First there was a young Russian popera princess with her sights set on the big time. Then along came a Kiwi film music composer, who set about orchestrating her rise to world fame - and their mega media-event wedding. Rose Hoare talks to New Zealand's newest, strangest celebrity couple
10.45am, November 28, 2007: Having sung a couple of numbers in a strapless gown and opera gloves on TV One's Good Morning show, Yulia Townsend, the Russian-born singer of pop-classical crossover music, performed, for the first time, one of her own compositions. There'd been a sound check that morning, but no full rehearsal. The show's hosts, Steven Gray and Sarah Bradley, didn't see it coming.
Changed into a cargo-pocketed miniskirt with camouflage-print stockings and suspenders, boots and fingerless leather gloves, Yulia faced the camera squarely - hood up, head bowed, hands planted on hips. The song begins with a driving guitar sound and a high, descending wail: "IF! I! SAID! I'd die for you, would you die for meeee?" Then, after a drum fill, Yulia ripped the hood from her head, tore the microphone from its stand and continued, all undulating hips and intense squinting, to belt out "Love Siege".
The song sets out Yulia's concern that love is "under siege" in the new millennium, describing an unequal relationship that causes Yulia, who has mastered languages that her putative romantic partner doesn't speak and built dreams that he won't dream, to despair for their future together.
At a point furnished with the lyric, "Do you dare to change", in what I later realised was a gesture of deep personal significance to Yulia, she symbolically daubed one cheek with silver paint. It was as though she were acting out a tribal initiation rite - one that initiated her into the realm of experimental pop.
From explosive beginnings, Yulia did not let up. She sang much of the song on her knees, apparently agonised with emotion. She banged her head back and forth, with her mouth hanging open, the way David Lee Roth used to. She moseyed over to the guitarist, plucked from his chest a long silver chain and insouciantly dropped it on the ground, the cold-blooded minx.
After a searing three minutes or so, the song ended. Yulia, on her knees to deliver the final note, flopped over onto her side, as though collapsing from exhaustion.
The outfit, choreography and Yulia's accent ("what ken I say, I've mastered langu-eh-chez but choo don' speak tham"), the business with the makeup smearing, and the song's upbeat, innately 1980s feel gave the whole thing the look of a Eurovision entry. It was a cogent performance - equal parts audacity and naïveté. It was like nothing seen before or since on morning television.
"Tee hee hee!" exclaimed Steven Gray. Yulia!"
"That's a side of Yulia we have never. Seen. Before," said Sarah Bradley. "Amazing!"
"Wow!" Gray said, still giggling. "She'll need a rest after that!"
As Yulia approached the couch to be interviewed, Bradley, perhaps already aware, on some level, that her guest was no longer the same "popera" diva as before, greeted her with an enthusiastic "Yo!"
Yulia arrived in New Zealand in 2002 from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) after she helped her mother find a New Zealand husband on an introduction agency website, absolutemarriage.com. That year, Bill Townsend, a 54-year-old real estate agent, moved from Picton to Christchurch to accommodate the big-city needs of his new 40-year-old bride, Galina Moskvicheva, and her 16-year-old daughter.
While attending Cashmere High, she landed a fill-in appearance on Canterbury Television that was ultimately to win her attention from the starmaking quarters of New Zealand's entertainment industry. After high school, though, while she waited to be discovered, she worked as a checkout operator at Fresh Choice, a supermarket in Spreydon.
Yulia was signed to Sony Music by CEO Michael Glading and recorded two albums of pop-classical crossover music. When Sony merged with BMG, Glading was made redundant, and Yulia decided to leave the record label with him. She doesn't ever say she regrets this, but after her departure from Sony, Yulia's career was becalmed. She and Glading visited Sony BMG UK, EMI UK and Warner in January last year, but nothing came of the trip.
"I got a little bit upset that I travelled all that way and nothing happened," Yulia says. Returning to New Zealand, she decided to enroll at Canterbury University, studying French and Linguistics. "I just thought ‘I need a break, I need to think about what I'm going to do. This is depressing.'"
It was while appearing in a university production of the comedy musical Urinetown in 2007 that Yulia first met Glyn MacLean, former general manager of Classic Hits and Newstalk ZB Wairarapa, and a composer of film music.
They decided to do some songwriting together, and would meet at Yulia's parents' house in Linwood, Christchurch. A month later, Yulia, who never actually had a contract with Glading, had invited Glyn to be her new manager.
Although Glyn didn't have any experience or contacts, Yulia says she noticed a "sparkle in his eyes", and knew that he really wanted the job. "When I said, ‘Well how about you manage me,' he got really excited and started trying to organise things to make it work."
