Nearly 50 years after she debuted as a classically trained singer trying her hand at pop in Athens nightclubs, Nana Mouskouri remains a paragon of career consistency.
Where so many entertainers have come unstuck after dramatic image changes or abrupt shifts in style, 70-year-old Mouskouri has staked her fortunes on staying much the same: a bespectacled singer who has sold middle-of-the-road albums by the millions while avoiding the excesses of the celebrity life.
I tried to be a good girl because I was raised this way, Mouskouri said by telephone from the French resort town of St Tropez where, in keeping with her squeaky clean image, she had spent the previous evening performing at an Alzheimer’s benefit concert.
I tried to prove that there is love in the world, that there is peace.
But later, as if to unpick a carefully tended persona, Mouskouri made an astonishing claim.
I’m the most imitated artist in gay clubs in the world, she said matter-of-factly. I have been in many places that I am imitated, and very well imitated. There is in Belgium, there is in Holland, there is in France. I have even seen that in China.
But if you are popular there is always a way to be imitated. It has never bothered me. If you are nobody, they don’t imitate you.
The idea of the bespectacled 70-year-old trawling gay bars for glimpses of drag doubles seems mildly absurd.
But the gay connection -“ which Mouskouri says has been with her since she took to the stage in Athens clubs all those years ago -“ is only one of the Greek entertainer’s many aspects, it turns out.
Besides Nana the drag muse, there is Nana the philosopher, Nana the humanitarian and Nana the sometime politician.
And, of course, Nana the singer. After a 50-year career she insists the worldwide farewell tour she brings to Australia next month is about one thing.
I have been singing for 50 yeas now, and I never thought [retirement] would come that late, Mouskouri said of the One Last Song From Nana With Love tour that kicked off in Scandinavia earlier this year.
So I was very lucky, and as long as I was really in form I thought that it would be wonderful for one more last song in the way that I used to. I have a chance to say thank you very much nicely and to sing one more song happily together.
Like another evergreen icon, Cher, whose farewell tour stretched over three years and more than 300 performances, Mouskouri is embarking on a marathon finale that will take classics such as White Rose Of Athens and Turn On The Sun to all corners of the globe, from Europe and the US to South America and Asia.
She will reserve particular affection for Australian fans, who last saw her sing in 2001.
It’s one of the countries that has been very, very good to me. There was a time when I had about 19 records in the charts in Australia in the 1970s.
It was because there was a lot of love with the audience -¦ and this remained in my heart. Every time I came it was a wonderful experience and I really wanted before I finished, just for the last time, to sing that last song together.
For nostalgia value, however, it is difficult to resist Mouskouri’s career-closing concert, planned for 2007 in Athens, where the singer moved from Crete as a young child.
After classical musical training, Mouskouri turned to pop before beginning a collaboration with Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, whose gay love-themed songs she performed for an Athens club crowd.
He was in love with a young man, and was writing about the beauty that he looked [at] in this young man, and I was a girl singing for a young man, and it fitted perfectly, Mouskouri said.
Mouskouri would later leave Greece to settle in Switzerland, but says she remains very Greek.
However, any prospect of a bittersweet swansong in her homeland’s capital vanishes as Nana the philosopher makes her appearance.
I will not be sad, because I think that it has been so wonderful that I cannot be sad that it’s over. This is life, it’s justice. You start and you have a chance to do this. It has to have an end, all wonderful things have an end and I won’t be sad.
Instead, leaving music behind will allow Mouskouri to cultivate her other personas, not least Nana the humanitarian.
For the past 15 years, she has worked with UNICEF, the United Nations agency devoted to children.
Helping others is so important, especially [for] artists like me. I have received so much love in life, I really must give [back] somewhere all this energy and love that I received from the audience.
That might sound like the usual pop star guff, but Mouskouri has made good on her word, taking UNICEF field trips to Africa, Asia and South America.
She has even had occasion to meld her humanitarian interests with political pursuits.
As a member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 1999, Mouskouri advocated Greece’s closer integration with Europe, and lobbied for social and cultural causes.
But another Mouskouri persona -“ Nana the long-term politician -“ was not to be: the performer felt restricted by party politics (I wanted to be loyal to everybody) and missed singing.
She returned to the stage and began planning what was to be her farewell appearance in 2004, but now it ranks as one of the few disappointments of her career.
All my life I had dreamed that the Olympic Games would come back to Greece, Mouskouri said.
I always said: -˜I would like to sing the Olympic anthem, and that will be the last time I’d sing in my life.’
2004 was the year that I would become 70, so really I had all these reasons to finish up my career.
I really proposed what I wanted to do: to sing with children from UNICEF the Olympic anthem, but my proposition was refused.
It was a big disappointment for me, Mouskouri said, before shrugging off her sadness as Nana the philosopher emerged once more.
But then you become very wise, I think, and say: -˜This is life.’ Not everybody believes the same way you do and I’m not the only person in Greece.
At the end, it’s a new world. Maybe they had something else to show, so I accepted it.
[And] in the end many of the singers [at the Athens Olympics] sang many of my songs -¦ so in my mind I was there.
Nana Mouskouri performs One Last Song From Nana With Love at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on 4 September at 2pm and 8pm. For bookings call 136 100 or visit the Ticketmaster website