Australian Idol star Emily Williams on her journey to fame

The Australian Idol runner-up tells how trauma has made her stronger
Paul Coltas

The first Pasifika woman to lead a musical in the UK, Kiwi songbird Emily Williams is currently wowing audiences across the British Isles in The Bodyguard, an adaptation of the 1992 film starring the late great Whitney Houston.

She was shoulder-tapped for the starring role of Rachel Marron in the British stage show after appearing in The Bodyguard in Australia in 2017, which followed years of singing with the girl group Young Divas in the wake of her 2005 stint on Australian Idol.

But despite now being a seasoned performer, Emily, 39, still marvels over how far the razzle-dazzle of showbiz is from her childhood, spent first in Cannons Creek, Porirua, and then Manurewa, South Auckland.

When Emily, 39, chats to Woman’s Day, her face is freshly scrubbed of stage makeup after a show in Inverness, Scotland. Of Fijian and Samoan descent, she talks about moving to Brisbane at the age of 19, when she got a job as a forklift driver.

“I was working the graveyard shifts, so I got paid a lot,” she smiles. “Because of the money, I thought I was living the best life ever. I had my car and everything I needed. I thought I was set until my eldest sister Lavinia encouraged me to audition for Australian Idol.

“The rest is history, but I loved that job as a forklift driver. I was picking up pallets and putting them on shelves in a factory. It was funny because when they brought the cameras from Australian Idol to my work to tell everybody what I was doing, the camera people were like, ‘What the hell?'”

She wowed judges on Australian Idol with her Whitney renditions.

During her time on Idol, Emily stunned the judges with her renditions of I Will Always Love You and I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me). “I think the majority of female artists around the world are fans of Whitney. You cannot not be a fan!”

Despite her incredible talent, Emily didn’t have singing lessons growing up. As a young teen, she and her siblings all sang in church. She recalls, “Our biological father just threw us onto the church stage and said, ‘Sing!’ We had a very strict upbringing. We would get slapped for every flat note.”

In the end, it was family violence that saw her cut ties with her dad at age 16. The pair now have no relationship, but Emily is still close to her mum Yvonne, who lives in Westport.

Four of the five Williams siblings now work as professional performers. Formerly of girl group Ma-V-Elle, Lavinia, 44, reached the top eight in Australian Idol in 2006 and has worked as a vocalist for Stan Walker, while Joshua, 37, topped the NZ charts with R&B hit You Got Me in 2010 and sister Ezra, 28, is now competing in The Voice Australia.

“A lot of young kids from South Auckland go through such huge trauma,” reflects Emily. “It’s up to them how they want to use that. For me and my siblings, we’ve made it work for us, not against us. That’s the choice a lot of teenagers need to make – if they’re going to allow something to hinder them and bring them down, or fight through and go all the way.”

Emily with daugher Asia.

Emily became a teen mum and her daughter Asia is now 21. “She’s the bomb and has the softest heart,” she says fondly. “She lives two minutes from me.”

Although Emily has been based in Melbourne for many years, she will always be a Kiwi. “I did all my teenage years in New Zealand and I moved to Australia to try something out on my own. I said to myself, ‘I want to do something. I don’t know what it is, but I want to make something happen.'”

Emily has continued to evolve throughout her career. She had no dancing or acting experience when she took on The Bodyguard in Australia, even though she’d spent a lifetime singing.

“Joshua and Lavinia had already done theatre, but I was just releasing albums, touring the country, gigging, always working,” she explains. “The theatre world was not the thing for me – I just didn’t think I was cut out for it.”

Lavinia and Joshua helped Emily with some tips, but she learnt she had to find her own way. “Copying Whitney wouldn’t have been authentic. I had to find who Rachel Marron was because Whitney wasn’t the same as Rachel. Gradually, as I was doing the show, I started to step into the shoes of my own creation.”

Would a 16-year-old Emily ever have believed she’d one day be performing on some of the biggest stages in the world?

“No!” she laughs. “That would be like telling me I’d won a million bucks! I know what it feels like to come from a very broken home and still be able to make it through all the trauma. That is bigger to me than being in the show.”


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If there is immediate danger, dial 111 and if it’s not safe to talk press 55.

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