In a woman who has forged a second career, THEO PANAYIDES finds someone living for the now who can still feel the love from when she was on stage
Looking back, I’m actually a bit surprised that we spoke in English. “I’ll try to make it easier for you,” says Stella Georgiadou sweetly – and her English is absolutely fine conversational English, but it’s obvious she’d be happier in Greek; she stumbles on a word here and there, asks me to translate and giggles at the momentary awkwardness. It’s surprising because celebrities tend to be self-conscious about such matters, very insecure about saying the wrong thing or looking foolish – but perhaps Stella wants to practise her English for the academic course she’s doing, or the tourists with whom she interacts on a daily basis; or perhaps she’s just moved on from that whole celebrity insecurity. “Right now, my life is so calm and peaceful,” she tells me, sitting at an outside table at the Golden Donkeys Farm outside Skarinou. “And I’m very grateful.”
I arrive early, winding up a narrow road with white plastic donkeys pointing the way, and have time to look around. There are 200 donkeys at the farm, including the mules; “They’re fat this year!” notes Stella later – part of the reason being that tourist numbers are way down, so there are far fewer kids taking donkey rides. The entrance is lined with beauty products made from donkey milk, sporting names like Cleopatra’s Day Cream and Cleopatra’s Serum (the Egyptian queen was a connoisseur, famed for her daily bath in the stuff). The milk is apparently rich in lysozyme – a natural antibiotic that’s great for the immune system – low in fat but on the sweet side; also on offer are donkey-milk cookies and ice cream. Outside there’s a chapel, two wax museums and a restaurant area, where they serve a hugely popular Sunday lunch. Golden Donkeys has been open for about a decade, soon after Stella came back (in 2011) from her 24 years working in Greece.
To say she was ‘working’ is admittedly a bit of an understatement. The restaurant is adorned with black-and-white photos of donkeys and other rustic scenes – but they could just as easily have filled the walls with stills from her many concerts, playing to thousands of adoring fans in Greece and across the diaspora (she toured the US three times, albeit mostly its Greek communities). Still, the farm is a different world. A gentle Ukrainian lady makes me coffee while I wait for Stella, and I notice that she seems to be sniffling. ‘Allergies?’ I ask sympathetically. It’s not that, she replies, it’s just that a little bird got caught in one of the mousetraps earlier, and it made her sad to see it suffering. (Clearly, it takes a special kind of person to work in an animal farm.) Stella herself takes me to an olive tree later, a huge gnarled colossus which a tree expert has estimated to be 1,500 years old; “I don’t know if you believe in energies…” she says by way of preface – then touches the great pockmarked trunk, and assures me she can sense a certain Something. Then again, I also watched her talking briskly to delivery men 10 minutes earlier, rapping out instructions then opening the gate so they could bring in a giant inflatable for a kid’s birthday party.
It’s all her, all these varied facets: the hands-on manager (though the farm is a joint venture with her brother Pieris), the earnest tree-hugger and believer in cosmic energy, the diva communing with an audience of thousands. She’s hands-on in more ways than one, having milked the donkeys herself just to see what it feels like – apparently a more delicate process than milking a cow (“We do it with gloves, and very, very softly”). She also had a certain sensitivity to energy even in her diva days, always adept at reading the room. “It’s two things,” she explains, “the energy coming from the audience and the energy of the singer.” She gestures to show the two converging. “There are nights when they don’t meet – but other nights they do, and it just takes off.” Stella smiles at the memory: “On stage, I was – how to describe it, I looked out at the crowd and I could control them. I knew what they wanted, I could understand how they were feeling. If they’re having a good time, if they’re not. I could change things around.”
Maybe it’s because it all came so naturally. Stella was never the proverbial kid standing in front of the mirror, using a hairbrush for a mike and dreaming of becoming a singer; she didn’t have to be – she already was a singer, a star of the choir since primary school (she grew up in Larnaca, as a refugee from Famagusta) then, unexpectedly, thrust into the big leagues at 17. “I was singing here in Larnaca, in a small place, and a famous Cypriot singer named Constantina came to hear a friend of hers,” she recalls. “And she saw me, she saw me singing, she saw how I was with people, very communicative”. Constantina was “building her team” for a series of concerts in Greece; she offered the teenager a job – and Stella, who wasn’t really planning a career in music (she’d been thinking vaguely of becoming a teacher, like her parents), impulsively said yes, working with Constantina for five years then branching out on her own. “It was like something was pushing me there. I didn’t try for it. It just came.”
Stardom was a mantle that descended on her shoulders, as if from heaven – only to be shrugged off just as easily, when it was time to move on. Then again, I doubt it was quite so effortless – and I’d surely have found a more stressed-out, insecure Stella had I met her a decade ago in Athens, as opposed to these placid surroundings scored to birdsong and the occasional companionable braying of donkeys. (Ironically, the only annoyance is that the Greek pop music playing in the restaurant – much like the songs she herself used to sing – is a bit too loud.) Being a singer was a hard, unforgiving job, even in the good times before Greece collapsed into crisis. “I remember every time I had a new CD coming out, I didn’t have time to eat, to sleep, to see friends.” Was she in the studio all day? “Studio work. Photographs. Video clips. And then you have to go everywhere to promote it. Radio shows, TV shows, magazines. And of course, at night, you sing. Every night! I remember that for many years I didn’t have holidays, I was working 365 days a year. Finally I said, ‘I want to relax’.”
