When Kiwi singer-producer Hollie Smith stood on stage and sang a breathtaking rendition of her hit song Wonderful World three years ago, a young Mela McLeod danced behind her, unaware a blossoming friendship was unfolding.
During the gala dinner event for the charity Cure Kids, the talented duo bonded over their shared nerves at performing in front of a packed room. Today, they're closer than ever, with Hollie even stepping in as one of Mela's key supporters when she suffered a freak dancing accident in 2020, which left her unable to walk.
"After Mela had her accident, I was asked to send a video of support to her," recalls Auckland-based Hollie, 39, who is now part of a designer pyjama fundraiser for Cure Kids, dubbed Great Full Jams. "I thought, 'Stuff that', and went and saw her in person. I visited every day I could and became really close with the family.
"I have a lot of love for them and Mela's mum Tiff is one of the strongest people I've met. They're an amazing family unit and have been through a lot."
Mela's accident occurred when she fell during a dancing jump, damaging a major nerve in her back that caused immense pain. It also made the aspiring make-up artist, 16, jerk uncontrollably. But having returned to school and now regaining strength in her back, Mela's recovery has been another miracle for her family, which has already endured so much.
Her sister Eva McLeod, 14, spent her first three months on life support in a coma, after being born with a hole in her diaphragm. Along with her mum and big sister, Eva lived in Auckland's Starship Hospital for five years.
Since Mela's accident, Eva has also developed a close bond with Hollie, and the singer jumped at the chance to again support Cure Kids, for which Eva is an ambassador.
"It was magic for the girls to have Hollie come into their lives because not only is she inspirational, but they know they can go to her about anything," enthuses Tiff, 37, who also has son Cooper, six, and adorable baby Kenzie, 10 months, with her partner Jason, 42.
"She's always messaging in and checking on them, and when Mela was in rehabilitation, she'd play cards with Coops or do anything to help. She's the warmest, cuddliest, most child-loving human there is!"
Hollie admits she has a soft spot for kids – for five years she helped raised her stepson Taimana, now 13. And she says if she hadn't followed her passion for music, she'd likely be working with young people.
"I was doing teacher aiding at Taimana's kindy and then his school, and found it fascinating. I prefer them more than adults really," laughs Hollie, who lives with her banker partner Chris Barton. "I still see Taimana, but he's a teenager now and so he's not as communicative as he once was!"
When she was asked by Great Full to design and donate artwork for the pyjamas, along with five other Kiwi acts, Hollie jumped at the chance to do something positive after a hard few years for the music industry.
"I haven't had too much on in the past year," says the award-winning musician, who had to cancel her upcoming tour five times because of Covid. "We wanted to release my album Coming in from the Dark in 2020, and then we had things postponed and went into lockdowns. I released the album in June, and it went really well, but I've only done two shows since. It's pretty dire."
However, the powerhouse performer – who Tiff's kids call Aunty Hollie – is excited about releasing the new dates soon, despite a few of her usual pre-performance nerves setting in!
In the meantime, she's looking forward to competing with fellow musicians Neil Finn, Anika Moa, Sol3 Mio, Ladyhawke and Tami Neilson, who've each donated a design for Great Full Jams.
"I want to sell the most pyjamas," teases the singer, who used instruments for her Rattle and Roll design. "I was going to try and do this big elaborate thing, like some monsters or something, but it turns out I'm not very good at drawing monsters, so I stuck with what I know."
Tiff says watching her three youngest kids with Hollie during the photo shoot was magical, as they sang along to music and baby Kenzie danced for the first time.
"The shoot was just beautiful," says Tiff. "Hollie's so natural with the kids and they're always climbing all over her."
And Hollie is keenly awaiting a bunch of PJs to gift to friends' kids, including the Prime Minister's daughter Neve Gayford, almost four.
"Neve's on the list and is a big music lover, so she might get a little present from Aunty," Hollie says. "I just wish they made them in adult sizes. I'd be quite keen!"
To donate, visit greatfull.co.nz
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