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The fame game

At 19, The Voice star Harrison Craig desperately wants to hit the big time. But can he outlive the hype? Amanda Hooton reports.

It's only 11am, but Harrison Craig is busy, busy, busy. In less than an hour, he's bought three pairs of underpants ($49.95 each), a pair of beige chinos ($119), and two white-collared shirts ($95 a pop). He's considered the thorny sartorial problems of where to find a proper denim shirt, what constitutes a casual shoe, and whether it's permissible to wear a garment featuring nautical stripes and anchor detailing when you are, in fact, planning to board a nautical vessel that possesses an anchor. Now he's standing in an exclusive menswear shop, examining a thin woollen jersey. He's slim, with small, fine hands, and he's wearing a fitted maroon jumper with a shirt and tie, tight black pants and shiny Florsheim shoes. He looks strikingly, almost abnormally neat. "I need shorts," he says pensively. "Shorts in winter." Suddenly he turns. "Do you think two pairs of sunglasses is excessive?"

Craig turned 19 last week. He has been famous for three months. When he won reality talent show The Voice in June, his success story rested on three things: his undoubtedly beautiful, big-band crooner voice; the stutter he's had since kindergarten; and the fact that his father walked out on his family when Craig was five. In three days' time, he flies to LA for songwriting meetings; then to New Zealand to perform. And in between he's been invited to "hang out" on a private yacht off Sardinia with his coach from the show, British singer Seal.

Harrison Craig has always known he's going to be famous. Now that he is, he feels not awe or disbelief, but a sense of "coming home". And this is just the beginning. "I just know it's going to happen, and it's going to be huge," he says, carefully refolding the jersey. "The first time I went on stage for The Voice, I have never in my life felt so calm. It was one of those zen moments: 'I am at peace. Nothing can touch me.' "

He smiles, his long feathery eyelashes catching the light. "It's where I belong."

Craig's mother, Janine Cochrane, can still remember Harrison singing in the back of the car as a tiny kid; she had no idea he had a stutter until he was four. "I just thought he was learning to form words," she recalls. "It was actually his kindy teacher who spotted it. So we got him some help, but I've never treated it as a major thing."

Cochrane, a former professional ice-skater now working in office admin, is a very positive-sounding woman with a warm, inclusive voice: in conversation, she often responds with "Exactly, exactly", or "absolutely". I mention Craig's stutter seems barely noticeable these days. "Exactly," she says. "I have brought both my boys up saying, 'There is nothing you can't do.' People say, 'Well, they couldn't be brain surgeons,' but I say, 'If that was their passion, they could be very good brain surgeons.' "


You might argue that becoming a "global recording artist", as Harrison described it during his audition, is considerably more difficult than becoming a brain surgeon, but not with Cochrane. "I know it will happen for him," she says. "I've actually said to him from the age of about 14, 'Harrison, you are going to be very big in singing.' There's no one I can think of in the world who sings like him. I truly believe he's going to be bigger than Elvis. His beautiful tones, the diction, the clarity."

The poignant detail about this clarity (clearly evident to TV producers), is that it's the result of a neurological tic: when he sings, Craig has no stutter at all. "Yeah," he says easily. "But I've never really been conscious of that. Maybe on a subconscious level it was part of the reason I enjoyed singing, but I never thought about it."

The same pragmatism (anathema to TV producers) also seems to apply to his father's desertion. "I don't remember anything different, so it's never been a loss," is how Craig puts it. "I really feel indifferent, to be honest."

Reality TV, of course, does not thrive on well-adjusted contestants who deal sensibly with life's problems - which is probably why we've heard so many stories about his childhood of "hardship and pain". "Well, as far as my dad goes, I'm a bigger man than what he is; he's got nothing on me, so that's all right," says Craig. "[And my stutter] didn't really hinder me." Attending primary school in the middle-class suburb of Glen Waverley, he did get teased, "and you do feel really quite alienated - it's really hurtful. I came home from school crying." But once he got to high school, in Bayside, things improved. "If I was doing a speech at school, no one was going 'Oh my god, you suck.' It was fine."

It's 8am in a windy school quadrangle in the west of Sydney. Harrison Craig has just sung live on radio and now he's moving to a CD-signing table. A great wave of green-uniformed teenage girls surges after him, leaving a large sign and two wheelie bins upended in their wake.

