not fully recovered. One week before the Song for Europe, Jason and Sonny were seriously looking for another singer. So the very fact that she took part was enough for her – winning was the last thought on her mind.

“When I won I cried because it was the best present I could have received after what I had been through.”
What I have always admired about Chiara, apart from her voice, is her sheer self-assurance which is considerable for someone who is still only 24 years old. She attributes it to always being herself.

Nervous is not an adjective I would equate with Chiara. I remember her on stage at L-Ghanja tal-Poplu and was immediately struck by her calm presence. “Well, at the beginning it was all just a game for me, so I was not afraid to get up on stage. It was such a lovely experience that I didn’t care whether I won or not. Being there was enough.”
I asked whether she has ever had stage fright.
“Not yet. But I think if I didn’t get stage fright at the Eurovision, I will never get it!”

OK, let’s talk about that night. How on earth did she manage to be so laid-back about the whole thing?
“Well, I thought I would be terrified, but I really wasn’t. Then the floor manager of the BBC came up to me and said ‘do you know how many people will be watching you? 600 million!’ Just before I went on stage! At first I was shocked. 600 million! I couldn’t even imagine that number written down let alone the actual people! But then I just went on stage and I sang.”

She giggles and shrugs cheerfully with the nonchalance of someone for whom singing is as natural as breathing.
Our starters came on a wheeled trolley. Spring rolls, wantons, sweet and sour pork and beef kebabs, prawn crackers with different sauces – enough to be a meal in itself.

I gingerly steered the subject to the issue of her weight. Would you agree that, through your success, you have given quite a boost to big women?

“And I’m proud of it!” she replies swiftly. “I took all those cruel jibes about being big, which means that those who came after me didn’t have to put up with them. During that period before the Eurovision there were many, many awful things which were said about my size. On the radio, on the Internet, everywhere you go. They did an edition of Xarabank about this topic and I was on the panel. I don’t think there has ever been a three-hour programme in which everyone is talking about the figure of someone who is going to sing. So I had to take all the cruelty, didn’t I?”

Personally, I would have been devastated. But not Chiara. Instead of letting it depress her, she now tells them ‘thank you’. “I went to the Eurovision, determined to show everyone that I’m a good singer. My body has nothing to do with it. There was an anger inside of me which really helped me not to be afraid on stage. I turned the criticism to my advantage.”

Now that takes strength of character, of which Chiara has plenty. Behind the sweet-looking, dimpled face there is a will of iron; a firm belief in herself that does not allow other people’s opinions to affect her.

“Well, I’ve always been overweight” she tells me matter-of-factly. “At school, when I started working, as a young girl, even as a baby, I was born this way. So I’ve heard comments all my life. When I was young it used to upset me a lot, and there were whole summers when I didn’t even go swimming because someone would pass a comment about me. Then as I got older and matured, I realised I could not shut myself up in the house because of what people say. I had to accept that this is how I’m made, this is me – and once I accepted myself, then it was OK. Rather than letting what people said bring me down, I would use them in my favour. It would give me grinta to do something else. If they called me fat, I would do better in my singing. One compensates for the other.”

Although she developed a thick skin towards nasty comments, she admits that the attention on her during the Eurovision was more concentrated than usual. “Two months of the whole nation saying things about you is no joke!”

Human nature being what it is, the tune changed after Chiara came within a hair’s breadth of winning the Eurovision.

“Suddenly, all the horrible remarks stopped. Completely. Anzi, people were telling me ‘oh you look fine the way you are, stay like that, you look sweet like that.’ (She raises her eyebrows knowingly and sighs with resignation). “But the most important people in my life have always treated me the same.”

It is common knowledge that Chiara has been on a diet. She confirms that she has lost 35 kilos and from a size 26 is now a size 16. At first she is reluctant to talk about it, but I when I tell her how many people will be encouraged by her experience, she relents.

“Many might think that I dieted because of my image, but that had nothing to do with it. There was a time when I was very, very overweight and I started to suffer from a lot of health problems. At the age of 22, that should not happen. With my work, I sometimes have to give four shows in one night, but I couldn’t do it. If you’re not healthy you can’t keep up in this business because we work long hours. So I decided to do something about it. I always used to think that I could never lose weight, but I did it. What I want to stress is that I did it because of health reasons and not because of what people said.”

Chiara’s day job is that of a payroll clerk with the Water Services Department. Her colleagues ensure that she does not get carried away with her local fame. When members of the public who come to the department start making a fuss because it’s Chiara, even asking for her autograph, her co-workers quickly bring her down to earth: “Oh, come on, you’re really bugging us now, cut it out!” they tell her with the gentle, insulting camaraderie which one establishes at the workplace.

