I have certainly been afraid – not only for myself but for my child
Singer and theatre actress Emily Williams says she has saved her best Bodyguard performance for Belfast audiences. She tells Gail Bell why she feels walking in the shoes of her character has helped bring new depth to the famous Whitney Houston in the hit musical
AN exhilarated Emily Williams is feeling like the ultimate Queen of the Night. And why shouldn't she? The previous evening she had channelled the powerhouse vocals of Whitney Houston, smashing song after song in The Bodyguard musical which opened its new UK and Ireland tour in Liverpool earlier this month.
The multi-platinum Australian recording artist – who is looking forward to her first visit to Belfast when the hit theatre show rolls into the Grand Opera House next week – had no qualms about stepping into the power heels of pop diva Rachel Marron, a role she has decidedly made her own.
"I played this role in Australia in 2017, but back then I was more excited to be singing the songs rather than understanding the character," she says.
"I think being a bit older and a bit wiser, being able to understand Rachel a little bit more – I think there's more depth now. I now feel this run of Rachel Marron is the best I'll ever give."
There are parallels, too, Williams says, with her own career in the public eye and the life of her stage persona – based on the character created for real-life tragic superstar, Whitney Houston, in Oscar-nominated film, The Bodyguard – who needs protection from an unknown stalker.
Understanding the pressures, the expectations, the fears and the highs and the lows has helped, she believes, "express those emotions" more authentically to an audience.
"I think I have walked a little in Rachel Marron's shoes, having experienced a similar sort of [celebrity] lifestyle," reflects the 38-year-old who first came to public attention through Australian Idol, finishing runner-up in 2005.
"I started out with church singing but I have been in the spotlight for 20 years now – and from a really young age – so I can identify with all the security measures needed, the risks, the crazy fans... and doing it all as a mother of a young child. I may not have experienced fear as deeply as my character, not to the point of death, but I have certainly been afraid – not only for myself, but for my child."
Her 'child', Asia, is now a grown-up young woman of 21 whom Williams supported by working as a forklift truck driver after leaving New Zealand and settling in Australia.
"People can't believe I did that and find it really funny," she says, sounding bemused herself, "but I bl**dy well did do it and, what's more, I loved it. I didn't know anybody in Australia when I first moved there and the priority was finding a solid, secure job to support my baby.
"I got a forklift truck licence and did forklift truck driving – it was the best job and the people were amazing. I used to work the graveyard shift from midnight to 7am and I would be picking up crates, racing through the aisles of a warehouse and having the time of my life."
Then, her older sister, Lavina – herself a well-known name in the entertainment industry having sung with successful New Zealand Polynesian group, Ma-V-Elle – made one fateful phone call that would park the forklift-truck-driving days for good.
"Lavina rang and basically asked me what I was doing," recalls Williams, who sang with her sister's group at a Tina Turner gig in New Zealand when she was just 13 – "I didn't really know the magnitude of that gig at the time but I remember Tina Turner being really nice to me"– but I told my sister I was happy and having the time of my life in a steady job.
"I said I was making good money and that my daughter and I were both fine, but she kept going on and asked me to just do her this one favour and go and audition for Australian Idol... so I did, and the rest is history.
"I didn't go back to my forklift trucks but I will never be ashamed of telling people that's what I did for a living."
There have been many highlights since and Williams, a Favourite Australian Female Artist nominee widely known as the 'Queen of the High Cs', fondly recalls her time with girl band, Young Divas, despite acknowledging that much of that time was a "pressure cooker" filled with "all the talents and all the emotions" you might expect from five strong-minded girls all forced to live together under one roof.
"We were one of the biggest girl groups ever to grace Australia, but at the time we didn't know how bl**dy successful we actually were," she says, laughing, "because we were too busy being bl**dy girls – bickering and arguing and generally behaving like young divas, I suppose.
"But, you put any five girls together in one house and leave them there for three or four months and something's going to go down... We had our moments, for sure, but that particular time in my career was great – it was certainly an experience I'll never forget and I am still very close to them all."
When Young Divas disbanded, she launched her solo career and the aim is to head back into the recording studio as soon as The Bodyguard tour ends early next year.
"I really enjoy life on the stage, but I have a lot to do back in Australia," reflects the singer who became the first Polynesian woman to be offered the female lead role in The Bodyguard musical.
"I love musical theatre with all my heart and I would never say 'Never' to another show, but my creativity first started in the studio and that's where I want to be when this tour ends.
"I can't wait to release new music but, for now, I am saving all my love – and energy – for The Bodyguard tour. It really is such an honour to be able to play this particular role because it not only highlights Whitney's songs, but also her acting and how she took on the [film] role when she was in a very vulnerable place in her life.
"I am so honoured to get to sing her hits on stage – songs like Queen of the Night, So Emotional and, of course, Greatest Love of All. Strangely, though, my favourite Whitney song is the one I don't get to sing myself in the show – Saving All My Love (performed by Emily-Mae as Nicki Marron) but you can't have everything."
:: The Bodyguard featuring Emily Williams, Emily-Mae and Ayden Callaghan is on stage at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, September 25-30. goh.co.uk