Kids today may not realise how big she was. She sang to a global audience in 2000, when the Miss Universe pageant was held in Cyprus. Her trademark hit, ‘Tora Mou Milaei’, “still plays in every club you go in Greece” and has nearly two million views on YouTube. Yet success brought its own problems – she had a team, she recalls, musicians and managers, all relying on her for their income; that was why she had to keep singing – and turned out to be fickle when she did eventually burn out and took some time off. It’s like running a race, sighs Stella; the moment you stop, all the other runners overtake you. Suddenly she found younger people ensconced in the clubs where she used to perform, and new faces at the record companies. The late 00s, before the move back to Cyprus, were a torrid time.
Some may chuckle at the fact that she went from pop-star glamour (though it wasn’t quite pop, more laiko music) to a farm full of donkeys, neck-and-neck with pigs and chickens for the title of Least Glamorous Animal. It’s true, they’re not very glamorous, she agrees mildly – “but it’s a wonderful animal. It’s a kind animal, a polite animal, and a civilised animal”. Such traits become more important as one grows older – and indeed she turned 50 this year, though it doesn’t seem to have been a big deal. “If you ask me how old I am, I might answer impulsively ‘21, 22’! So age is just a number. Yeah, I still have dreams. I still open my window and look at the sky, and I hope for things.”
That, in the end, is the lasting impression when talking with Stella Georgiadou: not an ex-celebrity living in the past but a brisk, active woman with a lot going on. Even the “calm” life on the farm is a bit deceptive: she vaults the fence around the donkey pen to check on one of the babies (the little donkey seemed unwell, but I guess it was just relaxing), points out a lizard – the famous kourkoutas – on a tree behind me, and turns to inspect a young family (they turn out to be Hungarian) who arrive halfway through our interview, tourists being fabulously rare in this time of Covid. But it’s not just the farm. She’s also the official ambassador for an initiative called ‘This Year We’re Staying in Cyprus’, aiming to attract local visitors to the 18 villages dotted around the Larnaca hills – and she’s also, most importantly, studying Classics at the Open University of Cyprus, hoping to finish her degree next year and then (why not?) move on to a Master’s. It’s nothing new, says Stella, a little surprisingly, she’s always loved the likes of Plato and Aristotle; “Books are the best company”. It may be that she reads for improvement as much as pleasure: she also reads a lot of self-help books – and indeed credits one of them, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, for having made her a more effective person.
Living in the now (which is the message of The Power of Now) is important, of course – but we can’t just forget her storied past; people ask about the past, it’s inevitable. Does she really never miss being onstage? Doesn’t all that love and adulation become a drug, once you’ve experienced it?
“A drug, yes. As you say – love is a drug,” agrees Stella. “But I still have this drug, just in a smaller dose… When you’re a big star you can’t enjoy a walk,” she explains, “you can’t enjoy a nice restaurant with friends. Always there are people coming to take a photo, to speak, or sometimes” – she lowers her voice, to indicate the next table eavesdropping – “to listen to what you say”. These days, she still gets recognised but not all the time (mostly by people “of my generation”) – and she actually does still sing, both at special events and also, every Saturday in June and July, at Ktima Georgiadi, a reception hall down the road from Golden Donkeys. The performance is unplugged, so to speak: no orchestra, just her voice and a piano – and no dancing, due to the pandemic. Not quite an audience of thousands – but she still gets the love, her voice seducing people as it’s done since childhood.
It was never precisely her on those concert stages, muses Stella; “Offstage I’m shy, I don’t like to bother people”. Yet it wasn’t just her voice that seduced the audience, either. There was more to it, some undefinable something, maybe some energy (like the energy of that old olive tree); it was the personality of that woman that made her a star, whoever ‘that woman’ may have been. “You have to shine,” she says calmly, able now – after all these years – to look back on Stella the celebrity. “Your eyes have to shine. You have to have something… Maybe my ‘something’ was my smile. Maybe it was my look”. (She uses the Greek word matia, meaning ‘the gleam in my eye’.) “To others, maybe it was the sexuality. Or maybe the craziness.” Most of her fellow singers – including her mentor Constantina – are still plugging away, too entangled in making a living to try and figure out if a golden voice is ultimately a blessing or a curse. Only Stella’s managed to get out, sitting here in Nature and noting how she’s learned to take things as they come. ‘Just like a donkey!’ I joke – and she laughs, with a nod at the stoical beasts behind us.
No regrets, she tells me. She never had children (she’s also divorced), then again that was never her life’s dream: “It didn’t come. I don’t know – maybe I’ll regret it after some years. I hope I don’t”. She doesn’t regret having missed university at 17, either; she’d rather do her studying at 50, when it means more. “The one thing I can’t stand is being lethargic,” she says. She swims all year round, she’s an avid reader and voracious traveller; her life is packed, and that’s how she likes it. The donkey farm is only part of it – but it’s surely the most important part, having provided that mid-life reset. “It’s nice to have a second chance. It’s like I have a second life.” I head back to the highway, my mind full of life hacks, my bag full of donkey-milk products.
Golden Donkeys Farm is open every day from 11am-8pm, including Saturday brunch and Sunday lunch. Tel: 99 620736