Most Australians have watched her grow up before their eyes.
From “Tiny Tina Arena” on Young Talent Time to international chanteuse, Arena is a survivor.
Her seminal album Don’t Ask (1994) delivered her the transition from child / teenager to young woman, defined by the hit song Chains.
As she explained to TV Tonight, it was a long road.
“I knew after leaving YTT it would be hard. I was under absolutely no illusions, even as a kid. I knew that to walk away from that image, and to break that image of child performer. was going to be a hard job.
“I was under no illusions. Not even back then,” she says.
“But having said that, I’ve had the journey that I’ve chosen to have, or that has been mapped out for me, and it’s given me the most fantastic education anyone can get in this industry.
“Even my parents sat me down and said ‘You are perceived in a certain way and people are going to want to stick to that.’ People don’t want kids to grow up, but the reality is they do. So it’s just about how they make that transition.
“If you don’t do it for the right reasons, that’s when you come undone. I was never motivated for anything other than an honourable reason and I still am motivated for honourable reasons.”
This week Arena gave back to the man who helped kickstart her career. She travelled from her home in France to induct Johnny Young into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
Turning 43 next week, and the mother of a young son, Arena remains passionate about her art and forthright in her views. This week the woman who started out on a TV talent show was quoted in the press for her less than complimentary remarks about current talent shows.
But as she explained, they were answers she gave some time ago, now rehashed out of context.
“I was asked a question probably a few years ago about Reality TV and I sort of said ‘Reality TV is Reality TV….’
“They asked me a lot about these singing shows and I said ‘I don’t have a problem with people showcasing talent.’ I never have. I never will. Where I do have a problem is the judgemental aspect of it, because everybody does it,” she says.
Arena has previously appeared on Australian Idol. So did that change her mind on the genre?
“I was mentoring, I wasn’t judging. It’s a very different thing,” she stresses.
“Mentoring is about someone who’s got experience, they’ve been there, they try to inspire people, to motivate them or give them pointers. But I’m not sitting there judging them.”
But Arena has concerns about a shift in talent shows from performers to judges, often at the expense of those looking for music careers.
“I understand that it’s TV. It’s a concept, it creates jobs, publicity, marketing, and everything like that,” she says.
“But when you look at television today and you see a bunch of shows that are based on that premise, you have to ask yourself ‘Why are they all judgmentally based?’
“Are we not intelligent enough as people to look beyond that?
“Can we not come up with enough television ideas or are the networks not courageous enough to take another idea and develop that? That’s all I’m talking about. I’m not criticising the judges,” she insists.
“I’m just saying that there seems to be on television today –and there has been for a lot of years– a lot of judging that goes on in these formats.”
The canyon between the Idol and X Factor brands and Arena’s former Young Talent Time and contemporaries such as New Faces is vast.
“Young Talent Time wasn’t a show that was based on a judging format. It was an element of the show where you had three contestants, but it was done pretty light-heartedly. And sure it was a different decade. Our pop culture was different in the ’70s,” she says.
“We are much smarter today. We don’t need to base our programmes on just judging people. We need to encourage people. We need to think outside the box.”
It also frustrates her that her comments are regurgitated without context for the sake of an article.
“I don’t buy into propaganda. I’m a woman with an opinion and if somebody asks me a question I try to answer it as honestly as I can. At the end of the day it’s the journalist wanting to take it out of context and that is his or her prerogative. But do not misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m saying that it seems to me that there’s so much of it (judgmental talent shows) that goes on,” she says.
“It would be great to be able to do something different.”
More positively, Arena remains enthusiastic about Young Talent Time and has agreed to perform in a reunion special if one gets off the ground.
“It’s 40 years next year and I know they’re talking about doing something. It’s part of my history and I would obviously participate if it was the right thing.
“I’m not really sure what format it would take. They’re just talking at the moment,” she says.
“But it’s not something that’s going to turn into a franchise. It’s a tribute to something that played a very big part in a generation, or a couple of generations. Celebrating 40 years would be pretty fantastic.”
But so far two networks have failed to bite at the idea despite a YTT TV special attracing huge ratings when it aired some years ago.
“It rated through the roof,” she says. “But bad luck for the TV stations… if they can’t see something interesting in it, they’re the ones missing out. And the public unfortunately.”
Yes, ‘Tiny’ Tina Arena has indeed grown up: outspoken, focussed and holding a CV that gives her the strength of her convictions.
“”The thing that motivates me is Quality. That’s what I love and that’s what inspires me. It’s something I do not compromise with.
“If you hang in there long enough and work hard enough your time will come,” she smiles.
RocKwiz presents the ARIA Hall of Fame airs 9:20pm Saturday on SBS ONE.