I still remember the first time I met Delta Goodrem in 2002. To be honest, I’d turned up not expecting terribly much. Earlier that week a Sony Music publicist had rung, asking for something of a favour. The label would be launching a talented 16-year-old singer-songwriter, they said. She would first appear on Neighbours, with her debut single following soon after. She was a big priority, the publicist semi-pleaded, before swearing this would be worth my time as well as something that would be remembered down the line.
Arriving at a café in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, I found myself sitting opposite a sweet, self-possessed young blonde who, if she was nervous, gave no clues. Her slightly gravelly voice belied her youth and innocent aura. She was inquisitive. She asked me a lot of questions about myself and seemed genuinely interested in the answers. I wrote a small piece, filed it the next day and didn’t think much more of it. Chances are, I thought, she’d be just one of the many young soap starlets to release a pop song only to disappear into the ether.
And then Delta’s career exploded.
More than 20 years, a swag of awards and multiple hit records later, this time I was the one who had done all the pleading and negotiating, hoping for an opportunity to chronicle the latest steps in Delta’s impressive career. Our shoot and interview had been months in the planning, her international touring schedule so hectic I was unsure if we’d manage to get things over the line.
And yet – as I’ve always marvelled when chatting with someone whose belief in herself was so unwavering that at 12 she self-funded the recording of an album – that overriding sense of sweetness remains. Since then she’s been through plenty, good and bad, but appears remarkably unjaded. Her curiosity about the lives of those around her remains – she spends our shoot peppering the team with questions, and is invested in the answers. And when I bring up that long ago first meeting, she surprises me with her response.
“It’s funny that you share that with me because I also remember speaking with you,” she says with a grin.
“I always remember your name in that chapter because I was just a kid starting out. I was taking everything in. I had such a clear vision of what I loved, which was music and connecting with people. It felt like it was natural, getting to know everybody – a natural evolution. And as much as everyone was watching me, I was watching everyone else as well, and understanding the different sort of shifts. I was staying the same but noticing different energy nearby.”
The Delta story has been well told but some highlights bear repeating. As a kid, her parents, Lea and Denis, enrolled their daughter in the local drama school. “My teachers had spoken to my parents, saying, ‘She’s got a lot of energy and really wants to be the class clown. Maybe it would be good for her because she loves drama and music’,” she recalls now.
At seven Delta landed her first TV commercial, for an American toy company. Not long after she was making guest appearances on shows like A Country Practice, Police Rescue and Hey Dad..!. “I really enjoyed going to this place where there were cameras and lights,” she reflects. “I was enamoured with this idea of creating stories with acting and music.”
At 12 she used the money she’d made with the help of more TV ads to write and produce her own album. Manager to the stars Glenn Wheatley was handed the demo and snapped up the talented then-13-year-old, carefully managing her ascent to stardom with that aforementioned spot on Neighbours and a lucrative record deal with Sony.
But, far from being a bystander on her meteoric journey, “I was very much the driver,” Delta insists. “My mother was a lioness in teaching me to hold my own space. My parents had incredible common sense and stayed by my side the whole time. I was never anywhere without a parent next to me when it came to being in an adult world. And they instilled in me that sense of, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.’ You have to show up on time and do a good job.”
Her parents, however, weren’t the only ones giving early, valuable lessons. As she was starting her foray into the acting and music world, the Goodrem family were in New York for a holiday. Seven-year-old Delta loved musical theatre and, as a special treat, her parents had organised to take her to see The Phantom of the Opera.
“It was a very special night out and I was having a hot chocolate at the Plaza with my mum after being overwhelmed with the music I’d heard,” she says now of what would prove a pivotal moment for her both personally and professionally.
“Now, my other love at this time was Grease. And then I spotted Olivia Newton-John. I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s Sandy coming in!’ Anyway, Olivia heard me, heard our Australian accents and walked over and said, ‘Are you from Australia? How long are you here?’ We said yes, we are and had a quick chat. She asked where we had been and I told her I’d been to Phantom of the Opera. She said, ‘Well, I hope I see you around tomorrow.’
“The next day I kept looking for her and my parents were like, ‘Delta, you’re not going to see Sandy today, you’re not going to see Olivia.’ I was like, ‘We’ll see about that, I’ll find her in the future!’
“I’ve always thought of that moment when I see young ones at a table. It’s my responsibility to walk over there. Olivia was an incredible teacher like that. The kindness she showed me that day had a profound impact on how I would treat people that I met later in my life – by her example.”
The first meeting may have been pure chance but the threads that would draw the two women together later in life would cement an incredible relationship.
Those early years in the spotlight were hectic for Delta. She was filming Neighbours during the week (the first people to hear Born To Try, she reveals, were her cast mates including Ian Smith [Harold] and Jackie Woodburne [Susan]).
Some weekends she’d fly to the UK to perform on shows like Top of the Pops. And when Innocent Eyes debuted on March 24, 2003, and single after single rocketed up the charts, she also travelled Australia for in-person signing events in shopping centres, which were uniformly packed to the gills with thousands of fans.
“I have this visceral memory, at one of the first ever in-stores, saying to people backstage, ‘Oh, did anybody come? Is anybody out there?'” she recalls. The jump from unknown to pop artist felt surreal.
“And then the double doors opened and I went, ‘Oh, this is real.’ I was so humbled in that moment and understood I would stay there until I saw every single person. That was when we started the 14-hour-long in-store!”
Then her world suddenly stopped.
