Channel Ten’s ‘E Street’ was one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s, introducing names like Marcus Graham and Simon Baker to Australia and the world.
It also launched the career of Toni Pearen, who followed in the footsteps of Kylie Minogue and quickly became a television star as well as a bonafide pop star.
With career highlights including two Top 10 ARIA gold-certified singles, the Australian feature film ‘All Men Are Liars’ playing opposite John Jarratt (‘Wolf Creek’) and a high-profile run as the host of ‘Australia’s Funniest Home Videos’, Toni has proven her longevity in the entertainment industry with over 20 years of experience in television, theatre, film and music.
But along with incredible success has come a series of challenges, from the pressures of being a teenage celebrity to the fast-paced demands of the music business.
Whilst Toni continues to work in television hosting the Channel Ten lifestyle program ‘Let’s Do Coffee’, she has also created The Talent Co, a company that helps to nurture a new generation of Australian talent.
auspOp guest writer Chris met up with Toni at a café on Sydney’s Northern Beaches to peek behind the curtain of ’90s soapie culture, discuss the stories behind her enduring pop hits, and hear why she wants to give back.
What do you remember from growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in Australia?
I remember my mum used to make all my clothes! I always had stars in my eyes and I was lucky to have parents who really encouraged what I was doing and they really devoted a lot to nurturing that in me. There are many reasons why I’ve set up my school now. I saw what my parents sacrificed and I want to impart my wisdom and help the parents, help the kids, because if you’re passionate about it, nothing’s going to stop you. You just need the right guidance and support along the way.
Is there a lineage of performing in your family? Can you trace that back anywhere?
Yeah, my dad’s actually an excellent singer. When he was a child and a teenager, he had lots of singing teachers offer him classes for free because he had such a gift, but he just couldn’t bear being in the spotlight. But my aunty, on the other hand, is a real extrovert. If you had a piano here now, she’d sing for you. (she laughs) She’s been a singing teacher and my dad’s father was a singer and also a boxer. My grandmother, my dad’s mother, was a pianist and she played for silent movies. So that’s the musical side of the family. I always believed that my mother should have been an actress because she was always way over the top. My mum had to leave school at 16 to get a job to support the family, so she never really got the chance to pursue her dreams.
What was your early experiences as a performer? Were you doing school productions or talent shows?
I grew up in a talent school. I went there when I was eight. It was called the Lynda Keane Talent School. She managed me. I was doing everything. My parents were driving me all over Sydney, auditioning. Eventually I got my first job which was a Cadbury’s chocolate commercial. By the time I’d done ‘E Street’, I’d done a lot of TV commercials, a lot of stage. I was performing with a performance group every school holidays. When I eventually got ‘E Street’, I was still in school studying my HSC. So that was a major dilemma, because my mum particularly put her foot down and said I had to stay in school. I fought her on it because I’d just got this amazing job and it was full time. We came to an agreement that I stayed in school but they got me a tutor on the set and somehow we worked it out.
‘E Street’ started in ’89. There’s an amazing spate of people who came from that show who went on to have careers in Australia, but your character Toni Windsor seemed to capture a particular audience. Why do you think that was?
It was a little bit edgy, so it wasn’t a ‘Home And Away’ or a ‘Neighbours’. I think the storylines definitely connected with people, it wasn’t just escapism. I was so young and it was a head spin. I never quite accepted the popularity in a way, to the point where my mum ran my fanclub because it was too hard for me to read the letters from fans. I look back now and I’m lucky that I came from the world I came from. I made some mistakes, but I look back on that period when it was at its peak and I don’t know how I worked it out because it was crazy. I think probably because I always had another passion for music, maybe that kept me straight. I always had that in my mind – that’s where I was heading.
Obviously Kylie had that sort of success a couple of years before ‘E Street’, but that culture of everyone going on a soap and releasing a single wasn’t there yet, so that was a real vision from ‘E Street’ creator Forrest Redlich.
