THE world has always been a stage for Fem Belling. It’s little wonder, then, that the vivacious singer and actress doesn’t hesitate when asked how she feels about her latest theatrical role in the one-woman production, Devine – The Sarah Vaughan Story.
“I absolutely love it!” she exclaims, her face lighting up. “I was never meant to be in the background. I like having the stage to myself!”
Clearly, the talented Belling, 35, was destined for a career positioned firmly in the spotlight. Born in Johannesburg to a South African jazz-pianist father and an Australian flamenco-dancer mother, Belling moved to Australia permanently five years ago.
“Everyone else was here,” she says simply, “My Dad and my brothers and my mother. Before that, I was in London living my dream, touring shows on the West End.”
Indeed, Green Room Award-nominated Belling spent five years treading the boards as a leading lady of the West End, with starring roles in hit musical productions such as Hairspray, Fame, Little Shop of Horrors and Cats.
She also performed for the Queen at a Royal Variety Show. Needless to say, Belling had the time of her life in the UK.
“I went over there with two weeks’ luggage – and what a ride it was!” she laughs, chatting over coffee at a Melbourne cafe. “When I got there, I met an amazing director who gave me my first break. She said ‘I see something in you’ and she gave me the freedom to do my thing.
“I’m not a good conformist and I don’t fit into a lot of categories. I’m big and I’m broad. But this director said, ‘Whatever you’ve got, I love it!’”
After moving to Australia, Belling also wasted no time making a name for herself on our shores. Before long, she had landed another role of a lifetime playing Liza Minnelli opposite Todd McKenney as Peter Allen in the hit musical, The Boy From Oz.
“That really was something else,” she reflects. “Todd is such an extraordinary performer. What a leading man!”
Now settled in Melbourne and madly in love with “an Aussie – a boy from the high country of Victoria”, Belling couldn’t be happier.
Receiving the prestigious Green Room nomination for her starring role in another musical – Genesis to Broadway – has been another career highlight.
But life certainly hasn’t been without its challenges for the songstress. Three years ago, in a devastating bolt from the blue, Belling was diagnosed with breast cancer. A year of intensive chemotherapy treatment followed, during which she lost her hair but never her overwhelming desire to perform.
“I never thought about losing my voice, but I was concerned that people might stop booking me,” she admits candidly. “When you are going through chemotherapy, it can make you sick but you are still going. I may have been tired and I may have felt ill, but I didn’t want people to discount me – to count me out.
“I said to people, ‘If I can’t do that gig, if it’s a bad week, I’ll let you know, but please keep phoning me’. Because, if I had had a year without singing, I felt that then I would have died. And people were amazing.”
Two years after completing her treatment, Belling is glowing with health and vitality. Certainly, she is relishing her latest role in Devine, which opened this week at Chapel Off Chapel in Prahran.
For Belling, stepping into the legendary shoes of late American jazz singer Sarah Vaughan – once described as having “one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century” – was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“It’s so exciting,” she says. “I had listened to a lot of Sarah Vaughan, as you do as a singer, but the process of learning all about her has been amazing for me. She was more incredible than I thought she was. She had perfect pitch. She could sing right from her ankles all the way up.”
Written by award-winning playwright Neil Cole, the Arts Events Australia production follows the journey of Vaughan’s remarkable rise to stardom, from her early beginnings singing with Ella Fitzgerald to her recordings with Mercury Records.
Belling, who is accompanied in the production by acclaimed composer, pianist and musical director Warren Wills, says: “It’s for people who love Sarah Vaughan’s music and who love jazz. Sarah chose to concentrate on music, as opposed to the political struggles of the time, but we talk about her life through the eyes of someone learning about Sarah.”
Does the energy-charged Belling ever suffer from stage fright these days?
She takes a moment before replying: “I think any performer would not be truthful if they said they really didn’t care what anyone thought, because that’s why we do it – to bring people into the arts. So that’s the only thing that I get nervous about. I just always really hope that they enjoy it.”
Devine – The Sarah Vaughan Story is at Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran, Melbourne until December 19. Bookings: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au
REPORT by Jackie Brygel
PHOTO of Fem Belling, who stars in the solo show, Devine – The Sarah Vaughan Story.