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Oceans of talent

Sun-Herald (Australia)
August 14, 2001
By Christing Sams

Acting, singing, dancing Natalie Mendoza has been on a steady road to stardom and now she's picking up speed, Christing Sams writes. Mendoza is drawing on her own experiences for her songwriting.

Right, with former 'first true love' David Campbell and 2000 Olympics sweetie Nikki Webster. Main picture: Steve Baccon

When Natalie Mendoza sat in a deckchair next to Harry Connick jnr on the set of South Pacific, she didn't have the courage to confess that his poster had been on her bedroom wall for years. Instead, the young Australian chatted with the American star about their shared passion for music and acting, before they stepped in front of the camera to film love scenes together for the big-budget telemovie.

Mendoza scored the lead role of Liat - a beautiful islander girl who captures the heart of an American sailor, Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Connick jnr). Rather than being overwhelmed by her experiences on the set in Queensland alongside Connick jnr and Glenn Close, Mendoza was calmly boosting her trajectory towards stardom.

The girl long known in Australia as "David Campbell's girlfriend" (they split up earlier this year) is making her own splash in the film and music industries after performing in films including Moulin Rouge and South Pacific, and scoring a three-record deal with Virgin/EMI.

Mendoza received strong reviews from the critics when South Pacific screened on television in the United States earlier this year. Her performance will be seen in Australia for the first time later this year, when the film is released in cinemas.

In the meantime, Mendoza, who turned 23 on the weekend, is writing songs for her debut album - and recovering from her heartbreaking split with Campbell. "It's thrown me a little bit, but I'm trying to be strong. I'm attempting to move upwards and onwards," said Mendoza, forcing back tears. "He was my first true love, and I get very emotional about it. But I am determined to move on and I promised myself I wouldn't cry. It's been a hard time."

Mendoza is reluctant to reveal details but admits she took a break from her career to try to rescue the relationship while Campbell was performing in the musical Shout!. "I wanted to support him in every way and we made the decision together," she said. "But now I see David as an eagle who had to fly and I was left watching on the mountain. Occasionally, an eagle has to return to its mountain and he knows I'll always be here for him."

Considering her long-term relationship with Campbell, the son of singer Jimmy Barnes, and her longstanding recognition within the arts community for stage roles in Cats and Les Miserables, it's a surprise to realise Mendoza is still in her early 20s. Her name filtered into social pages when she began dating Campbell five years ago after they met on Les Miserables.

She gained accolades for her performances on stage, but it's a burgeoning film career which has helped Mendoza move swiftly into Sydney's A-list. After months on the set of Moulin Rouge, she even feels comfortable calling Nicole Kidman "a big dag". "Nicole was really funny, she was just an Aussie girl," Mendoza said. "She was unaffected, with a daggy, Aussie sense of humour. Of course, she looks immaculate, but she's just a big dag."

Mendoza has all the ambition of a young Kidman, but she is also determined to remain down-to-earth in the face of impending stardom. "Of course, I'd love to have that kind of success," she said. "But someone being a star doesn't mean they're the most incredible talent or most amazing person. It just means they've got a great publicity machine behind them.

"It's very important for me to be real. If I can be a star and remain true to myself, then fantastic. But if I have to sacrifice who I really am, I won't do it." All this talk of stardom is not a product of her own ego. Industry insiders have already touted her as a "next big thing" and she has scored a high-powered publicist in Sydney's Maria Farmer.

"It's a very exciting time for me. I've been given the freedom and support to fulfil my creativity," she said. "But as an Asian actor, I'm not your typical Hollywood babe. I'm not here to be some beautiful, perfect goddess. I want to relate to people on an ordinary, honest level."

Ask Australians about Mendoza and they might raise a quizzical eyebrow. Her name probably sounds familiar, but they can't quite place it. In 12 months fans will probably be gushing about her before being asked. After scoring her record contract, she is set to become a high-profile music artist in addition to her regular appearances on film and TV.

She has already experienced brief chart success, two years ago with older sister Rebecca, as the pop duo Jackson Mendoza. The sisters supported acts including Sporty Spice (Mel C) and Venga Boys before choosing separate career paths. The pair remain extremely close after surviving a horrific stabbing incident in 1999, where Rebecca was attacked by her estranged husband Marlon Brand - who later committed suicide. Mendoza saved her sister from the attack, and much of her maturity has stemmed from coping with such an unexpected, traumatic situation.

After going solo (with Rebecca's blessing), Mendoza attracted keen interest from several record labels, and her album deal has focused much of her attention on songwriting. "I want to write and talk about experiences which are real to me, so I've got a lot to write about now." Does that mean Campbell is in her musical firing line? "It's been great therapy for me," she said. "Writing has helped me realise some important things. When you're with someone it's not about putting on a front or wearing a costume. It's about being real and honest."

Music has been flowing through Mendoza's veins since birth. Her father, Noel Mendoza, is a jazz musician, and Natalie is the third of six children - most of them performers. "Our family wasn't the Brady Bunch. We did so much travelling and performing, it was almost like vaudeville."

Mendoza was born in Hong Kong and moved to Sydney when she was five. After she attended primary school at Concord West, her family moved to Melbourne. "Growing up I was actually very shy. Despite the musical genes, no-one ever thought I'd become a performer," she said. "I felt very safe on stage, probably because I couldn't see anyone in the audience. as soon as I was on stage I became something else."