A singer from Limassol with a voice that moved the judges of Britain’s got talent also has a shocking back story. THEO PANAYIDES finds out more
“When you came on, I thought ‘I hope your voice is as beautiful as how you look’ – and it was, it was incredible!” says judge David Walliams, and the young woman flutters her arms in a flattered, words-fail-me gesture: “Thank you!”. The time is last May, the setting is Week Six of Britain’s Got Talent (you can see the whole clip on YouTube). The woman is Aliki Chrysochou, a sparkly-eyed blonde with a soaring soprano voice.
“I’ve been singing ever since I was a little baby,” she tells the judges in her pre-song introduction. “This has been my dream, I just can’t believe I’m here today.”
“Do you think you can win this show?” asks judge Alesha Dixon.
“I will do my best. I’ve always learned to fight through different circumstances I’ve gone through.”
“Like what, Aliki?” puts in BGT supremo Simon Cowell.
“A few years ago I was diagnosed with focal encephalitis,” she replies. “It’s an inflammation of the brain which meant that I couldn’t speak, read, write, walk. My mum would do everything for me, she would feed me, bathe me…”
The audience erupts in sympathetic applause. The judges look stunned. Poignant piano music starts up, and we go to a short video interview with Aliki’s mother. “It was a very frightening time … It was like everything that she’d known had been rubbed away,” recalls Mum, brushing away a tear.
The piano is joined by strings as the story of Aliki’s illness is recounted – especially the night in the hospital room when Mum started to hum Aliki’s favourite songs and her daughter, miraculously, joined in, the first real sign of recovery. Music, it seems, could still reach her, even in the depths of her delirium. “I’m very proud of Aliki. She deserves the world, and I hope she gets it,” says her mother shakily. Then we’re back in the studio and Aliki launches into ‘Bring Me to Life’ by Evanescence, giving that rather drab pop song the full weight of her clear, strong voice. The audience goes wild; the camera shows people smiling, clasping their hands, shaking their heads in wonder. At the end, they give her a standing ovation.
‘They really turned it into a sob-story,’ I note, sitting opposite Aliki at Glykolemono – a superb Limassol café with delicious bougatsa – and she stiffens visibly (granted, I could’ve phrased it a bit more tactfully). “That was not my intention,” she replies, looking unhappy. “I felt very embraced, mostly, by everybody”. ‘Sob-story’ sounds wrong, she protests, as though they were “making everything up” when it’s all completely true. She claims the judges genuinely didn’t know about her back-story – though her byplay with Dixon and Cowell seems designed to get to the encephalitis as quickly as possible, and of course she’d mentioned it when applying for the show. “You get a questionnaire where they ask you these questions,” she explains. “Like ‘What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?’, ‘What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you?’, ‘What’s the one thing in your life that you would change if you could?’.”
For Aliki, the one thing she’d change happened 10 years ago, when she was barely out of her teens (she’s now 30, having hit that milestone on May 31, the day before her BGT semi-final). She was studying Music at the University of Sheffield, and came home to Cyprus for the summer. “In a matter of about 10-15 days I went from how I am now to how I was then, with encephalitis,” she recalls.
“During those 10 days, things started happening. Like, my speech would start to slow down, or I would get the toothbrush and the toothpaste and I wouldn’t really know what I should do with it.” She shakes her head: “Driving, that was out of the question – I would get in the car and absolutely not know what to do. I would pour hot kettle water on my hand – I mean in a cup, [but] it would just go all over and I wouldn’t move my hands. My brain wouldn’t give a signal for me to react”. She wasn’t paralysed as such, but her movements were clumsy and unco-ordinated. As the illness progressed, she became confined to a wheelchair and stopped speaking altogether – yet her brain hadn’t shut down, it simply wasn’t able to control her body: she remained fully aware of everything that was happening to her.
That may have been the most traumatic part, especially for her parents who thought they’d lost her; she couldn’t communicate that the person they loved was still there, behind the disease. “Every morning I would practise to myself, ‘Your mum’s going to come in and you’re going to say Good morning mum, Good morning mum…’ and I would repeat that in my head. And when she’d walk in, I couldn’t!”. Aliki shakes her head again: “The brain is just magical,” she says. “If it decides to stop working, it will stop. There’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing”.
Strangest of all, after about three months the encephalitis began to retreat (the story about her mother humming at her hospital bed and Aliki responding is absolutely true); I’d assumed she had brain surgery, but in fact it was just medication and endless MRI scans – it was like all the doctors could do was wait for her brain to come back of its own accord. It took a full year to recover, but by Christmas she was definitely better. “Sometimes it just comes, like that,” she shrugs helplessly, sipping her coffee at Glykolemono. “And when it’s time for it to go, it will go.”
She seems at peace with that – but it’s quite a scary thought, that misfortune can rain down from Heaven and clutch us in its grip till it chooses to let go. “It could happen to anyone,” says Aliki simply. Then again, maybe she’s used to being somewhat helpless in the face of Higher Forces – because music is another such force, a God-given gift that was simply bestowed upon her.