WATCH: BEHIND THE SCENES WITH DELTA AT THE WEEKLY’S COVER SHOOT
She was days away from flying to the US, was being tailed by a Rolling Stone journalist for a long-form feature and in the midst of recording a Christmas single. Being told she had Hodgkin lymphoma left her literally shaking, unable to process the news.
Luckily, she says, in a time before social media, she was able to tackle what would be an intensely public cancer journey with a little privacy.
“Even though there were a lot of people outside my family house, I could still go through the process with my family privately,” she says. “I was an 18-year-old trying to do the best
I could. I wasn’t trying to share, or not to share, I was just trying to be a human being and go through it. Of course, I knew it was an extraordinary circumstance to have a number one album at the same time but I just stepped it day by day.
“But that’s a long time ago now. I’m fit, I’m healthy. And standing as a survivor gives us an ability to talk and make a difference. Not one moment defines us. I’m not just one thing or one moment. But to talk about this moment is important for other people’s journeys – to be able to remind people to see the other side.”
This attitude, she adds, was cemented by her childhood hero who was among many who reached out to her in the throes of her health battle.
“Olivia told me that one day – not now but one day – you’ll see [your cancer diagnosis] as a gift, to be a pillar of strength for other people,” Delta says. “I was forever grateful and forever loyal for the love she’d shown me. She’d been there. She understood the fear. She was an example to me of how, once I got through my own health journey, I’d commit to being that way for others, too.”
Olivia had been diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 1992 and would go on to start the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre to support others going through the fight. And, after years of privately helping those in the thick of the battle, in 2020 Delta followed in her idol’s footsteps, partnering with the three doctors who had been instrumental in her treatment to launch a not-for-profit charity.
Today, the Delta Goodrem Foundation aims to advance vital research for blood cancers, such as the one she herself overcame.
“It’s a beautiful thing that I’m very proud to have partnered with, privately and publicly,” she says of the timing. “I’d just started to get to the point, during the pandemic, where I had that extra time to say, ‘What else is important to me? How can I make a real impact?'”
It wasn’t the only project she found time to prioritise during the COVID years. Along with her partner and collaborator, Matthew Copley, she began to livestream what they’d dub the “Bunker-down sessions”, a way to connect with fans at a time when the world felt disconnected and at times downright scary.
“Every week people tuned in and we stayed connected,” she says of the way she continued her musical journey when the touring world stopped. “I got into music for unity – music is about bringing people together.”
Delta’s formative relationships have all been chronicled endlessly, starting at 18 with tennis bad boy Mark Philippoussis, then former fiancé Brian McFadden, followed by a short-lived romance with younger man Nick Jonas. Each has spawned a swathe of tabloid headlines and speculation. It’s understandably made her wary of opening up on her love life and today is no exception. When I ask her how she and Matthew met, she visibly squirms, her defences instantly rising.
“He’s my guitarist, I met him through music,” she says, her warm smile for the first time slightly dimmed. “It’s incredible to be on stage with him because he’s so talented. We really are a team. He’s my best friend, he’s kind and just a beautiful human being. But I learnt quite young that I enjoy keeping part of that private. I’ve always been so understanding that I’ve lived in the public eye since I was a teenager but also I think it’s nice to keep some things to yourself.”
One thing she’s struggling to keep to herself today, however, is the fact that Matthew’s parents are here on set with us. It’s his 35th birthday and she’s organised for them to fly from Brisbane to surprise Matthew for an impromptu weekend of celebrations. As I watch them interact, it’s clear the trio enjoy a close relationship.
“I’m very lucky,” she says, the warmth in her smile returning as she realises this line of questioning is coming to a close. “It’s all very natural and I think that comes from a beautiful respect and love. I feel so grateful.”
Gratitude is something Delta is conscious of on many levels. As we speak, she’s still struggling with the grief of losing her friend, Olivia, who finally lost her cancer battle on August 8, 2022.
For someone who makes a living expressing themselves through lyrics and song, finding the words to describe how she is feeling isn’t coming easily. She stops and starts as tears threaten, her voice growing raspy as she struggles to express her sentiment.
“I don’t have the words yet,” she eventually says. “I’d love to be more eloquent for you. I find it really hard to talk about because I was very lucky to have such a special bond, a real kindred. We were always there for each other in a beautiful mentorship and friend way.” And so we leave the topic for now and agree to speak again in a month or two, when she’s had more time to process and think about what she really wants to say.
We catch up again two days after Delta’s moving tribute to Olivia at the G’Day USA gala in LA, which she attended along with Olivia’s husband, John Easterling, her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi and many of Olivia’s inner circle. That week she’d also visited John at the home he’d shared with Olivia. They’d spent time reminiscing and honouring the woman they adored.
“It was obviously a very emotional night but I loved seeing everyone sing along for Olivia and honour her,” she says now. “Everyone grieves differently and what I’m learning is that it’s about holding space for someone else’s process. Holding space, just being there, knowing you are there for somebody. No matter what, this is a lifelong friendship of being part of a support system when you have so much love for someone.
“She gave us all so much joy. She touched people around the world. She stood for good values – kindness, integrity, love for people. She had such generosity of spirit. You felt like she was there for everyone.
“This has been a new experience of heartbreak. But then you have to walk through it. This week was a big, important part for me.”
And with this we sign off, Delta returning to the studio to continue to write new songs for her upcoming album (watch this space) and imminent European tour. It’s another “pinch me” moment for the star whose journey, she feels, has only just begun. So what, I ask, would she tell that young Delta in the days before her public ride began?
“The reason things are cliché is because they have so much truth,” she says. “I’d just remind her to continue to stay strong and trust yourself. To stay true to one’s path.”
You can read this story and many others in the March issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.