Then, last month, in a press release titled "Romancing of Stone", Yulia, 22, and Glyn, 39, announced their engagement, along with their commitment to 1st Corinthians XIII: 4-8. The couple also announced their intentions to write 50 songs in the next few months in order to land a publishing deal worth $10 million to $20 million. They managed to work in references to The Secret, The Celestine Prophecy, string theory and quantum physics, too.
Bang! Bang! Ba-Bang! Suddenly, New Zealand had its own slightly volatile, slightly wacky celebrity couple, like Celine Dion and René Angélil or La Toya Jackson and Jack Gordon.
In an interview on Classic Hits, asked how it feels to be engaged, Yulia embarked on an aimless spiel: "It feels very strange but it's kind of like a memory? As if I was supposed to be engaged a long time ago?"
"Either I didn't have enough sleep the night before or something happened to me," Yulia tells me later. "I don't know, but I couldn't say anything properly. My brain just wasn't working."
Glyn believes Yulia has suffered bouts of depression exacerbated by being on Roaccutane, a medication for acne, which Yulia pronounces "egg-knee". "The doses that she's on can have side effects," Glyn explains. "Yulia has all of them."
"I can fall asleep right now if I stop talking," Yulia says. "I feel tired all the time." "Due to the medication," Glyn offers. "Also, a lot of people don't know, but Yulia suffers from a condition known as TMJ, which is a muscle and tension condition that can cause dislocation of the jaw, and pain."
"Sometimes when I practise at home, I open my mouth," Yulia says, "and I'm doing this big note and all of a sudden I can't close my jaw."
"It's quite scary," Glyn says. "I think she's pretty brave."
It is a perplexing fact of modern life that just about everyone seems psychologically prepared for fame, able to adopt, at a moment's notice, the pitch-perfect tones of a habitually besieged but affable celebrity. In a message "to our supporters" posted on his MySpace page, where he also touts his pending marriage as "one of the most intriguing weddings in NZ's music history", Glyn writes to reassure those concerned by "flack" received by he and Yulia: "My feedback is ‘don't worry about it'. When I initially had some fame in the Wairarapa, some local people targeted me quite badly and various people tried to tarnish my reputation out of spite and so on. It was a good lesson."
Glyn is indefatigable about posting media releases and video footage - of Yulia getting her hair and makeup done for a NZ Woman's Weekly shoot, of Yulia working out with her personal trainer (the YouTube tags include: Gym, Boxing, Model, Diva, christine aguilera, madonna, pink, jessica simpson, kylie minogue, kelly clarkson), and a video of Glyn's brother-in-law playing with his cockatoos, the point of which seemed to be to plug his business ("If you own an earth moving machine and need an engineer, then Dean is your man. Look up HIGH TORQUE DIESEL in Christchurch").
His MySpace page contains hundreds of prolix blog entries, and mentions that "Something you need to know about Glyn is not just that he is completely self taught (at everything he does, not just piano playing!). It's also that he has overcome significant challenges to be able to do what he does. As a child Glyn was told he was retarded and told he couldn't play piano or sing". This diagnosis was pronounced by Glyn's father, who he describes as a violent, abusive alcoholic.
When it comes to managing Yulia, though, there are no signs of retardation. Since the one-two combo of "Love Siege" on Good Morning and the engagement announcement, Glyn has been busy handling what, in contrast to Yulia's previous amount of attention, is a veritable media scramble. Leading up to the wedding, he and Yulia held meeting after meeting, as they sought to leverage their new-found celebrity for all it was worth.
Their engagement story has already featured in NZ Woman's Weekly, which will also cover their wedding and honeymoon. They have appeared on Close Up, and on TV3's Nightline twice. Although Glyn described one of these reports as "negative", he was happy to turn the other cheek and laugh along. "Obviously you're going to write what you're going to write," he tells me, "but at the end of the day, look, if they want to present us, or you do, in a light that is perhaps unfavourable - as long as it inspires people."
Inititally, there was talk of Sharon Lingham, a preeminent Christchurch limousine rental company owner and self-appointed "Ambassador to the Stars", footing the bill for the wedding, reception and honeymoon, if it were part of an event she was organising, called Global Extravaganza. This didn't pan out.
"They were looking at a completely outdoor, outside-type of affair," Glyn explains. "We were concerned about whether, while it would be good for the public, it might end up being a little bit bad for Yulia, as a bride. You know, just because you can't control crowds. If you have 100,000 people there you could get somebody booing or whatever."
