Australian star Zoe Badwi has surprising link to Hillsborough, which she loves to visit while touring the world
Chart-topping singer Zoe Badwi packs arenas worldwide. But she loves nothing better than Hillsborough, she tells Stephanie Bell
As they took their morning stroll around Hillsborough's picturesque lakes recently few people would have realised that there was a star in their midst. Australian pop princess Zoe Badwi is a regular visitor to the Co Down village where her grandmother Mary McCarthy (95) lives and her mother Sarah grew up.
And on one of her many trips home last week, the global pop singer talked about her pride in her Northern Irish roots and her road to stardom.
Zoe is known across the world for her hit club anthems which are played extensively on radio and which fill dance floors all over the globe.
A new 10th anniversary re-release of her first single Release Me has just gone straight to number 6 in the UK Club charts.
Zoe was born in Melbourne, Australia, where her mum Sarah settled 39 years ago after first leaving Northern Ireland to live in England and Germany with her husband who was in the army.
It was 10 years ago that she got her big break as a pop star when she was signed by one of Australia's leading record labels and shortly after snapped up by American giant Atlantic Records.
She has joined the likes of Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia and Holly Valance on the list of Australian actresses-turned-pop stars, as she first found fame as a teenage star on TV.
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As a young teen she also appeared in commercials for Telstra telecommunications and Mars before landing a part in Raw FM, an ABC drama based on an independent radio station.
These days she travels the world performing in huge arenas and says she is pretty much living her dream.
Little Mix band member Jade Thirlwall is her first cousin and Zoe was the opening act for the band during the Australian leg of their Glory Days Tour.
She flew to Northern Ireland this week after performing a concert in San Diego as part of the Pride celebrations in the US city and is spending a week with her grandmother, Mary.
"I love Hillsborough and when I am doing a European tour I use it as my base so that I can spend time with my grandmother," she says. "I have done a concert in Germany and come back here and then flew to Spain and back to Hillsborough and then to America.
"I love spending time with my grandmother and I walk round the lakes in Hillsborough every morning. It is very beautiful. Mum and Dad have been bringing my brother and me here every year since we were born.
"Everybody says hello to you here and the food is great. We get a good laugh in The Plough Inn. I'm very proud of my Northern Irish roots and feel really at home here."
In fact, her earliest memory of performing was with the help of her late grandfather Mike McCarthy while on a family visit to Hillsborough when she was just four years old.
An avid fan of Shirley Temple, her grandfather hammered tacks into the soles of her shoes so that she could tap dance.
She laughs as she recalls her early love for music and performing and how she finally got her big break: "Mum says I was singing before I could talk.
"I loved watching Shirley Temple re-runs and when my grandfather nailed the tacks into my shoes I was tapping all over the place.
"I always knew it is not an easy career but I just kept writing and working and kept my head down, picturing it happening, until I got there.
"It was a DJ in Australia who first asked me if I could sing and invited me to join the band Black Gods. We were performing in a pub and there was a big record executive in with his family, having lunch.
"He approached me afterwards and asked me if I wrote songs. I had never written a song but I said yes as I was going to make sure I took every opportunity offered to me.
"He said he would send me some beats, which he did, and I wrote the words to what became my first single, called Release Me, which went to number one in the Australian club charts where it remained for seven weeks.
"I just thought 'I am onto something here' and that was 10 years ago and the song was signed in over 28 countries worldwide.
"I've just re-released it to mark its 10th anniversary and I am delighted that it has gone to number six in the UK Club Charts."
Her debut single released by Neon Records was nominated for Best Dance Release at the 2009 ARIA Awards.
It was soon followed by another Top Ten single, Freefallin', and she has since released numerous chart-topping anthems.
Freefallin' proved a dance-pop triumph and has since gone on to achieve quadruple platinum sales accreditation and well over two million views on YouTube.
Just a year after signing with the Australian record label she secured a US deal with Atlantic Records who represent global superstars like Ed Sheeran, Phil Collins and Rita Ora.
The new contract led to her debut album called Zoe which reached number 8 in the Australian dance album charts.
In 2016 she partnered with electro house sensations The Potbelleez to create the ultimate remake of the 1998 global hit Horny. The rendition, released by Ministry of Sound, went straight to the top of the dance music charts.
These days Zoe is constantly on tour and as well as being as big as it gets in her native Australia she is famous in the US too - and indeed across the world.
With her success has come fame and "a little later" - as she points out - some fortune, but she insists it hasn't changed her and she is as excited today by her work as she was when her first single soared up the charts 10 years ago.
"People think when you have a hit single that you are rich but it takes a while for the royalties to come in," she says. "I feel lucky that my songs have resonated all over the world and it surprises and delights me that it keeps happening.
"Australians are a bit too cool to mob people who are famous, they are more likely to whisper and point at you and you would hear your name being mentioned and find people staring at you. I forget until something like that happens as I don't think of myself as famous.
"I just find it all so exciting that I can't even pretend to be cool about it. It's still overwhelming and amazing and I love every minute of it."
Although she prefers not to disclose her age, a quick Google search reveals that she is in her early 30s. Still single, she says she is looking for love and has no doubt that being alone has been the cost of her fame.
"I am single so if there are any good bachelors out there I am free," she laughs, admitting: "It is the price I have paid. I'm not around to have a relationship. I am always away which makes it (a relationship) very hard to maintain.
"But I am relishing living the dream at the moment and I want to keep it going as long as I can, so I can't complain."
She regularly performs to crowds of over 20,000 and her biggest show to date was a concert in Brazil. It was an experience which still thrills her: "Standing in an arena with 70,000 people in Brazil screaming out my name and hearing them sing my songs in English was just overwhelming. They don't even speak English and yet they have learnt my songs. It's amazing.
"In San Diego this month I was playing to a crowd of 20,000. It really is a dream come true for me and I just hope to keep touring the world and bringing out new songs and doing what I love."
Her mum Sarah, who grew up in Hillsborough and attended Downshire Primary, and then Fort Hill Girls' High School in Lisburn, accompanies Zoe to many of her concerts across the globe.
Naturally very proud of her, Sarah admits that she tried to discourage a young Zoe from her dream of a pop career: "I didn't really want her to do it as it can be such a difficult industry to work in but she forged ahead and carried on and I am very proud of her."
And she adds: "Although I left Hillsborough in 1972 I come back home every year and all of my family are here. I also have a son who lives in Cape Town and we are all regular visitors and both my children love Northern Ireland.
"Zoe has done so well and I love to go with her when I can and it is great to get home to Northern Ireland too and meet up with family and friends."