Being a music star - his live gigs will graduate from shopping-centre stages to a national concert tour starting later this month - may sound glamorous, but on a 7°C day in deep suburbia, any hint of celebrity gloss has long since dropped slain at the school gates. Yet Craig powers on, his voice as polished as his preternaturally shiny shoes. At the signing table, he smiles brightly at his first two fans: a grandma with her glasses on a chain, and a mother dressed inexplicably in a large tiger onesie. Ten minutes of texta-flourishing and selfie-participation later, he's hustled into the principal's office, where little groups of people keep bursting in. "This is Chantelle! She was here at 5am! Where's your phone, Chantelle?!" Craig handles it all with great aplomb, signing intently and giving Chantelle a careful hug.

I truly believe he's going to be bigger than Elvis.

His appeal is undeniable: he's gentle, polite, non-threateningly metrosexual. He's wearing stage make-up, which he carries in a little bag, and he uses expressions like "Cool beans!" When a record company girl produces a Robert Downey jnr picture on her phone, announcing, "My future husband!", Harrison says, "No, mine! You're already married! He's mine!"

Hmmm, I think. (For the record, Craig says he isn't gay. "I'm into women," he says, rather sweetly. "It's just that Robert Downey's so cool, everybody wants to marry him." Thinking about Iron Man, I have to admit this is completely true.)

We sweep onwards, out to the record company car. Craig puts down his make-up bag, politely refuses his Boost Juice ("It's warm? Um, maybe I'll just leave it, thanks") and calls his manager, Alfred Tuohey, about his accountant. "I don't think many people are interested in what they earn gross, then how much tax they pay and what they claim and stuff like that," he says, a sense of steely attention appearing on his soft face. "That's what I'm interested in.

"You've got to be totally professional. You have to kill it - not only smash it out of the ballpark every time you have a performance, but look sharp, talk sharp, act sharp, sign your albums in such a way that people go, 'God, he's good.' "

Craig signs his album with the word "Always", followed by a graceful rehearsed squiggle. Such attention to detail feels surprising in someone so young, but it also feels genuine. Perhaps because of his father's desertion, Craig appears more grown-up - that dreaded word "mature" seems appropriate - about his career than most 19-year-olds. "I'd say so, to a degree," concedes Craig, suddenly sounding about 45. "Maybe you take on the man-of-the-house responsibility, something of that nature."

According to his mum, he was always aware of the sacrifices she made for private singing lessons, which he's had since he was 11. "Oh yes, he was always very committed: he knew it wasn't easy for us. I did get the sole-parent help; I got nothing [from Craig's father], ever. Ever. But I put so much away each week, and I did it."

When he won The Voice, Craig received $100,000, a recording contract with Universal Music Australia, and a Ford car. His face lights up as he talks about this windfall - he filled the car with champagne and gave it to his mum - and he suddenly looks much younger than 19.

At lunch he talks excitedly about how much he loves Seal (he recently bought him a Cartier bangle, to match the one Seal gave him before the final); how he wants to drive an Audi R8 (aka Robert Downey jnr's car in Iron Man) to Vegas from LA; how it's surely possible to get from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Eiffel Tower and back again during a two-and-a-half hour layover. Sitting opposite him, Tuohey, a tall, gentle-seeming man, looks slightly alarmed. "This is the guy who missed the last two flights he had to take on his own," he points out.

"Oh, well, there was a car on fire on the Nepean Highway," says Craig airily.

"Yes ..." begins Tuohey.

"I turned the engine off for, like, 45 minutes! And then that other time a truck had toppled."

"It's hard though, the last two flights you take ..."

"Did I tell you I got some white shirts? You know how I had none the other day?"

"The other day you bought 29 items. And yet you have no white shirts?"

Craig narrows his eyes, which makes his eyelashes tangle together, and grins. Craig's smile is like Julia Roberts': it seems to show every tooth in his head. I see it again after lunch, when I ask him about this notion of the "global recording artist". What does it really mean to him? "Justin Timberlake: global," he explains, dazzling me with his molars. "Michael Jackson: global. Whitney Houston: global. They're all classy acts, but they're all unique as well. That's what I want."

These people are also among the highest-grossing music artists the world has ever seen. Does he have any doubts, I wonder? Does he have a plan if, horror of horrors, he fails to become one of the most successful entertainers of all time? He pauses. "I guess I thought about it before The Voice," he admits. "But someone on the show had a really good comment, which was that if you have a back-up plan, you're not totally committed."

But even Seal, I point out, has an architecture degree: he's had a pretty solid back-up plan. Craig's eyes light up at the mention of Seal. (His mum admits that when Seal calls, "We'll be in the car and he'll say, 'It's Seal!' and I have to turn off the radio and go totally silent.") "Yeah!" he says now. "But I guess he's the exception that proves the rule."