They are convinced that media interest won't suffocate the holiness of their day. "That's a state of mind," Yulia says. "You decide for yourself what feelings and thoughts you're going to go into it with. We're doing it not only for publicity, not only for money (of course the money would help with recording and to put on the wedding, now that we don't have Sharon on board), but it's also great for people to see our story, because both of us come from quite sad backgrounds, really.
"I'm going to enjoy the day no matter what and if the papers want to take pictures of me, that's great. Our goal is to inspire people and empower people, through self love and love of others, through creativity."
At a meeting with the chair of Endometriosis NZ held in Yulia's parents' kitchen, discussion is around how Yulia, a newly appointed ambassador and an example, Glyn says, of a successful young woman who's reached her goals in spite of having endometriosis, might best serve the organisation's ends.
"How can we tie in endo in a dynamic kind of way," Glyn wonders aloud. Obviously the song will need to be inspirational. "It'd have to be pop-y, upbeat and catchy, that sort of thing. It's more about - we don't like to look at the darkness, we like to look at the light; not the problem, the solution. How can we create the maximum amount of awareness for endometriosis, in a positive light? When it comes to getting into radio, you've got to format it to fit, so it's like 3 mins 30, so on and so forth. It gets technical after that."
A website is in development and it will include a celebrity endometriosis blog, also featuring Jessie Gurunathan and Kirsten Morrell. "There are some really high-powered people involved in that organisation," Glyn told me earlier. "Like Lorelei Mason, and Deb [sic] Chen, who's like NZ's top lawyer, always on TV and that sort of thing. That's massive news. That's [the website] going to be launched in February and will pretty much make Yulia a household name."
In between such business meetings, Glyn has arranged to meet his estranged teenage nephew, with whom he has re-united through MySpace. They sit in the living room of Yulia's parents' place talking for a while, mainly about the need for the men in their family to be better at communicating, then move to the kitchen table. At some point, Bill, Yulia's stepfather, who looks like Samuel Beckett, enters the room. Glyn introduces his nephew and, in an effort to break the ice, begins chummily, "Now that me and Yulia are engaged, what relation would he be to you ..."
"I don't think there is one," Bill replies peremptorily, then busies himself starting the breadmaker. Minutes later, he's sitting out on the porch in velveteen slippers, smoking a pipe.
He seems brusque, but Yulia says he's just "a very quiet man". "I guess his policy is, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything. Sometimes he doesn't really communicate a lot but he thinks a lot. He's a very intelligent man, a very funny man. He works really hard and he loves my mum dearly, which really pleases me and I think that's the most important thing for me - that they're in love."
The following day, a corner booth is reserved at Ground Floor Café in Riccarton, which, with its shelf of dinner plates signed by celebrities like Casey Laulala, Reuben Thorne and Jason Gunn, is a sort of Sardi's for Christchurch. Glyn is pitching his music publishing biz to Jason Gunn and his TV and video production biz.
Shortly, Glyn invites Yulia to talk about her dream. "The things that you want to do? Just put it out there."
Yulia mentions singing ("I want to be like Celine Dion"), acting, adopting a Russian orphan, appearing on Shortland Street and on Dancing With The Stars, which Gunn hosts.
"That's a good show to... not relaunch but show, ‘Hello! Don't put me in this box!'," Gunn observes.
Although noncommittal about getting Yulia onto DWTS, Gunn is encouraging. "You could do all this," he exclaims. "This sounds so - Oh my God, this sounds so cheesy and ‘self-motivation', but - you can do all those goals! Most of us never will because we'll get in the way - it won't be someone else. So many people out there just want to cut you down," he warns. "People will hate you sometimes. Whatever. That's fine. That's their own little angry issues from childhood."
Later that day, Glyn and Yulia visit the Christchurch Arts Centre to see about getting the use of the Great Hall for their ceremony. "I have to say, my instinct is that your timeline's very ambitious, in terms of pulling everything together," remarks the Centre's director, Tony Paine.
"Going forward, it's about doing what we can to support the profile," Glyn tells Paine, "and the biggest thing that we can lend to the Arts Centre, as a family, is profile."
Then Glyn makes his power play: "The other thing is that we're inviting 50 family guests from both families - that's a sum total - and then 50 celebrities. So, people like Bic Runga, Dave Dobbyn, Dame Malvina Major - all friends of Yulia's or mine. Pretty much the country's elite entertainment. Howard Morrison; you name it. A lot of dignitaries would be coming along... "
If this thrills Paine, he isn't showing it. He merely jots something on a pad in front of him, then asks, "So, just to be clear: you were thinking of having the ceremony... outside?" Having offered Glyn a list of caterers to peruse in the meantime, Paine asks if there is any wiggle room with regard to the timing of the event. Glyn is happy to consider a different date, but anxious to get the deed done. He says, "There's a lot of heat on this right now."