He was definitely a visionary. At the time I didn’t realise it, but he was an absolute visionary… bordering on maniacal! He created a lot of great music from that period of time. They were really popular acts at the time – Teen Queens, Euphoria, Mel Tkautz. I desperately wanted to make music and he approached me. He wanted to sign me to his (Forrest’s Westside Records) label and he wanted me to release that Dusty Springfield song ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’. I was so close. I remember going to my manager ‘oh my God, it may never happen again!’ When you are that age, you kind of jump at anything – ‘I’ll do it for free!’ Thankfully, Mushroom came along.
You did sing on ‘E Street’. With Melissa, there was a dream sequence and she suddenly did ‘Read My Lips’, but for you there was a band.
I had a band at the time called Kon-X-ion (pronounced ‘Connection’). They were actually my best mates at the time. We all grew up in this talent school together, so we were making music and doing it on our weekends. (Forrest) wrote into the show that my character brought the band together for a fundraiser.
So ‘In Your Room’ was ’92 and that was your first single. With the Mushroom deal, was that for a one-off single to start with?
It was always for an album. I’d been on the show for three years and we were in talks with Mushroom about signing the whole band.
Uh oh. We’ve heard this story before, haven’t we…
I know! My manager Lynda came to me and said ‘they don’t want to sign the whole band, they just want you’. So, what do you with that? That is a really awkward conversation. Thankfully they all seemed okay with it because I took most of them on the road with me; they were my backing singers. Because of the popularity of the show and my popularity as a character, Mushroom really wanted to expediate me getting a single out. So they played ‘In Your Room’ for me, which was actually a country song, and said ‘we think this would work as a pop song’. So I went into the studio and recorded it with basic drums just to see if it would work and everyone agreed it would.
In 2000 when Kylie did ‘Spinning Around’, were you completely frustrated because you’d already rocked the hotpants in the ‘In Your Room’ clip?
(laughs) I think she was ten years older than me! I’ve always been a Kylie fan. Even when I was living in the US and nobody knew who she was, I’d still go into my bedroom, lock the door and put on my Kylie album. When she released ‘Light Years’ I was living in LA and I went to Tower Records and because it was an import it was like $30, but I had to buy it. I’ve always loved Madonna, Kylie… all the pop girls. I still do.
Well the hotpants became your signature look too for a while there!
They’re funny things that happen in your life. At the time, I was just going ‘hotpants? Why am I wearing hotpants?’ We’d shot an original music video where I played a French maid in a hotel.
Did that ever get out anywhere?
No, I don’t know where it went. There’s little bits of the first music video we made in the second one. I think maybe Mushroom felt it was a little too cerebral or something. They thought it needed to be more colourful because it was all black and white. When we shot the second one, I had director Daniela Federici. Remember that Radio Freedom music video in all the white? She did all the amazing videos at the time. I remember watching it back just being so stunned at how amazing it was. I remember my manager saying ‘you know they’ve elongated it Toni, they’ve stretched your body…’
‘Oh yeah, I am quite short’.
(laughs) ‘Oh yeah, right, I don’t look like that in real life’.
When you look back at your second single ‘I Want You’, it’s an interesting comment to be making back-to-back because lyrically ‘In Your Room’ was a little bit more provocative. ‘I Want You’ seemed a lot more of a natural fit for you.
‘I Want You’ was essentially what I chose. Jenny Forbes, the songwriter, came to me and she played me a whole range of songs and I decided that ‘I Want You’ was the one that I wanted. She didn’t want to give it to me. I think she wanted to record it herself because she was signed to Mushroom as an artist. I fought to get that song.
It’s a great vocal, it’s a great lyric. And it didn’t sound like anything else that was out at the time.
I think that’s why I loved it so much. I still listen to that song going, ‘it’s a great song, I’m so glad I recorded that’. I remember Tina Arena’s ex-manager Ralph Carr saying to me when I was living in LA, going through major insecurities, ‘that song ‘I Want You’ was such an amazing pop track, did you choose that?’ I said yes I did, and he’s like ‘wow, you’ve really got an ear’. I still carry that in my ‘backpack’. I do know something about something!
