Close up: I am Rachel
Rachel Hiew glides into the lobby of the Estrel Hotel Berlin ponytail swinging and smile wide. She lives just outside Berlin and there’s often traffic on the way into the city, she says breathlessly, her accent unmistakably British, to explain why she’s ever so slightly late. “I’m always pressed for time”, she laughs, her voice velvety and dark as she quickly makes her way backstage.
Tonight, she’s starring in “Thank you for the music – the ABBA story”, a live show featuring 22 songs from the legendary Swedish pop group ABBA. In just a few moments, the singer will trade her jacket, jumper and blue jeans for hotpants, a belly-baring sequin top, legwarmers and silver platform boots. It takes one and a half hours for dark-haired Rachel to become blonde Agnetha. Striking blue glitter eyeshadow and false lashes are part of the make-up regimen before Rachel winds her waist-length hair around her head and tucks it under the cut-off foot of a stocking. She places the real-hair blonde wig with a 70s-era blowout on her head. Where wigs are concerned, Rachel learned the tricks of the trade from watching drag queens; she knows how to make sure her wig won’t slip when she moves and how to darken the hairline to create a more natural look.
“30 minutes to showtime”, announces the stage manager. Rachel warms up with a few scales. Her mezzo soprano vocal range covers nearly four octaves, a breathtaking spectrum that allows her to portray a remarkable array of artists. Since 1999, she’s appeared as Cher, Jennifer Lopez and Amy Winehouse in the “Stars in Concert” show at the Estrel Berlin. Rachel says she’s particularly fascinated by Amy and the angst she so powerfully portrayed in her lyrics. When Rachel performs, she’s not just donning a costume, she’s also putting on a persona. With all her talent, hasn’t she ever dreamed of a solo career? Sure, she says, she’d dreamed of becoming famous as Rachel Hiew. As a child, Rachel, who was born in London to a Chinese father from Hong Kong and an Irish mother, always wanted to be on stage. She attended the Arts Educational Schools London on an Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Scholarship, and in 1990 was named the “Best All-Round Student” for performance, dance and voice. “I was too inexperienced back then”, says the 46-year-old, whose youthful appearance belies her age. Still very much in demand as a performer, her career has taken her to the English National Opera and Royal Albert Hall, among other places. She’s had roles in Grease, Cabaret and Evita as well as in the hit series EastEnders.
“Ten minutes to go”, calls the stage manager. After all these years in front of a crowd, Rachel still gets stage fright. She says it gives her an extra edge; she doesn’t want to disappoint the audience: “As a lookand- sound-alike artist, I’ve got to bring more than just the voice. The audience wants every detail to be just so.” Before they start making minute comparisons, it’s her job to sweep them off their feet. It’s the rare performance when she doesn’t have the audience wrapped up in the moment.
She’s got two and a half hours on stage and six costume changes ahead of her. Hopefully it’ll all go smoothly. Recently, during a performance of “Honey, Honey”, her blue crochet cap got caught on her singing partner Frida’s hairpin, and it took some serious manoeuvring and a firm hand to disentangle the two. It will be near midnight when Rachel gets back in her car to drive to her home on the outskirts of the city. She’ll catch up with her husband, Chris, a musician
she met in Berlin in 1994. “It’s hard to come back down”, she says. She eats dinner, showers and has a cup of tea before she’s able to fall asleep – usually not before three in the morning. Some days, she wakes bleary-eyed, which doesn’t stop her from making sure both of her daughters get to school and taking the family’s two mutts on a two-hour walk each day. She thinks of it as her fitness program for the physical demands of the stage.
She’s long thought of Berlin and Brandenburg as home and cherishes their multifaceted characters. A committed vegetarian, she raves about Berlin’s Schöneberg neighbourhood, where you can find the city’s best falafel at the Winterfeldtmarkt and her favourite restaurant, the Greek taverna "Ousia". Rachel loves the Berlin scene, and on days when she’s not on stage, she performs with her bands Disco Inferno and the soul-brass group Power Unit. Her greatest fear is coming down with a colo, especially since there’s only one understudy for Agnetha – and she lives in London. Laryngitis is a real doozy, since it means singing is off the table. Then, the only thing for it is lozenges, steam inhalation and plenty of sleep.
“Three minutes to go!” Rachel briefly purses her lips. Once again, she’s feeling pressed for time. “It gets your adrenaline going”, she says. Rachel grins and calls to her colleagues, “Have a good one!” As the band plays the opening notes to “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, she does one last stretch, takes a deep breath and walks onstage.
The interview was conducted by Birgit von Heintze,
author and lifestyle journalist