She speaks of them with affection, pointing out that she is relieved they still treat her the way they used to; that she is still one of them. Kuntenta immens she says – I notice Chiara loves using superlatives.

Raised in L-Isla, Chiara’s family eventually moved to Bormla. “In Bormla, people still treat me the same way, but in L-Isla they did make a fuss over me since they hadn’t seen me in a long time. And my grandmother! (She shakes her head, smiling fondly). She runs around happily telling everyone: ‘I’m Chiara’s grandmother, you know!’ She is so proud and she really loves me! And God forbid someone says something against me because she phones us up crying.”

Our second plate arrived – tenderly cooked duck which you wrap in wafer-thin pancakes, spread with soy sauce.

The area of Cottonera is another topic dear to Chiara’s heart, as can be seen from the moving song It-Tlett Ibliet which she sings with such pride.

She is very aware of the unnecessary discrimination which still exists towards people from ‘the South.’ Before she became a singer, on telling people where she was from, the usual remark would be “Ajma Hej!”. Now, things have changed, not only because she is successful but because whenever she can, she plugs her home town. “I don’t think I could ever love any other place like I do Cottonera.”

As she herself describes it, her singing career has taken off on its own, and “I am the one chasing it.” This is no doubt due to the fact that her manager Massimo Ellul has carefully cultivated important contacts abroad.
The following few months are already mapped out: in November, she will be performing at a Euro Music concert in Belgium where she will be the international guest. She has also received several invitations to sing in Finland. Meanwhile, she is recording her third album which will include only cover versions and is appropriately entitled Covering Diversions. What she is most looking forward to, however, is her upcoming local concert on 8 December which promises to be the biggest and best yet.

Chiara is renowned for her unflappability, amply demonstrated during a candid camera prank when nothing, but nothing which happened caused her to flip her lid.

So does anything make her angry? “Well, lack of professionalism. Such as when they ask you to come and sing at 9pm, but you don’t get to sing until 10.30pm or 11pm. This is not fair, because singers always have other commitments. And I’m very punctual so that angers me a bit.”
And what are you like if and when you get very angry?

“I shout a little and then I burst out crying! I get so angry that I can’t even talk, so I cry to let it all out. But my temper passes very quickly.”

She’s very straight-forward, but not in a malicious way – she just finds it impossible to lie. Her face is an open book, and she couldn’t hide her feelings even if she wanted to. She cries easily, even when she is happy. A recent trip to Euro Disney had her bursting into tears every few minutes, every time she saw a Disney character. “During the parade, I sat down with the children. They were all happy and excited, and I had tears running down my face with happiness! Qalbi zghira. But I think it’s a bit much, I should cut down on the emotion I think!”

One thing she can’t take are people who are full of themselves, who think they are something special.
So, I ask, is there a lot of rivalry between Maltese singers?

“Hmm. Well, before I went to the Eurovision, no. But now I would say there are only a few singers who speak to me with sincerity, who are real friends – I could count them on the fingers of one hand. I remember Miriam Christine Borg had told me ‘Now you will find out who you’re real friends are!’ And she was right. Of course, she is one of those I count among my friends.”

Yet another course was presented – beef in bird’s nest, pork in Beijing style sauce, King prawns with ginger and spring onion, and of course, noodles. We did our best to sample a bit of everything, and everything was delicious.

Her loss of privacy is the only aspect of her career which bothers her: even as we dined, there were stares and gapes and people blatantly looking Chiara up and down. She seemed to be oblivious to it all although I’m sure she must have noticed. Then there are the gossip and rumours. “When I was in the hospital I was supposedly having twins, and when I went to Sicily, people said I went to have an abortion!” she tells me this in between her usual giggles.

While she is close to her mother, her father is the one she depends on to deal with all the financial and organisational aspects of her career. “I am hopeless with money” she admits, with a smile. “Sometimes I’m cleaning my room and I find a cheque which I had forgotten about.”

But apart from her family, it is her numerous friends which keep her grounded. If she tells them she can’t go out because she has to do a show, they tease her good-naturedly, “Ajma! She’ s feeling like an important singer today! She doesn’t want to go out. We joke about getting old, and they picture me at 60, with someone coming up to me ‘do you remember The One That I Love? Sing it for me!” That irrepressible laugh once again.

Chiara has managed to retain that almost child-like innocence and wonder which is so rare to find in someone so successful. Whenever something new and exciting is about to happen, she rushes home to share the news with her sister, barely able to contain herself. “I’m still like an ordinary girl in that way. I take pleasure in everything and get very excited.” She met Paul Young when he was here recently and at one point she thought “Ara jien! Having coffee with Paul Young, who knows how often I sang to his songs on the radio and here I am, cool as can be! And it hit me…how did I get here?”

There’s no sign of world-weary cynicism in this young woman. I hope she stays that way.

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