And the video was filmed at Luna Park in Melbourne.
I always wanted Paul Goldman to direct a music video. He did ‘Better The Devil You Know’ for Kylie and turned Kylie’s image around, so I always wanted to work with him.
The third single was ‘Walkaway Lover’ in 1994. That’s the one for your gay fans, because it’s the most dance-oriented song on the album.
I never would have predicted it when we recorded it in London. To the credit of my manager, she said ‘this is your dance track Toni, this is the one’ and she pushed for me to release that. She will say to this day that she feels like I made the wrong music video for it, and I probably did. (laughs)
I was going to say, talking about cerebral music videos…
I was in my total Bjork mode. I was obsessed with Bjork, so I wanted to do something a bit quirky. I remember when I delivered it and [my manager] was like…
‘Where’d you get the dinosaur costume from?’
We don’t always know what we’re doing. (laughs) They play it all the time at this club called The Palms on Oxford Street, and I still get text messages from my friends saying ‘they’re playing ‘Walkaway Lover’!’ I get so proud! If I ever get my confidence up, I’d love to do an appearance there. My only problem is that I can’t stay up until 1AM to perform – I have a three-year-old! (laughs) That’s definitely on my list. (whispers) Maybe Mardi Gras… maybe? I don’t know, I don’t even want to be saying it!
A fifteen minute medley, I can see it now! [90s producers] DNA could do an updated megamix for you. Hmm, I’m going to work on that!
Oh my God, I can’t even imagine. It is somewhere in my mind, I just keep pushing it aside.
After ‘Walkaway Lover’, you released ‘Joy’ which was one of the two co-writes you had on the album.
I always loved the sentiment of the song. It was my favourite word – it still is. I think at that stage, I was a bit lost. I was getting lots of pressure from the record company to not spend money on the music video, which you can tell. (laughs) They were saying, ‘you’ve got $2 to make a music video, good luck’. That’s when the wheels were starting to come off a bit.
Great single cover, though.
Yeah it was a great single cover with the little T-shirt! Some things worked, some things didn’t.
I listen to the remix they used for the single and I actually prefer the album version with the flamenco guitar halfway through.
Everyone was clutching at straws – ‘what can we do?’ If you have an original vision, stick to it. I had a vision, especially for ‘I Want You’ and for the album. They were just losing their vibe because the album wasn’t selling.
Which is more of a timing thing. Had it come out a year earlier when ‘In Your Room’ and ‘I Want You’ were released…
It’s all timing. As fate would have it, or history has it, I didn’t have an album ready to go. So unfortunately because I was promoting songs, I was working, trying to find the right material, it was a long gap. Because I’d been dreaming of this for such a long time, I had my ‘hit list’ – all the producers I wanted to work with. Thankfully, I got to work with them. For years I’d been writing down every producer I ever wanted to work with…
You look over the liner notes of ‘Toni Pearen’s Intimate Album’ and it is an impressive roster. Steve Kipner writing the title track ‘Intimate’, who wrote ‘Physical’ for Olivia Newton-John and ‘Genie In A Bottle’ for Christina Aguilera, and Ashley Cadell who produced the ‘Brave’ album for Kate Ceberano…
I always wanted to work with Ashley because I was a big Kate Ceberano fan. Even to the point – this is quite embarrassing – when I was on ‘E Street’, I was so desperate to make music and I wasn’t getting the break that I wanted, that I wrote Kate Ceberano a letter. And I said, ‘you are my favourite singer, I need advice’. (pause) I think she just said ‘keep going’. (laughs)
Well it’s good advice! It’s served you well all these years. We can thank Kate Ceberano for that.
We’ve all been 17 and desperate to start our lives! (laughs) So I got to work with Ashley Cadell and DNA, they made my album in London. I ticked lots of boxes very quickly, which was amazing because I had the time of my life and I was fulfilling my dreams at such a young age. But then you get to a point and you go, ‘what’s next?’ That was always a hard thing.
