Teaching inmates to sing has been one of the entertainer’s career highlights, as Aroha Awarau finds out.
Kiwi entertainer Tina Cross has been in show business for more than four decades. The 62-year-old has been a professional performer since she was 16 and continues to entertain throughout Aotearoa. But among the many highlights of a distinguished career that has seen her win first place in the 1979 Pacific Song Contest, a Royal Command performance in 1980 and the award of an ONZM in 2008, she rates teaching prisoners among her proudest achievements.
Becoming a tutor and devising a singing programme for inmates in men’s and women’s prisons across Auckland and Northland has satisfied her long-held wish to help others.
As a child, Tina always wanted to be a social worker, and that desire has been fulfilled in her Power of Song workshops to help refocus and rehabilitate prisoners.
“I truly believe this is one of the best things I have ever done,” says the entertainer, who grew up in Ōtara, South Auckland.
“I’ve always had a natural attraction to humanitarian issues. It was the first time I had done something that was outside the box. As a professional singer and being around for years you get locked into the same routine and you don’t tend to learn much more about yourself.
“Working with prisoners, helping them to discover their voices made me open up and share emotionally. It’s been a meaningful and satisfying experience.”
Sadly, Tina’s five-year contract for this groundbreaking prison programme is coming to an end and her classes took a long hiatus because of Covid-19. But it’s something that she hopes will continue.
“Many of the inmates were middle-aged and had followed my career and so I received the utmost respect… some of the younger ones didn’t know me from a bar of soap, but that didn’t matter. There were some brilliant soloists and the programme gave them a boost of confidence.”
Tina continues to help those in need by being an ambassador for Women’s Refuge New Zealand and juggles her advocacy work around her busy performing career and family duties, which include spending as much time as she can with her 18-month-old granddaughter, Bobbie Lee.
Tina also regularly performs with her best mates Jackie Clarke and Suzanne Lynch as The Lady Killers. They held a very special concert in Auckland in July to celebrate 16 years of performing together and it was a sell-out show.
“Performing with The Lady Killers makes me feel like I’m performing with my sisters. Growing up, my sister Martha and I wanted to be The Chicks,” Tina laughs. Suzanne was part of the ’60s girl group so Tina’s childhood dream has, in a roundabout way, been partly fulfilled.
“We have been able to sing together for a very long time because we are lovers of harmony singing. Individually, we are fine, but if you put us all together, then the sound we make is amazing. Being in The Lady Killers is like playing in a great sports team. We play to our strengths and we always have to rely on each other.”
Despite a punishing work schedule, Tina has always kept a good bill of health. So she was shocked when she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and needed a hip replacement.
“With natural ageing, I’ve always been someone who has really taken care of my health, fitness, diet and nutrition. I over-supplement. For me to suffer from any health crisis is major. I tend to have a little tanty when something is wrong with me. When I started having hip problems I went through the ‘how could this be happening to me?’ routine. I think sometimes it’s good to have a wake-up call.”
For years, Tina tried alternative treatment to manage her hip pain and went to Australia for stem cell treatment. But her hip was getting worse. Last year, she realised that she had to bite the bullet and have hip replacement surgery.
“I was in denial for a very long time, thinking I’m too young to have a hip replacement but now I highly recommend it. I did all the right things leading up to it and all the right things afterwards – physical, gym work, pool work. I wanted to make sure that I was covering all my bases and that I was fit enough to get back on stage as soon as possible.”
Tina has come back with a vengeance. She not only performed in a show to welcome in 2022 but in February she will also be acting in North Shore Music Theatre’s production of Wicked, in the role of Madame Morrible.
Wicked is one of the longest-running musicals on Broadway, its origins going back to the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It focuses on witches in the land of Oz.
“This is the first time I’ll be playing a character my own age,” says Tina, who is often cast in younger roles.
“I’ve finally grown into myself. This is how old I am and I’m going to embrace it.”
This production of Wicked was set to premiere in Auckland in September last year but was rescheduled due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
This is not the first time that the pandemic has greatly impacted Tina’s life. During the lockdown in 2020, her mother, Phyllis, 88, died suddenly of a stroke in Australia. Tina and her whānau had to travel in the midst of strict protocols and four weeks of managed isolation to bring her mother home.
The whānau wanted a traditional Māori tangi and burial at their marae in the Northland settlement of Ngātaki. But, because of the pandemic, they had to have their mother’s body cremated in order for her to be returned to Aotearoa, meaning she couldn’t have the traditional farewell she had wanted.
“My mother was one of the most quietly staunch, determined, strongest women I knew. It was difficult to get much out of her. She didn’t suffer fools. Everyone used to say that I was the one that Mum listened to.
“Our whanau are not the only ones who suffered a death during lockdown. It was difficult being Māori and not being able to give our mum a tangi and have all of her children, grandchildren and relatives celebrate her life. But I have a real sense that my mother knows we did the best we could and that she’s okay.”
This month, Tina will turn 63, and she can’t wait for the next chapter of her life.
“I’m just blessed and thankful that I’m happy and I’m enjoying all of the things that I’m doing.”