She’s an ordinary girl who happens to sing like an angel (though of course it takes hours of practice to maintain that golden voice). She’s bilingual – Dad is Cypriot, Mum is from Nottingham – clean-cut, and very pretty. Photos don’t do her justice; what really makes her beautiful is the way her face flows and eddies expressively as she talks. The family are musical, in a non-professional way, and apparently close; her career may be taking off but Aliki is happy to call Cyprus home, at least for now. Her parents are here, she explains, her brother is here, her fiancé (a local composer) is here; “That’s why I like it when I’m in Cyprus. I kind of find my Zen with the people around me, get my strength, and then I fly out again”.
What’s she like as a person? Quite restrained, by the sound of it. She likes going out, but not too late (“It’s not good for my voice”). She likes shopping – “What girl doesn’t like shopping?” – but not for hours on end. She plans to spend Christmas at home, probably singing carols in the living-room “with my dad playing the guitar and my fiancé playing the piano”. She’s sociable but likes staying in even more, hanging out with friends or watching movies. Pressed for a favourite film, she picks The Notebook. Asked for the piece of music that affects her most intensely, she picks ‘Ave Maria’ by Caccini. She asks for sweetener, not sugar, in her coffee, then politely sends it back because it’s too strong.
In short, there’s nothing fundamentally remarkable about Aliki Chrysochou – except for the crystalline sounds that emerge when she opens her mouth, and except for the illness that took her away for three months, then brought her back. Did the encephalitis change her as a person? A little bit, she replies. “I try not to take things for granted. I try to take each day at a time, as much as I can. And I’m very grateful for every day that I have.” She hesitates, unsure how to put it: “I think all these [problems] are little reminders that life’s too short, so don’t waste it on silly … nothings, really.”
Did being sick – and recovering – make her more spiritual?
Yes, but she’s always been spiritual. It’s hard to live your life around music and ignore its transcendent aspects. “We all have angels, I think.”
She nods: “I think we’re all born with an angel next to us, that’s there to guide us wherever we go. We’re never alone.”
What if she could talk to her angel? Would she be angry about the encephalitis, and accuse him/her/it of slacking off?
She shakes her head dreamily. “I’m sure there’s a reason,” she replies. You can plan all you want, but things take their own course – and if “a hiccup happens sometimes, and you get disappointed, there’s always a reason why it happens, and something else will come up. Always.”
In a way, of course – though it sounds rather cynical to say so – the ‘reason’ why she got sick is obvious. The traumatic illness got her on Britain’s Got Talent, giving her a narrative (or indeed a sob-story) that allowed her to stand out and made her a good fit for a TV talent show – and BGT has opened many doors for her, even if she ‘only’ made it to the semi-finals. The months since June have been hectic, filled with “many different proposals: New York, Australia, stuff in England. I’ve been talking to different agents and managers, trying to find the best deal that I can get”. Aliki may live ‘each day at a time’, but she did have an overall plan – to find “a platform” that would introduce her to a wider audience by the time she was 30. Looks like things are going according to plan.
Earlier this month she sang at the Rialto Theatre, a seasonal programme called ‘Christmas Magic’ that sold out a week in advance. She’s becoming quite a celebrity – and there’s something else too. Just before our interview, she says, just as she was coming to Glykolemono, she was recognised in the street (apparently this happens quite often, both in Cyprus and the UK) by an older woman. The woman explained that she’d watched Aliki’s BGT audition with her husband, when they were in Israel last June – and they were in Israel because her husband had leukaemia, which unfortunately proved terminal. Not only did she recognise Aliki, in other words, she also felt able to share details of her husband’s illness with her, clearly assuming that Aliki – having been there herself – would understand. Her personal life has become almost as well-known as her talent.
“I never expected it to make such a big impact. Never,” she tells me earnestly, sipping her replacement cup of coffee – ‘it’ being the encephalitis, which she’s now being asked to “dig up” after having consigned it to the past for many years. She’s been made an ambassador of the World Encephalitis Society, lends her presence to fundraisers, knows the date (February 22) of World Encephalitis Day. In a way, it’s only fitting – and indeed it’s even possible that having gone through the trauma of that awful year made her voice better, richer, more emotional. Maybe she had to gaze into the abyss of losing the world in order to express and celebrate it.
“There’s something about your energy, Aliki, which is just incredible,” pronounced Simon Cowell at the end of that BGT audition – and it’s all about energy, that subtle something which makes one voice inspirational when another is merely proficient. “I think a voice has a lot to do with somebody’s soul,” says Aliki Chrysochou. “So a voice is not just [about] being perfect in every tone, every pitch, every note. I think it has a lot to do with the spiritual side of what comes out”. Her own voice is coloured by her own intrepid spirit, as she smiles and takes another sip of coffee. Limassol’s Got Talent.