When you listen to the album back, there is a maturity to ‘Intimate’ that is not present on some of the other ‘E Street’ albums. It’s of its era in that it’s got the sounds of the 90s, but it doesn’t sound dated. It’s a really great listen.
I know, that makes me really proud. I’ve had lots of people, including yourself, saying that they feel like my album still holds up. Not that I’ve listened to it for 20 years, but that was always the kind of music I wanted to make and I think that’s why it took me so long to make it. When I delivered it to Mushroom, they were a bit like ‘what do we do with this? We were wanting something a little more poppy’. Not that it’s not pop, but I grew up listening to my dad’s jazz collection and I am the biggest R&B/soul fan. I always wanted to have those flavours, so that’s the album I made.
Was there a second album?
There was a second album and I remember I delivered that album, but they weren’t feeling it. I was working on with a guy called Michael Szumowski, he was in Indecent Obsession. We wrote so many songs, but it was a bit darker. Then there was a major shakeup at Mushroom Records and there was this guy who was brought in to, basically, get rid of everything that wasn’t making money, and I just happened to be that person. I was crying on the lawn of my parents’ house when I lost my deal with Mushroom, crippled over, sobbing. I had my white Honda Accord parked on the grass and I drove down to see my parents. I was leaving and my dad said ‘are you alright?’ I was opening the door of the car and I broke down on the grass – ‘I lost my deal!’
Which is going to make a great opening scene for the Toni Pearen telemovie. That’s where we start.
(laughs) ‘And then I was there, on the lawn…’
The next big project we saw of yours was ‘All Men Are Liars’. You must still be proud of that film. It’s got that incredibly Australian sense of humour where there are questions of identity and tragedy and loss, but it’s presented in an ironic way – a similar tone to ‘Muriel’s Wedding’. It was such a left-turn from ‘E Street’, even though you were still playing the ingénue character.
I was so lucky to get that role. I got the part, but I remember the producer and the director telling me that Claudia Karvan was their first choice and she actually did a better audition than me. She was my favourite actress and I always had in the back of my mind ‘oh my God, Claudia Karvan was better than me, so I have to be really good!’ All these things will happen to you along the way, but these are all the things that make you work harder.
And to have worked with John Jarratt too, long before ‘Wolf Creek’. It captured a period in Australian cinema. It’s on DVD and it’s still available.
It’s still a great film. Whatever happens in my career from now on, if people dig it up I’m not embarrassed. I remember it to be a lot of pressure to be the lead in a movie, but I loved the music in it. There were lots of guitar-based classics – ‘Walking The Dog’, ‘All Day And All Of The Night’. ‘Calling All Angels’, that’s my favourite song. I love it.
So not long after the film is released, you decide to leave Australia and head to Los Angeles to further your career.
For everything that it was, I’m so glad that I did it. It was a pretty bold move. We’re talking around ’96. Ambition was a dirty word – you couldn’t be ambitious, particularly for a woman. I think that’s the difference nowadays, people actually embrace and really encourage ambition. Back then, all I wanted to do was be the best at what I could do, and everyone just thought I was crazy. So I decided to move to the US and in the US ambition is just, every second word. You can live, eat, breathe, sleep what you want to be, which was exactly what I wanted to do. But in the end, I turned 30 and I thought, what is it that I really want? I was looking at the people I admired and the sacrifices that they were making and I was just thinking, I just don’t think I can give up the other parts of what I want out of my life. So that’s when I decided to move home.
There is some folklore from the LA years… You did a column for women’s magazine New Idea about your adventures with Kym Wilson when you moved to Los Angeles. That was like my version of ‘Dynasty’ at the time. I can remember some of the sensationalist headlines, like ‘We almost got run over by Celine Dion!’ Well obviously that was because she bought the ‘Intimate’ album and heard your version of (1991 Celine Dion album track) ‘Halfway To Heaven’ then thought, ‘who’s this Aussie girl doing a better version of my song’?!