What are the chances that Harrison Craig will be another exception that proves the rule? That he will, indeed, become a genuine star, independent of TV ratings or public-relations hype or the 15-minute frenzy of fame?

To be brutally honest, virtually none. The Voice has been hugely successful as a TV show: it's franchised in 50 countries and has showcased the talents of more than 1000 artists. And yet none of these artists has gone on to have global careers; or even significant national careers. Not a single one.

"Once the show is over, the hard job begins," acknowledges Peter Karpin, general manager of A&R (artists and repertoire) with Universal Music Australia, who has more than 40 years of experience in the industry. "The focus on the artist subsides, and then it becomes about having that never-ending drive that gets you through the peaks and valleys of any music career."

It's not that there's anything necessarily wrong with The Voice. "For Harrison, it's cut out years of trying to get a deal: recording, submitting demos, networking," says Tuohey. If you like reality talent shows, The Voice is a good one: the blind audition, the kind judges, the surprisingly close relationships between contestants and mentors. Seal, for instance, seems to have taken a real interest in Craig - texting him during his shopping centre tour, setting up meetings for him in LA, and, most recently, inviting him onto the boat possessing the anchor off the coast of Sardinia. "It will go down as one of the highlights of my life," he's said of Craig's win, with a celebrity's fine disregard for hyperbole.

The fact is, all Australian reality talent shows appear to be equally dubious as career kickstarters. The Voice has the excuse of being a new franchise (it began here only in 2011), but what do we have to show for a decade of Australian Idol, Australia's Got Talent, The X-Factor? Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll, Jessica Mauboy. No one who could, in even the most poetic sense, claim to be a global artist.

Yet none of this matters to Harrison Craig - and nor should it, perhaps. He lists among his musical influences Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. As a young man, Frank Sinatra survived a stint as a professional boxer, an arrest for having an affair with a married woman, and a job as a riveter in a shipyard. By 19, Bennett had lost an adored father and been drafted into an army unit that fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Neither was a singer, let alone famous (though, by god, they had good stories), so in comparison, perhaps Craig is doing quite well. At 19, who cares about gloomy predictions or stories of I-told-you-so failure? At 19, the world is your oyster, and anything is possible.

Except that at 19, perhaps, you're less equipped to deal with failure than you'll ever be again. So how will Craig cope if things don't, in fact, go global? If the phone stops ringing; if people stop caring; if Westfield wants someone else to perform their own special version of Michael Bublé?

Take Karise Eden. Remember her? She won The Voice last year, hailed as "the voice of a generation". By March this year, she'd sunk so far from public view that she had to remind people via Facebook that she hadn't quit the industry altogether; in April she was reportedly so strapped for cash she tried to sell the car she'd won (it was allegedly swiftly withdrawn from sale at the behest of her record company). I tried to contact her. "Karise is not available at the moment," her PR replied, "but I can tell you that she's in a very creative phase, enjoying writing new material here and overseas."

Who knows what this means. But what it seems not to mean is, "She's sold a million records, the world's at her feet, and she is, unequivocally, a global recording artist."

Part of the pathos of Eden's story was the reappearance of her estranged mother during the season. In Craig's case, it's his father: what if he re-entered his life, alerted by the sudden flare of fame? Would this be a happy moment, or a potential emotional bombshell for him and his family?

"I highly doubt he would turn up," says Craig, leaning back. "Even if he did, I wouldn't be worried. I'd be like, 'Hey, how's life,' sort of thing. He could never hurt me."

Truth, or teenage swagger? Janine Cochrane, for her part, seems - for the first time - uncertain. "I really, don't ... I just don't know what would happen," she says, her voice flattening. "Because I don't know where he is, or anything. If he shows his face, we'll deal with it then, but Harrison is very aware that he left us, and left us quite abruptly, and we never heard another word. So Harrison will take that according to how he feels. I'm confident he'll be able to handle it, if it should happen. But I really don't know."

At the end of the day, that's the truth. About family, and fame. Nobody knows. None of us knows what will happen next, or where Harrison Craig will be in a year, or a decade, or a lifetime. None of us - not even a 19-year-old who thinks the world's at his feet - knows how this story will end.

Lead-in photograph by James Geer. Grooming by Bradwyn Jones. Styling by Hayley Callander. Harrison wears Topshop suede jacket, Calibre shirt, Hugo Boss pocket square, Dior Homme tie from Assin, AG Vedic slim pants, Calibre tie belt. Microphone from retromicrophones.com

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