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Date: 06/03/1994
Words: 1556
          Publication: The Sun Herald
Section: News and Features
Page: 135
WHEN Toni Pearen quit the soapie E Street to become a singer, it wasn't so much failure - or even success - that she feared. It was more the sneers of a public increasingly irritated by the flood of young actors scrambling to follow in the footsteps of Kylie Minogue.

Eighteen months later, on the verge of her return to soap, Pearen's just as worried. Will people think she's failed as a singer? Will they see it as a cowed return to her first career? Will they never take her music seriously again?

She takes a handful of her long brown hair and twists it around her fingers. "People are always so ready to jump on you when you are doing well for yourself," she says, gloomily.

"They're much more ready to find your faults than your strengths. It does put a lot of pressure on you."

But let's not put the squeeze on too much sympathy for Pearen. At that magical age of 21, she's already done more than most people twice her years -and she isn't finished yet.

After all, the big breaks came early for the young woman with the baby blue eyes and teeth straight out of a toothpaste ad who started singing and dancing lessons at the age of five.

As an eight-year-old, she was plucked from her dance class chorus line to become one of Sydney's famed Keane Kids. At 17, she won a key role in the new TV soap E Street that for a while topped the ratings and still shows in Britain. At 20, she recorded her first single which achieved gold status and a second that stayed for weeks in the top 10.

Now she stands on the verge of another brave new world. Her first album comes out next month, together with a new single, and she starts a new eight-week role in the top-rating show Home And Away.

But is she happy? Well, yes, she is. Yet she still can't stop worrying.

"I've just got to keep working," she says, curling up in the chair at her record company's Sydney office, tucking her feet inside her simple black crepe dress.

"I like working. I'm not one of those people who like to sit at home because I think all the time. Yes, and worry too. I hate to admit it but I'm pretty much obsessed by what I do.

"I'm always thinking of the next move because so much of my life has been performing and it's so important for me not to make the wrong career move. Since I was eight, I've been studying so hard to progress to this stage and further, I don't want to jeopardise it. When I was a kid, all my friends were having a good time being teenagers, I was out performing and travelling the country."

Bang goes the illusion of some pretty but empty-headed kid thrust on to stage by pushy parents, given a microphone by an ambitious manager and told to sing along with an electronic backing tape - "because your voice can be taken out later" - all to become some spoilt, vacuous, teenie star.

No, Pearen has worked damned hard to get where she is. Record company Mushroom reckons she did well over 1,000 live shows even before the release of her first single, the funky In Your Room. By her second, the soulful I Want You, she'd ranged the length and breadth of Australia on promotion alone.

Pearen, however, always used to reckon she simply hadn't had it hard enough. In the spare time between dancing, singing and acting classes, the schoolgirl with stars in her eyes always had doubt in her heart. She devoured magazine stories about poor kids come good. The youngsters who grew up with nothing to overcome incredible odds and earn fame, success and a small fortune made her simply despair.

For her youth had been storybook perfect, with two devoted parents and a loving younger brother. And, as everyone knows, they're the ones who never make it.

"I've got a great family, they are so supportive," says Pearen, smiling.

"I'm really lucky. But I read and heard all those stories about people who've come from the wrong side of the tracks and had to fight their way to the top. They're great stories, but it's not like that for me. I have no tragic stories. I've always been lucky, always had so much support."

Those who know Pearen, however, ask what luck's got to do with it. It's far more a case of an unquenchable enthusiasm, a voracious appetite for hard work and a clear vision of where she wants to be. She could have played safe, stayed with soap and saved herself some of the worry.

"I was so apprehensive when I left E Street to go back into music," says Pearen, who lives on Sydney's North Shore with actor boyfriend Mat Stevenson, who's just signed off from Home And Away.

"In the last year, I'd been getting really frustrated because I didn't have time for all that sort of stuff. I didn't have time to sing with my band at weekends and I didn't have time to do all the stuff I really, really wanted to do. So when the opportunity came, I was ready.

"There were things I was worried about, like not earning money and not having the family around me all the time, but I was so ready. That's why it worked so well, because I really wanted to do it. You have to give 100 per cent to what you are doing all the time. If you've got fingers in 10 different pies, you're going to make a mess."

That her singles did so well took Pearen completely by surprise, nevertheless. It wasn't that she didn't believe in herself, it was just she'd thought the stigma of being a soapie star turned singer might have been too strong to overcome.

"It was amazing," she says, shaking her head at the memory. "The enthusiasm picked me up and carried me all around Australia. I had a ball."

And always, there in the background, was her tight-knit little family, ever ready to congratulate her when she was up - and console her when she was down

Her father, electrician Ray, gave Pearen her singing voice, she reckons. He sings jazz but has never done so professionally. Her mum, Marilyn, who had several careers before finally working as a nurse, gave her the eagerness always to try new things. Her brother, 20-year-old university student Adam, gives her the security of knowing she'll always have a best mate.

Pearen freely admits there were times she didn't do her best by them.

"I can't ever remember being a show-off, I always liked to keep it to myself," she says.

"I don't like giving impromptu performances. I was never like that. Mum would always say, 'Sing us that song |' but I would never get up and sing. Yes, I know they paid for all those lessons for me, but I was always too embarrassed. It must have been so frustrating for them."

Her parents, though, always forgave her.

"I can't remember the number of times I've been to mum's house and cried my eyes out because I wanted something that I couldn't attain," says Pearen, sheepishly.

"And the number of times I've arrived at gigs and heard, 'Hi babe |' and they've been there. They always have constructive criticism too. Sometimes it's hard to take but I trust their judgment. Dad will say all the technical stuff like I sang something a bit sharp. Mum will say she didn't like my hair."

That closeness to her family is what saved her, she believes, from succumbing to the terrible pressures of finding fame at such a young age. There have been hard times, but her supportive network of family, manager of 13 years Linda Keane and boyfriend Mat - no, she insists, she's not the marrying kind - have always softened the blows.

"I never dreamt I would get a break so early," says Pearen, of her E Street start as young Toni Windsor who, during her three-and-a-half years in the show, gets pregnant, has a miscarriage, gets married then has an affair.

"I had this picture in my head of leaving school and trying a bit of amateur stuff and getting together with bands but the opportunity came along and threw things a bit. It's the most incredible thing to happen to a young person, but to be thrown into the limelight like that is difficult.

"I found press a really hard thing because I'm a talker and would tell them a lot of things I didn't really want them to know about. Some of the scenes I had to do were pretty testing too, like when my character fell pregnant. I found that very difficult because I was so young, I didn't even have a boyfriend.

"It's hard too with your friends. You're on television every week and all your friends are watching and you have to say, 'Hey guys | I'm still the old Toni. I still want to hang out'. I was worried if I made a mistake, it would be such a public one.

"I never wanted to be a star. I just really loved the business and wanted to be the best I possibly could."

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