(laughs) We had so much fun, she’s still my closest friend in the whole wide world. We got up to all kinds of mischief, and that’s the fun thing about being an Aussie in a foreign land!
Did you record a song over there? I can remember in one of the columns you mentioned a dance track called ‘Abigail’.
I recorded a couple of songs. I was signed to Chrysalis and I recorded a song called ‘Abigail’, and something about ‘heaven’. I was originally signed to Chrysalis because this guy Reece really championed me. I was writing with people in New York, writing in LA. He took me to Chrysalis and said ‘I really think Toni has huge potential’. Because I was so desperate to create it, you go over there and at the time Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Torn’ was the biggest thing to hit the airwaves… ‘We think you’ve got to be Natalie Imbruglia’. And then Britney Spears comes out with ‘Baby One More Time’… ‘We think you’ve got to be Britney Spears’. And so that was my problem in the US. I could be all those things, but I ended up having, stylistically, a crisis because eventually I thought, I don’t even know what it is I want to do now. Then when I did all of my guitar songs, somebody heard them from Nashville and they were looking for the next Shania Twain. These are the things that happen! My record company’s going ‘give it a go’ and I’m like, well, I grew up singing country music because my manager’s husband is a country artist and I used to sing backup for him. And I said ‘okay, I’ll do the showcase for Nashville Chrysalis Music, as long as I get to do it at Capitol Studios’. And I was in Studio A at Capital Studios – I was more excited about that than I was about recording country music. For a month or so they were like ‘but is she the real deal?’ and we’re going ‘no, not really, but we’ll give it a go’.
The country girl from Cronulla!
Totally! So that happens and then I meet somebody who’s making dance music. When I was in LA, I’d seek out every dance club and be dragging all my friends to the gayest of gay clubs! I remember my girlfriends saying ‘this is the best, we’re having the best time!’ So then I thought maybe I’ll do dance. And when I came back to Australia after I said you know what, I’m moving home, I was writing on my guitar again and a friend of mine said I wanna record it, so he got some producers for me and I recorded [MySpace 2008 demo] ‘This Is Love’. Maybe one day music will come back into my life, I don’t know. There’s so much pressure put on you, especially when you’re at that level. I remember being in the US and so many people saying, ‘what are you doing there? You’ve got an amazing profile in Australia’. Even my parents didn’t understand. I had to do that, I had to explore it.
Coming back to Australia, there was ‘Australia’s Funniest Home Videos’, ‘Dancing With The Stars’, ‘Carols By Candlelight’… After ‘E Street’, that was the next big peak of your career.
When I came home, I was just thinking ‘what am I gonna do now?’ I was living in Kings Cross at the time and I remember reading that Kim Kilbey was leaving ‘Australia’s Funniest Home Videos’ and I thought, ‘I could do that’! Then just out of the blue from somewhere, a manager calls me and asked if I wanted to audition. I was there for five years. That was the best period of my life. I was working with the most amazing crew. I worked with an executive producer who I’m still friends with, Bryan Cockerill, I’m shooting a show for him right now called ‘Let’s Do Coffee’ all about café culture and how phenomenal it is. It’s very family friendly and he works around my commitments. But I loved ‘Australia’s Funniest Home Videos’ because I got to be in the writer’s room and work with the writers and learn about the pre-production side of things.
Thanks for talking to auspOp, Toni. You are one of the real survivors of that golden era of television soapies in Australia. ‘The Talent Co’ is a wonderful way to pass that experience on to kids who have the same aspirations as you did all those years ago.
That’s alright! I’ve lived it all, I’ve watched it all, I’ve been it all. I’ve got something to offer.
To learn more about Toni’s acting school The Talent Co, go to www.thetalentco.biz or www.facebook.com/thetalentcosydney.
To learn more about Toni’s television show ‘Let’s Do Coffee’, go to tenplay.com.au/channel-ten/lets-do-coffee.