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Fiddler On The Slopes

Violinist-turned-Olympian Vanessa-Mae checks out her fellow skiers in Sochi, Russia on Feb. 10.
Clive Rose
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Getty Images
Violinist-turned-Olympian Vanessa-Mae checks out her fellow skiers in Sochi, Russia on Feb. 10.

Classical music has managed to take center stage at sports events in the last few weeks. Soprano Renée Fleming sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl two weekends ago. And the Russian-born Anna Netrebko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, appeared at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony to perform the Olympic Anthem.

However, no one asked either of those opera stars to perform athletic feats. Leave those to 35-year-old British violinist Vanessa-Mae, who is scheduled to ski for Thailand in the women's giant slalom Tuesday, Feb. 18.

First marketed as a child prodigy in the late 1980s, Vanessa-Mae later found huge success as a crossover musician with an overtly sexy image. In 2006, London's Sunday Timesput her at the very top of its list of the U.K.'s wealthiest young entertainers. Her fortune, then estimated at £32 million, beat out the likes of Coldplay's Chris Martin and actors Orlando Bloom and Daniel Radcliffe.

Yet Vanessa-Mae has long dreamed of a second life as an Olympic alpine skier. And she's found an interesting way to fulfill that desire.

In the latest international rankings for women's giant slalom, Vanessa-Mae comes in only at No. 2,253. "I am British, but realistically there is no way I could represent my own country," the violinist told The Telegraph in 2010. "But because my natural father is Thai, they have accepted me."

Now racing under the name Vanessa Vanakorn, she was born in Singapore to a Chinese mother and a Thai father. She was raised in England by her mother and her British stepfather, Gavin Nicholson, whom her mother later divorced.

According to her official Olympics bio, Vanessa-Mae has been looking for a way to realize her Winter Games aspirations for more than a decade. A previous attempt to ski for Thailand at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City was deflated when the Thai government asked her to forgo her British citizenship.

However, the Thai authorities were eventually placated, and in January 2013, the violinist announced she would be taking a hiatus from her music career to train more seriously in the Swiss ski town of Zermatt, where she moved in 2009.

Qualifying this time around did not come easily, though. Vanessa-Mae only met the Olympic criteria — "by a whisker," according to her manager — after racing in Slovenia last month in a last-ditch bid for eligibility in Sochi.

As she told Reuters at the time she took her hiatus last year, "I have no delusions about a podium or even being in the top 100 in the world ... Just to qualify for the Olympics in my hobby would be a dream come true for me." She is one of two athletes representing Thailand in Sochi; the other, Kanes Sucharitakul, will be in the men's slalom and giant slalom competitions.

Vanessa-Mae's press over the last couple of years hasn't been all sunshine and roses. In October 2011, she was one of the entertainers castigated by international human rights organizations for performing, reportedly for $500,000, at Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's 35th birthday bash, along with actress Hilary Swank, action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and singer Seal. (The Chechen strongman has been accused of kidnapping and torturing his political opponents as well as carrying out extrajudicial executions.) Unlike Swank, who famously apologized and said she donated her fee for appearing at the same event to charity, Seal remained defiant and Vanessa-Mae never publicly responded to the outcry.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.