Where does the romance come into it? With all the spruiking, it's hard to get a feel for a couple all swoony in love. Is this really a tender, passionate relationship? Is it even an equal one?
Romance, Glyn says, is "a matter of having a mechanism in there that you structure into your relationship". "Like, we go for a jog in the morning, and during that time, we get to talk about personal stuff. If we have any issues, we can talk about it then."
Yulia says she and Glyn were tacitly waiting until after the Good Morning performance to address their love-related interpersonal issues. Both sleepless the following night, they were messaging each other over the internet, despite living in conjoined apartments in Glyn's Wellington recording studio. "We just started a conversation and it progressed into a big confession about how we felt about each other," Yulia says.
"It was literally a couple of walls separating us," Glyn says. "She was at the other side of the hallway, probably about 10ft away. But I would never go into her room or anything."
On Good Morning, Yulia mentioned that she was nearly killed by her father when she was five years old. She actually seemed to be laughing fondly at the story, and somehow managed to turn it into an inspirational tale, saying, "I am a personification of all the women who are suffering domestic violence."
That she and Glyn had both severed ties with their fathers is a significant part of their bond. Indeed, insofar as their romance unfolded online, and inasmuch as there's a substantial age gap, Yulia and Glyn's relationship resembles that of Yulia's mother and stepfather. "My parents are my idols," she confirms. "I look at them every day and think ‘Wow! That's the kind of relationship I want to have'.
"My mum has changed a lot because of Dad: when we lived in Russia she was a single mum, she had to earn money to raise me and it was really hard for her. That's why I decided to go ahead with the whole internet marriage thing."
She learnt a lot of "no-go things" from her mother's first marriage. "I didn't want a man like my father. However, I managed to get into a lot of relationships just like my mother's original one. I've been trying to change for a long time."
The pair are actually marrying today. As you read this, Yulia and Glyn might be experiencing that strange moment of exhilarated trepidation - mindful that nothing will ever be the same again, uncertain that they'll ever want it to - peculiar to the morning of one's wedding day. Or they may have already finished solemnising their bond, in accordance with the laws of this great country, of God and of the NZ Woman's Weekly editorial team.
It will be interesting to see how Yulia handles breaking out of the popera shtetl. One of the more obvious differences between popera and experimental pop is its propensity for sexual content: popera divas are physically attractive but essentially chaste.
A couple of months ago, Yulia, Martin Luther-like, nailed her colours to the wall and had her belly button and nose pierced. It immediately made her feel more confident and powerful. "When you become a Christian you get a little cross and you put it on your neck: it's like a document stating that you're a Christian. Or you get a passport and you're a citizen of a certain country. That stud and belly button bar was just one of those symbols, and I thought ‘Wow, I'm a pop princess now!'"
"I really wanted to get a tattoo, and if I ever get one it'll probably be a cat, because a cat is a symbol of female sexuality, and it's just a very feminine symbol." (Yulia's mother wanted to get a diamond set into her tooth, but her father was against it, saying it would look "dodgy".)
Putting together "Love Siege" was a similar story of confinement within and rebellion against the constraints of genre. Initially, the track had a heavy, distorted guitar sound, but Glyn, the voice of easy listening experience, stepped in. "I promised Yulia that she could explore and that I wouldn't interfere. I only stepped in when it was going too far the wrong way." It was, he says, "getting away from the brand."
Until her engagement was announced, Yulia's career was characterised by infrequent bursts of excitement amidst long bouts of boredom.
"Now we really treasure the times when we don't have anything to do," she says breezily. "It's like ‘Yay, no phone calls!' But before, I actually used to get quite depressed.
"Believe me, I thought about doing flight attending, I thought about being a shoe shop assistant, I thought about working at Ballantynes." She considered returning to Fresh Choice which, she says, was "one of the best experiences of my life."
"I just love serving people and getting smiles on people's faces. If I said ‘Hello, so how's your day been' and ‘Would you like a bag for that', if they smiled at me, then ‘Yeah! Another one! Put it in the pocket: another smile'.
"They have a comment board at the supermarket and they had a little certificate saying Congratulations to Yulia Townsend for Being the Friendliest Checkout Operator. Even now, I meet people who know me from the supermarket and they say to me ‘I used to be served by you and I really loved it'.
"Christchurch is probably the place where I get recognised the most. Wellington is moderate. I can feel the gazes on me and people whispering, but no one actually ever jumps out and says ‘Oh Yulia, can I take a picture with you and get an autograph?'"
That's all right, though. "I want to enjoy my privacy as much as possible before I become world-famous and then it will be a bit hard." n
- Sunday Star Times